Why I Dislike the Term “People of Faith”

The context in which I first encountered this phrase was a 101-level Anthropology class, during a unit of the curriculum that focused on faith and religion.  I was not looking forward to that part of the course.  What springs to mind as soon as I say that, of course, is the presumption that any hesitance to hear an anthropology professor lecture on religion must no doubt stem from an unwillingness to see theology being examined under the lens of dispassionate logic and no, actually.  I do that all the time.  But now’s not the time get into that.

In an anthropology course, you’re not actually supposed to debate the merits of any given religion or evaluate it on a qualitative level in any way.  You’re just supposed to look at it as some abstract Thing and take notes about its role in culture.  The professor stressed to the class that, for anthropologists, it’s beside the point whether any given religion is “true” or not, and those issues are not what anthropology is meant to look at.  Fair enough.  Doesn’t make it less awkward, though.

Anyway, in her lectures, the professor referred to the category of people under study here as “people of faith”*, a term that earned my animosity at once.  Implicitly, this does not include atheists who consider themselves nonreligious, or so we were meant to infer.  Certainly a term for such a grouping could be useful.  But since I’m a theist who doesn’t really identify with the moniker on a gut-reaction kind of level (and as one who considers the merits of “faith” as a virtue dubious at best), I’ve put some further thought into this model’s failings.

*Upon a cursory Google search, I discovered that the term person of faith originated among Western religious people and is mostly used by Christians.  Fantastic.  Why am I surprised.

It should be safe to presume that a person like me is meant to fall under the umbrella of “people of faith”.  Yet that’s not how I’d summarize my ideology, nor is that a principle it centralizes.  Describing it as “faith” is a mischaracterization out of commitment to synechdoche.  The chief problem, however, is of a more general sort.

In my (Western, White, American) culture, the word “faith” is associated with certain religious and spiritual connotations, but it remains in common usage to say things like “have faith in” to describe attitudes toward… anything, really.  Faith is just a word for strong belief, trust, or loyalty.  There are already several places you could go with this.  Let’s just skip over the easy ones, since I don’t want to try your patience.

Faith is generally thought of as unsubstantiated, by definition.  That’s what makes it such.  But if we’re to be proper skeptics, we must also ask what is enough to qualify as “substantiated”.

We sometimes talk of proof, of evidence, of investigative reports and statistical analysis — that which comes from credible institutions, peer-reviewed journals, and experts held in high esteem.  We believe them.  We trust them.

How do we know we can trust them?  Because other people have said we can trust them?  All that we can really know, for sure, is what comes from our own experiences first-hand — but we don’t limit our understandings of the world to that which comes from our own selves (and what’s more, it would be foolish to do so).

If you “know” things you have not personally tested or experienced, you’re placing a form of trust in their sources.  In some cases, trust in other people can be warranted and reasonable.  I’ve no intention of arguing otherwise.  All I want to do with this idea is draw attention to is how much of our notions of what is real often draw on some kind of conjecture combined with loyalty to the idea of others’ credibility.  I bring this up because I think it recontextualizes ideology in an important way, and if you’re someone who prides yourself on skepticism, it’s worth thinking about.

What spurred this realization for me is this particular section from an essay by Kenneth Burke, which made an interesting digression on the implications of using symbols as a means of imparting information.

“The ‘symbol-using animal’, yes, obviously.  But can we bring ourselves to realize just what that formula implies, just how overwhelmingly much of what we mean by ‘reality’ has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol-systems?  Take away our books, and what little do we know about our history, biography, even something so ‘down to earth’ as the relative position of seas and continents?  What is our ‘reality’ for today (beyond the paper-thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present?  In school, as they go from class to class, students turn from one idiom to another.  The various courses in the curriculum are in effect but so many different terminologies.  And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced first-hand, the whole over-all ‘picture’ is but a construct of our symbol-systems.  To meditate on this fact until one sees its full implications is much like peering over the edge of things into and ultimate abyss.  And doubtless that’s one reason why, though man is typically the symbol-using animal, he clings to a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realize the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality.”

“The Definition of Man” by Kenneth Burke, The Hudson Review, 1963

Much of what we “know”, we know via symbols and symbol-systems (of which the written word is one), and if symbols are transmitted or transcribed by people, then much of what we “know”, we know because other people have told us, and we believed them.

This is not to say that we never should.  It’s natural to want to justify the knowledge we’ve accumulated.  Some of it is justified.  But accepting this, that some knowledge-via-symbols is justified, comes with the implication that sometimes trust — faith — can be justified.

This does not eliminate the differences between people of different ideologies, and if your takeaway from this is “all our beliefs are basically the same”, you’re misunderstanding my point.  I’m not trying to abolish religious ideology terms (never let it be said that I don’t like labels).  However, hopefully I’ve provided some insights that would complicate the simplistic notion of “faith” as it’s sometimes used in higher-level discussions.

In order to consume any information and integrate others’ findings into your understanding of the world, you must place some degree of faith in the sources.  We all do this.  We all place trust in others beyond what we can personally verify.  It would be impracticable not to.  We are all people of faith.

It’s not that there’s no difference between types of ideologies, but that the word “faith” alone doesn’t adequately describe what that difference is.  Categorizing worldviews — especially on a broad scale — is messy and hard and requires more precision than this to be accurate.  To make the intended distinction between the “religious + spiritual” and the “nonreligious/nonspiritual”, whatever that means, more theoretical work is needed.

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10 responses to “Why I Dislike the Term “People of Faith”

  • Midori Skies

    As someone who self-identifies with skepticism, I consider knowing how I know something to be as or more important as actually knowing the thing. Inevitably, some of the stuff we know isn’t actually true, and, frankly, we often (always?) don’t have enough information to separate the stuff that is true from the stuff that isn’t. But if you pay attention to how you know things, you can update your model of reality when you find out that a particular source of information is unreliable or even blatantly fictitious. But, yea, however carefully you contruct it, it’s still always going to be just a model.

    As to the word “faith”…

    Sometimes faith doesn’t just describe strong belief, or even belief without evidence, but belief in spite of evidence. For instance, a group of people who believe that the world will end on a certain date, make preparations for the end of the world (e.g. selling all their possessions or going to wait in a particular place), and then continue believing their religious leader after the world fails to end as predicted. (this is not a hypothetical example)

    In practice, I find that people using the word “faith” sometimes dance around between its different meanings while pretending they’re talking about about a single concept. Example (with words in brackets added by me): “So I tell you: atheism is not the absence of faith [belief], but the refusal to have faith [trust] in anyone else but yourself.” (source)

    In some cases, though, more than one meaning of the word “faith” might be implied. For instance, my doomsday cult example is about people who believe (have faith) that the world will end because they trust (have faith in) their religious leader.

  • timberwraith

    Another really great piece of writing on your part. I keep on wishing that the “like” button was available on your blog.

    • acetheist

      I’m not sure why it doesn’t show up in the usual place, but if you’re logged in, the option should be available in the header bar, in the top left, between follow and reblog.

      But regardless, thank you. It’s really sweet of you to say that.

      • timberwraith

        Just a heads up, I don’t see a “like” button regardless of whether I’m logged in or not. This is true for both Firefox and Internet Explorer. Maybe it’s turned off in your dashboard settings? It took me forever to find the settings for the “like” button for my own blog. It’s buried in an unexpected location: settings>>sharing>>WordPress.com Likes are and settings>>sharing>>Show buttons on).

  • timberwraith

    You’ve managed to put into words something I’ve felt ever since my teen years. My knowledge of the world comes from so many sources that I simply have to take my sources for granted. It’s not like I have time to follow every bit of knowledge I have to its roots and verify for myself if that information is trustworthy. To get by, I have to take on faith that so many sources are worthy of my trust.

    And I suppose this is why I find that abstract knowledge, formed from years of drawing from countless external sources, so often leaves me with a feeling of emptiness and uncertainty. It’s pretty difficult to verify all of that knowledge as truly valid, and as such, it lacks a kind of emotional solidity for me. Alternatively, when it comes to the sense of spiritual connection I carry with me, there is a sense of solidity that reaches down to the core of my being. It comes from a place deep within me, and thus carries a sense of realness that abstract knowledge so often fails to foster for me. In other words, my soul-deep, intuitive connection with the word carries a sense of reality that far exceeds that of abstract knowledge.

    And because I am a member of several oppressed groups that have been so maligned over the years by faulty, highly biased scientific research (e.g. LGBT/asexual people and women), I find my skepticism toward scientific knowledge to be rather high. I have only a modicum of trust in the institutions that produce and market knowledge in US culture… and for good reason. This country is rife with prejudice and that prejudice permeates all corners of this society… including the hallowed halls of academia and the publishing industry.

  • theothersid3

    I like your solid point on a big truth: “We are all people of faith.” It’s easy to forget that knowledge outside my own experiences is knowledge I have is in faith. In my experience with mental illness, almost all my faith was broken down during a few intense experiences I had, in the most fundamental sense. Without this faith, reality was shattered, and so was I. Faith is important to me as you say, not in the religious sense, but in expanding my view of the world and creating reference points. It is learning to filter as well. Not everyone deserves our good faith.

  • Defining Religion | The Ace Theist

    […] For reasons established in my previous post which got unexpectedly long, this post will set out to explain the definition of religion that makes the most sense to me.  This is one way of conceiving of it, not what religion “is” in a hard-and-fast sense, because I don’t think a loose cultural category such as religion can have some true abstract essential nature in any way independent from our own perceptions.  And please don’t come talking to me about “faith”; I’ve already dissected the concept of faith. […]

  • toafan

    I bet there’s interesting things to be found between the etymologies of “people of faith” and “people of the faith”. The later I can easily imagine being used by small, insular religious communities to contrast themselves with those around them, especially communities in the process of “bootstrapping”. (I can also see it being used in a somewhat “ironic, calling-attention-to-this” sense by [I think the name for the group I’m thinking of is pastafarians].) If “people of faith” derives from “people of the faith”, that would seem to me as a strike against its use to refer to religious people generally.

    This is only superficially related to your point.

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