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.