What is Faith?

2005-11-20 12:06 - Religion

I earlier defined religion as "a particular system of faith and worship of a superhuman God or gods". That definition relies on two separate concepts, that of 'a system of faith and worship' and that of 'a superhuman God or gods'. We will now explore the idea of faith, starting off again with a dictionary definition.

faith, noun
  1. a : allegiance to duty or a person : LOYALTY b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
  2. a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
  3. something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs
Etymology: Middle English feith, from Old French feid, foi, from Latin fides; akin to Latin fidere to trust

The quoted definition is from Merriam-Webster's online dictionary.. We can see similar definitions from other dictionaries; the The Oxford English Dictionary's definition is a bit too circular for our needs; also we have Webster's Unabridged Dictionary of 1913, Wordnet and Dictionary.com. Across all these definitions, there are some common themes which bear consideration.

Consider these common phrases: "firm belief", "no proof", "with strong conviction", "strong belief", "manifest truth", "earnest belief", "confident belief", "belief that does not rest on logical proof". There is a clear underlying meaning behind the key phrases in all definitions of faith, as applied to religion. Religious faith means an absolute conviction to a particular fact or set of facts that is/are in fact the exact opposite of a fact. Facts are "concept[s] whose truth can be proved" while those beliefs that are upheld with religious faith are indeed the exact opposite of facts, they have no external basis in reality, and have neither reason nor explanation. Be it blind faith or personal revelation behind religious belief, the concepts are not facts, but religious believers treat them as facts, and sometimes call them facts, and often say that they "know" it to be the truth.

If these religious ideas are not actually facts, why do so many people uphold those beliefs with such absolute confidence? Let us start by getting a firm grasp on what "so many people" really is. How many people truly uphold religious ideals without other basis?

First, this 2004 report on population (PDF) published by the census bureau has as question #67: "Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population" which "was based on a random digit-dialed telephone survey of 50,281 American residential households in the continental U.S.A". They claim that in the US as of 2001, of those who answered, 81.1% is Christian, 15.0% is nonreligious, and the remaining 3.9% is another religion (1.4% Jewish, 0.6% Muslim, 0.5% Buddhist, and others). This same ARIS data is available from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York, titled American Religious Identification Survey. Their data comes with a bit more detail, and includes some pretty graphs. The American Religion Data Archive presents us with this question from their General Society Survey from 2002. After grouping the various Christians together, we see that they total 80.3%, nonreligious persons total 13.7% leaving 6% for the rest of the religions.

So, it seems safe to say that about three quarters of America is Christian, in some form, about one seventh is nonreligious, and the remaining one twentieth or so follows some religion besides Christianity. But this is obviously severely skewed, what about the rest of the world?

Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents states that worldwide, 33% are Christian, 21% follow Islam, 14% follow Hinduism, and 16% are nonreligious. Encyclopedia Britannica's data says worldwide: 33.0% Christian, 20.1% Muslim, 13.3% Hindu, and 12.0% nonreligious.

It is interesting that the worldwide nonreligious population is consistent with the US only number. But, across all the many religions practiced the world over, we can say that there are three big religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and that these three religions have 4 billion adherents, comprising two thirds of the world. That is, certainly, a lot of people.

So, we can safely say that religion requires faith, and that faith requires belief in a "fact" that is not a fact, because it is unproven, and that a truly significant number of people have faith and conviction in these beliefs. It is that single unassuming word 'system' in our definition of religion that is the key point in convincing so many people to keep the faith. What is so important and magical about these systems will be discussed next, by examining the particulars of the big three religions.

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