What is faith?

When I talk about “faith” I mean: trust, reliance, confidence, or conviction.1 This is also how Paul seemed to define faith in Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We have faith (aka trust) in things we cannot directly observe or control. It goes without saying that our predictions of all future events and the grounding of all our actions is in this kind of faith.

“Confidence” faith

I have faith in our government. I expect that laws they enact will, for the most part, be upheld. To some lesser extent I have an expectation that our U.S. social security payments will be there when I retire. Since the history of this earth has been one of governments failing (very few governments last more than a century or so), it seems like there is good reason to be constrained in my faith in government. I have some faith, but I don’t have that much.

I have faith in my wife based on continued experience with her. I have confidence that while she is conscious and of healthy mind that she will do the right thing. I have confidence that she’ll try and love others. My faith in my wife probably exceeds my faith in myself, and it is very high.

I have faith in the basic laws of physics. I have never seen core physics laws violated, I can’t even imagine how they could be violated, and I have heard no credible reports of them ever being violated; therefore, my confidence in the core laws of physics is extremely high.

I have faith in the idea that trying to do good is good for me and good for those around me. The basic concept of goodness (caring about what happens to other people) is foundational to the survival of consciousness and makes sense to me based on first principles. All my experience to this point has confirmed this, hence my confidence in the principle of goodness is extremely high.

In each of these examples my confidence is conditioned on my experience, the experience of those around me and who have gone before me, and based on reasoning from models that seem to hold up under scrutiny. The more data I can objectively gather on any premise I have faith in, the more I can properly adjust my confidence. In this way of viewing faith, I should be happy any time a person presents me with data that lets me properly calibrate my confidence. And, my confidence should be different based on the object of my faith: I should have less confidence in my government than I have in the laws of physics since governments routinely fail whereas exceptions to well-defined and bounded laws of physics are virtually non-existent.

On a related note, love seems to operate a little differently than faith: we can love people, things, or principles even while our faith in them may fluctuate. For instance, I imagine that if someone were married to a habitual adulterer they would eventually lose faith in their spouse’s propensity to remain faithful to them. However, based on past and shared experience, they might very well still love the person, even though their faith in their future fidelity is very diminished based on a charitable view of all available data.

I feel like my sense of faith in others, in principles which lead to a happy life, in the laws and principles of science, is as good as anyone else’s: I strive to exert the appropriate level of confidence in these things and strive to work towards achieving positive outcomes based on predictions about what is possible conditioned on giving it our best effort.

What is hope?

Hope is a positive expression of what might be if we are willing to put forth the appropriate effort to see it through. Hope chooses to see the best of possibilities among the set of all possibilities. Whereas faith is conditioned on past behavior and patterns, hope seems to focus on future possibilities. There is definitely some overlap between faith and hope, so I am not trying to fully distinguish between them in this essay, but they do seem to operate slightly differently, at least for me.

There is something intrinsically valuable about any kind of hope because it propels a person to continue to live and to action, and action is necessary to produce change and for any kind of personal growth. Still, hope centered in faulty models can lead to disastrous consequences. For instance, the child who hopes/believes they can fly with an umbrella is likely to have a very bad experience when they jump off the roof with the hope they will gently float to the ground.

As far as I can tell, all my “hope” faculties are in perfect working order. I have dreams and expectations about the future (centered around me, my family, and those around me living full and wonderful lives) and have hope for the future and what it may bring (particularly as we work for it). Happiness is not something that happens to us, mostly it is something we create by what we do, how we live, and our attitude towards life.

I value confidence faith

One of my good friends at work, a person with whom I’ve hardly ever talked religion, once asserted “you value facts, and I value faith.” I did not respond—the comment took me off guard and I didn’t have a ready response since I had always valued faith in my life. As I mulled over the statement, I ultimately decided that I reject the implication that I do not have or value faith. I value faith (the sort of faith discussed above), and I feel like my ability to act on my confidences is every bit as developed and precise as anyone else’s ability. So, while it may be true that I “lost my faith” in many core LDS truth-claims,2 it is not at all true that I “lost my faith” in general nor that I ceased to be a “person of faith.” My ability and predilection to place confidence in and then act with confidence on good principles, ideas, institutions, and people is as developed as it ever was.

Religious faith

Among religious communities, faith is frequently used as I have above (i.e., confidence proportional to total experience and/or evidence). Occasionally, a slightly different version of “faith” is invoked,3 and this faith plays by different rules. This kind of faith goes beyond what might be rationally justified and may even be strengthened by encounters with evidence that undermine a proposition. For the purposes of this essay I will refer to this as “religious faith.”4

For instance, religious faith might regard it a virtue when a child professes to “know” that something is true, even as young as 4 or 5 years old. With religious faith, a child or teen who professes to “know” something might be regarded as having “great faith.” Where religious faith is valued, those who merely “believe” in something might be considered in possession of “weak faith” and looked upon as deficient in character or development.

Resistant to adjustment

When data seems to work against a religious proposition, religious faith is invoked to counteract the impulse to lose confidence. For example, consider how Elder Holland suggests we respond when it seems that prayers go unanswered:

when “prayers … seem to go unanswered and unanswered and unanswered, … you need faith.”

Henry J. Eyring, President of BYU Idaho, gave advice for when a person is confronted with doubts (such as “new research [that purportedly] invalidat[es] the book of Abraham”). He said,

Whenever I am tempted to doubt the Church or any of its leaders, past or present, I need only to reevaluate my own spiritual state. I ask myself the question, “Am I true?” [i.e., true to the Gospel]

Religious faith seems to resist evidence.

From other perspectives

Those from competing faith groups will likely call strong assurances from opposing camps “blind faith” and look down on those who exhibit it. Imagine, for instance, a Scientologist who said something like “I know, without any doubt, that the Xenu story really happened!” Or, imagine a Jehovah’s Witness saying, “I know that those who reject Jehovah will not go to hell but be annihilated completely!” Neither of these individuals would be looked upon by anyone outside their tradition as having “great faith”—outside the tradition we would all agree that they might best be served by mitigating their certainty, consider outside traditions and data, and by practicing more epistemic humility.

The manner in which religious faith is developed also seems to differ from normal faith. Religious faith seems to view it as a virtue to “strengthen faith” in a particular religious idea (e.g., belief in God, a prophet, or a book). Strengthening faith might be performed by repeatedly ruminating on material which is focused on supporting the idea in question5 (perhaps even at the exclusion of considering other perspectives). But here again, “strengthening faith” is only viewed as a virtuous activity if the object of faith lies within one’s own religious (or political/national) community. A Muslim would not consider it a virtue that their children spend time “strengthening their faith” in Hinduism, for instance. Or imagine a student who told a teacher that they were going to spend the next year “strengthening their faith” that global climate change was not real. Most of us would argue that the student would be much better off spending their time examining all the data and suspending judgement in a manner proportional to the complexity of the question.

Finally, religious faith seems determined to avoid, to some extent, data or arguments which might undermine it. For instance, Carlos Asay in November 1981 General Conference warned,

Avoid those who would tear down your faith. Faith-killers are to be shunned. The seeds which they plant in the minds and hearts of men grow like cancer and eat away the Spirit.

And L. Whitney Clayton recently urged:

We should disconnect immediately and completely from listening to the proselytizing efforts of those who have lost their faith and instead reconnect promptly with the holy spirit.

Fix your faith crisis with this one weird trick

In the essay Fix your faith crisis with this one weird trick! Jonathan Streeter proposes a litmus test to know whether an approach is likely to lead to truth: imagine that a loved one had joined one of the 3 dubious religions (Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Unification Church (aka Moonies)). What approaches could they use that would allow them to realize that the religion’s truth-claims were suspect? Encouraging religious faith, faith that resists data to the contrary and is strengthened by exposure to contradicting evidence, would never allow them to extricate themselves.

From this perspective, it is difficult to make a case for the virtue of religious faith. It is no virtue to perpetually fixate on a proposition if it is not true (and especially if fixation would not allow us to observe its defects). If we are presented with data that undermines a proposition, and we’ve thoroughly investigated the matter, it is no virtue to doggedly hang to the proposition with the same confidence as before.

I may have missed something in my thinking, though, and I am open to considering other data or arguments. For those who view religious faith a virtue, what makes religious faith a virtue?6 Or, if you view religious faith superior to normal faith, why? What might make religious faith desirable for groups or individuals to possess?

A Case Study: Faith in Priesthood blessings

In The efficacy of Priesthood Blessings I outline data and arguments suggesting that LDS Priesthood blessings do not seem to surpass natural bounds (i.e., what might be accomplished via the placebo effect) and in many instances seem to have failed (e.g., dozens of patriarchal blessings promising individuals that they would live to see the second coming that were not fulfilled).

After scrutinizing that data and determining that it is sound, it seems to me that our faith in Priesthood Blessings ought to be constrained (at least a little bit) if it is indeed confidence-based faith. To my mind, only religious faith would refuse to study/acknowledge potential failures and adjust confidence level in the efficacy of Priesthood blessings in light of available data.7


I believe that the more accurately our internal model of reality aligns with reality, the greater our ability to comprehend and either adeptly control or peacefully accept the world around us. More accurate models help us to do more good while poorer models may inadvertently cause us to do harm. It seems to me that the proper use of faith is to calibrate one’s confidence in proportion to the strength of the data supporting a proposition. While hope may be helpful to us in numerous ways, a failure to adjust our confidences appropriately (in either direction) may cause us to harm ourselves or others, even if inadvertently. The exercise of religious faith, it seems to me, is no virtue.8


Adapted from my post here, which benefited from community feedback, particularly from JohnH2. Greta Christina’s post served to frame some of my thinking on this topic, some of this essay is in response to discussion on the topic of faith that occurred on the MormonDoctrine subreddit here, and some of this is in response to a conversation I had with my parents on the topic of faith.

  1. Philosophers have argued about and made fine distinctions between various kinds and definitions of faith (e.g., the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on faith). Using philosophical terms, this essay is equating religious faith with “doxastic venture” and the normal confidence faith as “faith as belief” or where a commitment to act is made or required then “faith as an act of trust”.

    The Book of Mormon (Alma 32) adds a twist to the standard definition of confidence-based faith: “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” The difficulty with this definition (specifically the “which are true” phrase) is that it seems to me that we cannot know in advance whether the object of our faith is objectively true at the moment we are exercising faith in it. So, this definition can only ever be useful in retrospect—after we already have knowledge of an event or proposition. The clause “which are true” allows us to discard all experiences that don’t conform to the expected outcome: “well, that wasn’t real faith because it wasn’t in something true.” But if faith is what motivates action then people constantly put faith in things that aren’t “true” based on how many missteps humans routinely make. 

  2. I spent decades as a highly devout member who took prayer, service, scripture study, and gospel scholarship extremely seriously. In the course of seeking to defend the LDS position over a long period of time, I ultimately discovered data and models which seemed to my mind to warrant a decreased confidence in key LDS truth-claims. For more on my journey see Brief Sketch of Events Surrounding My Resignation. I freely acknowledge that a person, given different presuppositions based on their experience and values, may examine the same evidence and arrive at somewhat different conclusions from me, and I support those who believe in LDS truth-claims in their discipleship and wish them every joy in their faith journey. However, I do not believe that a person can carefully examine alternative models and come away thinking that those who decide these alternative models fit the data better are merely lazy, wanting to sin, etc.—the alternative models fit the data extremely well from virtually any perspective. 

  3. In the philosophical literature faith which goes beyond what is rationally justifiable is sometimes referred to as “doxastic venture.” 

  4. The kind of faith exercised by those in religious groups is probably best viewed as some kind of hybrid between normal, confidence-based faith discussed in the first half of this document and doxastic venture faith. In general, the more totalistic a religious group the more likely it seems that they will value and seek to foster doxastic venture faith, and the actual ratio between each group and person is subject to some significant variance.

    In addition, while “faith as doxastic venture” seems most readily identified in some religious communities, it may also exist in some form in politics, nationalism, or perhaps within certain families. Viewed broadly, it may have some overlap with belief perseverance. This essay focuses on the phenomenon within the religious context, where I think it manifests itself most strongly. 

  5. Ruminating on religious, history, doctrines, and principles is strongly encouraged in the LDS faith. For instance, a typical LDS lesson counsels members to “study the scriptures every day, both individually and with [their] families.” In the October 2010 General Conference, Elder Neil L. Andersen encouraged, “Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.” An example of members doing so is found here

  6. One argument I might imagine is this:

    1. The LDS Church is true and following the covenant path will result in sure knowledge and bring the most joy.
    2. Following the covenant path, regardless of whether a person knows it is true initially will eventually result in sure knowledge and bring the most joy.
    3. Therefore, exercising faith in the Gospel as outlined by the LDS Church in a manner that outstrips experience (i.e., religious faith) will result (at least eventually) in sure knowledge and the most joy.

    However, this argument begs the question whether the LDS Church is indeed true (the correctness of the first premise is the ultimate subject of one’s confidence, so it is circular). If the LDS Church is not true, the argument is not sound. 

  7. In practice, an individual belief, even a “foundational” belief, may not budge much at all even when challenged by sound data because of epistemic coherentism or foundherentism. According to these models, we justify beliefs based in some part on how they cohere with one another as a set. Regardless, it seems that data which challenges a belief should encourage us to evaluate coherent variants or other sets of coherent beliefs, or at least weaken our confidence that our coherent set of beliefs is the best model of reality. 

  8. One might argue that the exercise of religious faith in some contexts is virtuous because it might allow a person to remain in a religious community and accomplish good within that community they might not accomplish otherwise. But this is an argument about a means to an end, not an end itself. For instance, one could argue on similar grounds that a person should not blow the whistle on a pastor molesting children because that might disrupt the other goods happening in the religious community, but that seems ridiculous since the actions of the pastor are directly causing harm and participating in communities of good-will can be accomplished in other ways.