According to Wikipedia, “Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It may also be belief that is not based on proof… The word faith is often used as a substitute for hope, trust or belief.”  In this post I contemplate the meaning of ‘faith’ and identify five types that appear to be operating in modern day society…




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Recently I’ve been contemplating the meaning of ‘faith’.

According to Wikipedia, “Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It may also be belief that is not based on proof… The word faith is often used as a substitute for hope, trust or belief.” [1]

It seems to me that there are at least five types of ‘faith’ operating within modern day society –


Type 1: reality can be known through sensory experience – it can be seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted. This is the faith of people like myself, for example, who investigate reality directly through meditation.

Type 2: reality can be known through instrumentation and mathematics.  This is the faith of those who apply the scientific method to investigate reality indirectly, for example.

Type 3: reality can be known through logic and rationality.  This is the faith of those who investigate reality intellectually, for example.

Type 4: reality can be known through hearsay.  This is the faith of those who appeal to authority, for example; they believe the opinions of others to be ‘true’ but with little or no scrutiny of the arguments and evidence.

Type 5: reality can be known through extrasensory perception. Clairvoyants, prophets, spiritual healers and religious believers, for example, all have this sort of faith.

While I’m fairly confident that these different kinds of faith are identifiable, I think it most unlikely that any person would have just one of them.  Again using myself as an example, my ‘faith’ incorporates types one, two, three and four to a greater or lesser degree.  As for type five, while I cannot claim to have experience of ghosts, deities, paranormal abilities, etc. I refuse to just take someone’s word on whether or not these supernatural phenomena actually exist.

I’m probably sticking my neck out by ranking these different faiths according to their truth potential as I see it. Nevertheless, because sensory experiences mean more to me than the readings of scientific gadgetry, I’ve placed the faith of meditators above the faith of scientific investigators.  One might object, arguing perhaps that optical illusions and sense organ defects make personal experience an unreliable indicator of reality.  Certainly it’s true that the senses can mislead (or be misled) and it’s notoriously difficult to communicate to others one’s own experience of, say, eating a tasty ice cream or picking up a red hot coal. However, that most people will accept another mouthful of ice-cream and decline to pick up another red hot coal tells me that sensory experiences are beyond reasonable doubt.  But accounting for them will always be open to interpretation and criticism.

One might also object to my using the words ‘faith’ and ‘scientific method’ in the same sentence.  But the readings and measurements that result from scientific experiments are subject to interpretation as well – even when they are in line with the predictions of an established theory and repeated testing demonstrates a high level of consistency to them. Science is a human activity and scientists aren’t immune from bias – their pursuit of knowledge is motivated by all kinds of hopes and desires (for fame and fortune, to benefit humanity, to expand the boundaries of knowledge… etc.), and rigorous peer review isn’t always a fail-safe against ‘malevolence and muddle’ [2] [3] [4] To question publicly the way science is done is to invite reactionary hostility – as people like Rachael Carson [5], Rupert Sheldrake [6], et al, quickly discovered. To have confidence in the scientific method is to have ‘faith’ in the main players within the modern scientific enterprise, trusting that the agendas and interests of the various sponsors (charities, industries, governments, senior scientists… etc.) doesn’t pervert scientific research. [7] [8]

Problems arise as soon as we try to communicate our reality experiences, and the language we use can affect the way we think and our experience of the world.  Osama bin Laden – “terrorist” or “freedom-fighter”?  Margaret Thatcher – “principled” or “dogmatic”? Journalists and politicians especially will often use emotive descriptive words with positive or negative connotations to influence the general public’s perceptions.  The ‘faith’ of philosophers and logicians [9] [10] [11] [12] is that reality can be understood intellectually; by studying language to see how it works, analysing statements to see whether or not they are meaningful, and examining the structure of arguments to see whether or not they are logical, they hope to get us closer to the truth.  But is it always the case that an unverifiable statement or an illogical argument is devoid of meaning and importance?  Are there not some tangible things (sensory experiences, for example) that are simply beyond the scope of language?

According to the mathematician and philosopher, William Kingdon Clifford, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” [13] Being well informed about the world we live in is generally regarded as a good thing, but in the age of the internet it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up and to know what information is reliable and what isn’t.  Moreover, the problem of deciding who or what to trust is compounded by the ability of the wealthy, the media, the government and other elite groups to set the boundaries for legitimate discussion. [14] [15]  Personally speaking, I haven’t got the time to rigorously check all that I’m being asked to believe, and consequently I’m skeptical about almost everything I read and view.  I keep asking myself, ‘Who’s saying this?  Who stands to benefit most if what they are saying is true?’ That said, of necessity I do accept (provisionally) what other people tell me in writing and by word of mouth, and I wouldn’t like to calculate just how much of my current world view is mere assumption based upon hearsay.

My stance on whether or not God exists is that of the agnostic: I don’t believe such a thing to be true, but I have no way of knowing for certain one way or the other and debating the matter is a waste of time therefore.   For me, it’s more important to debate the ethics and practical consequences that arise from believing in God, alternative medicines and other forms of  ‘magical thinking’.   The real issue for me isn’t so much whether or not a person’s beliefs are true or false but whether or not they are beneficial, wholesome, leading towards peace and away from stress.  As philosopher and psychologist William James tells us, it is occasionally right and even reasonable to believe something without sufficient evidence for the truth: “In order to usefully interpret the realm of common, shared experience and history, we must each make certain ‘over-beliefs’ in things which, while they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, help us to live fuller and better lives.” [16] So far as I’m concerned, if the ultimate conclusion of science really was that society should be founded upon the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’, and the ultimate conclusion of religions really was that society should be founded upon the principle of ‘love thy neighbour as thy self’, then I would opt to live by religious faith rather than scientific truth.

'Leap of Faith'

‘Leap of Faith’
(image-maker unknown)

So, having contemplated the meaning of ‘faith’ I will now close with a brief summary.

The opening definition given by Wikipedia is a useful starting point for discussion.  Wikipedia is telling us that ‘faith’ is often used as a substitute word for ‘hope’, ‘trust’ or ‘belief’. To have faith in something is to have trust or confidence in it.  Faith may also be a belief for which there is no proof.   But I would add this to it: faith may be a belief that is based upon evidence.

It seems to me that in modern day society there are different levels of faith (or hope, or trust or belief) that can be ranked according to the quality and reliability (or ‘truth potential’) of the evidence upon which it is founded – that is to say, the evidence of sensory experience, or scientific fact, or logical proof, or hearsay, or extrasensory perceptions.  A person’s faith in anything is likely to include some or all of these kinds of evidence to a greater or lesser degree, and we can argue therefore about how much credence should be given to it. But I’ve yet to see a ‘truth’ that is non-debatable, not dependent upon certain conditions remaining constant (and thus contradicting the Buddha’s teaching of anicca, dukkha, anatta).  Just being alive is a matter of faith it seems to me – among all the hopes, beliefs and convictions there’s this unwarranted base assumption that today the winds of death won’t snuff out the burning candle of self-awareness.

Rather than worrying about whether or not a person’s faith is ‘true’ we should perhaps worry more about whether or not it is skillful, wholesome, beneficial, conducive to peace of mind.  Indeed, the Buddha himself gave this advice to his seven year old son, Rahula: “While you are doing a mental action, you should reflect on it: ‘This mental action I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both… you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not… you may continue with it.” [17]




[1] ‘Faith’, Wikipedia.

[2] “Although the scientific press is still full of exciting new discoveries, there is a widespread sense that all is not well in the world of modern European science… To the extent that global pollution and climate change are the results of our science-based industrial system, then the pragmatic argument that ‘science is good and true because it is successful’ is weakened. None of these symptoms marks the end of science as we have known it… But these problems show no sign of going away, and they undeniably merit serious attention.” Jerome Ravetz, ‘The maturing of the structural contradictions of modern European science.  An exploratory sketch’, 2006.

[3] Jerome Ravetz, ‘Science for the Age of Uncertainty’ (Public Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University), October 1997. <>
See also Jerome Ravetz, The No-nonsense Guide to Science, New Internationalist, September 2006.

[4] The Guardian, ‘Science Controversies’.

[5] Rachel Louise Carson (born May 27, 1907 – died April 14, 1964)

[6] Rupert Sheldrake (born 28 June, 1942)

[7] Dave Dickinson, ‘Top 10 Unethical Research Programs in U.S. History’, January 2012.

[8] Paul Root Wolpe, ‘It’s time to question bio-engineering’, TED, November 2010.

[9] Ludwig Wittgenstein (born April 1889 – died 29 April 1951)

[10] A. J. Ayer (born 29 October 1910 – died 27 June 1989)

[11] G. E. Moore (born 4 November 1873 – died 24 October 1958)

[12] J. L. Austin (26 March 1911 – 8 February 1960)

[13] William Kingdon Clifford (born 4 May 1845 – died 3 March 1879) <>

[14] “Hegemony was a term previously used by Marxists such as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to denote the political leadership of the working-class in a democratic revolution. Gramsci greatly expanded this concept, developing an acute analysis of how the ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – establishes and maintains its control… For Gramsci, hegemonic dominance ultimately relied on a “consented” coercion, and in a “crisis of authority” the “masks of consent” slip away, revealing the fist of force.”

[15] “[T]hree views of Power… are discussed by Lukes in his book, Power: A Radical View. The idea is that the effectiveness and level of power for a given group or individual can be measured by considering certain criteria… Also, Lukes illustrates that a full critique of power should include both subjective interests and those “real” interests that might be held by those excluded by the political process.” <>
See also an informative review of Lukes’ book by Maximiliano Lorenzi.

[16] William James (born January 11, 1842 – died August 26, 1910) <>

[17] ‘Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone’, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

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