Atheism, Religion

A Priest Without Faith

I don’t understand faith.

Faith is not important in my religion. We don’t have much use for it and, as far as I know, it wasn’t even a concept in Celtic polytheism until Christanity showed up and started converting Celts.

Even so it seems to be a Really Big Deal to a lot of people, so there should be something there. There must be something beautiful and/or useful about faith that I just wasn’t getting.

We Can’t Tell You

I’ve always understood faith as relating to belief. If you asked me to define faith I guess, in my ignorance, I would say it’s believing in something without evidence. However every time I invoke this definition people get upset. People who had faith told me it has nothing to do with that. It’s something totally different.

Unfortunately, when I ask people to explain what it is, they have a hard time doing so.

Sometimes people even tell me it can’t be defined. I don’t believe that for a second. The most complex abstract concepts in the world can usually be defined in a few sentences. Even if they can’t, a list of examples will do the trick. Even if faith has to do with the ineffable, it doesn’t mean faith itself is ineffable.

So it’s been very frustrating to me. If you have a straightforward definition of faith I’d love to hear it. I’ll even accept a roundabout one.

Anyway, I decided to just suck it up and read the Wikipedia entry on faith. Among about 10,000 other theories, it has this to say:

Some religious epistemologists hold that belief in God is more analogous to belief in a person than belief in a scientific hypothesis. Human relations demand trust and commitment. If belief in God is more like belief in other persons, then the trust that is appropriate to persons will be appropriate to God.

That’s… incredible. If you aren’t floored, take a second to re-read it. Humor me. If you still aren’t floored, okay, you have more ranks in faith-talk than I do. But still.


Trust is the basis for any healthy relationship. In this theory, “faith” doesn’t mean you believe the gods exist, it means that when relating to the gods, you trust in them.

Personally, I don’t believe the gods exist. I’m not convinced they don’t, either. I see no external evidence for the gods so I maintain a neutral opinion on whether they are objectively real.

But, because their guidance has been helpful to me—whether it is divine communion or my own psyche—I continue to make offerings, pray, and talk to them.

I always thought “faith” would mean I have to believe they exist. Which I think is silly because there’s no evidence for it. But this version of faith says I don’t have to believe at all—as long as I treat “them” with respect and trust when I interact with them.

Which is exactly what I do.

I suspect this version of faith would be unacceptable my humanistic pagan friend. He’s convinced the gods don’t exist and worshipping them is just a useful psychological exercise. I don’t see any better evidence for that than the idea that they exist. I treat my relationship with them as real, and separate from my epistemological doubts.

So, I guess I might have a backwards-ass version of faith, if you use “faith” in a way that no one ever uses it. Pretty neat I guess.

I don’t have any profound questions to ask you at the end of this post, but I sure would love to hear your thoughts on faith. Also, tweeting this post makes me happy. Please tweet this post.


27 thoughts on “A Priest Without Faith

  1. This is interesting to me because my partner’s family are all born again Christians (and very devoted and conservative), and I don’t think this definition of faith as trust would sit well with them, maybe more liberal Catholics or Christian mystic types would be inclined to argree, but just as your specific belief regarding how you define the holy trinity defines your breed of Christianity, I think it is the same with faith. Some people of faith don’t like open-ended questions and gray areas. God either exists or he doesn’t. So you can’t be open to “maybe it’s about trust,” or start questioning things b/c you might just very well discover that, no, God, does not exist (like my partner!)

    Personally, in terms of my own non-religious practice, I see faith as trust. Trust that the effort you are doing is for a reason although it’s not always immediately discernable–and I can’t say I have a lot of faith right now:)

    • Dear Grace, like your partner, I grew up in a strictly born again Christian household where I was punished harshly for questioning anything. It’s what made me the religious rebel I am today! I thank the Gods for the lessons I learned from such an upbringing because it made me understand why some people cling to a faith in the way that they do, and it is not always out of love or trust, but out of fear and a need for comfort. I try to forgive those who don’t know any better, but there are some that should know better…

      In any case, I want to add that, like Drew, I don’t have “faith” per say in my religion, and would also describe it as “trust” but with more action behind it. I don’t just need to trust, I “know” because I see life repeating itself in nature all the time, that there is evidence, things happening all the time all around me that “work” to bring about change.

      In science I believe those things are called neutrinos? You know…. those little invisible spirit-like beings/elements that make up life as we know it…! Just a thought, eh?

      • No, I wouldn’t say optimism. Faith is not something I really think about, to be honest, partly because I’m sandwiched between two extreme views, I guess the word “faith” has been soured for me. I grew up in a very secular family (aside from a few early years in the Anglican church that I can’t even remember) so it was never an issue. Although, like my father, I’ve always been fascinated by and even admired those who have faith, but our minds work in such a way that we just can’t have it. I guess my father and I are a bit agnostic (it is unknowable by its very nature).

  2. hi drew. faith. hmmm. got it for sure. even as i turned my back, early, on the catholic church, some kind of faith never left me. i like the 12 step version– believing in a power greater than yourself. i think this rocks and does amazing things once you let go and let it in. (i almost said …let god…but i’m still in the i can’t believe how rediculous and religious i sound camp) i’m not religious. but i am deeply spiritual. i have faith in this power, so much greater than myself. define it? can’t.

  3. I am not finished apparently!

    My partner always says that in the religious community in grew up in (just like in the new movie “Higher Ground”), you couldn’t question the established beliefs because it was so tenuous, that if you pulled out one thread, the whole thing would unravel, which is, as I said, means God either exists or he doesn’t. And it’s funny, because now, my partner is on the opposite end and not open to “magical thinking” (his words) at all.

    Definitely not saying I feel the same about any of this.

  4. Yeah, I think that “faith,” whether it’s in religious or non-religious terms means having not only trust in (fill in the blank), but a particularly confident trust in (fill in the blank). Have you ever told someone with doubts that you had faith in them to do whatever it was? Or been told this or maybe just heard someone else say it? So, I guess since I think “faith” applies to more than just religious figures, I sort of agree with Wiki. :P Of note,e I also think there’s a difference between faith and belief, but it’s a minor one. I would use the word belief for anything I might think or theorize to be possibly right or true, while I would use the word faith for something I believe to be true for more concrete reasons. For example, I believe that supernatural beings exist because of certain experiences that I have had. I have faith that you will respond to my comment because you always do.

    Now what the Christians get excited about isn’t the concept of simple faith. It’s the idea of blind faith. It means something to them, or many of them, that they believe in something without an iota of proof that they should. And they seem to believe it’s required of them. Then when it doesn’t work out, they chalk it up to God’s will and continue merrily along with their belief that they are doing the right thing with the whole blind faith thing. But, I strongly believe that blind faith is a lie. No one believes in something for not one single reason. They have their faith because some thing has happened to them or maybe a friend or family member that gives them a reason to think their faith is justified, which nullifies the whole “blind” part of it. Imo. :)

    • Oh, that’s a very interesting distinction – they actually em do have a reason for their belief, admit it or not.

      But I’d like to back up to your own definition. You said you have faith in things when you have a more concrete reason to believe in them. The examples of those concrete reasons are all personal experience.

      But epistemologically, personal experience is the weakest form of evidence. Our personal experiences can often be mistaken even when they seem vividly certain. Reason/logic is more reliable, and scentific testing even more reliable still.

      Do you feel firsthand experience is really the most concrete basis for belief?

  5. Do tell Drew, what evidence or proof are you expecting? I think there is tangible evidence if you are willing to believe that’s what it is. And why not. What’s the harm? Do you chalk everything up to luck or lack thereof!? Faith for me is believing there is some bigger more powerful force/energy out there somewhere orchestrating this grand show we call life, rather than believing it just happens all by itself. I believe the science too. Yet I don’t understand it all either. And I believe in Karma, which makes a lot of sense to me. Well, just some thoughts. Thanks for getting my mind going on this rainy, chilly Atlanta morning.

    • Hi Sarah, fair question. I don’t expect any evidence at all. I haven’t seen any strong evidence for the gods. However I have felt their presence firsthand (which is very weak evidence). That’s why I maintain a neutral view.

      What’s the harm? I don’t know that there is harm per se in believing in something without good reason, but I side with Socrates on this one. I think there is wisdom in admitting if you don’t know something instead of believing it without evidence.

      That’s me. It would seem your definition of faith does involve belief. I’m curious, do you agree with some of the other commentors that this faith also includes a belief that it will all work out? That this higher force is moving us toward something good? Or is it just enough that it exists?

  6. Can I ask, if you think faith may be akin to trust, and therefore perhaps you have faith in your gods because they (whatever they might be – actual gods or just psychological processes) help you, then that seems a rather one-sided relationship to me. I personally think faith involves trust, but also respect. If I have faith in someone, I not only trust them to do the right/best thing, but I respect them as a person who is capable of doing that right/best thing.

    Seems to me you can’t respect or truly trust the gods until you are willing to name them – to stand up and say You Are. Only then can you have a *real* relationship with them. Otherwise its like saying you have a real relationship with the girl dancing for you on the other side of the glass wall. But naming the gods requires having faith in yourself that you will get it right. I think Christians have a head start here, because they are willing to step forth with a tremulous, reaching kind of faith – the kind that says, I don’t know exactly who you are, and I don’t entirely trust myself, but I’m naming you God and I’m going to respect you despite my own uncertainties in myself. JMHO.

    By the way, I agree with Sarah, proof is everywhere. You just have to choose the perspective you take.

    • Hi Sarah,

      I think your closing statement is really important. I’m not sure I understand it. How can proof be everywhere if it depends on perspective? My understanding if “proof” is that it’s something definitive and objective.

      I partly agree with the rest of your post. I know each of my gods by name and we have wonderful conversations. My gods are very dear to me. But to declare they’re objectively real? I’m not sure I could feel honest doing that.

      It might just be that I draw a sharp distinction between what’s subjectively real (and still important) inside our heads, versus what’s provable. I feel like you are OK with a fuzzier line between the two. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

      • No, not a fair statement – because I have no line at all! :-) I actually think it’s entirely possible that reality is entirely inside our own head. Or it might not be. I don’t actually know, which is why my own faith is unnamed. The rebel in me automatically wants to debate anyone who says “this is reality”. We can’t honestly tell what is real so long as we perceive it through our own human senses. It’s like trying to prove the Bible by quoting the Bible. Simply by observing something, we change its nature. So even the things we think we can prove may actually be something different which we process poorly through our narrow human perspective.

        So I don’t think it really matters whether we believe in actual gods or subconscious thoughts. The perspective we chose allows us to say “this is my faith, and that cloud shaped like a unicorn proves it” or “this is proven by science so it must be real.”

        I’m not sure I’m making much sense here!

        • I agree that we can’t know if the world is real outside our own heads.

          Still, I feel like there is a difference between saying “this is real objectively” and “this is real to me.”

          Even if everything is subjective, there’s still a conceptual difference between the two, isn’t there?

  7. Ahhhh…! A sigh of relief and a smile for you today, friend. Now this is the kind of Drew blog I like. I don’t always agree with you, but this is closer to my heart and it is refreshing to read. I think you just helped me dry a tear. Thank you.

  8. Jack McNulty says:

    I think faith is understanding Identities: Who God Is. Who I Am. Who We Are All Together. What the World is. A Child Comes to Understand an Identity and Thus has an operating principle to embrace Life. Going Through Life I Believe You Have to Have Some Identity to Work From. Perhaps It is Achieved or Exercised by Giving “Names” to God, Self, Others or the World. the names may change during Life but they provide the Identity I Hold at Any Particular Point. If One Has No Identity then Isn’t Meaning Impossible?

    • This is a really interesting take Jack. So in your mind view is the process by which we understand the world and our place in it. Everyone forms a worldview and they have faith in it. Is that an accurate description of what you believe?

  9. I’m just a simple person, and I do believe in my patron god and goddess. I guess you could say I have faith in them. I know when I am afraid or worried, I can bring my problems to them and things usually work out for the best (that’s where some magic may be necessary with their assistance). I don’t mean I sit back and wait for miracles. I assume the gods are busy ,well, being gods, and not every whim of mine is going to be answered. So I save my requests for help for the big gun items, kind of life or death or loosing the farm types of problems. I worked hard to not have to ask their help much, and instead try to be very grateful for everything I do have, and give offerings and do rituals to keep a good relationship going with them. I try to help others too because I believe that some of the gods best work is done through the good deeds they inspire in others. Now some mighty philosophers will make fun of my beliefs, but well, it works for me.

    • Niniann, I really like this reply because it is most similar to my own practice. Thank you for writing it.

      I have a question. Would it bother you if these lovely gods existed only in your own mind?

  10. Pingback: Drew Jacob: On Being the One Who Casts Spells | Vicarious Lines

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