A Common Language Analysis Of The Notion Of Faith


It might seem that there are intractable issues with which the subject demands vehement disagreement. Indeed, I can think of few areas that are more passionately debated than those that concern religious beliefs. There is a great deal of disagreement between not only those who are of a religious mindset and those who aren’t, but between different religious traditions, and even those of the same religious tradition. In attempting to understand these kinds of problems rationally there is a concept that is often used that may signal a greater disparity between the parties than just their position overall, this is faith. Interestingly faith is invoked frequently in our daily language, it might seem trivial to ask by what do we mean when we invoke faith, but once asked the answer becomes much less clear than our intuitions might lead us to believe. Then what is the function of faith and how, if at all, is it connected to knowing a proposition?

Beginning Assumptions

An uncontroversial starting position from which I would like to move forward is this, there are occasions in which two people use the same word but have different conceptions or meanings of that word. J. L. Austin addresses this point that the “usages of words vary”. There are different ways that this can happen, it may be that the context of the word is different. When I am talking on the phone with a friend from Canada it would be a mistake for us to conflate what we mean by the word here is contradictory, even if we can make contradictory claims about what we are experiencing here. I can claim it is sunny, he can claim it is snowing, and there is no contradiction, even though we both are describing ‘here’. This is because the context of the word ‘here’ is such that it is relative to the usage. What Austin seems to be addressing is the fluidity, or ambiguity, of language, that words meanings are not fixed or necessarily prescriptive. Indeed, an important function of language, is to convey meaning. When I claim that the usage of words varies what I aim at is that there can often be ambiguity in meaning. Suppose Smith and Jones are standing in front of a sports store, Smith, in reference to his recent purchase, tells Jones, “This is a racket. ” Jones then looks at the store, knowing their proclivity for absurdly high pricing, says, “It is a racket. ” Both Smith and Jones are using the same word in different senses. Smith means the physical object, a tennis racket, where Jones is using the word racket to mean a business who charges unreasonably high prices. It is easy to see how, without further explication, the two might believe they are speaking of the same thing but are actually using the word ‘racket’ to communicate different meanings.

The second uncontroversial assumption is that what we say may be different than what we mean. Especially in our less reflective times, whether it is an intuitive response or a pressure of timeliness, we may choose words that don’t represent the specificity we would like. This presents a unique challenge in the analysis of language, both that it introduces uncertainty in any conclusions drawn, as well as the perceived challenge to essentialism. My attempt is to specifically understand what is meant, in ordinary speech, by the word faith, it is an attempt at a descriptive account. I have no intention of arguing for a prescriptive use, nor of either reaffirming or challenging any essentialist properties of faith, rather I would like to provide a qualitative analysis of what function faith serves in language and whether it says anything about knowledge. It would be a mistake to dismiss things said that differ from the intended meaning, as the underlying function of the usage gives crucial insight into the word or phrase in question. It would be a similar mistake to take these instances as definitive examples of what we mean by faith, these instances are instead transitory states, as more explication is provided, or mistakes that can demonstrate a larger misunderstanding. In all the cases we may glean information that presses the boundaries of our understanding.

This inquiry is bifurcated into mundane uses of the word faith, that is uses that are a part of language of everyday speech, and religious faith, that is “the kind of faith exemplified in religious faith”. The second use, that of religious faith, is the kind of faith that I am seeking to understand. Though I have delineated between the two, this is not a clean split, usage of religious faith seems to wrap several of its concepts into daily use. The distinction rather is helpful in understanding how religious faith is more complex than just defining it in a vacuum. I want to avoid what Peter Strawson calls, “seeking to find an adequate basis for certain social practices in calculated consequences” so as to not “loses sight of the human attitude of which these practices are, in part, the expression. ”

Faith as Confidence

What then are the mundane uses of faith? A common use of faith is exemplified in the statement:

F1. I have faith that John will finish the job on time.

In this case it seems by using the word faith one is expressing confidence, replacing faith with confidence maintains the same meaning. This is a common use of the word faith and it seems consistent with our daily experiences. An interesting feature of this usage is that it conveys some level of uncertainty, or conversely an acknowledgement that there is not perfect certainty. I might have faith confidence that my car will make it to work today, even though it is old and has 200,000 miles on it. It is perfectly conceivable that my car will break down, I cannot rationally assume that there is no possibility of that scenario, however I have reasons (which may be of varying quality) to assume that it will run adequately.

There is an implied endorsement in F1, by conveying my confidence that John will finish the job on time I am implicitly supporting the proposition. It would not make sense for me to say that I am confident John will finish the job on time but don’t believe it myself. It more likely is the case that my confidence stems from a supportive attitude toward John (or maybe just his work) and that I am attempting to convey that message forward. The sentence F1 contains two propositions, one about my internal state “I have faith confidence” and a second “John will finish the job on time”. Faith is the conjunctive between these two propositions, without the second proposition it isn’t clear what I mean by faith. Faith serves as both a statement of my position and implies some kind of justification, these are the reasons for my faith that John will finish the job on time. It is not, in this case, justification itself, rather a linguistic substitute for my justifications. If I were to be asked, “By what reasons do you have faith that John will finish the job on time?” I might respond then with the justifications that convey my confidence in John. Momentarily I need to digress on a point that seems to be eagerly debated on internet forums. Websites such as Reddit or the Christian Debate Forum have spilled much digital ink drawing a distinction between confidence and faith in reference to religious faith, if not explicitly. I am not interested in this exercise, I am attempting to charitably understand the word faith and assume that in most cases, exempted in those that one says something but means another thing, that the speaker means what they are saying in the context. Saying about F1 that it is absurd to use faith when what “I really mean” is confidence is to distract from understanding the common language use. This kind of debate seems more an “expression of moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ”.

Faith as Trust

A second mundane use then is:

F2. I have faith in John’s work.

In F2 faith is expressing trust in John’s work, the meaning of ‘I have trust in John’s work’ is identical. F2 shares many of the same features of F1, trust is uncertain even if the connotation is a positive one, trust is again a conjunctive providing greater specificity to the sentence, trust is an implicit endorsement, and trust is another linguistic placeholder for justification. I might even, if asked, provide the same sorts of justifications for F1 as I do for F2, they seem to support the propositions in both instances. A significant difference separates the F1 and F2, and foreshadows the explication of religious faith, where F1 uses ‘that’ and F2 uses ‘in’. Trust and confidence are very similar in meaning, but qualitative differences do exist. Though this is another entire topic which deserves its own paper, I’d like to quickly offer differentiation. There are cases where one can have confidence, but not trust, or have trust but not confidence. Thus, it seems they are of different kinds, though similar in their use. Trust seems to be more of an expression of our attitudes than confidence, as I might trust in someone who I am not confident in. In this context I am conveying an optimistic attitude toward the person which is contrasted by my belief in them. Conversely, I might be confident one can complete a job even if I don’t trust them to do it. Here I am saying my attitude is that I don’t believe they will complete the job, even if I know they are capable. F1 can easily be broken down into two propositions, two true or false statements, that are easily understandable. I can know that it is true that I have confidence in John and time will confirm or deny the second proposition that John will finish the job on time. F2 can not be understood in the same context, if it is disassembled we end up with ‘I have faith trust’ and ‘John’s work’. It is clear the first statement is a proposition, like F1’s, and that the second is not. Thus, it would not make sense to evaluate F1 and F2 identically as F2 seems to be saying something more complicated than F1. F2 has much more implied, and less explicit, meaning than F1. Our typical experience would be positive implications for John’s work, when I trust John’s work I am endorsing it.

The difference between ‘in’ and ‘that’ require different analysis, as ‘in’ expresses a commitment to John, not just a true or false proposition. Suppose I say, “I believe in recycling. ” I might mean that I believe it is good to recycle, but if I don’t recycle myself one would be justified in claiming that I don’t really believe in recycling. In requires a commitment to certain practices, beliefs, schemas, or any combination of those, and is much more complicated than a proposition. Some of this can be broken down into propositions, but as F2 illustrates this isn’t always clear or precise. F2 clearly illustrates our starting assumption, what it actually means is imprecise, but the meaning is clear. I can easily understand the positive attitude and belief in John without understanding the reasons or specific ways that constitute how or why John is to be trusted.

Faith as Trusting In Authority

F1 and F2 then provide proof of the starting assumption, and seem to be the common uses of faith in mundane situations. While the following religious cases can also be used in mundane contexts, I believe they are best understood under the context of religious faith. To divorce these uses from their religious contexts robs them of their voracity and makes them less credible. The charitable understanding of faith in religious context then is as follows.

F3. I have faith that the Pope speaks truth.

Faith in F3 is of a different kind than in F1 and F2, though there are still many similarities. F3 still expresses a matter of certainty, offers a conjunctive relationship between the two propositions, is a linguistic substitute for justification, and implicitly endorses the second proposition. It is easy here to think that F1 and F2 offer compelling explanations for F3, substituting either trust or confidence in F3 makes sense, and both seem to be components of what F3 is conveying. F3 seems to go farther than the previous statements explored, faith is conveying a trust or confidence, but specifically in the testimony of a particular authority. Which particular authority isn’t important, but in religious contexts it is explicitly religious in nature. One can easily say that the faith in the Pope is due to his station or due to his conveyance of matters of the Bible, but the meaning of F3 does not change with either of those definitions. The important consideration is that faith rests on the authority’s truth. While this understanding is not exclusive to religious use, and one can appeal to trust in the testimony of a particular authority in mundane terms, the expression seems to rely on different forms of justification to support it. Consider modifying F3 to ‘I have faith that the CEO speaks truth’. Here we might ask what reasons does the CEO have, reasonably we might assume the decision has some level of transparency and can ask about and understand those reasons. When asking the same question about F3 the reasons will terminate in an appeal to religious authority, which has metaphysical connotations. The mundane explanation might also be related to metaphysical, but it is not necessarily so where in the religious context it seems to be.

Faith as Justification

It is tempting to think that faith then offers a justification for one’s beliefs. In F1, F2, and F3 we see this as at least a component of the meaning in its everyday use. We might formulate a concept then like: F4. I don’t need reasons, I have faith.

In F4 I am making a statement that faith is a replacement for reasons as justification, and I am changing the type of response that might be asked of me. This still maintains the elements from the previous permutations of faith, there is some level of certainty involved, though it does not imply perfect certainty, and there is an explicit endorsement. Faith here diverges from the previous statements, in F4 as it is no longer conjunctive nor is it about the same kind of thing that F1, F2, and F3 are about. F4 is the first instance that is about faith, and not about something else, and the proposition is true or false on the basis of faith alone. Refer back to F1, I can still have faith that John will finish the job on time even if it turns out that he doesn’t. In F4 if faith turns out to be insufficient for justification then it no longer makes sense for me to have faith.

F4 is clearly a case of religious use, I am hard pressed to find an example of when faith in this context would be used in a mundane situation. When one is pressed for justification, for reasons, I find it hard to think that anyone would say, for example, “I don’t need reasons for why my car was stolen, I have faith. ” What F4 seems to be conveying is an appeal to religious faith as justification, in and of itself. That is to say that faith is the reason for belief. Here the problems with F4 begin to be exposed further, as it seems to be a self-refuting supposition to say that I don’t need reasons because I have a reason. However, my explanation of F4 thus far is incomplete. While this may be used commonly F4 seems to be an example of the second assumption, that sometimes we don’t really say what we mean, and not a self-refuting supposition. We would expect one, if pressed, to then cite reasons for faith. Instead of a linguistic justification F4 is more an example of shifting justification from one kind, to a religious kind. I spoke with Pastor Rik Hilborn about this kind of claim that is made in religious contexts. His understanding of F4 is that the statement is used when the person really means, “I have more than just mundane reasons, I have religious truths that convince me of the proposition. ” If this is true, and it seems to be so, then our second assumption most certainly offers the best explanation for F4. As it can’t be about knowing, and about justification, because when pressed different reasons will emerge.

Religious Faith

The previous understandings of faith will help in thinking about the final propositions I want to consider:

F5. I have faith that god exists

F6. I have faith in god

As I explored previously we encounter the that/in distinction, and realize that both F5 and F6 have different content. F5 is of a similar kind to F1 and F3, there are two distinct propositions, faith is a conjunctive between them that provides the context of understanding, some certainty is conveyed, there is an endorsement of the idea, and faith serves as a linguistic substitute for justification. F5 could be considered a mundane use of the word faith except it seems to rely on F3 in some regards, especially if we examine the Abrahamic traditions and their use of the word faith. It may be that other religious contexts will not appeal to an authority, though Buddhism appeals to the teachings of a buddha who is a religious authority, Hindus might appeal to the Vedic texts, it would seem that most religious claims for a god, or gods, need the context of F3 to make sense. If F5 is simply understood then F6 is the opposite, a complex sentence that does not offer a great understanding. F5 is implied in F6, as it does not make sense to have faith in something that does not exist, however it also implies many of the concepts we have tread previously. F6 seems to be a commitment to god, and like the recycling example in F2, relies on more than just that proposition. If I were to ask why in response to F6 we might get examples like F1 – F5, that is confidence, trust, trust in the testimony of a particular authority, justification, or an appeal to the ‘fact’ of the matter (I am not saying that F5 is a fact of the matter, rather that one who believes F6 will likely claim F5 as such). I can also rightly challenge F6 on very different grounds than F5, like recycling, if you claim to have faith in god but behave in a way that contradicts that there exists a very reasonable argument against your claim. F6 also expresses a personal commitment to the proposition that god exists, beyond just acknowledging the true false relationship of the proposition.

Faith and Knowledge

What then does faith say about knowledge? It seems there are a few things I can confidently conclude. Faith seems to operate as a conjunctive measure, even though it can be used otherwise. I have neglected the adjective use of faith until now, as one may claim to be a ‘person of faith’ or in a ‘tradition of faith’. These rather plain uses mean religious or spiritual and often imply a Christian background. The uses of faith related to knowing, or claiming to know, a proposition operate as a conjunctive measure between the agent and the claim and describe a complex set of concepts. Faith conveys some measure of certainty. There is ambiguity however in the amount, it is consistent to use faith in the context of little or complete certainty, as illustrated in the discussion of F2 regarding the difference between trust and confidence. The lack of specificity arises from our starting assumption, that the usage of words vary, this seems to be consistent with our conclusion.

There is support for faith as justification in the conjunctive claims, but isn’t justification in and of itself. In F4 I explored the idea that it is, however this was the weakest claim of the six considered. Pressing on F4 further reasons emerge and validate the second assumption that we don’t always say what we mean. Therefore, it seems wrong to conclude that faith is justification from its common use.


Religious faith is a justification but not necessary justification, rather it seems to be complimentary to other reasons. This might have consequences for Evidentialists who have religious faith. Faith seems to be used as the complimentary justification to believe beyond the evidence which is incompatible with the Evidentialist maxim “believe only in so far as the evidence allows”. This might require modification or the rejection of the maxim entirely for consistency. The final conclusion of the common use of faith is that it’s varied, rich in content and vague in specificity. The mundane cases F1 and F2 are interchangeable in meaning with other, also vague, terms and are equivalent in conversation between the religious and non-religious. The religious cases F3 – F6 offer little in the pursuit of knowledge beyond being offered as support for believing in something beyond what the evidence might support.

Works Cited

  1. Austin, J. L. (1956, October 29th). A Plea for Excuses: The Presidential Address. Retrieved from JSTOR: http://www. jstor. org/stable/4544570?origin=JSTOR-pdf;
  2. Bishop, J. (2016, December 21). Faith. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato. stanford. edu/entries/faith/#FaiReaEpiFai;
  3. Eshleman, A. (2016, December 21). Moral Responsibility. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato. stanford. edu/entries/moral-responsibility/;
  4. Feldman, R. (2003). Epistemologoy. In R. Feldman, Epistemology (p. 45). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc. Ganssle, G. (2014, July 16). Philosophy - Religion: Reason And Faith HD. Retrieved from YouTube: ;https://www. youtube. com/watch?v=MTPHXNMi9tA
  5. Hilborn, R. (2017, December 01). About Faith. (J. Ponagai, Interviewer) Kemerling, G. (2011, November 12). Analysis of Ordinary Language. Retrieved from Philosophy Pages: http://www. philosophypages. com/hy/6u. htm MrPeligro. (2016, September 29). Faith vs Confidence - Is There a Difference? Retrieved from Reddit: https://www. reddit. com/r/TrueAtheism/comments/550d9h/faith_vs_confidence_is_there_a_difference/;
  6. Putnam, H. (2002). 'Brains In A Vat'. In M. Huemer, Epistemology Contemporary Readings (p. 528). New York: Routledge. Strawson, P. F. (1963). Freedom and Resentment. Retrieved from Brandeis: ;http://people. brandeis. edu/~teuber/P. _F. _Strawson_Freedom_&_Resentment. pdf;
  7. Watson, D. J. (2017, November 8). Guidance on Term Paper. (J. Ponagai, Interviewer) Zzyxx. (2010, November 16). Faith vs. Trust of Confidence. Retrieved from Debating Christianity and Religion: https://debatingchristianity. com/forum/viewtopic. php?t=15399
31 October 2020
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