What does it mean to have faith?

I’m a skeptical guy. My mind naturally looks for flaws in ideas, institutions, processes, cultures, etc.

This has affected the way I viewed religion for a long time. In elementary school, I was taught that it was important to “believe” or “have faith” in Jesus.

As soon as I was old enough to start questioning that teaching, it made no sense to me.

How you can force yourself to intellectually accept something that is not falsifiable via logic and reasoning.

You can’t.

It is impossible to just will your mind into believing something.

However, that’s not what “having faith” means.

In fact, “having” faith is the wrong way to look at it.

Faith is something that is cultivated and experienced through practice.

During my Islam month, I found that praying five times a day made the Islamic teachings about heaven and hell feel right. I didn’t start believing in heaven and hell and angels and demons, but it began to make sense to view the world in that way.

According to Karen Armstrong, author of the excellent book, The Case for God, this is how religion and faith were meant to be experienced.

Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place.

It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline.

Buddhism made this particular conception of faith explicit.

Faith (shraddha), in Buddhism, does not mean accepting a theory we have not personally verified. The Buddha encouraged us to see for ourselves. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels is not blind faith; it is the fruit of our practice….In Buddhism, our faith is concrete, not blind, not a leap. It is formed by our own insight and experience. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we express trust in our capacity to walk in the direction of beauty, truth, and deep understanding, based on our experience of the efficacy of the practice. – Thicht Nhat Hanh

True faith then, is accessible to everyone who is willing to put in the work.

This has profound implications on the way we view religion. It moves us from a “fixed mindset,” which says that things like character, intelligence, etc. are immutable, inherited traits, to a “growth mindset,” which says that we can work and improve those things.

If you are secular, this means you can begin practicing religion in a way that doesn’t require you to change your beliefs first.

If you are religiously affiliated but have become disillusioned, you can now take action and look for rituals and practices that can help you renew your faith.

This view of faith turns religion from something intangible and abstract to something real and meaningful.

  • OTL

    Do you think this could happen just as easily the other way round? When someone only focuses on the practice of their relegion and not the beliefs that those practices are supposed to symbolise? For instance someone could go to mosque every friday but lose focus on, I dunno, monotheism, I suppose.

    That always seemed to me the original point of Christianity; not to follow religious-law just because it was the religious-law. People who get too caught up in day-to-day practices lose sight of what those rituals represent. For example when I went to a Cathedral in Spain there were homeless people outside every entrance and everybody was just ignoring them. They were much more focused on saying mass, touching the relics and looking at the architecture and paintings – not to mention taking photos. I’m an athiest but I couldn’t help but thinking these were people who had got too caught up in the practices of their religion and had lost their way on Jesus’ actual teachings about how to achieve salvation. These were pious people, many of whom had walked their from as far as France or Italy. I’m sure they followed the practices of Catholicism too. Nevertheless it hadn’t worked. They hadn’t taken Jesus’ preachings to heart.

    This is just an example from my personal experience but the world seems full of people who follow the practices of their relegion but lose sight on what they represent: the Pope, the Islamic State, the Amish etc…

    Anyway, what’s your take on this? Follow the rituals and you’ll believe what they represent or follow the rituals and you might lose focus on what they exist for?

    • I agree with you that following rituals can become routine and meaningless. However, I don’t take that to mean that rituals are meaningless. Rather, that one needs to dive deeper into them.

      All religions have a rich, contemplative tradition as well, so it may be that you may need to go to mass and take communion, and do spiritual exercises. Or pray five times a day, and study the Koran.

      In my studies I find that religions are very aware that it’s easy to get distracted from the core meaning of religion, and thus they come up with ways to combat that distraction.

      So I don’t think that it’s simply a matter of either following rituals or embracing the core meaning of a religion. They go hand in hand and it takes significant commitment and work to follow the rituals and understand their significance and incorporate the teachings of your religion into your daily life.

  • Faith is the kind of trust that you enter into with your whole being. Faith is the kind of trust that, when it has been broken, it hurts deep inside… but faith is the kind of trust that finds a way to trust again despite the hurt. Faith is a sacred, deep, emotionally involved kind of trust. You don’t have to be a religious person or a member of a particular religious group to have faith. You can believe in yourself, have faith in the basic goodness in every human being.