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.