Why does faith matter?

In a series of posts, called readers choice, I write on whatever topics people submit and vote for. If you dig this idea, let me know in the comments, and submit your ideas and votes.

This week: Why does faith matter? Why do people think it is important to believe in God or not? (submitted by Divya)

These are many reasons faith matters (and entire books on the topic). And I’m sure my take on all of them will get me in trouble. But ok. You guys voted for it, so here we go.

1. It’s not a choice for many. Most people on this planet mostly believe what their parents believed. For many this is fine, but for some it’s a problem, especially if you’re the kind of person who realizes if everyone only believed what their parents did, we might still be stuck in the dark ages. Or still be up in the trees in Africa, dreaming of fire.

Religious faith matters for many reasons, but one is tradition. We are social creatures and use traditions of many kinds to form families, tribes, cultures and nations. Historically there was little separation between religion and culture (The polytheism of the ancients likely had some), meaning most traditions,and cultural binding forces, were religious in nature. And we do things our parents did, from celebrating holidays, to rooting for the same sports teams (a quasi-religion), for the simple reason it’s a way for us to feel connected. Unless there is some separation between culture and religion, people will be encouraged to share their parents beliefs – or never explore what their own beliefs are. Historically religion (e.g. faith) and culture  are wound up together and hard to separate.

Faith, or even the pretense of faith often found in empty religious practice (“I’m a angel on Sunday, and a devil in-between”), can serve our sense of tradition. To say “I believe X”, or ask “Why do I believe X and not Y?” when your entire family, or town, believes Z, requires tremendous courage and self-knowledge, which few have. You’d have to be willing to risk all the things you care about based on a belief – or merely an interest in exploring what you believe – it’s safer to pretend and keep your beliefs to yourself.

2.  Faith can be useful. My grandmother used to say, when she did something clumsy, “the devil made me do it.” Now that’s not faith, but nor was it an apology. Hell, she didn’t even believe in the devil (and probably not in god either), so why say something like this? To believe in something larger than yourself, whether it’s a person, a team, a nation, or a god, can be empowering. It can make you feel part of something and not feel alone. In my grandmothers case, it can also give you someone to blame. To say “God has a plan” when you know for sure you don’t have one, gives relief. And relief can be useful. Feeling connected and empowered can be useful too. But the fact that faith is useful doesn’t, on it’s own, mean the thing you have faith in is real.

There’s a saying “there are no athiests in foxholes” – but that’s an awful argument for faith. A person in a crisis is capable of many things, including some bad, self-serving or even self-destructive things. I’m sure there are few pacifists and heroes and other noble aspects of people in foxholes too. A better question might be who created the need for the foxholes, and what they claimed to believe.

3. We are creatures of belief. We are good at believing things. We think in terms of stories and will invent stories to satisfy our minds, even if those stories are damn sketchy. The history of progress can be seen as us telling increasingly better stories about how things in the world work. We will never get it completely right, and have to admit the stories we believe in now (including those about science) have flaws if we believe in the idea of progress.  Either way, we believe. It’s what we do.

People make fun of the guy in the movie Memento,as if, ha ha, we’re so much smarter than he is, but we’re not. We know, from optical illusions, to Cognitive Bias, that our minds don’t work anywhere near the way we think they do. Memories are incredibly fragile and unstable, despite our intense sense of their permanence. We are masters at coming up with stories to cover up the gaps, and for inventing reasons that conveniently explain, in positive terms, why things happen the we way they do. We even manipulate what we remember. We forget that we do it (it doesn’t fit our story of ourselves), but we do.

I believe in many things, because I’m human and I’m alive. It’s likely a huge evolutionary advantage to be good at believing things. Sometimes I think I’m more successful, or happier, than some other people primarily because I’m better at believing in certain things than they are (It’s hard to prove this, but I believe it anyway). But since  faith is a specific kind of belief, we are entirely capable of believing faith is good for us, regardless of whether it is or it isn’t. If that’s a belief you like, you’ll find ways to tell yourself stories that reinforce your own emphasis on faith. Given the dominant history of faith, it’s the dominant story. People who choose other beliefs are the minority and therefore have to spend more time justifying their beliefs.

4. A great starting point on faith is Deism: roughly stated, it’s the idea there is an omnipotent god like thing, but he doesn’t mess much with us, and certainly doesn’t ascribe to any particular religion (as some flavors of deism go, religions, and their miracles, are inventions). Some of the U.S. founding fathers were likely deists, or had deists notions at one time or another – possibly Jefferson, Washington, Paine – as it was a popular belief among intellectuals at the time. Deism suggests you can have a kind of faith that god exists, without any other specific beliefs a particular religion asks you to have faith in. This a powerful idea, since it separates the existence of god from the ideas of any singular religion.

Even if you think deism is silly, or offensive, follow the intellectual exercise – if deists are right, then the historic origins of any religion, and religious scripture, are worthy of investigation. And if we want to investigate, it should be done by sources other than the leaders in that religion itself (who have the most to protect). Perhaps get a council of religious inquiry, led by leaders in every major belief who wish to contribute. Or academics and professors of religious history. Suddenly there are explorations that don’t discount faith as a concept, but instead examine the pieces with a clear eye.

The notion of deism led me to study the history of many religions – and this has transformed me. I wish I had studied comparative religion as a child (See this awesome chart) – I think children would see much of the idiocy adults pursue in the name of faith as hypocritical or ridiculous (As did Monty Python in Life of Brian). There is so much shared between religions, but this rarely fits the dogmatic story you hear from within any particular religion.

5. There are non-religious kinds of faith. I think faith is everywhere. We have faith in gravity, faith in our neighbor, faith our hearts will keep beating, faith our dog won’t raid the kitchen pantry when we go to work. These kinds of faith might have more evidence to back them up in daily life than religious faith, but anyone with complete certainty about anything hasn’t been paying attention. I think most people’s reasons for believing in most things is pretty damn sketchy (See Cognitive Bias). We are all creatures of faith in many ways. I know plenty of atheists who are just as dogmatic in their atheism as the born-again Christian’s they criticize.

In summary: People who are good to each other and good to themselves are very hard to find, regardless of what scripture they recite or the symbol that hangs from their neck. I have great faith in judging people by their behavior, rather than what they claim to believe, as it’s surprising how far apart they often are.


Please be respectful in the comments – Happy to be disagreed with or corrected, but I hope you’ll do it with love. Or at least some charm.

25 Responses to “Why does faith matter?”

  1. Dorian Taylor

    I was thinking recently about how church-like gatherings a) bring together people across numerous different occupational domains to mix and b) ground them under a common experience that is loosely related to current events but weaves it into a wider temporal scope. Tradition is freakishly important for social coherence across time; without it you can’t concentrate much sustained effort at all. The rub is that this common experience typically reduces to revering some figure or other, present or absentee.

    So I thought to myself, how do you regularly get a pot-pourri of people all in one room, have them give and listen to sermons, for lack of a better term, and then get some sort of consensus and action items around the experience, without the kowtowing? Are there any contemporary examples of this?

    The best I could come up with was TED and its ilk, even though it is decidedly up-market (though its blueprint doesn’t demand it). The important common element to me is that people from all walks of life come together in a physical space to share ideas underpinned by a common theme which is not specific to any particular subgroup’s occupation or avocation. Difference #1 is that such gatherings are about what we are doing right now as people and what we can achieve if we can act together, not about how some deity might reward us for our obedience or punish us for our transgressions. Difference #2, related, is that the ideas are broadcast from people within the community who have skill, talent and passion but not necessarily any authority.

    Anyhow, I think the individualist hero/martyr ethos that came out of the early-to-mid-20th century was probably necessary for our development as a civilization but overall harmful if we keep it up. It’s kind of like a temper tantrum from a cosmic teenager (or toddler, take your pick). Now it’s kind of a matter of forgetting about who is going to get credit for what, roll up our sleeves and perform.

    I want to nitpick on the word faith, though. We use it interchangeably with confidence, which is more appropriate for discussing things like gravity. Perhaps it’s just me but I see faith as either concerning a proper subset of that which is considered by confidence or in the very least intersecting with it. Where I delineate is in the amount of empirical testing we can do with respect to certain phenomena. That is, we are confident in the things we can test (and for which the explanation cannot vary), but we are faithful in the things we believe in but cannot, or do not bother to test.

    I’d also like to consider abiogenesis, or where it all began. Honestly, what does it really matter? Imagine somebody managed to sneeze on the Huygens probe that recently landed on Titan (despite clean room procedure) and the bacteria somehow survived and evolved over the next few hundred million years. We, likewise, could just as easily be descended from space boogers from a long-lost civilization as we could have originated life on Earth from scratch. Likewise, if the earth is really 6000 years old and there’s some interventionist god screwing around on us with the fossil record, we’ll never know, will we? Sure seems like a lot of work, though. Oh, and of course, there’s the Matrix.

    Faith in some ways is kinda the complete to the consistent of understanding. That is, it’s a lot more efficient except when it’s wrong. I guess the moral of the story is believe whatever you want to believe, just be aware that your beliefs might screw you over, so perhaps don’t rely on them completely.

  2. Muthu MSV

    faith in gravity?
    gravity is a fact. fact is different from faith.

    1. Scott Berkun


      The way we understand gravity has changed over time. There is a kind of philosophy called philosophy of science that asks questions about how knowledge works, and how we know what we know (e.g. epistemology). And the point I’m making is a poor attempt to encapsulate ideas from the Philosophy of science, particularly Karl Popper.

      As an example: it is entirely possible that an asteroid could collide with the earth and change its center of gravity. Or cause a disturbance in our sense of gravity for a few moments, long enough to result in various kinds of deaths. Or an alien species could decide to steal our sun, leaving us without a fulcrum for our orbit. These things are ridiculously unlikely and improbable but they are possible.

      And if you concede there is a tremendous amount of knowledge about the universe we don’t yet have, that concession has to come along with the recognition we have no certainty about how probable or improbable these seemingly ridiculous things are.

  3. Divya

    “if deists are right, then the historic origins of any religion, and religious scripture, are worthy of investigation”

    My view is the historic origins of any popular religion is always (deliberately) obscure. If religious origin had transparency, it would be easier to rationalize religion which would sort of defeat the purpose of (any) religion.

    I think your post also highlights the need for humans to feel “certain” and hence have “faith”. The Thor trailer has a phrase “Your ancestors called it magic, you call it science.” which I think hits the nail on the head. We all like the illusion of certainty that science provides (broadly).

  4. Gorka

    Scott – I like this topic.

    What do you think of the idea that agnosticism is the only intellectually honest response to questions about faith?

  5. Scott Berkun


    I don’t think agnosticism is the only intellectually honest response. But I do think you can not be intellectually honest if you never question, or allow the questioning, of your assumptions.

    I find it sad when I tell someone I don’t share their belief, and they get angry or tell me I’m going to hell. It means, to me, they don’t really understand what faith is.

    I think if you have faith in A, it means you know there is something you can’t entirely prove – yet you have faith in that gap. But to me this means you have to be accepting of someone elses faith in B. Or their doubts about A.

  6. Amygdala

    This post is so off track that I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth to even begin to address it. It’s insulting to the many of people who would rather not live their lives believing in fairy tales. Gravity, for one, does not take faith. It’s our experience of reality and the evidence of experience it day after day.

    I highly recommend you read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins or watch the old Cosmos series by Carl Sagan. It doesn’t take “faith” to appreciate and accept our reality.

    And your last comment about being gentle with comments strikes me as overly protective of this subject. Why does “faith” get such a free ride? If we were discussing politics, medicine, law, history, innovation, or any other subject it would be no holds barred.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Amygdala: You seem certain about a great deal that is unknown. This alone makes me doubt you!

  7. Amygdala

    Scott: Not at all true. I accept uncertainty and try to find a rational exploration. The journey to explore what is unknown is far more sensible to me than simply throwing up my arms and ascribing seemingly magical properties to some deity or mystical force.

    Much of what was uncertain or appeared magical in the past we now understand. There is much we don’t understand and probably never will. The point is, we inquire; we probe; we try to make sense of it all.

    Imagine if you could go back in time to the time of Jefferson and give those folks a glimpse of our current world. They would say it’s magic, or demons are behind it all. We know better, however, and we have what we have because of scientific achievement and not belief in supernatural forces.

    1. Scott Berkun

      > I accept uncertainty and try to find a rational exploration.
      > The journey to explore what is unknown is far more sensible
      > to me than simply throwing up my arms and ascribing
      > seemingly magical properties to some deity or mystical force.

      That’s fine, but that’s an argument you need to have with someone other than me as nowhere in this 1100 word essay did I say it’s good to believe in gods, nor to throw up arms. The first couple of points are mostly about history – you could at least mention you agreed with those.

      There are plenty of atheistic scientists and philosophers who call(ed) into question assumptions we make about the scientific method. David Hume, Karl Popper, and others. This of course is not an argument for gods, or flying spaghetti monsters, but it is an argument that there are sizable flaws in the assumptions even the most “rational” people make about their reasons for believing what they believe. Cognitive Bias alone plays a tremendous role in how people make decisions about belief and faith, in science or in god, or in themselves.

      I believe anyone who behaves as if they have absolute certainty on matters like these is either insane, or foolish. You seem neither – I suspect you have doubts in a corner here or there. What are they?

  8. amygdala

    Scott, I agree with you about cognitive biases. We all have them, in addition to a bunch of other illusions. BTW I highly recommend the book “The Invisible Gorilla” to your readers. It goes into a lot of detail (and surprises) about how fallible our thinking really is.

    I think part of the problem is your definition of “faith”. Although it has a secondary meaning that is akin to “confidence”, in general parlance it’s tied closely to religion. In addition, your post focuses quite a bit on religion and even points to a chart that compares various levels of belief. The title post (and the image) alludes to a spiritual interpretation. So how, specifically, are you defining “faith” here? If by faith you mean “confidence”, then OK. If by faith you mean to just resign to superstition when something doesn’t make sense, then no way.
    I’m sure you mean the latter.

    I’m also not sure what you mean by “doubts”. Doubts about what? The mental models I construct about how things work? They are totally mental constructs to help make sense of how things work. Quite frankly, none of us really understands the fabric of reality. So sure, my constructs are totally fallible. But they are working models until replaced by new evidence. Evidence, repeatability and the ability to make predictions are our very best tools. They are the heart of science.

    I was trying to say is that it’s important to remain open-minded, skeptical, and not simply give up when faced with problems that perplex us and point to some outside agent (Occam’s razor).

  9. Bryan Zug

    “What is the good of a revolutionary creed that cannot denounce a tyrant in his season of strength?” ILN 1/25/1930″

    Came across that quote by Chesterton via this tweet the other day — http://twitter.com/ChestertonQuote/status/19834458776

    It captures this idea that I tend to be pre-occupied by — this idea of human rights — something that has often been driven by people of faith (see abolitionist history as but one example).

    Why is this right?

    Why is that wrong?

    Why is this better?

    Why is that honorable?

    When MLK called us to denounce the inhuman treatment of others not in our “tribe”, he made the most arrogant of statements…

    He said we were accountable to this view of social justice/kindness, whether we had faith in it or not.

    So in this discussion, it is not so much the topic of faith, but the object and execution thereof, that matters.

    Osama Bin Laden also calls people to be accountable to his point of view, whether we have faith in it or not.

    And yet, I imagine that many of us have a shared faith in something we cannot prove that helps us tell the difference between the calls of these two men.

  10. Corey O

    How would you define faith? Is faith different than belief? What does reason mean to you?

  11. laurie

    i think this is such a educational writing. i also think all the religous sects should read this go to the chart to see all religon is based basicly on the same thing. maybe we would not have so many wars and fanaticas out there! thank you for sharing this wonderful piece with us. please keep it up.

  12. Sean Crawford

    I don’t agree with Brian (July 31) saying that MLK was arrogant to ask us to denounce the inhuman treatment of others not in our tribe.

    My reasoning is that just as, say, the Oklahoma bomber does not get to vote on whether he is bound by the U.S. Constitution, neither do we get a vote on the UN declaration of human rights. You do not gain human rights by coming here to North America, you already have them.

    Brian was right to say that Osama Bin Laden was different. Not only did he arrogantly ignore tho check and balance of the UN declaration, but of the majority of his countrymen. It seems to me that while a council of Arab elders might agree with terrorism for a civil war, they would not endorse peace time “global reach” terror. Hence terrorists are isolated from any community.

  13. Bryan Zug

    Sean – Maybe I could have said it better. Saying MLK was arrogant was intended as pure sarcasm.

    Laurie – Do you really think all religon is based basicly on the same thing?

    To lift a quote from this Boston Globe article on that line of thinking, wouldn’t you agree that “we live in a world where religion seems as likely to detonate a bomb as to defuse one”?


    I agree with that author in believing the most you can really conclude is that all religions start from this simple supposition —

    “Something is wrong with the world.”

    Beyond that, the myriad ways they diverge in goals/solutions, have real and distinct implications.

  14. David

    @Amygdala: “It’s insulting to the many of people who would rather not live their lives believing in fairy tales”
    That’s pretty undiplomatic for someone who’s complaining about insults.

  15. Amygdala


    From this entire thread the thing you focus on in my lack of diplomacy? That speaks volumes.

  16. Amygdala

    I meant to say “is” not “in”. The Submit button overpowered me :-)

  17. Deepak Shetty

    I find it curious that you don’t mention what you believe :).
    Though there are a couple of things that you are incorrect about.
    A scientific theory like gravity(or choose quantum mechanics) needs a little faith, but could be verified by you and me provided we were capable enough. The faith is enclosed as “hopefully the scientists have done their job correctly”. Religious faith isn’t the same. And your view of gravity as faith is dangerously close to “evolution” is a faith or “atheism” is a faith.

    “but anyone with complete certainty about anything hasn’t been paying attention.”
    And people will have already pointed out to you that this is true of anything. You cant be completely certain that unicorns/fairies/batman/take your pick don’t exist. Why then does a religious figure get a pass?
    Though of course I agree with the gist and the premise of mostly everything else you have said in your post.

  18. whoisbid

    Wise people have said that someone’s faith is not defined by what they say about what they believe., but defined by their actions . The summary seemed to agree with that. There is also an ancient saying that God is confessed by those who deny him and denied by those who confess him.

  19. Dev

    I love the “in summary” part what you wrote.



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