Knowing be addressing is the fluidity, or

Knowing Faith

A common
language analysis 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” (Austin, 1956). 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’ (Watson, 2017). 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 vary 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 (Austin, 1956). 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” (Bishop, 2016). 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.” (Strawson,

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 (MrPeligro, 2016) or the Christian Debate Forum (Zzyxx, 2010) 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”. (Strawson,

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 (Ganssle, 2014). 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.

 I have faith that the Pope speaks

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 (Watson, 2017). 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

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

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 (Putnam, 2002). 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.” (Hilborn, 2017) 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” (Feldman, 2003). 
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
Austin, J. L. (1956, October 29th). A Plea for
Excuses: The Presidential Address. Retrieved from JSTOR:
Bishop, J. (2016, December 21). Faith.
Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Eshleman, A. (2016, December 21). Moral
Responsibility. Retrieved from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
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:

Hilborn, R. (2017, December 01). About Faith. (J.
Ponagai, Interviewer)
Kemerling, G. (2011, November 12). Analysis of
Ordinary Language. Retrieved from Philosophy Pages:
MrPeligro. (2016, September 29). Faith vs
Confidence – Is There a Difference? Retrieved from Reddit:

Faith vs confidence – Is there a difference? from TrueAtheism

Putnam, H. (2002). “Brains In A Vat”. In M.
Huemer, Epistemology Contemporary Readings (p. 528). New York:
Strawson, P. F. (1963). Freedom and Resentment.
Retrieved from Brandeis:
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: