Faith and Belief (4)

Having looked at the two meanings of belief, let us now consider the word faith. Unlike belief, whose meaning changed drastically during the seventeenth century, the word faith has retained much of its original meaning in modern English. Yet, the two words are often used inaccurately as synonyms, thereby adding to the confusion and giving rise to a distorted view of religion.

The word faith word is derived from the Latin fides, which means “trust, confidence, reliance.” The word fides, in turn, comes from the Latin root fidere, “to trust.” The same root is also found in the word fidelity. Even though the word faith is sometimes inaccurately used as a synonym for the modern sense of belief, the word fidelity still carries the original sense of loyalty. The word hi-fi (an abbreviated form of high fidelity) is a case in point.

Based on its etymology as well as usage, we can say that faith is not primarily a matter of holding certain ideas in one’s mind, i.e., it is not a matter of believing per se. Rather, faith denotes a particular kind of attitude or orientation that is characterized by trust, loyalty, and commitment. As such, faith is a way of being in the world, a way of relating to oneself and others, a way of living. It is not believing something; it is being someone. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “Faith is deeper, richer, more personal. . . . It is an orientation of the personality, to oneself, to one’s neighbour, to the universe; a total response; a way of seeing whatever one sees and of handling whatever one handles . . . ” (p. 12).

One way to overcome the confusion between faith and belief is to think of the word faith as denoting an attitude of faithfulness. When we hear someone say “Tom is a faithful husband,” we know that it does not mean “Tom believes that his wife exists.” Rather, the sentence means “Tom is loyal to his wife.” Similarly, the statement “I have faith in God” does not mean “I believe that God exists.” Rather, it means “I trust God” or “I live a life of commitment to God.”

If it is true that the essence of religion is faith, rather than belief, then we can expect this to be reflected in the language of religious scriptures. Consider the Christian scripture, for example. In the Greek New Testament, the words pisteuo and pistis appear many times. The former is a verb and the latter is a noun, both denoting an attitude of trust, confidence, commitment, and loyalty, i.e., faith. Yet, these two words are often rendered in English translations of the New Testament as believe and belief, respectively. This rendering is highly problematic, since it transforms the New Testament’s emphasis on a particular kind of practical attitude into the somewhat passive notion of holding an idea in one’s mind.

Below is the transliterated Greek text of a frequently quoted New Testament verse, John 3:16.

Notice the word pisteuon and how it is rendered into English in two different translations.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (King James)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (NRSV)

In the King James translation (1611), pisteuon is rendered as “believeth.” Given that in the early seventeenth century the word belief still meant something very similar to faith, this translation was quite adequate. However, when the New Revised Standard Version (1989) uses the word “believes,” the translation can no longer be considered accurate, since the meaning of the word belief in 1989 differs significantly from its meaning in 1611.

But this is not entirely the fault of the translators. Part of the problem is that contemporary English treats the word faith only as a noun. If it were possible for the word faith to be used as a verb in contemporary English, we would have been able to say sentences like “I faith” or “I am faithing” or “I have faithed.” In that scenario, the modern translators of the New Testament would have rendered the relevant part of John 3:16 as follows: “everyone who faiths in him . . . .” It is unfortunate that the English language does now allow this usage; for faith is not a thing that we possess but is a quality of how we live, act, and be in the world. In other words, faith refers to a sort of practice or activity more than it refers to an entity or an idea. For this reason, the notion of faith is best expressed using the active language of verbs, and less so through the relatively passive language of nouns.

Since the English word belief allows itself to be used as a verb — believe, believes, believed — it is tempting (and sometimes unavoidable) to use it as a substitute for the word faith in certain contexts. As already mentioned, the use of belief as a synonym for faith posed no significant problem before the seventeenth century, since the meanings of the two words overlapped to a very large extent. In the twentieth century, however, this usage has led to a plethora of confusions and misunderstandings.

But notice what happens when the New Testament verse quoted above is translated into Arabic.

Here, the Greek word pisteuon has been rendered as u’minu, which is one of the verb forms of the Arabic word iman (faith). It can be seen that the Arabic translation of John 3:16 is much more faithful to the original Greek than is the English rendering of NRSV. In both Greek and Arabic, the respective words for faith have corresponding verb forms, allowing these two languages to convey the dynamic and active quality of this concept. In sharp contrast, the notion of faith as a verb cannot be directly and concisely expressed in contemporary English, forcing English speakers to use an entirely different word — belief. The unfortunate outcome of this is a virtual conflation of faith and belief. (The problem highlighted here with respect to the New Testament applies to English translations of the Qur’an as well.)

As mentioned earlier, Wilfred Cantwell Smith has contended that the modern conflation of faith and belief has generated a distorted view of religion. Now that we have looked at both of these terms in some detail, we can begin to appreciate Smith’s insight into the nature of this distortion.

If we approach religion primarily in terms of belief (in the modern sense of holding certain ideas as true), then we are likely to judge the value of religion on the basis of its cognitive elements alone, i.e., on the basis of religious ideas. This approach allows the so-called “New Atheists” to argue that religion is false because its truth-claims do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. These critics of religion are right in assuming that the essence of religion is faith, but the problem lies in how they define faith. For many of the “New Atheists” and their disciples, the word faith essentially means “believing without evidence.” If the essence of religion is faith, and if faith is “believing without evidence,” then it is clear that religion is something fundamentally irrational, especially when we compare it with science.

But the notion that faith is essentially “believing without evidence” is seriously flawed. As we have seen, faith is a kind of attitude and orientation towards oneself and others; it is not, primarily, the holding of certain ideas in one’s mind — with or without evidence. In other words, it is true that the essence of religion is faith, but it is not true that the essence of faith is giving intellectual assent to particular truth-claims expressed as propositions (and to do so “without evidence.”). This means that the value of religion cannot be judged on the basis of its cognitive elements alone.

And yet, religion’s cognitive elements are not entirely irrelevant to any judgment as to the value of religion. This is because while faith and belief are two different concepts, they are not unrelated by any means.


  1. There is no word for “faith” in the German language. There is either ‘trust’ -vertrauen, or ‘belief’ – glauben.

    I don’t think a New Atheist would be hesitant to accuse people of ‘trusting without evidence’ because they value rationality above all else. Their big gripe is with, what they consider to be, irrational behavior. For instance, if my trust in God assures me that other trusting folks are good (Us) and all non-trusting folks should be shunned/converted/killed (Them), then this particular trusting attitude could lead to some unpleasant behavior. The Us vs. Them attitude leads to persecution of differences; tribal, ethnic,gender, mental attitudes, and political/nationalistic orientations.

  2. Thanks for your comments 🙂

    Regarding your first point, it seems there is a single German word (Glaube) corresponding to two different English words (faith and belief).

    Interestingly enough, the German word “glauben” is from the same linguistic source that produced the English word “belief.” The English word “faith,” on the other hand, is a loan word from French.

    Apparently, the Old English “gealefa” gave way to “bileave” in the late 12th century, which was then replaced by the modern word “belief.” The etymology of the word “belief” goes back to the Old High German “giloubo” and the Middle High German “geloube” and “gloube,” all of which are related to the German noun “Glaube.” The Germanic root word “galaub-” was formed by adding “ga-” (the intensive prefix) to “leubh” (to care for, desire, like, love). Hence, “glaub-” means “deer, esteemed,” from which we get “ga-laubon” — meaning “to hold dear, esteem, trust.” Before the seventeenth century, “to believe” meant “to belove.”

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modern word “belief” overlaps in meaning with the word “faith,” but the two are not synonymous: “Especially in theological use, a distinction is frequently made between the two words, ‘belief’ referring either to the intellectual assent to certain propositions or dogmas, or to the acceptance of the existence of God or another god, ‘faith’ involving personal trust and commitment.” The OED goes on to say: “This lexical distinction is absent from the cognate Germanic languages; in German, for example, Glaube covers the senses of both belief and faith.”

    As for your second point, I think that the “New Atheists” have a very narrow understanding of what “rational” means (in either belief or behavior). Furthermore, the very tone of their critique suggests that there is more to their opposition to religion than simply a defense of rationality. However, the only reason I mentioned the “New Atheists” is to illustrate the modern misunderstanding of religion that results from the conflation of “faith” and “belief.” Let me explain.

    It is one thing to say that religion is harmful, and quite another to say that religion is false. The claim that religion is “false” could not have been made without the modern privileging of belief over faith. This is because faith is primarily an attitude, and an attitude can be moral or immoral, right or wrong, good or bad — but it cannot be true or false. The terms “true” and “false” are used with respect to propositions, not with respect to attitudes. To say that religion is “false” assumes that religion is really about “believing” in certain propositions, which is a problematic assumption.

  3. One more thought relating to the New Atheists. If they are truly concerned about the various us/them dichotomies and the violence and oppression that such dichotomies seem to generate and/or legitimize, I would expect them to focus on ways of overcoming such divisions and bringing people closer together. Instead, they seem to criticize the us/them dichotomies when they are associated with religion, but then go on to create a dichotomy of their own, i.e., between the rational nonbelievers (us) and the irrational believers (them). I see this approach as contributing to the problem rather than as resolving it.

  4. assalamu alay’kum,

    Since your original posting of this series, I compulsively keep coming back to it.

    I was wondering if Smith’s distinction of belief vs faith, as it relates to an individual’s relationship with surrounding reality, can be justifiably (albeit loosely) be projected to the Quranic distinction of Islam and Eeman. In a sense, that Islam is a mental (and verbal) state of submission to a hypothetical reality and Eeman being a state in which the certitude of that hypothesis approaches a kind of climax where it actually dictates (and drives) individual’s relationship with that reality.

    Excuse me for my ignorance as I am probably speculating too much.


  5. Assalam ‘Alaykum,

    It’s difficult to argue for a clear one-to-one correspondence between islam/iman and belief/faith. This is partly because the Qur’anic sense of islam and iman tend to vary from one context to another, precluding the possibility of fixing their meanings in just one way. Sometimes the Qur’an uses the word islam in the relatively narrow sense of verbal or practical submission only, but at other times it appears to expand the meaning of islam in a way that it becomes inclusive of iman. Similarly, sometimes the Qur’an uses the word iman in a limited sense that is very close to the modern meaning of “belief,” but at other times it expands the meaning of iman in a way that clearly includes verbal and practical submission. I am sure you can easily find many examples of this phenomenon.

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