I was recently asked by a friend, “What is the difference between faith and belief?” This was while I was being interviewed on a local talk show and here’s what I said (albeit slightly improved and summarized).
Both faith and belief are often defined the following way:
Faith = a strong conviction something is true without evidence: an unreliable process which will rarely point one in the direction of truth
Belief = confidence in the truth or existence of something not
immediately susceptible to rigorous proof
As such, one can come to faith without much consideration at all: it’s a conviction without evidence. Technically, by virtue of the definition, a faith is often defined with the use of the word belief. When one has faith in something, it means they are embracing something solely without examination, without evidence as to whether that something is correct or incorrect.
In the case of belief, this is a state of having looked at or heard what is confirmed or trusted to be evidence, and which leads someone to the belief that something is true or false.
Can faith lead someone to truth? I’d suggest, when someone has made a decision in the absence of evidence and they stop looking for proof to substantiate their position, they cannot find truth. Faith cannot lead someone to truth without exploration of facts and evidence as opposed to a belief that is based upon evidence. It’s possible someone’s faith claim is true but it’s happenstance at this point. I’d put belief one step up on the ladder of knowledge just above faith. Even a modicum of evidence is enough to change someone’s position from a faith to a belief.
During my conversation, I put forward the following scenario: I’m walking down the street when a stranger makes an odd request. They tell me to turn around and fall backward so they can catch me (this is sometimes called a “trust fall”). Because I don’t know this stranger, I have 0% faith in their ability to catch me, and tell them no, I won’t fall backward. At this point, I can’t have a belief because I have no evidence one way or another. The moment this person provides me with some type of evidence as to their ability to catch me, I can choose one of three reasonable positions. 1) I can have the belief based on the evidence if I fall back this person will catch me, 2) I can have a belief this individual won’t catch me, or 3) I can say I don’t know if this person will catch me. Any of these three positions are completely valid and reasonable in this situation. Until I actually fall backwards, I have no hard evidence this person will catch me. If after further discussions, I learn this individual has a successful hobby of doing this to help others get over their fears, is married, and has three kids. Over the duration of subsequent discussion, I gain a bit of knowledge as to who this person is and finally recant my initial rejection of his/her request and agree to fall back and let them catch me. My belief or lack of belief at this point can be softly justified based upon the information provided and will likely be different for each person evaluating the information provided. I submit, at this point I have what I would call a “Soft Belief”: one that is based upon believed evidence and can change rapidly when faced with hard evidence. At the moment a person falls backwards and is caught by someone, a soft belief can transition to a “Hard Belief.” The more times this exercise is successfully completed (i.e. – the stranger catches someone), the more rigid this belief becomes. If a person fails to catch someone, the person falling backward will most likely obtain a quick “Hard Belief” in this person’s inability to be trusted.
I’d like to apply this thinking to people of religion. To my knowledge, there have been no supernatural claims ever confirmed scientifically. However, many religions claim with God’s help, they can cure the sick, heal the afflicted, soothe both internal and/or external human pains, guarantee life after death, forgive sins, speak on behalf of God, speak in tongues via the holy spirit, convert wafers into flesh and wine into blood, etc… Many believe these sleight-of-hand tricks as reality, and use them to justify a belief. When someone professes a faith claim regarding God, (whether true or not) they can easily transition into a belief in a God. Individuals who say they believe in a God based upon hearsay proof, should be said to have a soft belief. Individuals who say they have proof for their God and can provide some personal evidence to support their belief claim (whether true or not) should be said to have a hard belief. Any “religious person” who cannot produce evidence for their religious stance is basing their religious position solely on faith.
Lastly, can people’s beliefs be inaccurate? Absolutely. When one’s faith converts to a belief in something, it’s based upon the facts as they are interpreted by the individual. Faith and beliefs are subject to change and not all faith converts to belief. Just like faith, belief can also crumble or morph into other beliefs or lack of beliefs after further evidence.