Oxford professor of philosophy Mark Wrathall explains that there is a difference between faith and belief, and a religious life doesn't necessarily require both.
Most people, religious or not, would agree that belief is a necessary part of a religious life, regardless of religion or sect. Consider Christianity, for example—is it necessary to believe that Jesus is the Messiah to be a Christian? It seems like a no-brainer.
Not so fast, says Mark Wrathall, BYU graduate and professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford. In a keynote address Wrathall delivered at a recent conference on philosophical theology at BYU, he challenged the idea that belief is essential in religion. The conference—part of the Latter-day Saint Philosophical Theology Project—facilitated a mingling of religion and philosophy in a number of lectures from November 17 to November 19.
Wrathall began his lecture by directly addressing the philosopher who inspired it: Professor Emeritus James E. Faulconer. Wrathall studied under Faulconer (who was in attendance at the conference) as an undergraduate at BYU. Faulconer, a scholar of religious and contemporary European philosophy, taught at BYU for over four decades and influenced countless students (including Wrathall), but he retired officially this year.
After thanking Faulconer for his mentorship and praising him for his scholarship, Wrathall went on to argue against one of Faulconer’s ideas. Specifically, he countered a claim implicit in Faulconer’s writing: that religious beliefs are necessary for the religious life. “I suspect that this thesis—that religious life doesn’t require distinctively religious beliefs—will strike some of you as implausible, if not downright crazy.”
The Difference between Faith and Belief
Wrathall explained that the key issue is a disparity between faith and belief that most religious people take for granted. Our beliefs are things we take to be true based on our logic and experiences. If we learn new information, our beliefs can change. For example, if we believe that it will rain on a given day, but the day comes and the skies are clear, then we will probably change our belief that it will rain.
Faith is a different thing entirely. “It’s commonplace to treat belief and faith as synonyms . . . but there are important differences,” Wrathall said. Faith involves reliance and trust, and it endures in the face of doubts, whereas belief is simply something we take to be true. “I can have faith in things or people without a corresponding belief, and I can believe things that I don’t have faith in,” he said. “That’s why I can say that I believe the war in Ukraine is inhumane, but I wouldn’t say that I have faith that the war in Ukraine is inhumane.”
This doesn’t mean that faith and belief are mutually exclusive or irreconcilable; faith is often accompanied by belief. “For instance, one who has faith in God may also hold the belief that God exists. But one can have faith without the corresponding belief,” he said.
The Importance of Practices
Of course, religious life involves more than faith or belief. Essential to pretty much every religion are its practices. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, has many practices that constitute essential parts of the religion—from participating in ordinances to attending weekly meetings to ministering. “To be a Latter-day Saint is a matter of practice rather than belief,” Wrathall said. All the practices that Latter-day Saints engage in have the ultimate end of building a flourishing community in Christ. This is a position that Wrathall and Faulconer agree on.
Given this, can members of the Church participate in Church practices without having beliefs in all the tenets of the Church? Of course, Wrathall explained. “A practice can establish a structure that determines the meanings of actions and events quite independently of the beliefs, desires, and intentions of the practitioners.” Essentially, the practices we participate in don’t necessarily rely on how we feel and think as practitioners.
Still, lots of aspects of participation in the Latter-day Saint faith appear to depend on belief. For example, members are considered worthy for baptism if they answer affirmatively to questions such as “Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father?”
If belief is indeed as difficult to attain as Wrathall claimed, then it may be much more probable that members have faith in these things, rather than beliefs. Members may not be able to say that God is their Father based on their logic and experiences, but they can have faith that He is.
“The belief that there is a God, and that we are His children, will come under a lot of cognitive stress when we confront the full extent and horror of the suffering of the homeless, of addicts, of criminals and their victims,” Wrathall said. “When it comes to serving others, faith is arguably a better motivator than belief. Trust and confidence in God will sustain us . . . even when we are struggling and doubting.”
Wrathall’s argument poses implications not just for religious philosophers but for religious practitioners as well. Approaching the issue from a standpoint that combines religion and the logic of philosophy can help us work through difficult questions like this.
“Philosophizing about religion can help us understand our own practices,” Wrathall said. “But most of all, philosophy is able to force us to question our certainty, our complacency, and our self-satisfaction.”