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18 July 2013

Causes and Consequences of the Conflation of Belief and Trust

Peter Berger* has a recent blog post about atheism that reminded me of an issue I've been wrestling with for a while. The concept-word "faith" has an interesting history. Today, at least in specifically religious contexts, we most often use "faith" interchangeably with the term "belief," as in, "I have faith that God exists [as opposed to believing that God does not exist]." In the past and most notably in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, faith was synonymous with trust, as in, "I have faith in God [as opposed to lacking in trust that God will be true to his covenant with humankind]." If we start with Durkheim's famous axiom that religion is a reflection of society itself (i.e. that "God is society"), including our collective beliefs and values, we are led to some interesting conclusions regarding the evolution of uses and definitions of "faith" and "belief."

Trust is a necessary prerequisite for sociability. It's the sine qua non of social organization. In particular, trust is foundational if we are to have a division of labor, which itself is essential to efficient social productivity. The dividing of labor into mutually-reliant tasks leads to uncertainty, though. We must trust others for our own safety and survival. I trust that farmers will grow the wheat necessary to make the bread that I eat. I trust that the public-works employees will properly treat the water that I drink. I trust that my mechanic understands the problems with my brakes enough so that my car will stop when I tell it to. Even though we rarely acknowledge it, every aspect of our lives, however minute, requires trust. This social trust was reflected in our religions' insistence on trust (i.e. "faith") in God. As noted above, faith historically has not been about belief as opposed to disbelief; that counter-position is quite recent; in fact, it coincides fairly neatly with the advent of Protestantism and the modern era. As modernity has fragmented our lives, it has eroded trust in institutions. We started talking about "belief" in God (instead of "trust") at about the same time that we stopped trusting society.

* - I certainly do not endorse Berger's blog, and I do not recommend reading it without a very critical eye.

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