No wonder believers and sceptics disagree – they use different definitions

What does "faith" mean? According to a recent survey, depends on who you ask.

Faith can be blind but it is found in every area of life and humanity cannot function without it.

Sometimes believers and their critics, each frustrated at their inability to make the other side “see”, feel they are speaking a different language. New Australian research suggests there is some justification for thinking so.

It also provides justification for me to reuse one of history's great puns. The 18th century Anglican wit Sydney Smith once commented on two fishwives hurling abuse at each other across an alley: “Those two will never agree. They are arguing from different premises.” And so, when it comes to faith, are theists and atheists.

Believers and sceptics tend to accord the word faith quite different definitions. James Garth – a Melbourne aerospace engineer and fellow of the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology (ISCAST) – led a study before a recent Melbourne debate in which American atheist advocate Peter Boghossian and Christian philosopher Richard Shumack discussed “How can we know?”

In his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian gives several definitions of faith, led by “belief without evidence” and, more provocatively, “pretending to know things you don't know”.

Hardly surprisingly, believers do not think of their faith this way, seeing it rather as trust or belief based on evidence and experience that cannot be scientifically demonstrated but which is not therefore unreasonable or irrational.

Garth's study was run jointly by the City Bible Forum and the Rationalist Society of Australia, and questioned more than 1300 people who were firmly committed to the theistic and non-theistic views. The respondents came from the City Bible Forum, ISCAST, Christian Union, Centre for Public Christianity and Ethos on the one side, and the Rationalist Society, Progressive Atheists and Australian Skeptics on the other.

Even the non-theists cavilled at the “pretending to know” definition, Garth says. Where the two sides came together was the beautifully neutral Oxford English Dictionary: “Faith is complete confidence or trust in someone or something.”

More surprisingly, Garth reports, is that close behind in agreement from both camps was the biblical definition from Hebrews, chapter 11: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I suspect that is because the non-theistic side accepts this as a description but not a virtue.

This widespread misconception that faith is against the evidence and necessarily irrational is something theists must work harder to rebut (rationally, and with evidence!). Of course sometimes faith can be blind but it is found in every area of life and is something – if we exclude the religious arena – that humanity cannot function without. Just look, for example, at the financial system or the still widespread belief in the inevitability of progress.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.