Friday, August 22, 2014

The Difference between Faith and Certainty

As an agnostic and a skeptic, I used to find the idea of faith perplexing.  How can people be so certain of something for which there is no proof, or even overwhelming evidence? 

To me, the whole business of faith seemed naive.  I was raised Christian, but I had never seen any evidence to support the existence of the Trinity.  I thought, what is the difference between an adult believing in Jesus and a child believing in Santa Claus?  As far as I could tell, the child actually had more evidence.  At least there were presents beneath the tree on Christmas morning. 

Some people believe Jesus is the only way to Heaven.  Others believe that the only way is through Islam and the teaching s of Muhammad.  These two beliefs are mutually exclusive.  Even if one of them is right, that means the other is not.  And it’s quite possible they’re both wrong.  I did a thought experiment a few times where I believed in Jesus, and I had great faith.  Even in this case, I would still be uncertain.  My faith would be disturbed by the equally strong convictions of Muslims who believe that Jesus is not the son of God.  It seems to me that if either side has evidence to support their beliefs and dogma, the opposing side likely has equally convincing evidence to the contrary. 

So I kept asking myself, what is wrong these people of faith?  How can the Christians and Muslims be equally convinced that they are right, and the other is wrong?  I struggled with trying to understand this for years and got nowhere. 

I've recently learned that the biggest obstacle to my understanding was a semantic one.  I thought that faith and certainty were analogous (at least in the context).  That is absolutely wrong.  And this problem does not result from my skepticism.  In fact, it’s a bigger problem when people of faith make this same misconception that I did.

Certainty and faith are not only different things, they are mutually exclusive.  If you are certain of something, you don't need faith.  To have faith is to acknowledge uncertainty, and choose to believe something regardless.  In this way faith is a choice, and it can encourage engagement in the mystery of life.  Certainty is a refusal to accept that an alternative can even exist.  To be certain is not to make a choice, but to assume that there is no choice to be made.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” 

What Socrates is saying, in a very definitive way, is that to be certain of anything is unwise.  Likewise, the Buddha teaches us to question everything.  Why?  This can be difficult to really comprehend.  We immediately think of ‘perfectly reasonable’ things that we are certain of.  I’m certain the sun will rise tomorrow in the East.  I’m certain that Ronald Reagan has not recently risen from the dead.  But essentially, these certainties are born of mindlessness, a lack of engagement.  For example, many such certainties are held because we've not seen evidence to the contrary (and not because evidence could not exist or arise).  To be fair, mathematical proofs may be a genuine exception, but I’m not going to discuss that here

And you might argue that there is a sort of pragmatism about certainty.  To act as if tomorrow's sunrise was genuinely in jeopardy would create a lot of very practical problems for individuals and for society.

Getting back to Socrates though, we don’t actually know the things we know.  We assume the things we know.  I've found that acknowledging that my assumptions are only assumptions, and not knowledge, has opened up my mind to a universe of possibilities and wonder.  The word assumption has a negative connotation because one thinks an assumption can be wrong.  But a certainty can be wrong as well, so what's the difference?

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” 
–Stephen Hawking

By acknowledging my ignorance and assumptions, the “knowledge” that the sun will rise tomorrow becomes faith that it will.  And I have faith that Zombie Ronald Reagon is not walking around somewhere eating brains.  But I allow that there’s an outside chance that he could be.

So earlier, I asked a question which I have not answered yet.  What is wrong with these people of faith?  I used to believe that faith was the problem.  I thought that faith made people, especially fundamentalists and extremists believe and behave irrationally.  But now I understand that certainty is the problem.  Religious fanatics call themselves people of faith.  But they are people who have abandoned faith in favor of certainty.  I now believe that faith is not the problem, but the solution.

If the chaos and unpredictability of life is a roulette wheel, faith is not about knowing whether the ball will land on black or red.  And it doesn’t need to be about deluding yourself into believing you know.  Faith is about walking up to the table and placing a bet.  Faith is a perspective that the reward is worth the risk.  And maybe faith is a belief that playing the game is more important than winning or losing.

I’ve always believed that the best way to engage in the mystery of life is by questioning.  And I still believe that.  But faith can be another vehicle for engagement.  I’m not preaching that anyone should have faith in anything.  But I want you to know that faith is a choice.  Recognize it as such, and then choose for yourself.

Thank you for reading.  Please share my blog with others who might find value in it.  May you be well and happy.


  1. Hi Andy,

    Did you write this? Very interesting perspective!

    Peace, Bruce

  2. Thanks Bruce. I wrote all but the attributed quotes. I'm quite sure that others have had these thoughts before me though. After coming to this understanding myself, I heard, for example, that Anne Lamott had written something similar about the distinction between faith and certainty.

  3. This is absolutely beautiful. May I link it from my blog? Thank you.

    1. Thank you Yukari. Please link away. Cheers!

    2. I've written about it here and quoted parts of your post. Thank you!