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Faith and disbelief


Is faith that p compatible with disbelief that p? I argue that it is. After surveying some recent literature on the compatibility of propositional (so-called faith-that) and non-propositional (faith-in) forms of faith with the lack of belief, I take the next step and offer several arguments for the thesis that both these forms of faith are also compatible, in certain cases, with outright disbelief. This is contrary to the views of some significant recent commentators on propositional faith, including Robert Audi and Daniel Howard-Snyder. The primary argument revolves around the possibility of maintaining a single faith through drastic changes in cognitive attitude. I argue that once we allow that propositional faith is compatible with weaker cognitive attitudes than belief, such as acceptance or assent, there is prima facie reason to consider propositional faith as sometimes compatible with disbelief. I then consider objections and offer some final reflections on the significance of the thesis.

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  1. 1.

    I here follow the standard usage of “propositional faith” in the literature. For my purposes, I need not take a position on the interesting and complicated question of what a proposition is, other than the general consensus that it is the referent of that-clauses and the object of the “propositional attitudes,” which include belief, desire, doubt, hope, intention, etc.

  2. 2.

    One might wonder here if there really is such a “standard” picture of faith. I think this a fair question, though it is unfortunately not one that I have the space to explore here. It is an interesting, and I think open, question to what extent various important historical thinkers took propositional belief to be essential to, or even related to, faith, and were we to go in that direction, we would undoubtedly find many valuable nuanced and sophisticated views that might serve as exceptions to the “standard picture” (Kierkegaard, for example, certainly has much to teach us here). Nonetheless, I think it relatively uncontroversial that the predominant understanding of religious faith remains tied to belief (whether occurrent or dispositional) in various propositions. At any rate, all of the participants in the discussion that I am entering take this for granted.

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Mugg (2016).

  4. 4.

    Alston (1996), 4–12.

  5. 5.

    The sense of “dispositional” in this sentence should not be confused with dispositionalism about belief, the view that one’s mental and behavioral dispositions constitute belief. See next footnote.

  6. 6.

    Ibid, 4. Of course, one may suggest counterexamples to these dispositions. For example, if one is told a secret, one will not have a tendency to respond in the affirmative when asked whether p, even if she believes p. (Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this point.) However, Alston does not say here that one’s dispositional responses cannot or should not be overridden, nor that he has exhausted the list of dispositions that are constitutive of belief. Nonetheless, nothing in my argument depends on Alston’s dispositionalism being the correct analysis of the nature of belief. It simply provides a handy way to frame the issue. If one takes another of the major representative views of belief, my argument will work just as well. For example, if one is a representationalist about belief, à la Fodor (1975) or Dretske (1988), one could interpret my claim about faith as the simultaneous possession of internal representations of both “not-p” and something like “p is important to me,” accompanied by the right sorts of cognitive uses, e.g. that p is not called up in theoretical inferences, but is called up in deliberations about what one should do. We might say that the representation of p is tokened in the subject’s “faith box” but not her “belief box.” (One could then understand what the non-doxasticists like Howard-Snyder have been doing as spelling out the requirements for a representation to be in the “faith box.”) A response profile similar to Alston’s could be formulated with representationalist assumptions, and my arguments about faith and disbelief would hold mutatis mutandis. Alternatively, if one is an interpretationist about belief, à la Dennett (1987), then the claim would be simply that from the intentional stance, it is sometimes appropriate to attribute both disbelief and faith regarding p to a subject at a time. And of course, if one is an eliminativist, à la Churchland (1981), then both disbelief and faith are equally unreal, and describing their consistency would be a job for a neuroscientist. On that view, to be in the sort of situation I describe would be to have a complex neural state that simultaneously results in the denial of p, the confirmation that p is important to one, and behaviors which indicate that p plays a significant role in one’s life. For an excellent overview of theoretical approaches to belief, see Schwitzgebel (2015), esp. section one. On the other hand, see Schwitzgebel (2001), section III, for an argument that a dispositional account of belief is best able to handle cases of “in-between belief.”

  7. 7.

    Ibid, 9.

  8. 8.

    Ibid, 11.

  9. 9.

    These are the primary proposals, but they are by no means the only proposals in the literature for alternatives to essentially doxastic faith. In addition to these, Kvanvig lists “presupposition, supposition, opinion, affirmation, confidence, and mental assents … suspicion, speculation, and expectancy along with the attitudes of taking a stance on an issue or cause, making an intellectual commitment, and the notion of judgment itself.” See Kvanvig (2018), 81.

  10. 10.

    Audi (2008), 90.

  11. 11.

    Ibid, 96.

  12. 12.

    Ibid, 91.

  13. 13.


  14. 14.

    Ibid, 97.

  15. 15.

    Schellenberg (2005), 133–4. Schellenberg takes issue with Alston’s “pro-attitude,” opting instead for the weaker “favorable evaluation” of the state of affairs reported by the proposition p. This is because he thinks pro-attitude includes a desire for the truth of p, which is more than is needed for propositional faith. Indeed, he presents a case which he thinks shows that one can have faith that p with no desire at all for p: a politician obliged out of party loyalty to campaign for a former rival—she may have faith that the rival will win while not desiring it. Cf. Howard-Snyder (2013b), 183–85. For my money, Schellenberg overstates the case a bit, and Howard-Snyder is right to conclude that “even if one can have faith that p without desire for the truth of p, one cannot have faith that p without a desire in virtue of which one cares that p.” (p. 185, emphasis mine) I take this latter to be the primary import of the “pro-attitude” locution. In any case, this needn’t concern us any further, as nothing in my argument turns on whether or not the pro-attitude includes desire.

  16. 16.

    Ibid, 134.

  17. 17.

    Ibid, 130.

  18. 18.

    Ibid, 135.

  19. 19.

    Ibid, 147.

  20. 20.

    Howard-Snyder (2013b), 189–90.

  21. 21.

    Howard-Snyder (2013a), 367–8.

  22. 22.

    Howard-Snyder says here that this “considering” could potentially be replaced by other positive cognitive stances, though he does not suggest any.

  23. 23.

    Ibid, 368.

  24. 24.

    Simpson (2012): 553–54. Quoted in Kvanvig (2016), 8.

  25. 25.

    Kvanvig (2016), 11.

  26. 26.

    See Titelbaum (forthcoming), 4.

  27. 27.

    Titelbaum (forthcoming), 15.

  28. 28.

    Or perhaps this is not right: maybe it would be better to say that one doubts a proposition when her credence falls below 50%, and that disbelief does not occur until further down the credence spectrum. Then the problem becomes locating the boundary between doubt and disbelief.

  29. 29.

    Or, per Schwitzgebel (2001), “in-between belief.” Also see that paper, pp. 78–79, for an argument that Bayesian degrees of belief do not adequately capture the ambiguity of such attitudes.

  30. 30.

    Again, I do not mean to imply here that the dispositional account of belief is the correct one. See note 6.

  31. 31.

    If the reader is interested in more detail on this, I point her to the references, particularly the selections by Alston, Audi, Schellenberg (2005), and Howard-Snyder.

  32. 32.

    Cf. Aristotle: “…it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b).

  33. 33.

    I focus here on religious faith, though similar things can surely be said for more general types of faith as well.

  34. 34.

    I borrow this “unifying” language from Jonathan Kvanvig, who characterizes faith (following Dewey) as functioning in relation to an ideal that is “all-encompassing, so inclusive that it unifies or harmonizes the self.” Kvanvig (2018), 60.

  35. 35.

    I grant that they can and should often still be said to believe them dispositionally, though even here we would likely find variation among individuals with respect to what typical belief-behavior they’d be disposed to. One may, for example, have the tendency to act as if p, but lack the tendency to either verbally affirm that p (by virtue of not understanding p well enough to recognize it when stated precisely), or to use p as a premise in her theoretical reasoning (by virtue of a failure of rationality). These things are fluid, and one may be said to dispositionally believe that p in ways that vary in degree and kind with time and experience. Additionally, I grant that many religious people do have occasion to entertain various religious propositions occurrently from time to time—say, during the sermon on Sunday morning, or (unfortunately more likely) when confronted with a perceived threat to such beliefs, say, in the form of someone who represents an alternative belief system (for many evangelicals, for example, reflecting on the mere existence of Muslims can compel one to reaffirm to oneself one’s doctrinal commitments). In such cases, however, I think it is more likely that what is being entertained or reaffirmed is not so much belief that p as it is a sense of one’s social identity, a belongingness to one’s community and one’s fit in that community. An anonymous reviewer objects here that in order to follow a sermon, one must understand it, which would be evidenced by one’s ability to note points of agreement and disagreement, and that this implies that one’s beliefs are in play. This is certainly true. Nonetheless, many religious people do not follow the sermon in this sense. Or, put differently, they do not interpret the sermon (or other aspects of the liturgy) in such a way that the set of things they hold to be true about the world is altered. They, rather, approach the sermon in the same way they might approach a television show or a novel: its effect is primarily aesthetic, and insofar as they give assent to the propositions represented therein, they are effectively affirming their membership in a group that holds such things to be true. The evidence that this is a more accurate description of their cognitive state than “belief” is that many such people will not be able to answer basic questions about the propositions contained in the liturgy, indicating that they did not in fact understand it. They will undoubtedly affirm that it is true, but they will have no clear idea of what “it” means. I’m certainly not saying this is the norm for most religious people, but I think it is clearly the case for many, including people I know personally, and at various times, myself. It may be objected here that one should still be said to “believe” a proposition even if one does not strictly speaking understand its meaning. I think such people are more accurately described as having a proto-belief, or what Eric Schwitzgebel has called “in-between belief.” [See Schwitzgebel (2001), especially the cases of Roshini and Antonio on pp. 77–78]. If this is right, then many lay religious people have what I think should uncontroversially be labeled religious “faith,” while lacking full-fledged belief or disbelief.

  36. 36.

    This case is borrowed and modified from Howard-Snyder (2013a), 357.

  37. 37.

    One may reasonably wonder here whether one can have genuine faith in a sports team, or whether this is merely pretense. I can only say that the sports fans I know would not consider their commitment a pretense. For some of them, their team-community is as cohesive and durable as other communities they are a part of, and consequently their commitment to their team rivals that to other groups. For some, their team identity even seems to play a similar role that religious identity plays for others. I confess I do not understand this myself, but I have witnessed it. If one is invested enough in their team’s success to fit my description of faith, I see no reason to withhold the label. Similar points apply to the next case. (Note that I say nothing about the health or appropriateness of such a commitment.).

  38. 38.

    The inspiration for this argument comes from some comments I once heard Keith DeRose give at a conference.

  39. 39.

    Schwitzgebel (2001) notes something similar when he says that one can be “at a single time, disposed quite confidently to assert one thing in one sort of situation and to assert its opposite in another.” (p. 79).

  40. 40.

    This sort of volitional faith has some biblical precedent. In Mark 9:14–29, Jesus exorcises a demon that his disciples had tried and failed to cast out, saying to the boy’s father, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” The father replies, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (NIV) Given that pistis and apistia are here best understood in the sense of “trust,” and that the presence of apistia hinders Jesus’s miraculous ability elsewhere in Mark (see especially 6:1–6), it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus accepts the father’s act as pistis, despite his reported apistia. Teresa Morgan notes of this passage that the boy’s father “is acknowledging what the disciples never do but Mark does: that pistis may not be perfect, but may be—perhaps, for most people, always is—entangled with its opposites.” (She also notes here that other commentators are wrong to suggest that pistis and apistia are “incompatible in the New Testament as they are not elsewhere.”) Of course, there is not sufficient evidence to claim that the father disbelieved that Jesus could heal his son, though given the chronic nature of the affliction and the fact that the disciples had failed in their attempt, such an attitude would be neither unlikely nor unreasonable. See Morgan (2015), esp. 357 and fn. 40.

  41. 41.

    Audi (2008), 97.

  42. 42.

    For an argument that one can (indeed, must) believe a contradiction (indeed, an infinite number of them), see Sorensen (2001).

  43. 43.

    Howard-Snyder (2013a), 361.

  44. 44.

    See also Malcolm and Scott (2017), p. 269, who argue that pretense for the sake of children serves as a counterexample to Howard-Snyder’s claim. I concur wholeheartedly with their claim there that:

    If treating a proposition that we do not believe as true on the basis of pragmatic considerations is sufficient for faith, why can’t similar considerations lead us to have faith in a proposition that we disbelieve? One may desire that p is true, see the moral advantages of being for p, recognise the social merit in supporting p, and so on, while believing p to be untrue. The resulting positive cognitive attitude can still play a functional role that is similar to belief…Once the belief condition is jettisoned and pragmatic considerations determine the positive cognitive attitudes we have towards various propositions, it is no longer clear why believing in the falsity of p is an obstacle to going along with it.

    They take this to be a problem with non-doxastic accounts of faith, while I take it to be a strength.

  45. 45.

    Howard-Snyder includes indifference in his list of the “enemies of faith,” along with misevaluation, hostility, and faintheartedness. Note that none of these entail or are entailed by disbelief.

  46. 46.

    Laura Buchak has argued for a similar criterion for faith in her “risky commitment” account, which holds that “a subject has faith in some candidate proposition if he is willing to commit to taking risks on the proposition without examining additional evidence.” See her (2017), p. 115. Her account is also similar to mine in that it allows one to pursue long-term projects on the basis of one’s faith commitment without changes in evidence undermining one’s faith. However, my account differs from Buchak’s in several ways, including her emphasis on the rationality of faith (I am concerned here only with its possible compatibility with disbelief), and her requirement that faith be actively resistant to obtaining further evidence insofar as that evidence pertains to one’s action. For example, she says, “Not only do individuals with faith not need further evidence, they will choose not to obtain it if it is offered to them, when their only interest in obtaining it is in how it bears on the decision to act.” (p. 114) I do not consider this a requirement for propositional faith.

  47. 47.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this objection, and the next.

  48. 48.

    Teresa (2007), 192–193.

  49. 49.

    Payne (1990), 75.

  50. 50.

    Audi provides some comments on issues related to this near the end of his (2008), and both Schellenberg (2016) and Bishop (2007) are concerned with the ethical dimensions of faith.

  51. 51.

    Audi (2008), 97.

  52. 52.

    I owe this objection to Daniel Howard-Snyder.

  53. 53.

    Alston (1996), 26.


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Thanks to Michael Wreen, Noel Adams, Stanley Harrison, Nicholas Oschman, Brett Yardley, Alexander Bozzo, Joshua Mugg, and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on previous drafts. I also benefited from discussion of these ideas with those present at the “Perspectives on Faith” graduate conference at Boston College in Spring 2018, where I presented a previous draft. Thanks to those in attendance, especially Daniel Howard-Snyder, Daniel McKaughan, and Elizabeth Jackson.

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Whitaker, R.K. Faith and disbelief. Int J Philos Relig 85, 149–172 (2019).

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  • Faith
  • Disbelief
  • Belief
  • Propositional faith
  • Faith-that
  • Acceptance