Metacrock (Joe Hinman) recently re-posted an old article on the meaning of faith. The thrust of this article is that when atheists speak about religious faith, they define it as a straw man. They define faith in such a way that it doesn't apply to what Christians actually believe. And by that, Hinman means that we use the dictionary as our source of definition rather than something contrived and approved by theologians as a concept of faith to be used in the indoctrination of Christians. Of course, the theological concept bears no negative connotation whatsoever. If it did, it wouldn't be approved by theologians, whose goal is to cast it in the best possible light. But that says little or nothing about how the term is used in actual discussion, particularly among those of us who aren't apologists for the faith.
Hinman repeats the definition given in Webster's on-line Dicitonary:
1 a : allegiance to duty or a person : loyaltyThe first thing he notes about it is that it actually includes three definitions, and that atheists supposedly ignore that fact. Well, no they don't. Most of us are well aware that the word is used in different ways in different contexts. Definitions 2 and 3 are particularly relevant to religion, but have very different meanings. Definition 2 refers to the way people believe, while 3 refers to the body of beliefs and doctrines that constitute a system of belief. Hinman seems to be confused about this, because he comments that definition 3 is not indicative of all religious faith. Actually, I think it is. It merely serves to identify belief systems, such as the Catholic faith, the Muslim faith, etc. There is nothing controversial about this terminology. Why Hinman or anyone else would take issue with definition 3 is a mystery to me.
b (1) : fidelity to one's promises (2) : sincerity of intentions
2 a (1) : belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) : belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
b (1) : firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) : complete trust
3 : something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially : a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>
The real controversy involves definition 2, which includes the idea that faith is belief without proof. I think it would be more appropriate to say belief without evidence rather than proof. The reason is that very few (if any) of our beliefs, religious or otherwise, are proven. The real gist of the definition is that faith implies belief that is not epistemically justified. And this sense of the word is what most of us actually mean when we talk about the way people hold their religious beliefs. It serves to distinguish epistemically justified (or evidence-based) belief from faith-based belief which may not be epistemically justified. It goes without saying that Christians are outraged by the idea that anyone would say their belief is not epistemically justified. No, they scream. You can't use that definition. That's not what faith means. You are ignorant because you don't use our theologically-approved definition. In Hinman's words:
There's another reason not to let them use Wesbter's, not at all. That's because it's only indicative of popular use and not theological teaching. Because they don't use a technological dictionary atheists make a straw man argument. They are not dealing with the way the teaching authority of Christian theology uses the term "faith." They are only reflecting the general conception, or misconception of faith, apart from Christian teaching. The whole idea of their argument is that Christian teaching accepts faith as belief with no evidence, when in reality there is no such dictum in any Christian teaching.Sorry, theists, but we are speaking the English language here, and I make no apologies for using words in accordance with the dictionary definition, especially if I use the word in the same sense to which this definition applies. You don't get to dictate to me what definition I'm allowed to use. Your own peculiar definition of the word is nothing more than an apologetical attempt to provide an air of epistemic justification to your faith. But that's where we disagree. You think you have justification, and I (and other atheists) contend that you don't. (*)
It's also worth noting that Hinman tries to make a straw man of the dictionary definition. He refers to it several times in his article as "belief without reason". But that's not what the definition says, and it's not what atheists generally claim. Of course Christians have reason to believe. They've been indoctrinated. They find comfort and solace in their beliefs. They think the theistic arguments are convincing. All of these things are reasons to believe, but they do not necessarily constitute epistemic justification. By re-defining the dictionary term, Hinman is creating a straw man that makes it seem as if atheists' use of the word is ridiculous. He can easily shoot down that definition by pointing out that Christians do have reason for their belief. And I would agree with that. But that's not the way atheists define the word. It's not the real issue.
If you consider how Christians use the word faith, you will find that they use the theological definition when it is advantageous to them, especially when disputing the way atheists use it. But they also speak the same language the rest of us do. And they very often use the word in the more commonly understood sense (ie, which fits the dictionary definition), and that undercuts their own argument that atheists misuse it. They use it the very same way. Need proof? How many times have you heard a Christian tell you "nothing can ever make me lose my faith"? Meaning that no evidence will ever sway them. Or this: "I don't have enough faith to be an atheist"? This is intended in a pejorative sense that implies belief without evidence - belief that is not epistemically justified. That's what they think of atheistic belief, and that's exactly the same as what atheists think of their religious belief. So I must ask them, where's the beef?
(*) For an interesting article that takes issue with Christians' justification for religious belief, see Kyle Williams' book review I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be a Christian.