Eric MacDonald on “faith” (the wiggle word)

December 20, 2010

“There is something in this discussion that is so far missing — not altogether, perhaps, but at least in part. The word ‘faith’, besides being a hooray word — and it is that, to be sure — is also a wiggle word. It is used most often in contexts where the diversity of “faiths” would be embarrassing, or where one does not want to bring attention to the fact that there is so much disagreement amongst religious believers, even within the same tradition. After all, as I shall mention again, Blair himself switched allegiances, presumably because he held one set of beliefs more true, or based on more reliable authority, than the ones with which he had grown up.

Looking back over my years as a priest, it seems to me that I used the word ‘faith’ most often when I did not want to come right out and say, “The church is wrong,” or, “This traditional belief of the church simply won’t stand up to serious scrutiny.” And, if you pay attention to the way Blair used the word throughout his debate with Hitchens you’ll see that he uses it both as a wiggle word and as a way of affirming what people who otherwise disagree with each other possess in common, but without any obligattion to tell us what that is. It’s enough that he speaks of faith as something common to all religious believers which distinguishes them from non-believers and makes their lives acts of service to humanity.

‘Faith’ is, in other words, mysterian. It’s like the pomo word ‘hegemony’, that can be introduced into a discursive context without actually saying anything or making any discernible commitments. And it can be used in the same way to speak about all sorts of different contexts, from local groups of people, to international relations. I could use the word ‘faith’ to refer to what I had in common with people who scarcely shared one belief with me, just as Blair used it to refer to what Muslims, Christian, Hindus, Jews and innumerable other ‘people of faith’ shared, that indefinable something that implies, but does not justify, the assumption that they are all working towards a common goal.

But they’re not. This is the important thing that Blair managed to mask throughout the debate, and he wasn’t drawn out by Hitchens’ repeated reminders that religious people share something else in common; namely, very specific beliefs which lack a sound critical basis, and the fact that those beliefs divide religious people from each other more certainly than anything like skin colour, ethnic background, language, and so on. Blair kept emphasising what “people of faith” were accomplishing together (in the few cases in which they were actually successful in working together peacefully) without acknowledging that “faith” divides as much as or much more than it unifies. Had he stepped out of his role as the great unifier, and spoken of the very particular beliefs which had led him to make the jump from one church to another — beliefs, in other words, which functioned as dividers rather than unifiers — the reality obscured by the mysterian word ‘faith’ would have been instantly evident. It’s a wiggle word, a cheat word, that allows people to intimate that religion is about some single, real, identifiable reality, and that religious divisions are merely superficial. But if that were so, Blair need not have jumped church. He could have been as successfully religious as an Anglican as he can be as a Roman Catholic. The word ‘faith’ makes it clear that religion is a game played with smoke and mirrors.”

Eric’s is Comment #18 at


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