Faith has been in common usage in English from 14c to denote ‘religious belief’. While the term originally appeared primarily in theological contexts, it came to be used from the 18c to name a confidence in any system of belief, religious or otherwise. Faith was frequently used to contrast that which could not be empirically proven over and against belief systems claiming empirical basis (such as natural philosophy and, from 19c, science, rationalism, or skepticism). In recent years, faith has re-emerged as a polarizing term both in the US and in the UK in debates concerning the proper role of religion in relation to government and other social institutions (as in faith-based initiatives and faith schools).
Faith has historically presented semantic difficulties insofar as it names both (i) what a person believes (a particular belief or creed); and (ii) how she or he believes it (the act of having faithfulness to a belief; credence). In English, this confusion is not present in the term belief, which faith superseded by the end of the fourteenth century. Faith, from OF fei, originally meant ‘loyalty to a person to whom one is bound by a promise or duty’, such as a liege lord or spouse. Thus Chaucer’s Clerk asserts that “Man sholde bere hym to his wyf in feith, in trouthe and in loue” (ca. 1390). In this usage, there was no reference to belief, since it essentially meant ‘fidelity’ or ‘fealty’. However, as etymological descendant of Latin fides, faith began to be used more frequently (particularly in theological language) in 14c to mean ‘the thing believed, a set of propositions regarded as true.’ “Which is thi creance and thi feith?” can be answered: “I am paien [pagan], that other seith” (Gower, 1380).
The Protestant Reformation promoted faith from a theological handmaiden to the central tenet of its reformed worldview; a correlary of this shift was that faith moved from the realm of the public to the private. In the medieval period, an inward faith on its own was seen to be insufficient without benefit of charitable works that could be seen by others: “Feith is deed with outen werkis” (ca. 1380). However, faith would soon go it alone with the advent of the Reformation and the rise of the doctrine of sola fide (‘faith alone’). This doctrine held that salvation arrived through God’s grace, channeled through the faith of the believer. “We are justified,” Luther writes in his Galatians commentary, “not by faith furnished with charity, but by faith only and alone.” Over the course of 16c and 17c, faith migrated from the public sphere—the communal, practiced piety of medieval religion—to something contained within an individual’s breast.
While in the medieval and early modern periods, the opposite of faith was ‘heresy’ or incorrect belief, it also came to be opposed to reason. As the opposite of that which can be seen or touched, faith is often opposed to empirical evidence from its earliest usages. While faith was seen to be superior to reason in early Christian writings (as in Gregory the Great’s oft-quoted homily: “faith has no merit when proved by human reason”), it would come to be denigrated in 19c. The conflict between science and faith took a form still recognizable today in the late Victorian period, where an enlightened ‘science’ was seen to fight a teleological battle against the repressive but slowly receding forces of “traditionary faith” (John William Draper, 1874). Science came to be synonymous with an understanding of the material world and the validity of sensory observation over and against the immaterial world of belief. In so-called ‘conflict theory’, we find a definitive separation of faith from the material world of acts and things that occurred in the Reformation would, in a more empirically-focused age, continue to haunt the social understandings of faith.
In more recent usage, faith has become synonymous not just with religious belief but with irrationalism more generally. ‘Anti-faith’ writings by prominent atheists contend that faith is simply belief without evidence, framing such understanding as a radical and potentially dangerous subjectivism. The inevitability of conflict between faith and science has been countered by writers such as Stephen Jay Gould, who attempt to reconcile faith and ‘science’ by suggesting that they constitute “nonoverlapping magisterial” or mutually exclusive domains that should not be measured with the same criteria. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that faith is what can ‘immunize’ believers against common the feelings of humanity and lead them to martyrdom (1976). The equation of faith with fanaticism is a late 20c usage, one increasingly found in the early 21c, given impetus by global acts of terrorism as well as, in the US, by debates about the validity of evolution and biblical literalism.
Finally, the term’s network of association has broadened in 21c to include conflicts between opposing domains of knowledge in the public sphere. In the US, faith-based initiatives have come to be synonymous with charitable, non-governmental organizations that undertake certain functions previously seen to be the domain of the government and are thus embroiled in debates about the proper relation of church to government: compare “Congress..has swung behind a series of policy changes..which allow federal, state and local funds to flow to faith-based anti-poverty groups” (1998 Newsweek 1 June 26/2); and “George W. Bush's 'faith-based' initiative could be the best, or the worst, new idea of his presidency. The idea is to put God to work solving social problems” (2001 Newsday 1 Feb. A37). In the UK, arguments over the viability of faith schools has become a coded way of arguing about the social and political stakes of multiculturalism: “They have recently joined forces with the Muslims to demand government funding for separate faith schools against the prevailing trend of multi-faith education” (1990 Independent 25 Mar. (Sunday Rev) 44/1); and “In Britain they have also succeeded in obtaining state funding for faith schools - putting them on a par with children from Christian and Jewish backgrounds” (2002 New Internationalist May 27/2). Such usages may suggest that the opposition between faith and science is being superseded by renewed concerns about separation of church and state in a new era of fundamentalism.