What is the Difference Between Belief and Faith?

This week I’m going to post my Wild Goose talk (with a few added bonuses) in written form, in 3 parts—today, Thursday, and Saturday.  Title: The Role of Doubt in Faith. If you’d rather listen to the same talk, then I’ll include those links at the end of this post.  The first of 3 podcasts went up yesterday (Episode 20: What is the Difference Between Belief and Faith?), and the next two will go up on the next two Mondays.  I’ll return here to link to them, once they’re up.

Today we’re talking about the difference between belief and faith.  Is there any difference?  Can you believe and not have faith?  Can you have serious doubts or even unbelief and still have faith?

I began my Wild Goose Festival talk a couple of weeks ago with this question, simply because my topic (doubt in faith) requires definitions that are workable and usable in a conversation.  You may not agree with them, and that’s quite all right.  Mostly, it allows us to be on the same page for the few minutes we’re together.  I’d encourage you to work out your own ideas on this subject.

A side note first.  Faith is not limited to believers.  Even atheists can have faith.  Faith is simply trust in a person, an entity, or an idea.  The most common usage is when it refers to some sort of spiritual trust, so I’ll be using it in that sense here.

You may have heard of the tightrope walker, the Great Blondin, who tightrope-walked across the lower rapids of the Niagara Falls in 1859.  160 feet high.  1100 feet across, from the U.S. side to the Canadian side, on a 3-inch diameter manila rope.  He not only walked across.  He walked on stilts.  He pushed a wheelbarrow with a makeshift stove in it.  When he got to the middle, he cooked himself an omelet, ate it, and continued on.

Each time he reached the bank of spectators watching him, he’d say, “Do you believe I can do it again?”  The crowd would cheer.  “Yes, yes!” they’d cry.  “Do you really believe I can do it…somersaulting?”  Again, cheers.  “I need a volunteer,” the Great Blondin would say.  “Who wants to ride across on my back?”  A hush would descend.  No one ever volunteered, except once, when Blondin’s manager was trying to garner up participation.

This is the difference between belief and faith.  We may have lots of beliefs about how we’re supposed to live our lives, but if we’re not doing it, we don’t have faith.  Think of the sets of values you believe in and compare them to how you live your life.  I may believe that Jesus said to sell all my possessions and give to the poor, but the fact of the matter is that I haven’t actually done that.  I don’t have faith in that area.  End of story.

As you can imagine, your beliefs (whether or not you’re living them) inform your faith.  Your beliefs about who’s included or not included in your group affects how you view an outsider.  Your belief about your place in the world (whether or not you have been singled out for some extra special loving) determines how you behave toward others.  Your belief in an afterlife or some sort of existential reward for good behavior may or may not prevent you from doing something immoral.

You see, beliefs are simple mental constructs, and they can be true or untrue.  We all have come to conclusions about our own existence, based on our personal experiences.  As we age and learn, we take in new information, filter it, and reinterpret it as a new belief.  Examine your life.  Do you hold the same beliefs you did 10 years ago?  I’d be a little concerned if you do.  It means you haven’t learned anything.  It most likely means you’re afraid; you think your beliefs are a life preserver, for just-in-case.

You need not be fearful or shamed about discarding a tenaciously held belief, because it doesn’t hold up to common sense or because it doesn’t fit your view of love or whatever else you have come to know and understand.  That’s how you change, evolve, become a better person.  There are plenty who would disagree with me here, and say that some beliefs require you to forge ahead when your brain has already shut off.  I would disagree.  To put so little trust in your own cognitive abilities and instincts serves no one but yourself.

William Martin’s book A Path and a Practice, based on the Tao Te Ching, includes a deep and meaningful reading called “Direct Experience.”  It refers to our conditioned thinking, our internal beliefs, and our unconditional appreciation, which comes from doing (or our faith).  I’ll include it here, because it introduces a lot of excellent thoughts to ponder.

Talking about a path
is not walking that path.
Thinking about life
is not living.

Directly experiencing life
brings unconditional appreciation
and unity.
Thinking about life
brings conditional judgments
and separation.

Free of conditioned thinking
we experience our true nature.
Caught in conditioned thinking,
we experience only who we think we are.

Yet both our conditioned nature
and our true nature
are part of life itself.
Our conditioned experience of living
is a gateway to unconditional life.

In closing (for today), I want to leave you with a question, which I hope you’ll mull over for a while.  Who would you rather be: a person with lots of belief and no practice (or faith), or a person who might hold very few iron-clad beliefs but practice what they preach?

If given a choice, I would much rather be the latter.  What would you choose?  How do you see belief and faith?  Do you see yourself as growing or do you see yourself as stagnant?  Do you want to make any changes?

3-part podcasts on Wild Goose talk, “The Role of Doubt in Faith.”

July 4, 2011: Episode 20: What is the Difference Between Belief and Faith?

July 11, 2011: Episode 21: What is the Role of Doubt in Faith, Part 1?

July 18, 2011: Episode 22: What is the Role of Doubt in Faith, Part 2?

[Post image: Stained glass abstract by kslyesmith on stock.xchng]


  1. Don Rogers
    Jul 05, 2011

    What a great post!! I took part of it to post on my blog, with credit of course. Thanks for this one.!

    • Elissa
      Jul 05, 2011

      You are welcome, Don. Use away! 🙂

  2. Paul Sunstone
    Jul 05, 2011

    Good post. It seems to me that both beliefs and faiths — to use your terms — have much the same relationship to reality that a map has to its terrain. Moreover, the map/terrain analogy seems compatible with what William Martin is getting at. Believing that something is the case, or having faith that something is the case, would seem to be little different in a way from believing that your map was accurate. But even if you believe that your map is accurate to the point where you can be said to have faith in it, you still are not hiking the trails depicted on the map.

    Would you agree with that?

    • Elissa
      Jul 05, 2011

      Yes, Paul, I would agree. Absolutely! Thanks for another analogy. Perfect. [By the way, I’ve been to your blog. I love the idea of a cafe on the internet!]

      • Paul Sunstone
        Jul 05, 2011

        Thank you for your kind words, Elissa! I fancy we serve the freshest roasted pixels of any cafe on the internet. 😀

  3. […] we’re continuing Tuesday’s thoughts on how belief and faith are oftentimes confused.  It doesn’t matter what faith background you come from (and this includes nonbelievers, as we […]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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