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Religious faith entails action, not just right belief

Faith in anything requires action. We don’t just talk about our faith; we eventually have to step out onto the metaphorical bridge. Think of the ways we act out our faith in the context of relationships: When you trust your partner’s commitment, you don’t snoop through their emails. The same applies to personal safety. If you believe that an airplane will stay aloft in the sky, you board the flight. These daily choices are acts of faith, whether or not we think of them as such.

What about religious faith? Is trust in a divine being or spiritual power more than cognitive belief? To have faith, of course, involves assenting to a set of propositions—but it doesn’t end there. 

Both religious people and those who study the subject argue that faith, when it’s genuine, leads to action. Faith moves people beyond the pews and into embodied practice. Before his death, Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne said in an interview, “Every morning I wake up, I have my doubts. I have my uncertainties. I have to struggle to help my faith grow. Because faith is love.” 

In other words, faith is more than a cozy set of beliefs that insulates religious followers from uncertainty. Faith is love, according to Father Coyne. And love, as poet Christian Wiman writes, “is decidedly active and declares itself.” Both the poet and the priest see faith as something muscular and embodied, requiring ongoing action. 

Vipassana teacher and Buddhist Sharon Salzberg puts it more simply: “In Buddhism faith is a verb. It’s the offering of one’s heart. It’s not a commodity we have or don’t have. It’s something we do.”

Religious practices are as varied as their adherents. People of faith may travel to the confession booth or to Mecca. They may observe dietary rules or meditate or dress in a particular style. But across doctrine and denomination, those who practice (note that operative word, practice) a religious faith consistently move from belief into action.

The know-how of faith

Philosopher Paulina Sliwa argues that religious faith requires a kind of practical knowledge, or “know-how.” People of faith know how to perform certain rituals. And this practical knowledge offers them concrete ways of engaging with the object of their faith. 

Embodying various practices, says Sliwa, teaches believers how to properly orient themselves toward God. Their practical knowledge might involve singing the liturgy, fasting during Ramadan, or embarking on a pilgrimage. Regardless of what form the action takes, believers perform acts of faith because they understand them to be ways of engaging the object of their faith. Jews may choose to eat kosher because they see this as a way to honor God. Catholics practice confession as a way to ask God’s forgiveness.

In his research review on religious belief and practice, Professor Nevin Climenhaga explains how just as we get propositional knowledge from listening to a sermon or other people’s testimonies, we get know-how from observing other believers’ actions. Witnessing and then imitating the religious practices of fellow believers is the key way to gain practical knowledge. Religious practices are important, not just as a way of engaging God or a spiritual power, but also because practicing them builds relevant know-how. In other words, the practice of faith works both ways: with the know-how we can live out our faith, and by practicing our faith we acquire know-how.

Belief or action: what comes first?

Of course, religious faith involves belief. Faith is built on the spiritual and cognitive assent to a set of propositions. Sometimes this takes the dramatic form of a conversion experience; sometimes it’s a slow deepening of trust in God. But faith can’t end with belief alone. A Muslim who does not adhere to any of the five pillars of Islam is not living out their faith. Neither is a Christian who claims to follow Jesus but does not act on Jesus’ call to love their neighbor.

To return to an example of interpersonal faith, a marriage in which no loving actions occur is a loveless marriage, even if the couple claims otherwise. (Wiman again: “Love is decidedly active and declares itself.”) Love, as many wedding ceremonies are fond of reminding couples, is not only a feeling. It is also a choice and a verb. Love manifests itself through action, and is therefore a virtue we can cultivate by acting in a loving way.

Sliwa argues that the structure of faith echoes the structure of moral virtue. Aristotle posited that humans can become virtuous by acting virtuously (whether or not they feel that way): “we become just by doing just actions, temperate by temperate actions, and courageous by courageous actions.” In the same way, we can grow in faith by performing acts of faith. Like other virtues, action follows feeling—but feeling also follows action. “Similarly, since faith is partly a matter of know-how, acquiring faith is a matter of performing acts of faith,” writes Sliwa.

This is an important conclusion both for those who hope to understand faith through study and for those who practice a faith. When we understand religious practices as integral to a believer’s life, we widen our perspective on what faith entails. Philosophers can understand the nature of religious faith “by thinking about what it takes for an action to be an act of faith,” Sliwa writes. And those who want to engage God can look to fellow believers and follow their lead by imitating their actions. This is how we grow in faith: not only by changing how we think, but also by changing what we do.