Who Cares What You Believe; Where Does Your Fidelity Lie?

05/19/2015 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2016

On May 18, following the recent Pew study, Michael Smerconish and Rachel Held Evans talked about why millennials are leaving churches in greater numbers than previous generations of young people. The word "belief" came up several times during their conversation, as did the idea of mystery. One of Smerconish's staff members also chimed in about taking a "leap of faith" - believing in something even if you can't prove it.

Though the conversation was engaging, I wish we could abolish the words "faith" and "belief" from all future conversations about religion. Defining faith as the opposite of knowledge is precisely why some religious believers still think science is the enemy, and why some New Atheists still think religion is exclusively for idiots. This modernist debate has had its day. Subtle changes in vocabulary could allow for more interesting 21st century conversations.

The modern Western obsession with faith/belief comes mainly from the New Testament as interpreted through Protestant Christianity. The Greek word that is usually translated as "faith" is pistis, but pistis can also be translated as "faithfulness" or "fidelity." (The word "belief" is related - pisteuo - to be faithful to or entrust.) While this may seem a minor change, a different translation can radically shift understanding from passive assent to active embodiment.

As long as belief means "thinking something untrue or unprovable is fact," it will always be the enemy of "knowledge" and "reason" - the gods of our age. But consider the radical newness of John 3:16 in light of such a translation: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever is faithful to him shall not perish but have eternal life." Suddenly this goes from sounding like magic to sounding like a call to action.

Likewise, to say "I pledge fidelity to God" suggests something very different than "I believe in God." The latter requires virtually nothing, while the former implies love, duty, even sacrifice. The New Testament letter of James is utterly unimpressed with simple belief: "Fidelity without works is dead... Show me your fidelity part from your works... You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder" (Jas. 2:17-19). In other words, so what if you assent intellectually to an idea? If you don't actually behave in a way that shows fidelity to that idea, what is the purpose of your so-called faith? (The Quran shares this sentiment, repeatedly admonishing hearers to "believe and do good deeds.")

"Faith" invites ridiculous contradictions, while "fidelity" lays hypocrisy bare. For example, I believe that climate change is caused by humans, but that belief (based on my faith in scientific consensus) is almost worthless. Why? Because while I do aspire to being a faithful steward of my tiny piece of the world, in the end my fidelity to family and career and (let's be honest) comfort win out over my fidelity to the earth's long-term health. I fly on planes, am incessantly on the fossil-fuel-gobbling internet, and consume non-local coffee and water-intensive almond butter. Whereas someone like No Impact Man provides an example of actual fidelity to the cause of mitigating climate change, belief costs very little.

Fidelity is exponentially more difficult and demanding than "faith." Simply agreeing with someone or something as we scan past it on Twitter or TV costs us very little. But fidelity to a life partner is hard. Fidelity to excellence in a sport or the performing arts is hard. Fidelity to veganism is hard. Fidelity to the liberal arts is hard. Fidelity to social justice is hard. And fidelity to a particular religious community or tradition is hard, particularly if it's a minority tradition.

On a public level, substituting "fidelity" for "faith" in our discussions would let us get past the tired faith-versus-science debate (or even the faith-versus-works debate). And on a personal level, all of us could benefit from analyzing our own embodied lives to find out to what or to whom we are authentically faithful.