Faith vs Religion – Is ‘faith’ becoming a euphemism for ‘religion’?

Britain. 2016. The term ‘religion’ seems to be going out of fashion in the quality press (such as the BBC and The Guardian) and ‘faith’ is taking its place. It’s as if a memo has been distributed to journalists saying: ‘Please keep use of the word ‘religion’ to a minimum. Use ‘faith’ wherever possible!’

For example, some recent headlines from The Guardian:

These Tory messages show us why faith has no place in politics

What are your thoughts on faith groups, society and the state?

UK faith leaders unite to challenge welfare penalties on larger families

And the BBC:

Never Again: Fear And Faith In Paris

France: Fear, Faith and Football

Faith has been synonymous with religion for a long time. But from recently listening to BBC radio, and from reading both The Guardian and BBC websites, I feel that ‘faith’ is cropping up more frequently nowadays and is somewhat displacing the term ‘religion’.

But faith is a poor synonym for religion. ‘Faith’ also misrepresents what religion is, or what religions are. For example, religions are often centrally organised, wealthy, powerful bodies, that have the authority to dictate and enforce ways of thinking and behaving. Religions, in this sense, are top-down bodies (top-down in the sense that leaders and institutions orchestrate a body of followers). It’s no accident that a key definition of religion – the first in the SOED (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) – includes not only a state of belonging, but also what is being belonged to, i.e. ‘a religious order’.

1. A state of life bound by religious vows; the condition of belonging to a religious order, esp. in the Roman Catholic Church. ME.

Faith, by contrast, tends to emphasise the role of the person who is belonging to a religion. Definitions of faith tend to include terms such as confidence and belief, as in this key (i.e. first of seven) SOED definition:

 1. Confidence, reliance, belief esp. without evidence or proof. (Foll. by in.) ME

‘Faith’, much like ‘belief’, suggests a state of being or doing – the noun ‘belief’ easily morphing into the verb ‘believe’. With faith and belief, then, there is some sense of doing, personal agency and choice; we might say ‘I have faith!’, or ‘I hold a belief’, or ‘I believe in…’

So where I have argued, above, that ‘religion’ is likely to connote or at least include an authoritative body (such as a church, or a proper noun such as Christianity), for example, then ‘faith’, by contrast, tends to imply a more bottom-up process of a person believing, doing, acting, or behaving.

The term ‘faith’, by not including the thing that the person has faith in, is somewhat more abstract and neutral than the term ‘religion’. You could, for example, have faith in justice, have faith in your ability to succeed, or quite simply have faith. And in this sense, ‘faith’ already holds many positive connotations in Western culture. A loyal dog will be faithful, for example. ‘Faith’, in this sense, is closely linked to trust and loyalty; terms as equally at home in discussions of personal relationships as they are in religious discourse. But overall, terms at home in modern day language and contemporary Western culture. Positive terms, mostly speaking! The SOED, indeed, also includes a definition of ‘faith’ that is more closely linked to honesty and fidelity than to religion:

 7. The fulfilment of a trust or promise; fidelity, loyalty. ME.

So ‘faith’ in very simple terms, is more likely to be well received in current Western culture than is the term ‘religion’. Religion has many recent negative associations in Western culture, notably in relation to terrorism and child abuse – both of which frequently make headlines in the UK press.

My feeling is that the BBC and The Guardian are trying to take the word ‘religion’ out of things, aware that religion holds so many negative connotations. But surely this is disingenuous, not least because the term ‘religion’ is more apt to describe religion (a tautology I’m prepared to stand by) than is the term ‘faith’. Because, let’s face it, if we take the headlines included at the beginning of this blog and replace the term ‘faith’ with the term ‘religion’, then the titles become clearer and more honest representations of what the issues of the articles actually are. For example:

These Tory messages show us why faith has no place in politics


These Tory messages show us why religion has no place in politics

Makes more sense, doesn’t it?!

You could easily imagine that the headline writer began with the term ‘religion’ and only later tried to replace it with the term ‘faith’. Hence my previous tautology – religion is religion! Religion means religion!

I think my main argument here is that ‘faith’ is becoming a euphemism for ‘religion’. And it is a poor euphemism, partly because faith is not a good synonym for religion.

And I think journalists are being told to give religion an easy time – to take away any negative association with power, authority, reverence etc. The overall effect is that of misrepresenting what religions are, and how the politics of religions work. It actually also serves to efface the whole history of religion, as if religions in some important way do not even exist, and have perhaps never exerted political authority over people. It is as if we are all free agents in what we choose to believe. It’s as if Marx never said that ‘religion is the opiate of the people’. So it’s as if modernist thought didn’t take place.

The move from using the word ‘religion’ to using the word ‘faith’ perhaps also simply represents a brand change. Religion has no doubt become a tarnished brand, whereas ‘faith’ is not yet as heavily sullied.

But if ‘religion’ is such a tarnished brand, then why are the BBC and The Guardian taking it upon themselves to clean the brand? Why this big semiotic leap?! Why didn’t they bother to tell us about it?

The move from the term ‘religion’ to ‘faith’ also represents a subtle change of emphasis, from the body/political/institution to the individual. You can oppose a religion, because you can identify it is a body, an institution, or mode of thought. But can you oppose ‘faith’? How can you oppose millions of individuals? How can you argue with them? How can you argue with faith?


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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