When Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead” he added a question: “What kind of a sponge does it take to wipe away a whole horizon?” I often ask that question because just in my own lifetime there has been an unprecedented decline in the number of people who go to church regularly and, more recently, an equally unprecedented spike in the number of people who claim to have lost their faith and are now classified under a religious category called “None”.

This latter group (people who when asked about their religious affiliation on a census form answer with the word “None”) has essentially doubled in the last 20 years, and today in Canada and the United States make up more than 30 per cent of the population. The numbers are much the same for western Europe and other secularised parts of the world.

But have these individuals really lost their faith? When they use the word “None” to refer to their religious beliefs they generally explain it with phrases to this effect: “I just no longer believe. It doesn’t make sense to me any more. I’ve lost faith in religion and the Church. I can’t pretend any longer. I’ve lost my faith in those beliefs. I’m not sure whether I believe in God.”

What’s common among all these phrases is the concept of believing or belief: “I just don’t believe it any more!” But is ceasing to believe in something the same thing as losing one’s faith? Not necessarily. It can be one thing to no longer believe in something, but it can be something quite different to lose one’s faith. To cease believing in a set of faith propositions doesn’t necessarily equate with losing one’s faith. Indeed, the loss of one’s belief system is often the condition for a purified faith.

How is belief different from faith? In normal, everyday parlance, to say that we believe something to be true means that we are able to square that truth with our imagination – that is, we are able to somehow circumscribe it imaginatively so that it makes sense to us. Conversely, if we cannot picture how something might make sense then it is a short step to say that it isn’t true. Our beliefs are predicated on what we can square with our imagination and thinking.

But many of the objects of our faith are, in essence and by definition, unimaginable, ineffable and beyond conceptualisation. Hence in the area of faith, to say “I can’t believe this or that” is generally more an indication of the limitation of our imagination and our rational powers than it is indicative of the loss of faith. I believe that we are much more agnostic about our beliefs than we are agnostic about God, and this isn’t a loss of faith.

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