We’re going to do something fun.
On the podcast recently we talked about the new book A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian – a book that makes the argument that “faith” is a “flawed epistemology” and should be rejected in favor of science and reason.
I pointed out on the podcast what I thought Boghossian got right, and what I thought he got wrong. A fan of the book heard the podcast and challenged us to have Boghossian on the show to defend his ideas, so I reached out to him with an invitation for a phone interview. Peter responded warmly, but said he doesn’t give phone interviews and offered to appear on the podcast in person the next time his travels bring him to Chicago. Hopefully we can do that sometime this year.
In the meantime, though, I think his book raises some really good questions that deserve further conversation, so I’m going to cover some of them in more detail here in a series of blog posts. I’ve invited Peter to read these and offer a response, which I’ll post as well.
Why are we doing this? Because just the act of having a conversation with someone who strongly disagrees with you is a valuable exercise. It’s worth the time and trouble.
That in mind… here we go!
First topic – the premise of the book:
“Faith is a flawed epistemology.” Epistemology is the study of “the nature and grounds of knowledge.” Put more simply, an epistemology is a way of knowing.
“My dog can yodel.”
“How do you know your dog can yodel?”
“Because I’ve heard him yodeling with my own ears.”
You’ve just described an epistemology – you’re relying on your sensory experience as a way of “knowing.” Your ears heard yodeling coming from your dog, and, as a result, you now believe the statement “my dog can yodel” is true. You have acquired new “knowledge” through your senses.
That in mind, my first reaction reading Peter’s book was, “Wait – ‘faith’ isn’t a way of gaining knowledge. This entire premise is wrong!”
I wasn’t sure exactly how Peter came to this conclusion until I read the three definitions of “faith” he offers in the book’s glossary:
- Pretending to know things one doesn’t know
- Belief without evidence
- An irrational leap over probabilities
Based on these definitions, I now had at least an idea of how Peter came to label faith an epistemology. Pretending to know your dog can yodel when, in reality, you have no such knowledge, would clearly be “flawed epistemology.” What confused me, though, was where on earth these definitions came from, as they match neither the biblical definition of faith nor common dictionary definitions of the word. According to Webster…
- Strong belief or trust in someone or something
- Belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs
- Firm belief in something for which there is no proof
- A system of religious beliefs
Webster’s 4th usage of the word faith, “a system of religious beliefs,” is simply a synonym for “religion,” as in “the Christian faith” or “the Jewish faith.” That usage isn’t relevant here.
Webster’s 2nd usage – “belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs” – appears to be a subset of Webster’s 3rd usage – “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Firm belief in the existence of God, a belief for which there is no definitive proof, qualifies as Webster’s 3rd usage.
So we can disregard Webster’s 4th usage as an unrelated synonym for religion in general, and his 2nd usage as superfluous, being a subset of the 3rd usage.
This leaves us with two dictionary definitions – “Strong belief or trust in someone or something” and “Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” These two statements summarize the contemporary meaning of the word “faith.” But do they line up with biblical faith? We’ll get to that in a bit.
What about Peter’s three definitions listed above? When I read the first definition (“Pretending to know things one doesn’t know”) to my friend Skye, his immediate response was, “That isn’t faith – it’s fraud.” Obviously there are people who misrepresent facts of all sorts – religious and otherwise, but as far as I know, misrepresentation has never fallen under the definition of “faith.” (Even though people who misrepresent have been among the “faithful,” and articles of religious belief have no doubt been misrepresented.)
Peter’s 3rd definition is interesting. “An irrational leap over probabilities.” In other words, something is highly improbable, but you “take the leap” and chose to believe it anyway. This definition implies that there are also rational leaps over probabilities. What constitutes a rational vs irrational disregard for probabilities is difficult to discern – one might assume whatever information would make an improbable belief rational might also make it less than improbable. In other words, trusting that I can wrap myself in bacon and lie in front of a hungry tiger without being eaten is an irrational leap over probabilities, unless I know this particular tiger is toothless, a vegetarian, or dead. At which point the improbable (my survival) has become probable, and a leap over improbability is no longer needed. So this definition seems, well, weird. Or at least highly subjective. (“We find YOUR improbable belief irrational, while OUR improbable belief is the model of rationality.”)
The definition I really want to focus on is Peter’s 2nd definition – belief without evidence. This definition is immensely popular in atheist circles these days. Richard Dawkins throws out this definition frequently – most recently in an interview with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in late 2013. And people tend to nod along, as if this is what they would read if they popped open any common dictionary. But as we see from Webster, faith isn’t “belief without evidence,” it’s “belief without proof.” It’s only one word, but the difference is huge.
What is faith, in a nutshell? Faith is putting confidence in the representations or claims of someone or something.
Here’s a very simple example:
A chair makes a representation. Makes a claim. By the nature of it’s form, we know when something is presenting itself as a chair, and, therefore, we know what it is claiming.
What is a chair claiming?
“I will support your weight in a seated position.”
There you go. The claim of every chair. “I will not let you fall. You can count on me.” (This is why very modern, avant-garde furniture can be disconcerting. “Wait – is that a chair? Or a sculpture? Am I supposed to sit on that, or just admire it from a distance?” The claims of avant-garde furniture can be frightfully ambiguous.)
A chair is asking us to put confidence in its claims. “Sit on me. No really. I mean it. I’ll hold you up.” And we have to make a decision.
“Do I trust the claims of this chair?”
If I trust the chair, I sit. If I don’t trust the chair, I stand. I vote with my hindquarters. It’s just that simple. And that is faith. Do I have faith in this chair? Will it do what it is claiming it will do?
This is what many contemporary atheists get wrong, and for the life of me I can’t figure out if they’re doing it on purpose or by accident. In other words, are they CONFUSED about faith? Or are they intentionally trying to create a new, false definition? Something easy to argue against?
Here’s what the confusion looks like in practice:
Peter Boghossian gives lectures on these topics, and in one lecture a young audience member commented in the Q&A that he believed Boghossian himself demonstrates faith whenever he gets on an airplane. Peter responded that no faith was required to fly, because we understand the science involved. And this is where I believe Peter is wrong. Why? Because flying on a commercial airliner is about much more than science. Sure, we can understand the science of aerodynamics. We know Boeing and Airbus practice good science and make good planes.
But there is more to the claims being made by an airline than “You can trust in the principle of the airfoil.” Planes rarely crash because of bad science. They crash because of human error. Pilot error. Or poor maintenance. The science of flying tells me a plane is perfectly capable of delivering me to Los Angeles from Chicago without crashing in the Rockies. But science cannot guarantee I won’t die in the Rockies. The science behind flight is EVIDENCE of the potential safety of my next flight, but it isn’t PROOF of the actual safety of my next flight. Every time I set foot in an airplane (or a car, train or even a monorail at Disney World), it may be the last thing I do on earth. That is reality. Every time I cross a street. Lie down on an operating table. Get in a taxi cab. It may be checkout time. The cab careens into the Chicago River. The anesthesiologist makes a tragic miscalculation. I’m struck by a bus. And then flung into the Chicago River, where I sink to the bottom with the aforementioned taxi cab.
For obvious financial reasons, Southwest Airlines wants me on their planes. Wants me to trust them. So they make representations – their planes are safe. Well maintained. Their pilots and crews are well trained and responsible. No one is drunk while overhauling an engine or piloting an aircraft. These are claims made not just by Southwest, but by every commercial airline. But do I know – with CERTAINTY – that these claims are all true?
Of course not.
Through sheer happenstance, my pilot might be hungover for the first time in his entire life. The maintenance guy might have overhauled the left engine right after being dumped by his girlfriend. He might have missed those two bolts showing signs of metal fatigue. Those two really, really important bolts – that almost snapped in half on the leg of the flight right before mine. And now are definitely going to snap during my flight.
Any of these things might be true. But Southwest claims they are not. Southwest claims their planes are well-maintained and well-piloted. They claim I am no fool for trusting them, quite literally, with my life. They ask me to put confidence in their claims.
And if I do, that is faith. That is exactly what faith is, and what faith has always been.
In 1st century Israel, a guy from Nazareth named Jesus made claims about his place and role in Jewish history, and asked 1st century Jews to put confidence in those claims. Just like Southwest Airlines. (Except about Judaism – not aviation. Though a flying Jesus would be fun, too.) Quite a few 1st century Jews put confidence in his claims, and even more didn’t. Some disliked his claims so much they wanted him dead. But those that did put confidence in Jesus didn’t do so in the absence of evidence. They did so BECAUSE of evidence.
When Paul of Tarsus traveled throughout the Greek-speaking world, he asked people everywhere to put confidence in the claims of Jesus. He explained why he thought this confidence was warranted – he defended the claims. This is faith. Could Paul “prove” with certainty that Jesus was who he said he was, and could do what he said he could do? No, he couldn’t. But Paul had personally seen enough evidence to warrant his own confidence in Jesus’ claims, and he sought to help others do the same.
And for some two-thousand years, people around the world have considered the evidence and decided whether or not the claims of Jesus deserve confidence. Whether to put their “faith” in Jesus.
Biblical faith has nothing to do with “belief without evidence.” It has everything to do with “confidence in claims.” And that confidence is never requested without, first, arguing for the validity of the claims. Presenting the evidence.
Now, to be fair, the evidence presented in the New Testament typically isn’t the kind of evidence modern scientists favor – meaning, it isn’t evidence that can be repeated in laboratory experiments, published in papers and peer-reviewed. It tends to be evidence of a historical and/or testimonial nature. Some folks are so scientifically wired they carry strong biases against historical or testimonial evidence. And that’s fine. Rejecting the evidence for the claims of Jesus is perfectly reasonable. Claiming there is no evidence is much less reasonable.
Then there’s Hebrews 11:1, a verse often quoted as a sign of the “weirdness” of biblical faith.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (ESV)
Due to the poetic wording, some atheist critics have dubbed this verse a “deepity,” slang for fancy-sounding statements that don’t actually mean anything. (Deepak Chopra is hailed as the “king of deepities,” and it’s hard to disagree with that assessment.)
Does Hebrews 11:1 align with the meaning of faith we’ve been promoting, or is it a semi-mystical “just believe and it is true” deepity? Back up and look at the context. The author of Hebrews is listing characters from Old Testament accounts who displayed great faith. Specifically, people to whom God had made promises (such as Abraham), who then relied on those promises even though they hadn’t yet come to pass. In other words, they put confidence in the representations made by God. This is EXACTLY how we’ve been defining faith – just swap out “chair” or “Southwest Airlines” for “God.”
In some manner (we aren’t told exactly how), God communicated to Abraham that IF he left Ur and followed God, God would bless him in certain specific ways. In whatever form it was that God showed up, it was enough to convince Abraham that A) this was a supernatural entity talking to him, and that B) this supernatural entity had the ability and the intent to bless him if he left Ur. So Abraham put confidence in the claims of God. He put his FAITH in God. And he left Ur.
And this is exactly what Hebrews 11:1 is referring to – NOT believing in things we will NEVER see, but rather, believing in things we haven’t seen YET. Specifically, promises of God that haven’t yet come to pass. The “representations” of God.
That is faith, as described in the Bible. It is also faith as described in Webster’s dictionary.
So here’s a big question then:
If the Bible and Webster agree on the definition of faith, why are folks like Richard Dawkins and Peter Boghossian promoting a completely different definition?
My hunch is this: They have interacted with Christians who, when pushed on a question they are unequipped to answer, resort to playing the “faith card” as an intellectual defense. In other words…
“How can you believe the Bible is true when it’s filled with contradictions?”
“Um… contradictions? What contradictions?”
“Here – look!” (Any of a myriad examples of apparent contradictions from The Skeptics Bible or other sources.)
(Befuddled Christian, facing new information.) “Um… well… gee…”
(Long, intellectually awkward pause.)
“I take it on FAITH!!”
In cases like these, “faith” is actually being used as a way of “knowing” – as an epistemology. So in these cases, Boghossian is correct.
My point is that these are instances of the word “faith” being misapplied as a sort of intellectual spackle to cover holes in one’s knowledge. “I don’t have an answer for that question, and I don’t like how that feels. I’m going to appeal to ‘faith’ and spackle my way out of this scary situation.” Lob the word “faith” like a hand grenade and run for the car.
This is not biblical faith. Faith is not an appeal to blind belief in order to avoid facing tough questions. This usage of “faith” is not intellectually honest.
The honest answer would be to say, “You know, I don’t have a good answer for that question. You raise a good point. Let me do more reading on that subject and then I promise I’ll get back to you!”
The problem is, most of us don’t WANT to do more reading on a new subject. We’d rather watch TV and play fantasy football. Intellectual reading is HARD – it reminds us of school – and most people are glad they’ve graduated and don’t have to do that sort of thing anymore.
Atheists often criticize Christians for being incurious. And there is definite truth to this accusation. But rather than saying most Christians are incurious, I would zoom out to say most PEOPLE are incurious.
It is probably true to say the average atheist is a more curious person than the average Christian, at least in America. But this is true at least partly, I believe, because “Christian” is the default state most Americans are born into. Basic Christian beliefs are inherited by most Americans, like exceptionalism or a taste for fatty foods. In other words, it takes no curiosity at all to grow up Christian in much of America. It’s like growing up capitalist. It’s in the water. Rejecting capitalism – or Christianity – takes more effort than not. Truly rethinking Christianity in big parts of America is partly a result of possessing enough curiosity to examine the claims of the culture around you. Of all the people who do that, some will remain Christian, and some will not. The people lacking that curiosity will generally stay right where they were born, which, in big parts of America, means they will remain incuriously Christian for life.
One day, probably not too far out, areas of America will be so thoroughly atheist that we will start bumping into a new creature – the incurious atheist. The “nominal” atheist. The “cultural” atheist. And that new creature can then be startled by unexpected questions for which they have no easy answers, and will either reconsider their non-beliefs, or fall back into a defensive posture and play the “faith” card.
“I just don’t believe, that’s all. It’s the way I was raised.”
What an interesting day that will be.
Faith is the act of putting confidence in the claims of someone or something. Faith is not belief without evidence, it is belief without proof.
In this light, it appears, to me at least, that the premise of Peter Boghossian’s book is false. Faith is not a flawed epistemology, because it isn’t an epistemology at all. It is simply the act of placing confidence in a claim or representation, based on some varying degree of evidential support. It isn’t a way to “know,” it is a way to ACT in the absence of certainty.
Finally, though I believe Dawkins, Boghossian and others are misdefining faith, I believe some Christians may be guilty of the same mistake, playing the “faith card” to avoid the discomfort of difficult questions and the hard work of thoughtful responses.
Playing the “faith card” is a lazy man’s defense. We should always do the hard work. Face tough questions. Admit what we don’t know. Then do the work of finding satisfactory answers, or, if there are no satisfactory answers to be found, honestly admit the need to rethink our beliefs. One thoughtfully curious Christian is more beneficial to the church – and the world – than 10 glibly incurious ones.
I assume I’ve made at least a few errors in my thinking here, so I’m hoping Peter Boghossian has time to respond and help me out.
Next we’ll take a look at some of the sample “interventions” – actual conversations Peter has had with religious folk – and see if there are legitimate, thoughtful responses to the valid questions he raises.
I look forward to this series – thanks for undertaking it.
I do think the most important facet of faith is what you’re discussing here. And that is always an interesting discussion with an atheist – “what about my experience of God?” Their response is either a polite or rude claim that this is a delusion. Maybe neurochemical, maybe just my gullibility.
But faith is a way of knowing also. If asked, I’ll say that I believe in the Resurrection of the Body. But I have no idea how it could work. Because I have verified and relied on other aspects of the bible, I’m willing to take it on faith. Maybe “belief” is the way to capture this. Being honest, much of what I believe is belief as opposed to tested.
Belief is worth discussing for atheists because the faithful will act on it, powerfully and forcefully.
By coincidence -maybe – Skye’s most recent post on interpreting scripture contained a reference that has a significant passage on this: The Younger Evangelicals by Robert E. Webber (Chapter 5).
Webber writes about ‘Younger Evangelicals’ way of knowing and refers to previous evangelicals turning faith into the bible as the proof which causes faith. It struck me that this is a lot of what the new atheists argue against.
Yes, but “faith” isn’t how you learned about the Resurrection of the Body. Your faith is the confidence you put in that doctrine. Your source of the knowledge is Scripture – revealed truth. So Scripture is the source of the knowledge – faith is the confidence you invest (or not) in that knowledge, right?
I see your point, but that’s a limited view of epistemology. I would not not “know it” (oh how I hate using quotes there) were it not for faith, but faith is not how I first came across it. Knowing something some philosophers say is meaningless apart from belief it is true. Once you internalize an idea, you know it. Why would I internalize something as crazy as resurrection of the body? Only belief in the inspired nature of scripture. (Ephesians 4, maybe.) I think Boghossian’s arguing against faith as a reason for knowing rather than faith as a mechanism for discovering, though I haven’t read his book so I’m going by what you have related of it.
scripture is unverifiable so your premise fails 🙁 You can’t claim “knowledge” from an anonymous text source. That’s not how knowledge works.
“You can’t claim “knowledge” from an anonymous text source. That’s not how knowledge works.”
The fact that you don’t like the knowledge being claimed doesn’t give you the ability to suddenly define the terms of knowledge as disqualifying what it is with which you disagree. That’s as lazy an approach as people who are obviously angry at God resorting to atheism in an attempt to cut the legs out from under their personal responsibility to universal morality.
Scripture is not “anonymous”. There are actually only a few books we aren’t completely sure about who wrote them. There was, in fact, very strict requirements every book had to fulfill in order to be included into what we call the “canon” (you should watch Phil Vischer’s What’s in the Bible? Vol. 1). There are many historical texts we accept as sources of “knowledge” that are used in schools, especially college, that have as much if not more doubt about the certainty of who wrote them. That’s what happens when a text is thousands of years old, it becomes more and more difficult to verify those details. We don’t, as a society, reject these texts on this basis only. So, why would we reject Scripture?
Back when I was studying and had to write theses and dissertations, we were required to give a “defence” of our findings, i.e. be questioned by a panel of experts on what we wrote. The Catholic church has the Confirmation ceremony when kids are 10 or 11 to formally enter them into the church.
Perhaps we should combine the two. You may only call yourself a Christian (or term of your choice) after you have given a defence of your faith before, say, the congregation. You will have to answer any questions raised by anyone in the room, and if your Pastor is tough, he’ll invite a few rabid atheists along (:-)). Of course, as with Confirmation, there will be a period of learning beforehand (hopefully not just book learning, but a real encounter with God) to prepare you for your “trial”. That way, we may not get more curious Christians, but at least less . . . indifferent Christians!
Interesting idea, except that it’s not at all Biblical. Someone being able to understand and defend their faith is not a requirement for being a Christian. What Phil is arguing is that these “thoughtfully curious Christians” would be “more beneficial”, which I agree with. However, someone being incurious about their faith does not disqualify them from it. Not in this instance, anyway. The only “requirement” scripture lays out is to believe. Jesus also greatly exalts the childlike faith, which is both curious but also very accepting. Children are naturally curious, but also believe what they are told if the ‘evidence’ makes sense to them and it comes from a source they trust. For example, this is why so many young children believe in Santa Claus -because a trustworthy source, usually their parents, told them it was true, and managed to offer somewhat acceptable answers to any questions raised. Anyway, I’m just saying that there will most likely be many ignorant Christians in heaven. They only have to believe, they don’t have to offer any defense for their belief. Refusing to accept someone into the body of Christ because they have no defense for their faith would be overstepping our bounds, it is not up to us who gets accepted, it is up to God. We accept and love each other because that is our job. Judging each other, in fact, is forbidden and frankly, unhelpful. Challenging each other to grow and be more educated is great, but what you are describing sounds quite different.
I think that “interesting day” is no longer future. It seems common to find those who are more confident of what they do not believe than what they do. It does create a new age for conversation, though, which I think is exciting.
To follow this flawed criticism requires one to already be sympathetic to his point. To start with, a chair makes no claim at all. We as the user make a decision weather or not we see it fit to hold us. If anything, it is us who project the claim on to the chair. To make the comparison of the airline to God is absurd. First of all, no airline makes any guarantee of safety, if they did they wouldn’t carry insurance. No one I know believes that any form of travel is guaranteed. This has nothing to do with faith. We look at the risks, see how they have been mitigated and then make choices. Faith in the bible as evangelicals see it requires a sever amount of faith. To speak of the dead being raised to life and to make claims of God being made human are about as extreme as you get. No one can prove these things. No amount of archaeological evidence and no amount of historical records can. Its not the contradictions in the bible that are the issue. There are loads of pieces of literature that have as little contradictions as the bible does and that doesn’t make them infallible nor the work of God. The problem I think a lot of atheists have with people who claim faith is that those people claim also to have the truth. In addition to claiming the truth they claim others faiths to be false. No one has proof so faith becomes a mute point. I like Christians, and I believe that Jesus’s message is as good as a way to live as we’ve got. I agree it comes down to how we “ACT”. Acting, however, has nothing do with faith.
Sure it does…
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” James 2:26
I work in campus ministry on the campus he teaches at in Portland. These are helpful thoughts to bring clarity to his arguments.
Before placing confidence in a claim, one must first assert that claim, therefore faith is an epistemology. And deciding that claim is true in absence of proof is pretending to know more than one can. That’s the definition of a flawed epistemology : choosing to believe despite having no reason to believe other than wanting to believe. In other words, faith is not wanting to know what is true, but instead wanting to be true what one doesn’t know.
While your blog is readable and non-adversarial, please not that you’ve only addressed the etymology of the word “faith”, and nothing beyond.
You have not examined the epistemology of those things you, or others, traditionally, hold faith in. You have not examined your faith’s epistemology, which is what the book is an evidence based discussion upon.
This was very disappointing when you consider your obvious ability in crafting metaphor. So, please move beyond the etymology to the epistemology, dear sir.
You’re right, Jake. I’ll get to some of the specific “intervention” topics next. I just wanted to start with Bogghossian’s definition of “faith.”
pearls before swine
the important part of the passage isn’t what the swine do to the pearls, it’s what inevitably comes after
Thanks for the thoughtful post, that was a very interesting perspective. I’d disagree on your treatment of the airplane question however: the physical sciences are not the only evidence we have that it can be a reasonable act to step foot on a plane, we have statistics to help us with that decision. That does not correspond to any of the definitions for faith that you quoted, in particular #3: we have proof that the probability of a crash is so vanishingly small that no leap over probabilities is necessary. We are relying on empirical data and knowledge here, not faith. Now in the case of early Christians, it’s a different matter. First, you seem to assume that the Bible is reliable historical evidence, and you seem to be conflating the faith of early Christians, as related in the New Testament, with that of contemporary Christians. If early Christians really saw what they saw (and we only have the Bible to trust on that), then they knew they had seen seemingly miraculous events, they weren’t acting on faith: they were either mistaken, or they had knowledge of those events. Now when you trust that those events happened and that they really were miraculous, you are making several leaps of faith (and probabilities multiply): the Bible reliably reports what those people said or whether those people existed, and that these people weren’t lying, mistaken, or duped. Now we can talk about probabilities and who’s leaping over them: what is the most probable? That this tenuous chain of trust was broken somewhere, or that the laws of physics really were suspended?
Well said Bertrand! Well said indeed!
The simple fact that Atheism is being discussed all over the internet and the world is waking up millions to the possibilities that come in a world without superstitions and unprovable beliefs. Freedom from a fictitious belief in a heaven or hell. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sun shinny day.
So true, Atheism brought a bright, bright sun shinny day to the Soviet Union and Communist China. Having what you believe is fact does not guarantee that you will act in a rational or benevolent way. Atheism is a “religion” or belief system in itself and is made up of people who make bad decisions and try to justify their actions by their beliefs. The potential to use you beliefs for dangerous and, in the end, wrong objectives is just as strong in Atheism as any other belief system. If you can find a way in you beliefs to “reason” that it is okay, then you will act on it if you see a benefit to “your own kind”, no matter what the consequences to others are. Don’t be sold on the idea that Atheism has a better outcome potential than other belief systems. Social Darwinism as a logical extension of Atheism just means destroying the weak and those that are different to advance the strong who have a “right” under nature to grow.
Atheism is not a religion.
Actually this is one of the topics covered in chapter 2 of Peter’s book – what the word atheist means: an atheist is someone who doesn’t have faith in a creator of the universe. That’s it. That’s all the word means. There are no necessary common beliefs, no structures, the only thing any two atheists need have in common is not believing in any of the 10000 religions.
Also evolution by natural selection is not the triumph of the strong overt the weak, nor necessarily overtly competitive, as in the case of humans; we are evolved to be socially cooperative and altruistic.
Use of evidence based reasoning has a much better outcome potential that faith – would you trust a doctor who didn’t examine your symptoms or ask appropriate questions before coming up with a diagnosis?
amazon.caPV, your definition of faith above seems to boil down to “belief without reliable evidence”. You admit that your evidence is historical and testimonial. As such, I submit that it is essentially worthless and cannot be taken as reliable evidence. For centuries it has been known that people construct, confabulate, lie, exaggerate, and misremember events. The lexical evidence internal to the bible supports the hypothesis that later versions of the Biblical stories were instances of all the above means of processing stories of events which were told years to centuries earlier. Recent studies in neuroscience show just how unreliable human memories are even absent any attempts to deceive.
Dr. Richard Carrier’s excellent book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism ( http://www.amazon.ca/Sense-Goodness-Without-God-Metaphysical/dp/1420802933 ) explains in extremely well documented detail (30% of his book consists of external references backing up his theses) how the Christian religion evolved from a heretical cult which ultimately split from Judaism. He painstakingly shows how evidence drawn from a thorough reading of the texts which eventually were revised, re-written, and assembled into what is now known as The Bible. In the process, he shows tonnes of lexical evidence that none of it can reasonably be considered the work or inspiration from some kind of superhuman being. Richard’s historical evidence is many orders of magnitude more reliable than simply deciding to believe the third or more-hand assertions of people like Paul and later writers of books of the bible.
Peter Boghossian’s definitions of faith are de facto true regardless of how you would like to play with them. The bottom line is that religious people believe what they are taught to believe (often under threat of eternal, inescapable torture for failure to believe) despite the most reliable available evidence and by favoring the least reliable evidence over all other evidence. Unreliable evidence can and should be accorded the credibility it deserves (ie none).
Your deconstruction of his argument is intelligent and was interesting to read, but Peter’s notion of ‘flawed epistemology’ still rings very true . Religion to me and by religion, I mean all faiths, present themselves and their stories as revealed wisdom. Is faith in a god, or gods not the zenith of knowledge itself? Why we are here, what our purpose is, why life exists in the first place? Doesn’t belief and especially belief in a monotheist context, provide the believer with the ultimate knowledge?
Oh, and one more thing: you don’t have to wait for a godless America to see incurious atheists: Europe is full of them.
Great post, sir. I am an atheist and “follower” of Peter. Ideas and conversations that challenge my position are always welcome, so I guess you could say I’m a curious atheist. You do well in not generalizing or making assumptions and for that I thank you.
I look forward to the responses and the rest of your series.
Hey, great post (and I say that as an atheist in Peter Boghossian’s camp). I particularly enjoyed the point you made about the lack of curiosity in many Christians and the potential lack of curiosity in future atheists. The future may even be now. I’m sure you have encountered the atheist hand grenade and the other side of the faith coin, the Invisible Pink Unicorn. I think this taps into something that I’ve been concerned about for a long time now; the lack of critical thought with regard to positions that many people maintain incorrigibly. I think this is an important issue that anyone on any side of any –ism should be concerned about.
John, I wouldn’t say that your experiences with God are delusional at all. But, if you’re talking about certain feelings that you have that you deem to be imbued to by God have, then I would wonder whether or not other people of other faiths experience those types of feelings. I think the answer is “yes”. This means that it certainly isn’t delusional, but a product of human biology. It would be very confusing for people if God was imbuing everyone with these special types of feelings that serve to reaffirm their faith regardless of what brand of faith they are practicing. But if you are talking about experiences that are direct mental or physical interactions with God, well, that’s something else entirely and I think that would have to be addressed based on what those unique experiences are.
This was an interesting read!
I’ve always found the arguments against religious belief claiming that most religious people don’t rely on evidence relatively weak. Although I have met religious people that have claimed they just “know” despite a complete lack of evidence, I have also met people claiming that subjective experiences and the bible is the evidence they rely on for their belief in God. The problem here is the lack of critical evaluation of evidence. If non-objective evidence and relatively poor historical accounts for events are used to ground one’s belief there is still some form of epistemology behind this. This epistemology, resembling empiricism, is flawed in its lack of critical analysis of evidence.
In Sweden, where I live, there are plenty of athiest fitting your description of “nominal” atheists. I am an athiest because of my scepticism and critical thinking but I have met plenty of atheists that actually have no refined answer against faith. They’ll gladly believe in conspiracy theories and oppose vaccines/GMO food without any evaluation of the claims.
Valiant effort but you better reread your Bible. You said biblical faith is believing something for which you have no “proof” (vs peters use of evidence)
If you turn to heb 11:1 it clearly asserts that your visualization of a contorted odd-looking chair is wrong. “Now faith is confidence in what WE HOPE FOR and assurance about what WE DO NOT SEE.”
Simply put if you could not see the chair would you still have faith it would be there and hold you up? MOST LIKELY NOT.
And again, after the resurrection when Jesus appeared in the upper room Thomas said “led let me touch your wounds that I may know (have assurance) that it is you. ” And Jesus replies. ….”blessed are you Thomas for you have seen and believed, but blessed are they who have NOT SEEN AND BELIEVE… see heb 11:1
Faith is not faith if you have knowledge (see the chair /touch the wound)
Boghossian hit this one square on the head. Why do you shy away from the how that is within you? Would you like Peter deny your god to save face? The cock is crowing. …..
Hi Center4Reason! (Is that your real name, or are you writing under an alias? It’s catchy.)
When Jesus says “blessed are they who have not seen but still believe,” he’s reacting to the folks who want “signs and wonders.” In other words, “do another neat trick for us – like healing people or walking on water. THEN we might believe you’re the Messiah.” Jesus is saying, “Can’t you just believe based on what I’ve been teaching you all this time? What I’ve said? What the prophets predicted? Why must you always ask for physical ‘proof’?”
He’s repeating that sentiment from the crowds earlier in this scene with Thomas. “All right… touch my side. Check the scars for yourself, if you really don’t trust what I’ve been saying all this time.”
And in Hebrews, the context is very specifically stories of people who had a promise from God that they hadn’t seen come true YET, but they trusted that it would. This isn’t about belief in the “invisible.” It’s about trust in representations that hadn’t yet physically taken place or manifested. It’s about taking Jesus at his word (Thomas) and taking God at his word (Abraham).
Hope that helps.
When you stated <<>>
I would point out that you have added a multi-dimensional explanation that just isn’t there. No one asked for “signs and wonders” there wasn’t a crowd chanting “encore encore!” You are misrepresenting the text. Context is everything…..so lets get contextual shall we?
Situation: John 21:19-31
Problem: Thomas LACKS FAITH, ASKS FOR PROOF. (heb 11:1- faith is believing in things hoped for)
Solution: Jesus gives Thomas the proof he asks for and Thomas worships jesus.
Lesson: Jesus replies,……. Blessed are you for BELIEVING AFTER SEEING THE EVIDENCE ((((but))) Blessed are they who have not seen and believe (heb 11:1- faith is believing in what we have not yet seen)
You have very craftily played with the words and added to the situation something that just isn’t there. Thomas wasn’t asking for “signs and wonders”….he knew jesus had been nailed and stabbed and he wanted to make sure that the personage in front of him bore those marks. That is just being rational in a situation ripe for irrationality. He wasn’t willing to jump up and accept without presentation of reasonable evidence.
What jesus replied to him was “blessed are you, Thomas…..but blessed are those who have faith (believe without seeing)
The illustration of faith vs. evidence aligns perfectly with the definition provided in Heb 11:1. Furthermore, if you continue on to verse 2, it tells us that more examples may be found by reading about the “men of god in days of old”. Verse 3 tells us that “by faith we believe that the world was created by god”……you weren’t there, you didn’t see it happen but you take it on faith…..(again refer to verse 1- faith is believing what we cannot or have not seen)
Verse 4….by faith abraham took his son isaac up on the hill to sacrifice him not knowing beforehand that god had another plan the whole time. If Abraham had seen this alternate plan before acting, there would have been no need for faith.
Faith is acting without seeing…… ie: an invisible chair
knowledge is acting upon what you DO SEE….. ie: a visible chair.
Thus, we can clearly see that faith, AS Boghossian correctly stated, is….
1. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know (claiming that massive evidence exists that authenticates jesus as a real historical person)
2. Belief without evidence (pretending to know that it is jesus without seeing the wound marks)
3. An irrational leap over probabilities (saying “god will provide a way – when he hasn’t said that he will…..abraham/isaac)
No fancy word-dance is going to get you there. Not even if you add flowery situations to the text that just aren’t there.
CORRECTION TO ABOVE POST: the “<>” was supposed to include the following quotation.
sorry for the mistake
Phil your program keeps deleting my quotation!!! (oh bother)
When Jesus says “blessed are they who have not seen but still believe,” he’s reacting to the folks who want “signs and wonders.” In other words, “do another neat trick for us – like healing people or walking on water. THEN we might believe you’re the Messiah.”
When Jesus fulfilled Thomas’ need for physical evidence, Thomas subsequently worshipped Him (in John 20:19-31). That historical evidence is presented to you via the Scriptures. God knew there would be an insatiable desire for physical evidence from many who would not have the benefit of being an eyewitness. And since He provided that evidence, will you not believe then?
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jn 20:29
I believe you are taking things out of context here. Much like many things that belong in a group, scripture should very rarely be referenced without the context of what is around it. The context of Heb. 11:1 is that all of these acts of people that at the time seemed dangerous, stupid, or unnecessary ultimately became important because they trusted in God through faith. Also bear in mind that Hebrews was a letter that was meant to be read by people that had already placed their faith in Jesus Christ, meaning that it was unnecessary to define what faith looks like. Rather look at Heb. 11:1 as a testament as to what faith brings, not was faith starts with. In the Contemporary English Version, Heb. 11:1 is “Faith makes us…” this is not proclamation as to the origin of faith, but is a testament as to what faith results in. As you read further in Heb. 11, you see that each example given is followed by the result of the individuals faith. In other words, Heb. 11:1 does not claim “Faith is being hopeful in what we want and truth to what you do not know,” but instead states that “faith gives us hope in what we have been promised and gives us certainty in what we have not received.” As to the case with Thomas, remember that Thomas was one of the twelve apostles and therefore granted access to Jesus and the truth that only the apostles were allowed (Mat. 13:10-17). Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that you are only creating a straw man of Phil’s argument and not fully researching what you are claiming.
And you are not playing with words also, right?
No way! Not me! 🙂
in my experience, prayer has a 50/50 success rate AT BEST. slightly better if doctors and scientist throw in an assist. if planes had the same track record NOBODY would fly. I’ve sadly been let down by a chair, yet without injury.
I agree with Boghossian that “faith” is a not very well understood term, even by Christians. I often have to clarify for other Christians that “faith” almost never means “assenting to a set of propositions”. I think that “trust” is the best one-word rendition of the meaning of the word ?????? (in contexts where it doesn’t mean “faithfulness”, which it can).
I saw James Lindsay’s challenge to you on Twitter to “Boghossify,” by which he means to replace the word “faith” in Christian documents such as the pope’s recent encyclical with some variation of the Boghossian phrase “pretending to know something one doesn’t know.” It’s interesting that Lindsay specifically says that “trust” and “hope” are “inaccurate” definitions of faith. I think this is because Lindsay is completely sold on understanding “faith” as an epistemic claim as opposed to an existential commitment.
At some point, doesn’t “Boghossifying” become an exercise in Mad Libs? I suppose Lindsay could substitute “fictional judgmental magician” for the word “God” in the encyclical, too. What exactly would that prove? Sure, you can substitute what you claim the author really means (or should mean), but how will you know if you are changing the meaning? If I take some political speech and replace every occurrence of “capitalism” with “the economic system that my donors can unfairly get rich under”, I can probably produce a text which has some coherence, but it would be a leap of pure polemics for me to claim that I had thereby “clarified” the speech.
Apparently, this commenting system doesn’t like UTF-8 characters… That should say, the word “pistis” (in Greek characters), not “??????”.
First let me say I enjoyed your article and your website is superb. I am not a philosopher, nor was I indoctrinated from a young age into any particular religion. I require evidence in proportion to the credulity of any claim I come across. I am also happy to change what I believe if you can present reasonable evidence.
Some issues I have with your arguments:
1. Let’s be blunt. The faithful ARE defrauding themselves of knowledge. How many motives can you come up with for doing this to oneself? Surely, as a Christian, you admit that Muslims are defrauding themselves of knowledge with their blind faith.
2. Consider “faith”:
“‘An irrational leap over probabilities.’ In other words, something is highly improbable, but you ‘take the leap’ and chose to believe it anyway. This definition implies that there are also rational leaps over probabilities…”
This definition does not imply any such thing. This is a semantic trick with language to create a nonsensical statement, and then use that to try and obfuscate the original statement. If you had to use an adjective to describe a “leap over probabilities” what would you choose? I used “blind faith” in point one above, does that imply there is such a thing as “non-blind faith”? Peter’s original statement stands.
3. Consider “proof” and “evidence”:
“But as we see from Webster, faith isn’t ‘belief without evidence,’ it’s ‘belief without proof.’ It’s only one word, but the difference is huge.”
Says who? Again not true. You’re playing with words again and have conveniently not provided the dictionary definitions of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’. Check the Google definitions. Also imagine a detective interchanging the words within a sentence.
What I think you’re trying to say is that we can never know anything to 100% certainty and therefore we already demonstrate “faith”. However there’s a big difference between PROPORTIONING belief with the evidence at 1%-99% certainty (which isn’t faith) and ABSOLUTELY believing something with NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER.
4. Consider your definition of faith:
“Faith is putting confidence in the representations or claims of someone or something.”
Not true. By your own argument, Faith is putting confidence in the representations or claims of someone or something for which there is NO PROOF (you correct this in your final summary). How much proof do you require that a chair will hold your weight if the chair is declaring itself as a chair? You’ve got eyes haven’t you. Is it made of wood or paper? Are you overweight? Have you sat on a chair before? What’s the likelihood one needs faith to trust that a chair will hold you up?
Yes faith and trust are not the same. Again look up Google definitions. I expect you to reply highlighting that both are synonyms for each other. Now go look up the definition of a ‘synonym’.
5. “Peter responded that no faith was required to fly, because we understand the science involved…But there is more to the claims being made by an airline than ‘You can trust in the principle of the airfoil.'”
I think there is some confusion here. Peter is stating that he does not require faith to know that the plane will almost certainly get off the ground – obviously you will concede this point when it’s made clear. However you’re stating that passengers demonstrate SOME LEVEL of faith in the multiple factors that determine whether a plane will complete it’s journey safely. Again not true. Every informed passenger boards the plane with the knowledge that they may not arrive at their destination safely. Blind faith is no-where to be found. It’s a case of mitigated risk.
Yes, but I don’t think people get stressed about flying because they wonder if the plane will leave the ground. I think they get stressed because they fear they will die in a fiery crash somewhere along the way. Some people absolutely refuse to fly – they will not put their faith in air travel. No “confidence or trust” in it. That appears to be the correct usage of the word, at least according to Webster. That’s all I’m arguing for in this post. If I say “I’ll hold your wallet for you and I won’t take anything out of it,” you have to decide whether to trust my representation. If you put confidence in what I have pledged, that is the definition of “faith” we’re discussing. If you leave and then return to discover I have in fact done what I said, you now have the ‘proof’ of my claim. Now no faith (confidence in my claim) is necessary, because you have the proof in your hand. Your wallet. Untouched. Does that make sense?
You raise some good points – thanks for taking the time to comment.
This does indeed promise to be an interesting series.
For those not perhaps not so familiar with the book, this article appears to deal primarily with content from chapter 2.
Chapter 2 is split into 2 parts, the first deals with the meanings of the terms “atheist”, “agnostic”, and “faith”, and disambiguation of “faith” from “hope”
The basic idea of the definitions appears (to me at least) to based on the observation that as used “in the street” the word faith is accorded a much higher truth value than confidence or trust or hope, and that it is used in place of, or in spite of, evidence.
The second part deals with faith as an epistemology. The reason for regarding faith as an epistemology is because it is used as one – it produces knowledge claims which are used to interpret the world, and influence decisions and interactions.
I’d like to (attempt to) expand a little (a very little) on the basis of the line of reasoning in the article stemming from dictionary definitions.
What does the word “proof” mean?
From the Oxford English Dictionary (in my parochial English way I tend to prefer the OED, and anyway I don’t have a Websters to hand)
1 evidence or argument establishing a fact or the truth of a statement
2 Printing a trial impression of a page, taken from type or film and used for making corrections before final printing.
3 [mass noun] the strength of distilled alcoholic spirits, relative to proof spirit taken as a standard of 100: [in combination]:powerful 132-proof rum
4 a test or trial of something.
5 Scots Law a trial or a civil case before a judge without a jury.
Number one being obviously relevant here.
So faith is: Firm belief in something for which there is no evidence or argument establishing it as true.
(from Webster 3)
Interestingly in the OED definition of faith number 1 is subtly different from Webster, as follows:
1 complete trust or confidence in someone or something
quite a different meaning from just trust or strong belief – complete trust or confidence would mean not checking (or ignoring if drawn to attention) relevant evidence (or lack thereof).
So, I submit that, compared to these two dictionary based definitions, “pretending to know things you don’t know” is an accurate restatement into plain English, and in a manner that most elegantly encapsulates the full import of the word.
Thanks! Good stuff!
I do have a problem with “pretending,” though, as a modifier to the basic concept of “faith.” If you have faith in your local government, you aren’t “pretending” they’re reliable, you’re believing they’re reliable even though they haven’t yet proven their reliability. If they fail to prove their reliability (if they don’t show up), you will lose faith in your local government. You’ll “withdraw” trust or confidence. But Boghossian’s use of the word “pretending” implies misrepresentation. “I’m pretending there is a local government, even though I know there isn’t. Darn it, why won’t they pick up my trash?!?”
That seems to make “faith” virtually an unusable word.
I think, if I understand you correctly (I wouldn’t want to misrepresent your views), that your problem with “pretending” lies in an assumption of an external or concious misrepresentation.
And indeed if someone were to profess strong belief in something while not actually believing it that would not be an example of faith but of fraud.
Where someone really does have faith they are not professing a belief that they do not have, they are saying what they genuinely believe to be true, in the absence of sufficient evidence to establish it as true, and using a word that carries a significantly higher truth value than belief.
The pretence in this context then is internal, unconcious, or if you will allow it pre-concious, – they do not know they are pretending because the pretence is obscured by the flawed epistemology of faith itself.
They are not claiming to know something they think they don’t know (or that they know is false), they are claiming to know something they think they do know but don’t have enough evidence to actually know.
A “delusion of impossible knowledge” might be another way to put it, but there the language isn’t as plain and both “impossible knowledge” and “delusion” are open to missunderstanding.
Since my last post an experiment occured to me that you might like to try.
I will give you a list of statements about X (for X substitute a belief of some kind, perhaps “homeopathy works” or “aliens visit me in the night” or “Jesus walked on water”).
Your task is then to arrange those statements in order of the level of certainty or truth value expressed.
1 I am confident that X
2 I have very little confidence that X
3 I have faith that X
4 I have total confidence that X
5 I have a lot of confidence that X
If you have the time (and access to suitable “victims”) you might like to try getting other people to do it as well – but don’t tell them why!
It is apparent to me that however one defines faith, the default position is always placing your “faith” in what other humans say about god. Since we have no direct revelation, we humans have no other choice but to place our “faith” in other men/women’s statements (oral or written) about who god is and how he interacts with the universe. This is why there are so many “faith” traditions. This must mean that if god/gods exist, that they only reveal themselves in the past, and by questionable testimonies of ancient people, ignorant of how the universe really works. This is why the definition of “faith” as pretending to know things one doesn’t know, actually fits pretty well. Knowing that a Jesus is the savior, has to be the most important thing to try to know. Everything else doesn’t really matter when an eternity hangs in the balance of a choice of human statements. The only way to know god, Jesus, Ra, Zeus, is to trust other humans. I reject having to trust humans on something so important. God has not revealed him/herself to me, therefore I don’t believe.
Hi Craig – Perfectly understand your reluctance to trust based on the testimony of other fallible humans. My goal here wasn’t to “win you to the faith” per se, but simply to try to clarify what I think we mean when we use the word itself.
Thanks for reading!
Pretty cool article! Here’s what I find wrong with your explanations, at least after my first reading:
Peter’s “belief without evidence” definition seems to be a short version of a more complete one that actually appears several times in his book: belief without SUFFICIENT evidence. He also defines atheism as thinking there isn’t sufficient (instead of “any”) evidence to warrant belief in the supernatural. Any claim can have evidence. “Some people believe it so it might be true” can be used as evidence for any sort of claim, but in many cases it just won’t be enough. Proving that Christianity has some evidence for its claims is fairly trivial in this context, so I’ll wait until someone has a convincing argument that said evidence is sufficient or better than other evidence of any other competing supernatural phenomenon.
The other thing is your equating faith with trust and the whole proof thing. If you interpret “proof” not as evidence, but as something that gives absolute certainty, then there is no belief or knowledge with proof, because we can’t have absolute certainty of anything. Saying that faith is belief without proof is essentially saying there IS belief with proof. Now that’s not true, so it seems only fair to assume the word “proof” on that definition means “sufficient evidence.” That makes more sense because sufficient evidence is the closest thing to proof that actually exists, and because we tend to use them interchangeably, and also because beliefs backed by sufficient evidence actually exist, and because faith is more or less what happens when that doesn’t happen.
Good stuff, David. Thanks!
I think what I was referring to as ‘proof’ would be this: An airline says they will safely fly me to LA. There is no proof, until they have done what they said they would do. I’m in LA, getting off the airplane. If someone says, “I’ll do this” and you trust their statement, you’re putting faith in them without proof that they’ll actually do what they said. Once they’ve done it, you have proof, and faith is no longer necessary.
When people reference the definition of faith in the book of Hebrews, this is how the word is being used. The author is referring to the story of God supposedly making a promise to Abraham (“If you do x, I’ll do y.”) Abraham trusts God (puts faith in God’s pledge), and Abraham does x. And then, in the story, God does y. That’s the proof that Abraham was right in putting confidence in God’s pledge.
When I use this example, some have said, “Yeah, but I don’t trust that story about God and Abraham.” That’s more or less irrelevant. Even if the story is fictitious, it still illustrates the concept of faith. That’s all I’m trying to do – to point out that there is nothing innately religious about the word “faith.” Even as used in the Bible.
Faith for me has always been troublesome. (How can the “belief” that the blood of a dead human or the rising smoke from a burning animal carcass cause an all powerful God to change his mind about punishing me plausibly work?) Just didn’t make sense, so ultimately, I stopped believing.
I think much of it comes down to the difference between a mystic reality and the one we live in day-to-day.
In our day to day reality we can test our beliefs about the world and successfully make our way through it based on the results these tests – “Will chairs like this support my weight? I’ll test this one…” or “What is the statistical likelihood that there will be air outside when I walk out my front door? Are these acceptable odds?”.
In the mystic reality, we have very limited ways to test beliefs like “Will Christ’s death keep me from suffering an eternity of damnation?” or “Did a burning bush actually speak to Moses?”, etc. These claims are much more extraordinary than claims about chairs or atmospheric pressure – yet they have much weaker support. Other than a feeling that it’s true or a belief in the testimony of Iron Age shamans (or, rather, the testimonies of those who base their faith on the words of these shamans) we just don’t have much on which to found these beliefs.
Maybe I’m still confused about faith – as I said, I’ve always had problems with this…
Great points about ‘default beliefs’ (these apply to all cultures, religious and secular.) I love the phrase “cultural atheist” – brilliant.
“Faith for me has always been troublesome.” You’re using the word faith in that sentence as a synonym for “Christian belief.” Which is valid, but it isn’t the definition I was unpacking in the essay. I completely understand that Christian belief is certainly tricky in places, and you may decide not to put “faith” (confidence or trust) in the Christian “faith” (system of religious belief).
That’s why this is a darn tricky word. It keeps squirming into other meanings.
(And God told me to tell you that you don’t need to sacrifice any more animals. “No more, please… I’ve got enough!”)
Apparently, biblical faith means being willing to murder your own child. That alone should give people pause, shouldn’t it?
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son,” Hebrews 11:17
Well, the point of this post was to define the word “faith,” so you’re a little off topic. But at some point soon I promise we’ll get into issues like this.
Trusting that any given flight on a US airline will get you to your destination safely is simply a rational conclusion based on the probabilities. The odds of being in a crash are very, very low. If more planes crashed than arrived safely, it would be irrational to fly. A crash rate of even 1% would probably be too high for most people.
On the other hand, trusting that any given person (such as Jesus) is a god is an irrational conclusion because we have no prior information to tell us reliably what exactly gods are, what their characteristics are, whether they can take human form, how they would do that, or whether we, as fallible humans, could accurately recognize a god (how could we tell a god apart from a super-powerful alien? How would we know a given god was infinitely intelligent, loving, and powerful unless we were too?). Then there is the problem that many cultures have had experiences of things they called gods. Can they all be right about that? If not, what objective method would you use to separate the true claims from the false ones?
In the case of Jesus, it makes no sense that an all-good god (whatever that is) would have appeared in one place on Earth at one time, worked a little magic, then returned to his celestial abode instead of appearing to everyone everywhere and showing them his love on a regular basis, just like you probably do to your family and friends. It’s that simple.
Various probabilities tell me how much of a leap of faith I’m making to rely on this person/object. Relying on a well-known, respected US airline is a pretty reasonable leap of faith. You don’t know if you’ll arrive safely until AFTER you’ve gotten there, though, so your trust in the airline isn’t justified with certainty until the trip is over. That’s what faith is. Investing trust in a claim. (“We’ll get you there safely.”)
You assess belief in the claims of Jesus as a much less reasonable (therefore much bigger) “leap of faith” than getting on an airplane. And I’d probably agree with you – even though the consequences of trusting a plane and being wrong are much more grave than trusting Jesus and being wrong. (Which is why some people simply refuse to fly.)
My point being that “faith” is simply the investment of confidence in a claim that isn’t 100% certain. It’s a synonym for trust.
>the consequences of trusting a plane and being wrong are much more grave than
>trusting Jesus and being wrong
>the consequences of trusting a plane and being wrong are much more grave
>than trusting Jesus and being wrong
Perhaps you chose the word “grave” carefully, but the consequences of a doomed flight are far less in an eternal perspective.
Your argument also glosses over a highly rational argument for faith. G. Gordon Liddy, of all people, put it this way: What have you got to lose!? If you are right, you’ve gained eternity with God. If you are wrong, we are all worm food anyway.
You might argue that a choice made on that basis isn’t really faith in God, but the argument is certainly enough to push a skeptic over the edge.
Those who argue you’d lose your dignity fall in to a trap.
My daughter, who’s WAY smarter than me, points out this is Pascal’s Wager. So I’m not nearly as insightful as I thought!
Trusting that an airplane will arrive safely is not “faith” because you are relying on the evidence you have from all the flights that have arrived safely in the past. As I tried to get across before, if even 1 in 100 flights crashed, that would probably keep most people from flying.
We have no evidence of a super-being who loves all of its creation, unless by “love,” you mean “allowing billions of people to starve, go without clean water, and suffer from all kinds of diseases and to die horrible deaths.” And we know that this is what has been happening for thousands of years. What decent person would allow it to happen if she had the power to prevent it or at least to change it? None of my non-believer friends would, and I assume it’s the same in your circles. So why worship an invisible being who does that?
If I may jump in and go off topic from the original essay, I’d like to try to answer your question Owen. In the Bible God actually gives answers for all the things you asked and He continues to this day showing His love for us. You are so close to understanding. I believe Phil is right about the definition of faith. I’ll even boil it down to the essentials. Faith in something = Confidence in something.
As for God and how He works, I see what you are having a hard time with. Definition. How can we define something that is unimaginably better than us. In the same way how do we define an alien that we have never seen? Christians, like myself, don’t need to define God. He defined Himself in the Bible by direct revelation to the writers of the Bible. One of things you said was “How can we know a given god was infinitely intelligent, loving, and powerful unless we were too?” God says through the Bible that He made mankind in His image, meaning we are intelligent, we can be loving, and we are powerful. Not all these attributes are to the same degree that God has but He has imparted mankind with these traits that He also has. Very insightful of you to know we needed these traits to recognize who God is.
You mention other cultures having experiences of things they call gods. I’ve been to some ancient sites made in honor to many of these gods. You ask if they are real. Well, I can tell you that there are many stones carved in the shape of what the people say are gods. But many of those temples were dedicated to ancestors who were later deified as gods. It’s really interesting to try to understand what some eastern cultures really mean by reincarnation. As a western person myself I did not understand and had the wrong idea of what they meant. Your question was rather vague and all encompassing. Each case would need it’s own study and a lot of understanding to give an answer. But for me, I don’t have to answer each one. I have the answer that the God of the Bible is real and that He is Good. With that I don’t need to study any other deity to look for salvation or blessing. I don’t take Him on blind faith. I have searched for proof and I have faith in the evidence I have found.
As for Jesus not making sense, well, it will never make sense until you understand God’s love and His promises. Also, if you look throughout the Bible you can see case after case of God trying to show people His love and care in many different ways. Many of those ways were pretty drastic. Also, Jesus did show Himself to many people while He was on Earth. I mean he let Himself be lifted up on a cross for crying out loud. What more did He need to do? Really nothing. He could have let us all die in our mess but He has chosen to love us instead. As for showing love on a regular basis, well, I see it everyday. He doesn’t speak to me a a big booming voice. No. It’s in the little things. It’s in the understanding. It’s in the intricacies of life seeing the connections, the function, the design, and the irony of it all. Honestly I see God the clearest in irony and sacrifice. It’s that complex. He has made Himself known and we usually reject Him. He also said before He ascended into Heaven that He was going to send to His followers the Holy Spirit. A part of Himself that would live inside of them to strengthen, guide and comfort them.
So there you have it. The Bible has your answers. Sorry I didn’t provide verse references, I don’t memorize them much. I try to memorize the content of the Bible, not the addresses in it.
You mentioned god “being lifted up” (I take that to mean “suffering and dying”) on a cross. Why exactly would that be necessary unless some horrible, bloodthirsty being required it? That’s just immoral. Couldn’t he have simply acted like the father of the Prodigal Son and forgiven the folks who had done wrong, or would that have been too good for him? And anyway, since he knew he was going to come back to life just a couple of days later, what’s the big deal? And is that really the best he could do for humanity? How is that better than having created us to be indestructible in the first place?
You also speak of all these ways god shows his love for us, but the examples you give could (and probably does) easily happen without any supernatural agency. Complex life developed from very simple beginnings. Irony and sacrifice most likely happen precisely because no one is in charge. Do you expect there to be irony and sacrifice in Heaven?
Owen, I apologize for taking so long to reply. I’ve been busy lately.
I will try to answer your question to the best of my ability.
First question you ask is why was the Cross necessary? Many reasons and I will try to give you the highlights. First off, Jesus had to die for because sin deserves death. God had warned Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate that fruit. Easy choice right? Don’t eat the bad fruit and live. Simple enough. Well, the deterrent did not work. But God had a plan of redemption already in place. Instead of letting them die and be away from Him forever He would take their place and pay the price for them. As the centuries went by people became more and more violent and then the Romans come around and use the cross as a torturous execution device meant for criminals such as robbers and murderers. Jesus comes and riles up the people and officials in charge of the land reject Him and have the Romans put Him on the Cross. All of which God had said would happen centuries before hand.
Your second question talks about the loving father in the story of the prodigal son. A little backstory is needed to understand the parable. The religious Jewish leaders were angry with Jesus for spending time with sinners. So Jesus tells them this story and a few other like it with an emphasis on the celebrating that happens when something that is lost that is found. Now if you remember, the prodigal had an older brother. His brother was upset because his father had received his son just like that. He even had a special calf killed for him. The father then explains that all he had was the older brothers as well but he is celebrating because what was lost is now found and wanted him to celebrate as well. It’s a bigger picture than what is generally taught in kids church.
Your third question asks why there was such a big deal if Jesus knew He was going to come back to life after three days anyway. There is more to this than I know. But from what I understand, Jesus, though fully man and fully God at the same time, was for the first time ever, going to be separate from God, as in God the Father. Weird I know, hard to understand but it’s just one of those things I have to go “Okay God, I don’t get it but You are Who You are”.
Your fourth question seems a little different. First, you have to understand that God does not have to give us His best. We don’t deserve it. I certainly don’t. But that is exactly what He gave us. How much better can it get than He gave Himself? He is the best there is. There is no greater love than of those who lay their lives down for a friend. God did that for us.
How is this better than being made indestructible in the first place? This goes back to the garden of Eden. Sin separates us from God, our Creator, our Friend. He made us to have a relationship with Him. If we aren’t in that relationship than we have really nothing. If we were immortal we would be in a constant state of bad relationship with God. It’s worse than being stuck in the same room as an ex. We would be wandering around never able to fulfil our purpose and never wasting away because we couldn’t die. But God is merciful. He does not want us to suffer. So He allows death to happen so that we don’t last forever in that horrible state of wandering the Earth without Him.
The intricacies and the little things of life are the way I see God’s fingerprint. It’s like looking at tool. Let’s take a hammer. If it is in good condition just about anyone would know it’s use and purpose. Looking a little closer we might find a sticker, label, stamp, or an engraving to see where it was made and maybe by who. A trained eye can how it was made. Was it poured into a mold? Was it cut from bar stock? Was it forged? In the case of forging, how good was the blacksmith? If there were no initials in it is has the blacksmith left another mark to prove his or her craftsmanship? If someone knows the smith they can know the smith’s work. Same with art.
I’ll agree with you, life did have simple beginnings. God saying “do what I made you to do and you man, have a relationship with me that is filled with friendship of truest kind” (I’m paraphrasing I don’t know if He used those terms).
As for irony and sacrifice being random, well, depends on where you look. I do expect to see irony in Heaven. Jesus said that in His Kingdom the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I’ll see people that I know for certain do not deserve to be there, heh, I’ll be there. There will be crowns placed on people’s heads just so they can be thrown on the on the ground before Jesus. Sacrifice will be there, or at least the evidence of it. The scars on Jesus’ hands, placed there because He loved us enough to give us Himself.
Why create sin?
An all powerful all knowing creator should be able to create prefect beings to have his “relationship” with.
Pascal said it was better to PRETEND to believe, even for those who are so made that they cannot. So I’m going to confide in Pascal’s claim that most American Christians are faking it, because even you, Mr. Vischer, say that most Americans are simply born into the cultural confines of their country’s most popular religion and are incurious. It’s easy to be a Christian in America: just don’t say you’re not.
I think the chair and plane analogies are weak. We have real time evidence and experience that give us confidence that an apparently well constructed chair (we have seen an sat upon thousands which have supported us) or an aircraft maintained and flown by major US airlines (I have flown 100’s of times) will fly safely, although neither of them are a certainty, there are rare examples of failure.
Imagine taking that same Southwest aircraft back to the 1800’s. Having never seen a plane, much less seen one fly, would their confidence be as high? Their decision may been influenced the persuader and the appearance of the aircraft and crew, but in the end, if they got on, they would be taking a “leap of faith”. A chair and an aircraft can inspire confidence based upon our own actual experience and that of millions of others. That confidence is not a certainty, but it allows us to make a reasonable choice based upon experience and probability. I would not call it “faith” by your definition. How many of us would consider crossing a street a leap of faith if we used our experience and senses to determine that it was safe to do so?
I think there is sufficient evidence to make it extremely likely that the person of Jesus existed and likely that potentially much of his life occurred according to the accounts. For our purpose, let’s focus on the central tenants of Christianity in my mind, that Jesus rose from the dead and that in so doing, cleansed us from original sin and opened the gates of heaven. To me, based on my experience, being raised from the dead is impossible. If, in my experience, I had seen someone truly being raised from the dead I’m sure I would feel differently. In other words, it would no longer be necessary for me to believe it, I would have confidence in it based upon my experience.
Assuming God is all powerful, it makes no sense that he “needed” to send his “son” to die and be raised in order to allow us potential entry to “heaven” (a highly illogical and improbable place, but that’s another discussion). Being God, he simply could have willed it. Making that assumption or connection between the two to me defies both logic and experience. Had I witnessed the resurrection, I would concede that I would be more likely to accept the rest of it. Having experienced it, I might be able to make that “leap of faith” to believe the other incredible things he said were true.
In my mind the fact that Christianity has survived to this day and has millions of followers and believers speaks more to four things that I consider to be true:
1. Our inability to understand our universe
2. Our fear of death
3. The usefulness of religion to control behavior of the masses and impart a decent moral code
4. Our need to “do” something (ie pray) when faced with something tragic our outside our ability to change.
I “believe” in the above based on my experience, and I’m OK with it. If others choose to have faith, I’m OK with that too assuming it is not used to justify violence etc.
Hi Jim! Thanks for the response.
You don’t like my chair and plane?? Aw, come on! They’re awesome! Various probabilities affect how much of a “leap of faith” certain actions entail. For example, “That appears to be a good strong chair of the type of sat on many times.” Not a big leap of faith at all to sit down. “I fly this airline a lot. They’ve got a great safety record.” Not a huge leap of faith to get on the plane. But… “Wow – that bungie cord looks pretty old… the guy telling me it’s ‘safe’ looks a little shady…” Much bigger leap of faith to bungie jump with a shabby-looking bungie.
All the way up to, “This guy handed me a Magic 8 Ball and told me if I jump out of this plane, the Magic 8 Ball will save me.” Massively HUGE, unwarranted leap of faith. Blind faith. No experiential or logical reason to put confidence in a Magic 8 Ball to act as a parachute.
In other words, regardless of whether the leap of faith is tiny (sitting in a solid-looking chair), or massive (Magic 8 Ball as parachute), “faith” is the act of placing confidence in the object or person you are going to rely on. It’s the act of reliance. Some acts of faith are reasonable and obvious. Others appear insanely stupid. But the principal of faith – investing confidence in a claim – is the same. What is different is the varying degrees of justification for the reliance.
Hope that makes sense.
The fact that you censored a comment I made which elaborated on the fact that Hebrews 11:17 says that Abraham had faith because he was willing to kill his child for God, shows that you are not in any way concerned with truth. If you can’t stand by the claims of the book which is foundational to you faith, then perhaps you should find a different religion.
Sorry John! I don’t believe your comment was censored… I think it was just waiting for moderation.
I’ve never come across an atheist who couldn’t intellectually articulate why he/she was a non-believer. But I’ve met many believers who couldn’t explain why they either choose to belief or what they gain believing. This ignorant bunch are the lot atheist often highlight as proof of why faith is irrational. Faith can never be rational because its spiritual. Thus the more faithfuls who can intellectual articulate why they exercise belief, the better for all.
I am a youth and children’s pastor. I really enjoy the podcast. This is a great article and I’m looking forward to the possible conversation with Boghossian.
Again, most of the comments of the religious re faith boil down to miss-application of multiple definitions of the term. When Boghossian says “faith is pretending to know what you don’t know”, he is pointing out that that is effectively how faith is used. When someone says “you gotta have faith” that is what they are exhorting the listener to do. When someone says “faith” in other contexts, it can mean trust, or hope and in those contexts, trust or hope should be used and would make the statement clearer if they were used. Religious faith is by necessity blind faith of the kind of which Boghossian writes. There is no reliable evidence for religious dogmas, so any evidence presented is brought in with a heaping helping of blind faith, which invariably amounts to defacto pretending to know what you don’t know.
I like the open-minded attitude. It’s refreshing.
I also appreciate Boghossian clearly defining faith and using the same term throughout his book. “Faith” is an easy word to equivocate (which is why I’m starting to think the word should be avoided altogether), but Boghossian is very consistent in his book. I don’t think it’s a false premise, because belief without evidence is exactly how many people use the term (just as CenterForReason does above), and that’s the issue he tackles in his book.
That said, if you mean something else by faith, such as that faith is trust in X, then it begs the question: What do you by “X”? What reasons do you have for believing X? Is the evidence sufficient to warrant belief, or do you need to make an irrational leap over probabilities?
In my experience, Muslims in particular are most insistent on saying that do not have belief without evidence, but rather trust in God. Apparently, they have a word for it (“tawwakul”) and a host of verses to support this notion (e.g., Qur’an 5:23, 8:2 and 65:3). But again, it begs the question: What do you mean by “God”? What reasons do have for believing? Is the evidence sufficient to warrant belief, or do you need to make an irrational leap over probabilities?
I am glad that I happened upon your blog. Thank you for taking on challenges from atheists to our Christian faith. We as Christians need to do this. I have not read Peter Boghossian’s book but I might do so, specifically for the purpose of writing a review and critique of it myself. I took a brief look at it on-line and based on what I saw, I agree with you that his fundamental premise is wrong. Faith is not an epistemology. Christian faith is IMO the product of an epistemology or better said, many eclectic and specific epistemologies, including science. Neither is “reason” an epistemology. Reason is the intellectual and experiential process that we apply to make sense of and evaluate knowledge. I especially like the definition of faith or “saving faith” from Gordon C. Olson’s book, “The Truth Shall Make You Free” (1980): “Saving faith is a sincere facing of the full truth of reality and an elimination of every internal tension caused by our having rejected the truth of God in any area.” In Gordon’s eight page definition and description of “saving faith”, which he supports with many quotes, citations and references to Holy Scripture, he defines “Saving faith is an act of will in total commitment, based upon an enlightened intelligence …” So faith is not just belief, or intellect, or knowledge, but a commitment. Given our Christian understanding of the term “faith”, it is no wonder that atheists attempt to redefine it, in an attempt to create a straw man for their arguments. Well, the atheists’ definition of “faith” is a straw man that should be burned at the stake. God bless your ministry. Keep up the good work in defending our Christian faith.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, Phil. I’ve offered my thoughts about it here, if you’d like to read them:
Part Two will be forthcoming as soon as I’m caught up on my grading 🙂
My uncle would totally get your chair analogy. He’s 6’5″ and weighs something like 250 billion pounds. Not every chair that says to him, “Yes, come sit here,” will actually hold him. Sitting is an act of faith, a tentative and experiential testing of the furniturial providence.
This back and forth with atheists will go on and on until Christs return…CSLewis a one time atheist and probably more of an academic than the atheists responding on this forum would have also thought seriously about what exactly faith was yet still left atheism behind for his commitment to Christianity…William Lane Craig another one time atheist and the foremost apologist on the planet also accepted the Christian faith and for them that question has been answered..Paul said we see through a glass darkly and for atheists this will always be the case until that is like Lewis and Craig they come face to face with Christ.
C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig are full of assertions but extremely short on evidence. We non-believers are Missourians at heart. Show us it is more likely than not that there is a super-being who created the most perfect world possible, one free of disease, natural disaster, deformities, violence, and death, and most–if not all–of us atheists would readily change our minds.
“But there is more to the claims being made by an airline than “You can trust in the principle of the airfoil.” Planes rarely crash because of bad science. They crash because of human error. Pilot error. Or poor maintenance. The science of flying tells me a plane is perfectly capable of delivering me to Los Angeles from Chicago without crashing in the Rockies. But science cannot guarantee I won’t die in the Rockies.”
Correct, science states how the plane can and will fly and allows a plane to take flight. Science is not predictive of what occurs once that flight takes off. This statement is so far off base it makes me wonder how well you complemented the issue.
“The science behind flight is EVIDENCE of the potential safety of my next flight, but it isn’t PROOF of the actual safety of my next flight. ”
As above wrong.
“Every time I set foot in an airplane (or a car, train or even a monorail at Disney World), it may be the last thing I do on earth. That is reality. Every time I cross a street. Lie down on an operating table. Get in a taxi cab. It may be checkout time. The cab careens into the Chicago River. The anesthesiologist makes a tragic miscalculation. I’m struck by a bus. And then flung into the Chicago River, where I sink to the bottom with the aforementioned taxi cab.”
This sir is called chance. Science NEVER takes something as a chance, they retest and test again to ensure CHANCE is eliminated.
Doesn’t science predict a bumblebee can’t fly?
Very insightful from what I read about Boghossian’s books is that he “short changed the reader by offering them the bias definitions
Heard about this on the podcast and really enjoyed reading this piece – your comments on the trust aspects of faith remind me of Dallas Willard’s comments. Having faith in Christ means believing he was right – about everything -and being willing to act accordingly. He also talks about the difference between professing a belief and actually acting as if the belief were true. I know I’m much better at professing my faith than I am demonstrating it through my life and actions.
to all of those who ridicule faith in God as foolish because one can’t prove he exists – I’m reminded of the scene in the 1997 Movie ‘Contact’ (Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey)
Matthew: Do you believe your father loved you?
Matthew: Prove it
Thanks for your thoughtful essay. I am an atheist and am motivated to better understand faith in order to better communicate with believers, particularly those whom I love. Often atheists are coming from a place of frustration and anger about beliefs that we think are destructive, that we think are harmful to both believers and society as a whole. Because of these feelings, we often treat others less than gently, which is emotionally harmful and not productive. Also, faith can be an enormous source of strength to believers, and can help them handle adversity, perhaps far more adversity than I would be able to handle. Why would I want to tear something like that down? How does one have a conversation about things that seem to be stated in the Bible, but seem very wrong? One small example, in Matthew in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” I have never heard of Christians in our society complain about all the adulterous men who have married divorced women. Perhaps some do, but I don’t think most consider their second or third marriages to be adulterous, and neither do I. Yet, in many cases, we atheists run into a wall of “the bible says so” without any appeal to moral or ethical principles. Right and wrong are not always simple, and they require use of mind, heart and spirit.
I think you’re entirely missing the point here by arguing over semantics.
Do people use their religion to explain how the world works?
Yes. Yes they do.
Whether you call it faith or whatever, it doesn’t make any difference. They still use it as a framework for thinking about how the world works, at least in some subset of cases.
“Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
John 20: 26 – 29 (RSV)
Today, give thanks for your faith and think of all that you believe in that you are unable to see (gravity, your brain, love, pain, etc.). Reflect on the fact that even though you cannot see those things, it doesn’t change your conviction that they are integral to your reality.
Excerpt From: Mike Stair. “On Earth As It Is In Heaven.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/DZeA8.l