This follows from Part 2.
The title of Chapter 2 is ‘Faith’. Boghossian makes it clear that he wants to “clear up” some terminology in this chapter and the three words he wishes to turn his attention to are ‘faith’, ‘atheist’, and ‘agnostic’. At this point I have looked Boghossian up a little enough to find out that he is an education specialist (I believe that is what his doctorate is in) and that he teaches courses on atheism, morality and critical thinking.
I was intending to do only one post per chapter but so much needs saying about this chapter that I will have to break it down. So in this post (3.1) I will address Boghossian’s discussion of ‘faith’. In post 3.2 I will engage with Boghossian’s footnote pertaining to Hebrews 11:1. In post 3.3 I will look at his discussion of what ‘atheism’ really means and post 3.4 will look at ‘agnosticism’ and in 3.5 ‘truth claims’. Sorry!
Boghossian offers two possible definitions for the word faith:
“…’belief without evidence’ and ‘pretending to know things you don’t know’.”
Boghossian advises his ‘Street Epistemologists’ (let’s abbreviate that to SE from now on) that people will often attempt to evade their help by insisting that the SE does not understand what they mean when they say they have ‘faith’. He warns his protégés that religious people will often offer vague definitions of this slippery word or that they will offer, as Dennett puts it, “deepities” (that is to say explanations that appear to be profound but are, in fact, meaningless). One example of these ‘deepities’ offered is Hebrews 11:1 (a notoriously misunderstood verse by those who use it as a proof text – there is a lengthy footnote on it so I shall discuss Hebrews 11:1 in my next post on Boghossian’s book). Boghossian then cites six different definitions of faith given by different sources (Hebrews 11:1, Alma 32:21 (the book of Mormon), the Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich (the vast majority of Christians have not been existentialists), Christian theologians Daniel Migliore and Brian D. McLaren (whose work is extremely controversial in Christian circles),  and then points out that a whole book could be filled citing such ‘deepities’. While this is probably true, I do not see how this excuses Boghossian from interacting with some mainstream views of what faith is. Once you exclude non-Christian definitions and definitions given by Christians who belong to marginal sub-groups you’re basically left with only two examples of the word being used (Migliore and the book of Hebrews). Not a very impressive survey it has to be said. This is even more unimpressive given that Boghossian insists that his book is a refutation of all religious views and not just Christianity. He engages with no Asian religious definitions of ‘faith’ at all. He does not even manage to survey the three main monotheistic religions. How anyone could consider this even a pseudo-survey of the meaning of the word is beyond me.
However, my concern is to respond from a Christian perspective so I would like to ask some questions regarding methodology first. These questions are questions I believe Boghossian would want us to be asking since he says he is a strong advocate of critical thinking.
Why did Boghossian pick out just these five Christian quotes? Hebrews I can understand but why only that one from the entire Bible? To quote Tillich as a spokesperson for the church is more than a little odd. Most Christians I know would not even know who Tillich is let alone his position on ‘faith’. His quote (“Faith is the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself”), does, I would agree, sound somewhat absurd on the face of it. But even then he does not appear to be saying that faith is unreasonable or is, in any way, pretending. But does Boghossian know what Tillich means by this? He offers no exegesis for sure. McLaren is regarded as trying to mould Christianity with postmodernism so his view hardly looks representative. Using McLaren is on a par with criticizing a political party for something said by a member of the party who has been asked to leave the party due to his views being opposed to what the party stand for! So, once again, he’s picking someone from the fringes rather than a mainstream view. (Kinast I don’t know at all so I cannot comment.)
Now the Migliore quote is most interesting more because of what Boghossian chose to leave out than because of what he quoted. Boghossian rightly cites Migliore as saying:
“Faith is faith in the living God, and God is and remains a mystery beyond human comprehension. Although the ‘object’ of our faith, God never ceases to be ‘subject’.”
Now, on the face of it, that does make Migliore look as if he is a theologian who thinks that doing theology and talking about God is completely beyond human understanding and is thus mysterious. However, if you look up page 3 of Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding you will find that just before this he says:
“Christian faith is at bottom trust in and obedience to the free and gracious God made known in Jesus Christ. Christian theology is this same faith in the mode of asking questions and struggling to find at least provisional answers to these questions. Authentic faith is no sedative for word-weary souls, no satchel full of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as they are, and continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves. Consequently, Christian faith has nothing in common with indifference to the search for truth, or fear of it, or the arrogant claim to possess it fully. True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says there comes a point where we must stop asking questions and must simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.“
A little later, on page 5, he writes:
“Christian faith is not blind faith but “thinking faith”…”
Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology pp.3,5 (emphasis mine)
It becomes quite plain that Migliore’s views (and we don’t have time to explore them any more now) are far more nuanced than Boghossian’s quotation makes them appear. Indeed it seems more than a little unfair to pick a quote out of a book which supports your overarching thesis (‘faith is irrational’) and leave behind the quotes which contradict it. I think it is worth saying that the principle of charity (the principle that it is always best to try very hard to construe someone’s words as reasonable, rather than assuming they are unreasonable) is considered very important in critical thinking, in the Socratic method, and in scholarship generally and Boghossian knows this and most probably teaches this principle to his students. I think some questions could be raised concerning whether Boghossian is doing it well enough in this situation however or whether he is guilty of quote-mining.
As support for his first definition of faith, Boghossian quotes from John Loftus (another atheist) to the effect that faith is an “irrational leap over probabilities”. He then offers this as a working principle for when to use the word:
“If one claims knowledge either in the absence of evidence, or when a claim is contradicted by evidence, then this is when the word “faith” is used.” [Loc.310]
(I will call this principle P1.)
I take Boghossian to mean “when the word ‘faith’ should be used” rather than “when the word ‘faith’ is used” since the latter reading would suggest that people cannot use other words for such phenomena (such as ‘unwarranted’ for example). Since Boghossian must be aware such language exists, whether he likes it or not, he would be wrong.
Boghossian then moves onto his second definition (of ‘faith’ meaning “pretending to know things you don’t know”). In fact, he encourages his ‘Street Epistemologists’ to use this translation every time they hear a religious person use the word and offers a chart of possible scenarios they might hear the term being used by the religious. As funny as the translation can turn out to be (eg. “She’s having a crisis of faith.” becomes “She’s having a crisis of pretending to know things she doesn’t know.”), all this does is make the possibility of meaningful communication all the more difficult. Since Boghossian’s background is in education, this appears to be a very strange suggestion. The whole purpose of using definitions is to attempt to clarify what someone else is saying to enhance communication rather than insisting someone must be using a word with the meaning I insist it must have which only breaks communication down. This is why we should frequently ask people, “What do you mean when you say that?” Now sometimes it can be the case that the person is using the word incorrectly and that requires some exploration and even some challenge. But is it really true with the case of the word ‘faith’?
With quite a degree of contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary states that ‘faith’ can mean: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”. So when I say, “I have faith that my car will get me to the shops.” I would be most annoyed if someone (some Bogghossian ‘Street Mechanic’) insisted I must be meaning to say, “I am pretending to know that which I cannot know in thinking my car will get me to the shops!” That’s ridiculous. My car is pretty reliable. It’s managed to get me to the shops on numerous occasions in the past and has, in fact, never once broken down on the way to the shops so I am being both rational and justified in my belief that it will get me to the shops. Of course, this could be the first time that my car breaks down. When I say “I have faith that my car will get me to the shops” I have deliberately used that verb instead of saying “I know absolutely for certain that my car will get me to the shops” because I cannot know that with certainty. This is why the second definition given by the Oxford dictionary is “strong belief”. What would make a strong belief different from a mere belief is that I ought to have some reason, even though it will be probablistic in nature, for thinking it. Clearly, in the case of my car, I do and therefore I am justified in using ‘faith’ here to mean ‘strong belief’.
Now, in trying to be a good SE at this point, I apply this methodology to Boghossian’s definition of faith. Utilizing P1 I ask myself; has Bogghossian made a knowledge claim? Yes, he has. He claims to know the meaning of a word. So the first part of P1 is to ask what evidence was provided. Boghossian quoted an atheist making the same assertion about the word but is that sufficient evidence? Is Loftus right to define the word that way? It appears this definition gets off the ground only if Loftus is right. At the moment, I am being asked to take Loftus’s word for it, but surely that’s not sufficient evidence?
So the first part of P1 does not appear to be met by Boghossian himself (certainly not to any reasonable degree of probability) but then P1 has a second part and that is to say that a knowledge claim should be considered a ‘faith’ claim when there is evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, I looked the word up in a very respectable dictionary and I could not find Boghossian’s definition even once and, worse still, I found contrary definitions. It also appears some of Boghossian’s other evidence is asserted rather than argued (Tillich) and at least one source was misrepresented (Migliore). It gets worse still. Atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt states:
“In fairness to theism, it should be noted that many theists, when they speak of faith, do not have in mind the irrational belief apparently endorsed by Luther.”
Nicholas Everitt, The Non-existence of God p.5
Let us be clear then: Boghossian is saying that people who claim knowledge either in the absence of evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence are making claims to know something they don’t know. I am wondering if Boghossian is cutting off the branch he’s sitting on? Put more formally this is the reason why:
1. For all S, for all x, if S is a person and x is a claim by S to knowledge and x is contradicted by evidence, then x is a claim by S to know something that S doesn’t know.
2. B’s claim to know that “having faith” means “pretending to believe something you don’t know” is contradicted by evidence.
3. B’s claim that “having faith” means “pretending to believe something you don’t know” is a claim by B to know something B does not know.
Boghossian could reply that despite the fact that there is contrary evidence to his definition, he feels there is not sufficient contrary evidence and therefore his definition stands. But this points to a problem in Bogghosian’s methodology which he has yet to admit to or explain to his audience. He has simply not uttered anything about probabilities to this point. When he talks of a claim’s being “contradicted by evidence”, it sounds like this could be any degree of evidence at all. Boghossian has not made it clear. But if we read him charitably as saying that the evidence, on balance, favours his definition, then we should ask whether Boghossian has made his case. Where exactly was the weighing of evidence on this matter? So far we haven’t had anything even close to a case being made that Boghossian’s definition of faith is what Christians really mean by the word, and this appears to leave Boghossian’s position on this matter seriously undermined.
I could, arguably, stop right now but since I love reading books by people I disagree with I will simply note this rather serious dilemma and move on.
Maybe it is because of the problem of differing definitions of faith that Boghossian offers his own two definitions. I have to admit to being somewhat bemused, however, at why he appears to be suggesting his own subjective definitions have to be projected onto everyone else. (Is this New Atheism’s version of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’?)
Surely there is a bigger issue than merely the need to find some objective definition of the word; if I want to have a profitable conversation, I need to find out how my interlocutor is using the word. No matter how I define the word, I will need to ensure the person I’m talking to does not mean something different by it; otherwise we’re not going to be able to communicate effectively. Boghossian appears to want to define this word very quickly so he can get beyond this possible sticking point in the discussion. But surely this is an important matter which requires discussion and clarification from both parties. If one of Boghossian’s ‘Street Epistemologists’ begins telling me what I must mean by a word when I don’t mean it that way, I’m likely to end the conversation at that point. At best, I am going to think the SE is being pedantic about language and I will choose another word (eg. ‘belief’). So what has been achieved? Boghossian, on the surface at least, makes it sound like he wants some serious dialogue going on between his SE and religious people. If that truly is the case then surely the concepts behind the words are the more important issue at hand.
I’m reminded of a lecture given by the Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams who, after quoting both Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling to the effect that ‘faith’ must mean some blind adherence which either lacks evidence or even flies in the face of contrary evidence, says:
“Now if that’s what these guys think faith is, it’s hardly surprising to me that they are against faith because if that’s what faith was I think I’d be against it as well myself.”
Peter S. Williams, Faith and Reason lecture given on 7th June 2010 at the European Leadership Forum in Eger, Hungary (can be downloaded free on itunes).
It appears that even Richard Dawkins learnt something from Alister McGrath on this matter when they had a conversation on camera in preparation for a possible clip for his Root of all Evil programmes. Dawkins admitted that McGrath had “possibly rightly” corrected his misuse of the word and McGrath explained why Christians do not usually use the word to have the connotation of a belief which is irrational.  McGrath points out that faith can very often mean, and often does mean for the Christian, a belief which is rational and in accordance with known facts but a belief which still has not, and perhaps cannot, be fully proven to be true itself (a meaning which would help one understand Hebrews 11:1 as I will argue in a future post).
It appears to me that Boghossian is completely ignoring the responses many Christian theists have made in reply to this attempt to redefine faith. This is characteristic of the New Atheist movement. The atheist philosopher Nicholas Everitt (cited above) would go even further, it seems, and call Boghossian “unfair”! Boghossian is quite right to say that people can use the term to mean “Believing something anyway” [Loc.315], but since he gives us no examples of religious people using the term this way, I fear he is not preparing his SEs well enough for the conversations they will potentially have with reasonably well-informed religious people. What if such followers of Boghossian were to meet a modern-day Christian in the tradition of John Locke? What are they to do then?
“…faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind: which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason.”
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1964) Vol.2, p.281
Now perhaps Boghossian thinks this is unlikely. His budding, enthusiastic ‘Street Epistemologist’ would have to be having a pretty bad day to encounter a Christian familiar with the writings of John Locke. How about something a little more mainstream then? Let’s say the SE happens to bump into a Christian who has read the relevant chapters from True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism (edited by Gilson and Weitnauer) and happens to be using David Marshall’s pretty uncontroversial definition (“holding firmly to and acting on what you have good reason to think is true”). What then? Boghossian appears to have left his SE in something of a quandary. What if the Christian asks the SE for specific examples of Christians using the word in the sense that Boghossian defines it? What is he going to say? Apart from Hebrews 11:1 (discussed in my next post), it appears he has nothing to cite apart from Tillich. And I’m not sure most SEs are going to be up for the job of offering detailed exegesis of Tillich or arguing that one particular Christian existentialist gets to represent mainstream Christianity.
Let me use an example of a word in philosophy which encounters some of the same problems as this theological term. Believe it or not, there are sectors of the philosophical community where being called a ‘rationalist’ is something of a slur. Let us suppose someone comes up to me and, in a most derogatory tone, exclaims, “You, sir, are a rationalist!!” Now, since I’ve done a little philosophy in my time I know that the word ‘rationalist’ has some semantic range. Does this person mean that, in epistemological situations I; 1] give undue weight to reason over other ways of knowing, 2] believe there can be a priori synthetic truths, 3] have a preference for deductive logic, or 4] base my knowledge on certain a priori foundational truths? Luckily I remember the Socratic method and so I ask him, “What do you mean by the term ‘rationalist’?” My accuser replies, with some disdain (after all his opinion is that there is only one definition of the word), “I mean, sir, that you think that no truths come from experience or the senses!” Exactly how long am I going to spend pointing out that his definition is blatantly wrong (especially if it’s clear he is unwilling to accept any other definitions)? Not only is he factually uninformed about rationalism (since virtually all rationalists think knowledge can come via experience and the senses) but he is tactically dysfunctional. Will he write my explanation off as a “deepity” when I begin listing rationalist philosophers who believed that experience and the senses can lead to knowledge? Am I likely to get written off as being ‘precontemplative’ on the basis that I’m resisting being misrepresented? Will quoting Descartes’ Le Monde  lead to my being mocked where I stand? If so then this is not going to lead to an intellectual exchange at all. It’s far more likely to lead to them getting hit over the head with the nearest copy of The Blackwell Companion to Epistemology (which is a pretty hefty book!).
It’s not like we have not been here before. It was in the mid-noughties (a term we use in Britain for the decade 2000-2010) when theists were going out of their way to explain to the New Atheists that there was a serious miscommunication going on here. A whole host of theists responded to what was perceived as an attack on the word (faith). Yet, as I read Boghossian, I get no acknowledgement that this battle has already taken place. In fact he does not cite any of the theists who responded at the time or since (certainly not up to this point in the book). Now it’s not like I’m expecting Boghossian to offer in-depth interactions with the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Montaigne, Taylor, Descartes, Locke, Reid, Leibniz, Hodge, Machen, Thielicke, Henry, Ward, Swinburne, Plantinga, Adams et al. but it would be nice if he would at least glance in their direction from time to time. In fact, we don’t even get any interaction with more popular-level books which have been offered as responses to the New Atheists. I am thinking of books such as: The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine by Alister and Joanna McGrath, Why there almost certainly is a God: Doubting Dawkins or The God Conclusion: God and the Western Philosophical Tradition both by Keith Ward, or Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are missing the target by John Lennox. All of these are popular-level books despite being written by Christian academics and all explain why the New Atheists of nearly ten years ago were getting their definitions of faith incorrect. And yet, at this crucial stage of establishing definitions, Boghossian is not interacting with any of them in the slightest. This beggars belief. 
Another worry is that this book is purporting to be something of a strategic handbook for the next wave of New Atheist missionaries (we might as well use the word since ‘Street Epistemologist’ is beginning to sound overly precocious now – or how about ‘Street Apologist’?). Boghossian leaves his ‘Street Epistemologists’ with no ammunition. It appears that they are duty bound to simply stand there asserting their artificial definition whilst refusing to listen to the other person. It is in footnote 2 of this chapter [Loc.526] where he complains:
“Religious belief is very often defended through the use of clever semantics… When a person of faith is questioned over one or more specific, illogical tenets of their belief, they often respond with, “Well, of course I don’t believe that,” leaving the Street Epistemologist at a disadvantage since the believer continues to profess their unaltered faith-based belief regardless.”
I cannot understand how Boghossian cannot spot that it is his approach here that is exacerbating this problem. The main reason the SE is at a disadvantage at this point of a conversation is, first, because he has been sent out with misinformation about what most religious people believe, and second, because he has been encouraged to not permit his religious targets to self-identify what they believe. In his public lectures, Boghossian again and again tells his atheist audience that when they hear a certain word they ought to immediately think of his definition (rather than asking the person what they mean by it). Even worse, is that it appears the SE’s job is also to attempt to shut down any religious person who attempts to justify his definition of faith using reason and evidence.
Boghossian is not done in telling people how they are allowed to use certain words. He insists that “the faithful” (I wish he would stop using that phrase, as it’s unclear what he means exactly) will not be able to use the word ‘faith’ to mean things like “hope” or “trust”. [Loc.363] I have heard of the grammar police but the semantic police? Really? The problem is that when you look up the definition of ‘trust’ (again in the Oxford dictionary) the very first definition offered is “firm belief”! In other words, the Oxford dictionary (which has a pretty good reputation as dictionaries go) suggests there is strong semantic overlap between the words ‘faith’ and ‘trust’. Who then is Boghossian to suggest people cannot use these words to have such semantic overlap? Indeed the Oxford dictionary is clearly suggesting the two words can, potentially, be used as virtually synonymous terms. I find it astounding that a person involved in education appears to be seriously engaged in misrepresenting the people he wishes to teach about. This is not how teaching is usually performed and it is certainly not the basis for meaningful dialogue.
Boghossian finishes his section on the definition of ‘faith’ by insisting that ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are not synonymous in the English language. I wonder why he thinks this is a problem for “the faithful” since even the English translation of the Greek New Testament Paul appears to agree with him here:
“So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13
Had Paul thought they meant the same thing he could have said: “…these two…”!
The strategy being espoused by Boghossian does not, in my opinion, effectively prepare people for engagement; it actively and unnecessarily builds linguistic barriers, it demonstrates ignorance, it completely lacks the principle of charity, and it shows little respect for the person being spoken to. This makes it all the harder to share ideas and explore them in a spirit of mutual understanding.
I have begun my own collection of quotes by Christians talking about what ‘faith’ means to them. You can find it here: Christians defining faith.
 For some reason why I am not alone in thinking this see:
 Here is the video interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LGm0iWPC80
The segment I am referring to especially runs from 3:06 – 6:38. Notice that Dawkins even admits that the way in which Christians define faith is not the way in which he defines faith! McGrath responds to this and explains the Christian use of the term and it appears some progress is being made in the discussion as a result. The book in Dawkins’ hand during that discussion is McGrath’s Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.
 Le Monde de M. Descartes ou le Le Traité de la Lumière – ‘The World’ or ‘Treatise on Light’ 1664. For more on Descartes’s relationship to doing natural philosophy see Explanation as Confirmation in Descartes’s Natural Philosophy by Ernan McMullin in A Companion to Descartes.
 Commenting on Dawkins’ definition of faith, McGrath comments:
“It is not a Christian definition of faith, but one that Dawkins has invented to suit his own polemical purposes.”
The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine by Alister and Joanna McGrath , p.1
In response to Dawkins’ contention that ‘faith’ “means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of the evidence.” McGrath says:
“So what is the evidence that anyone – let alone religious people – defines ‘faith’ in this absurd way? The simple fact is that Dawkins offers no defense of this definition, which bears little relation to any religious (or any other) sense of the word. No evidence is offered that it is representative of religious opinion. No authority is cited in its support. I don’t accept this idea of faith, but I have yet to meet a theologian who takes it seriously. It cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination. It is Dawkins’ own definition, constructed with his own agenda in mind, being represented as if it were characteristic of those he wishes to criticize.”
Alister McGrath, God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life p.85
As I am coming to the final draft of this post I have just read an excellent piece written yesterday in the British newspaper The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman. He complains that he thinks atheists and theists often talk past each other in terms of what they mean by ‘god’ but he is critical of approaches which only address popular versions of belief. He says:
“If a committed creationist wrote a book called The Evolution Delusion, but only attacked the general public’s understanding of evolution, we’d naturally dismiss them as disingenuous. We’d demand, instead, that they seek out what the best and most acclaimed minds in the field had concluded about evolution, then try dismantling that.
Which is also why atheists should read Hart’s book: to deny themselves the lazy option of sticking to easy targets.”
His article is called ‘The one theology book all atheists really should read’ and can be found here.
He is referring to the book The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart. Myself, I would go further and suggest there are at least ten books by Christians that people ought to read before offering critiques on it.
Interestingly, I found this video book review:
The reviewer asserts:
“Boghossian provides a true definition of faith that is difficult to argue with.”
Really? Is this person being serious? Given the evidence I have provided above I don’t think it’s hard to argue with his definition at all. The question is whether Boghossian is doxastically open (I’m reading ahead <wink>) to the possibility that he has wrongly defined it in light of the strong evidence to the contrary and whether those who are promoting his ideas are doing so based on blind faith having read just a few New Atheist authors and little else.
One last thing… I’m doing my best to remain open to the whole ‘Street Epistemology’ (honestly – I am!) thing but is this what it’s going to be like talking to one? I’ll shut up now!
Just replace “inconceivable” with “faith”:
Even more problems for Boghossian’s proposed definition:
And again (John Lennox this time):
Fr. Robert Barron:
A longer lecture on the subject by Christian academic Alister McGrath:
Another lecture, this time by Edward Fesser:
If you’re an New Atheist and you’re doxastically open enough to having your parody of faith challenged by engaging with what theists actually say about this word then this is your bare minimum homework: