‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.2: Foundationalism and Faith

I am roughly (according to my kindle) one quarter of the way though this book and it’s taken a long time in coming but Boghossian begins talking about which epistemological school of thought he wants his Street Epistemologists (SEs) to take.

He discards coherentism as a practical option for disabusing people of their faith (for rather spurious and superficial reasons I think) [1] and suggests that foundationalism is a better ‘paradigm’ for “deconstructing a subject’s faith.” [Loc.1298] It is only being adopted for pragmatic and apologetic reasons however and you should see why by the end of this post.


Boghossian then claims that ‘faith’ is the basis of the religious edifice and therefore if one can only destroy faith then everything else will fall. Rather ambitiously, he writes:

“By undermining faith one is able to undermine almost all religions simultaneously, and it may be easier to help someone to abandon their faith than it is to separate them from their religion.” [Loc.1307]

The polarization of faith and reason is once more stated quite explicitly:

“The greatest obstacle to engendering reason and rationality is faith.” [Loc.1316]

I would like to go back just a couple of pages to Boghossian’s potted description of foundationalism because what he misses out is most revealing. Boghossian takes Descartes as a good example of a foundationalist and he states:

“Descartes is a good example of a foundationalist. He starts with the fact that he exists as the foundation for his beliefs: ‘I think therefore I am.’ Descartes constructs additional propositions based upon this proposition. For example, once he establishes the reliability of his senses, he then constructs propositions about the accuracy of his perceptions of the world – when he perceives something clearly and distinctly he’s not deceived. Descartes and other foundationalists come to know the world by basing their beliefs on fundamental and often irreducible propositions.” [Loc.1288]

Ren--Descartes-006Did you notice what Boghossian completely misses out? He fails to mention that Descartes is a theist. Not just a theist but a Christian. So here we have a foundationalist who is a rationalist who is not appealing to ‘faith’ as the foundation of his epistemology! The foundation of Cartesian epistemology is reason. [2]

So Boghossian has a rather large piece of evidence against his contention that ‘pretending to know things you don’t know’ is the foundation stone for all theists within two pages of having made the claim. The only problem is he fails to explain this to his (mostly I would think) non-philosophically trained readership. Now I would rather not believe that Boghossian is deliberately trying to deceive people who don’t know their philosophy very well so I will put it down to an oversight on his part but it’s a pretty huge oversight especially for someone who teaches some philosophy.

It appears to be highly ironic when Boghossian cites Jacques Derrida favourably as having suggested that in order to deconstruct a tradition one must really understand it. [Loc.1286] Yet, up to this point, it’s hard to find much evidence that Boghossian has really understood Christianity very well at all. I mean, if he cannot even get the basic Christian idea of faith explained correctly then it suggests he’s not very well placed to engage with Christian philosophy.

So, having adopted some rather crude form of foundationalism, for purely pragmatic reasons, Boghossian then makes it clear that all the SE need do is expose the foundation stone of this worldview which he declares to be ‘faith’:

“To demolish a building, start with the base. Take out the support beam and the entire structure will fall. Faith is the base. Faith holds up the entire structure of belief. Collapse faith and the entire edifice falls.” [Loc.1303]


“The greatest obstacle to engendering reason and rationality is faith.” [Loc.1313]

However, he goes on to say:

“Religion is not necessarily an insurmountable barrier to reason and rationality. The problem is not that people are reading ancient texts. I read Shakespeare with my son. I don’t, however, think that Iago, Hamlet, and Lear were historical figures. I also don’t derive my ultimate authority from Shakespeare’s works. I don’t want to kill people who have rival interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays. Nor do I attempt to bring Othello into decisions at the ballot box.” [Loc.1330]

So does Boghossian think that all ancient writings are fictional because they’re ancient? I’m sure he cannot mean that but then why is he comparing a writer of plays with historical narrative on the basis of nothing other than age? Should modern virtue ethicists also stop quoting from Aristotle since he’s far more ancient than Shakespeare? And when Boghossian mentions killing surely he realizes that he is simply joining the vast majority of religious people who also don’t kill other people due to disagreements in interpretations? If Boghossian is claiming that every single holy book in every single religion on planet earth has been misunderstood by religious scholars as having a bearing on history, politics, ethics, philosophy or theology then I think he may well find that scholarship is very much against this rather odd reading.



If you have not already read my posts on the faulty interpretation Boghossian has of faith I would recommend you read parts 3.1 and 3.2 since I will assume you have already read those pieces in what follows. Once again, Boghossian asserts that the problem for religious people (or more specifically theistic religious people – since he keeps talking about God and some religions are clearly not theistic) is that the basis of the epistemology is ‘faith’ in the sense that they are pretending to know things they don’t know. Boghossian says:

“The faulty reasoning process – the problem – is faith.”  [Loc.1330]

“Belief without evidence is the problem. Warrantless, dogged confidence is the problem. Epistemological arrogance masquerading as humility is the problem. Faith is the problem. Belief in an imagined metaphysical entity – God – is a symptom of these larger attitudinal and critical thinking skillbased deficiencies, one that is supported and made possible primarily by faith, and also by social and cultural elements and institutions that are covariant with, and supportive of, faith. Belief in God is one consequence of a failed epistemology, with social and cultural mechanisms that both prop up this metaphysical belief and stifle epistemological challenges.” [Loc.1339]

What a horrible thing theistic religion is! The only problem is that Boghossian does not spend any time whatsoever interacting with what theistic religion has had to say on the issue of epistemology. Instead, we are asked to blindly trust Boghossian’s impressions on this matter. This is not the first time this has happened. I noted Boghossian’s reluctance to engage with religious philosophers when he was (mis)defining faith. I noted his lack of scholarly citation when claiming the Greek word έλεγχος had dramatically changed in meaning. Now we come to another crucial moment in the SE assessment of religion and yet again we are denied any interaction with religious thinkers at all.

Coincidentally, I just happen to be reading a book on epistemology by a Christian philosopher at the moment. See if you can spot the numerous problems this sample gives Boghossian’s assessment:

“Christians have some special reasons to take seriously the questions and concerns raised by epistemologists. Exercising care over the foundation of our minds is not a purely academic pursuit; it is also a spiritual one. God enjoins us in Scripture to pursue the intellectual virtues. The Bible is unequivocally clear that Christians are to superintend the life of the mind. “Do not be conformed to this world, but by transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom.12:3). God cares about how you think, not just what you think.”… The concern of ancient and medieval philosophers to cultivate the habits of mind that we call the intellectual virtues is also a biblical concern. Not only do classical Greek thinkers and the writers of the Hebrew wisdom literature name some virtues in common, but their understanding of some virtues and vices seems roughly to coincide. Scores of injunctions to pursue intellectual virtues dot the pages of Scripture. We are urged to be attentive, wise discerning, prudent, circumspect, understanding, teachable, lovers of truth, intellectually humble and intellectually tenacious, along with many other positive intellectual traits. We are also directed to be able to defend our faith, to instruct others in the faith, to confute those who oppose true doctrine, and so on…

According to the Christian tradition, to forge virtuous habits of moral and intellectual character is part of what is required for us to grow to the full stature of all that God intends is part of what is required for us to grow to the full stature of all that God intends for humans to be…

We cannot be fully intellectually virtuous without also being morally virtuous. The converse is also true; we cannot succeed in the moral life without also displaying important intellectual virtues. When we succeed in harmonizing these aspects of our lives, we achieve what ancients and moderns alike call integrity.”

W. Jay Wood Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous p.18,19

Here is Thomas Aquinas on the same issue:

“…the habit of virtue is determined to the good and in no way to evil. But the true is the good of intellect and the false is its evil. Hence only those habits are called intellectual virtues which always express the true and never the false.”

Thomas Aquinas The Virtues, Summa Theologiae Question 57 Article 2 Ad.3

Or, bringing it back to another couple of modern Christian academics:

“We cannot allow Christ to reign in our hearts if he does not also guide our thinking. The discipleship of the mind is just as important as any other part of the process by which we grow in our faith and commitment. The defense of the intellectual credibility of Christianity has become increasingly important in recent years, not least on account of the rise of the new atheism. We must see ourselves as standard-bearers for the spiritual, ethical imaginative and intellectual vitality of the Christian faith, working out why we believe that certain things are true and what difference they make to the way we live our lives and engage with the world around us.”

Alister McGrath The Passionate Intellect p.21

“Wisdom is more about our attitude towards truth than about how much we know. A philosopher’s main motive in seeking truth is not to make reality conform to how they think it should be. Rather, it’s to conform their belief to how reality is. A philosopher doesn’t merely seek knowledge, but understanding. To have understanding means ‘standing under’ the authority of the truth to dictate what we believe.”

Peter S. Williams A Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom p.11

Since pretending to know something you don’t know would be seen as something quite unvirtuous and unethical it’s pretty hard to see how Boghossian could claim it would be a central aspect of Christian epistemology over the last two thousand years. But then, Boghossian has not made a case for this central thesis of his book. He has simply stated it without any supporting evidence and with no interaction with the main Christian thinkers or thinkers from any of the world’s religions at all.

If Boghossian wants to demonstrate there is something systemically problematic with religious epistemology then I would suggest he starts interacting with some of the world’s leading religious philosophers on the subject. Since he is making claims about theistic religions which certainly do not appear to fit with what Christian philosophers have to say about epistemology it could well be claimed he is creating a straw man. Until he does begin interacting with religious philosophers and what they actually say it’s getting difficult to take him too seriously.


[1] His comments about coherentism appear to show a very superficial understanding  of this epistemological method however. He also fails to explain how he might deal with a theist who is a coherentist.

[2] For a much more reliable introduction to Descartes, without the embarrassing gaps Boghossian won’t admit to, see this brief introduction by philosopher John Cottingham:


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Epistemology, Evidentialism, Faith, New Atheism, Philosophy, Street Epistemology, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.2: Foundationalism and Faith

  1. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

  2. jesseevans says:

    I don’t really see how ‘faith’ is an obstacle. It seems historically and from biographies on many great scientists of the scientific revolution, Descartes included, that faith was in part a great starting point for science. The fact that most of them were christian/theists supports this claim. And since faith is not an obstacle for a revolution in science, maybe it is not so urgent that we dismiss it. Faith and Reason are essential to good science. The video posted makes great sense of this in that Descartes as a practicing scientist and philosopher, that for human reason to be trustworthy it must first be doubted. You can’t start science with doubting alone. Something needs to be certain. For Descartes it was God, and eventual his own existence that gave him and us that starting point.

  3. labreuer says:

    I would love to hear Boghossian explain why humans should have believed that the universe was rational and increasingly understandable, before significant science had been done. I don’t know if Rodney Stark’s thesis that Christians’ faith in God and his rationality and their image-bearingness advanced science is true, but it seems compelling, in a way that Boghossian ought to find deeply disturbing.

    This makes me wonder about what people these days think about the lawfulness or lack thereof, of people’s inner lives, these days. Francis Schaeffer famously talked about the “upper story” (universals, values, meaning, purpose, etc.) being utterly disconnected from the “lower story” (the particulars of life), leaving us unable to even talk about the “upper story”. I know that Schaeffer has his problems (Roger Olson and James Barr have called him a “psuedointellectual”), but it seems that he was really onto something. Would you comment?

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Well yes I agree with you. I’m only 25% of the way through Boghossian’s book but it does not look like he’s going to engage with any Christian philosophers at all other than a tiny dismissive nod in a footnote. It’s a very anti-intellectual book in this regard so far. So my expectations have been becoming lower and lower.

      Yes I think those are rather unfair jibes at Schaeffer. I do think Schaeffer does sometimes overgeneralize but, on the other hand, if you don’t have people willing to do that you can never get a grasp on anything. So as a beginning point into philosophy as he was for me) I have always been grateful for his writings. I think that distinction between upper and lower stories is most apt in this case. I’m currently writing something in reply to the British Humanist Association and they too appear to want to be able to assume the upper story metanarrative of Christianity while tinkering with the lower story. I think this is very damaging to such views. It’s time they faced the music on the meta-issues which they want to assume. This is, after all, where materialism and naturalism are having some serious problems.

      Thanks. Interesting comment.

  4. Nemo says:

    Thank you for the John Cottingham video link. It’s a very good introduction to Descartes.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      You’re welcome. He has a book on Descartes as well if you want more!

      • Nemo says:

        Cottingham did his PhD dissertation on Descartes, and wrote quite a few books on the subject, including a 3-volume compilation of Descartes’ philosophical writings, which this video has inspired me to read.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          Yes that’s right. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and hearing him lecture and I have read the three volumes you refer to. He is a real authority on Descartes. I’m glad this inspired you to read more of him. That’s great.

          • Nemo says:

            Just out of curiosity, does he have any strong religious belief himself?

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            Yes he’s a Christian.

          • Nemo says:

            Are there any written statement or public confession? I’m curious because he never talks about his own religious belief in his interviews/lectures. His supervisor at Cambridge, Sir. Anthony Kenny, is a Catholic turned agnostic, and upfront about it.

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            Yes there is. His book ‘Why Believe?’ is an explanation of why he’s a Christian. It’s a fantastic little book. I highly recommend.

          • Nemo says:

            Sorry, I meant Oxford

          • Nemo says:

            I found this video “Why Believe”. I’m not sure if it summarizes the book with the same title.

            In it, Cottingham talks about the reason to believe in something transcendent, not necessarily Christian.

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            Nice. Good find!

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