This argument of Peter Boghossian’s is taken from a talk he did in 2016 to The Rationalist Society of Australia. He had just been talking about how faith is not a reliable way of knowing things and this argument is supposed to demonstrate why.
He says he is going to make a series of factual statements (which he hopes no-one in the audience will be able to disagree with).
- “There are different faith traditions.” Boghossian shows the audience the symbols of the six big religions.
2. “People have sincere faith in their faith tradition.”
3. “There are competing claims!”
His primary example to substantiate 3 is that Islam claims Muhammed is the final prophet and Mormonism says Joseph Smith was a prophet (and it’s uncontroversial that he lived long after Muhammed.
Another example he gives is that the Qur’an says Jesus was not crucified and Christians say he was.
Then he concludes they cannot all be true (because they conflict).
He points out it cannot be true both that Jesus was not crucified and that he was.
His next conclusion is that they can all be false.
That’s quite possible. Maybe the Qur’an and the New Testament are both wrong. Maybe, contrary to all the historical evidence of course, Jesus did not exist at all. We are just talking logical possibilities here. It’s logically possible.
But now notice Boghossian’s final conclusion. And this is where he completely loses the plot.
He then puts up a slide asserting they MUST (and he uses the word “all”) be false! Now what he says is rather confusing. He says, “In fact all, or almost all faith claims can be false. But beyond being false, faith claims are delusions.”
Boghossian’s slides and what he says are at odds. His slides appear to want to conclude that all religious claims MUST be false whilst what he actually says is that most religious claims can be false. Well which is it?
Either he is arguing that some religious claims which compete cannot both be true and since they cannot both be true they are both false. Well that’s evidently untrue. One could be true and the other could be false. Some professional epistemologists think there are synthetic a priori truths and others think there are not. They cannot both be right but that doesn’t mean both of them are wrong because they cannot both be right. Let’s say my wife and I disagree what I had for breakfast this morning and we have competing versions of the meal. I say I only had jam on toast and she says I didn’t have jam on toast but instead only had Weetabix. We can’t both be right. But just because we cannot both be right this does not mean one of us cannot be right and the other wrong. And, of course, since I’ve been married for twenty years all the husbands reading this know my wife is right!
Even if we are as generous as possible in our interpretation of what he is saying then, ignoring the slide he put up, he is saying that competing truth claims made by religious people cannot both be true therefore most religious truth claims are wrong. But again that does not follow. One can only say that in those instances where there are logically incompatible truth claims both cannot be simultaneously true. But one could be true and the other false.
If Boghossian is,very awkwardly and unbelelievably crudly, trying to say that religions all use faith (in his sense of the word ‘pretending to know things they don’t know’) as an epistemology and this is why we get different answers to the religious questions. So, reverse engineering, the different answers are evidence of a faulty epistemology then Boghossian is opening an even bigger problem up for himself epistemologically speaking. Take reason as one example. Boghossian has often lauded reason as a reliable epistemological tool but reason can give as alternative answers too. Take the field of ethics. Philosophers have been reasoning about morality for as long as we have records. During this time they have had completely different answers to the most basic questions of morality. Some philosophers have even argued that there are no such things as right and wrong. Such philosophers existed among the pre-Socratics and such philosophers exist in the modern day. Normative ethics is a whole minefield of different paradigms through which to view morality. There are certainly as many philosophical paradigms of ethics as there are religions. So if the mere existence of different answers is evidence of a faulty epistemological tool then we would be forced to admit that reason does not help us conclusively answer some of the most basic, and many would say most important, of the philosophical questions – how should we live?
Boghossian quickly moves on to talk about religious truth claims being delusions but since this appears to be his argument for them being delusions he has not properly demonstrated this to be the case. He is, ironically, asking us to take a huge leap of faith (and here I do mean in the Boghossian sense) with him in the dark whilst blindfolded!
All rather worrying for a person who is an assistant professor at a university!
Here’s the link to the whole lecture:
Now I’ve seen the whole thing I think Richard Shumack raises some good points in reply to Boghossian. The main one was to point out that the god question is still considered very much much alive in academia. Of course, Richard may not be aware, but Boghossian has attempted to deride ALL academics (atheists included) who engage in academic philosophy of religion. Ironic given his penchant for popular-level philosophy of religion writing!
I do try my best not to mock people but there’s a moment in the Q&A at the end where I simply cannot resist.
Boghossian states he has no idea whether Jesus existed or not. He says “I’m not qualified…” to comment (which does make me wonder why he then comments!). Then he tells his audience Robert Price doesn’t think Jesus did exist while Bart Ehrman says he did. He uses this to state that there is an ‘argument’ about whether Jesus really existed or not.
I want you to notice just how little of a debate is needed for Boghossian to get sceptical. Robert Price is not a first-century scholar. He’s a theologian and textual critic. So, for Boghossian, it is enough to question the historicity on the basis of finding one single non-expert who disagrees. Notice the low threshold.
On this basis I assume Boghossian doesn’t know whether the Holocaust took place or not. I mean some people even call David Irving a ‘historian’ and he denies the holocaust so if we apply Boghossian’s trite epistemology we’d be justified in doubting the Holocaust.
I seriously doubt Boghossian is about to become a Holocaust-mythicist on this basis and until he does he’s applying a standard of knowledge to some aspects of history inconsistently. If he does adhere to ‘scientism’ we should not be surprised.
By the way, if you haven’t heard Bart Erhman destroy a Christ-mythicist in person, treat yourself and have a listen: