No, This Part of My Argument Doesn’t Depend On Believing the Bible

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series Peter Boghossian

I wish I could have charged money for every time I’ve answered the same objection to my review of Boghossian’s book. I wrote there,

Both Loftus and Boghossian are, quite simply, wrong. Faith simply is not belief without evidence. If it were, then Jesus would be one of history’s greatest crusaders against faith. When he rose from the dead, he presented himself alive as a demonstration of his resurrection. If the disciples were expected to believe in his resurrection on “faith,” as Dr. Boghossian understands the term, then by showing himself alive, Jesus would have been destroying any opportunity for them to have “faith” in his resurrection.

The same pattern presents itself throughout the Bible. From the Exodus to the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, to the great signs and wonders that Jesus performed, to his resurrection from the dead, and finally to the miracles done by and through the apostles, there was evidence for the reality of God all along the way.

The first instance was in a comment by Patrick Reynolds:

All of the evidence you refer to are just stories in the bible [sic]. If you are going to consider that to be evidence then why not say that the stories in the Koran are evidence for Allah or that stories in the Mahaburata are evidence for Lord Brahma.

There is no archaeological evidence, for example, that the exodus [sic] ever took place. Nor is there any evidence outside of the bible [sic] that Jesus was ever crucified in Jerusalem. None of the historians living at the time of Jesus record his execution or mention that people rose up from the dead and ran through the town.

I answered,

The question I was working on wasn’t “what happened in biblical times?” or, “Is there evidence for God?” It was, “what does the word ‘faith’ mean, and does that term’s definition involve evidence or not?”

Definitions are conventional; i.e, the meanings we give to words are those that people conventionally hold. Those conventions develop through usage. There is a centuries-long history of usage of “faith” that has been deeply conditioned by the Bible. When the word “faith” was used in the Bible, it was used in evidential contexts. Note that I’m speaking of the literary context: how the characters were portrayed as understanding the term. The Western world’s understanding of “faith” has followed that convention down the centuries since then.

And that is how the meaning of the word arose: whether the literature of the Bible is true or not, that literature determined the meaning of the term.

When I placed my review on the Amazon page for the book, I tried to get ahead of the objection by inserting this:

Undoubtedly some will want to object, “but this depends on believing in the Bible, and only faith-heads do that.” But no, it only depends on recognizing the Bible as the literary and cultural source of the Western world’s understanding of “faith”—an understanding that Boghossian turns upside down, and which he expects us to topple over with him, based on no source except his own opinion.

It didn’t work, alas. Right out of the gate, James Edge objected,

It seemed that your reasoning for denying his definition of faith requires belief in the Bible. Or it requires trust in other people who believe in the Bible. That’s why it doesn’t work to disprove Dr. Boghossian’s definition.

I answered him,

Did you see this paragraph?

“Undoubtedly some will want to object, ‘but this depends on believing in the Bible, and only faith-heads do that.’ But no, it only depends on recognizing the Bible as the literary and cultural source of the Western world’s understanding of ‘faith’-an understanding that Boghossian turns upside down, and which he expects us to topple over with him, based on no source except his own opinion.”

The thing is, James, the word “faith” has acquired a certain set or constellation of meanings across several centuries. There is a very, very large literature on it. Words are defined conventionally, and the conventional meaning(s) for “faith” have been established.

Words are understood contextually as well. Boghossian’s meanings might apply in some limited contexts, but he wants to make them fit every context; and in contexts where his definitions don’t fit, he wants to eliminate the use of the word “faith” altogether. (He has stated this frequently in his public lectures and podcasts.)

Thus he wants to set aside all the relevant literature over all the centuries, and all the meanings that have accrued to the term “faith” except his own. He wants to declare all other understandings of “faith” false. He specifically wants to define faith-in every context- as standing in absolute opposition to evidence and reason, even though that is not the way it has been understood for literally centuries.

And he wants to do this pretty much on his own authority. This is either grandiose authoritarianism on his part, or else it’s a blatantly incorrect use of language. Either way it’s wrong.

Later on, A. Schüler wrote,

– How is that of any relevance to what Boghossian is saying? Out of all christians [sic]that ever lived, only a handful (literally) allegedly witnessed the crucifixion + the allegedly risen Christ. Even in the first century, virtually all converts had no access to this evidence, they only heard the story second-hand or worse. So how does this apply to any christian [sic] except for the handful of disciples that allegedly witnessed these events?

And I replied,

It’s astonishing to me how difficult this seems to be.

The topic is the definition of a word. Words gain their meaning by how they are used in conversation and in literature. The message of Jesus in the Bible is the relevant literature, and down through the centuries, it has led people to understand “faith” in a certain way: belief supported by evidence.

Still today, believers like myself point to evidence as support and reason for our faith. We try to adduce and present evidence for others to consider. If faith were belief without evidence, then we would be undermining faith with every presentation of evidence.

That’s the contemporary situation; it was exactly the same in the original literature.

Boghossian says faith is belief without evidence, that it has no other meaning whatsoever (except the related “pretending to know things you don’t know”), and he ignores all the relevant literature that defines it otherwise. His definition is wrong.

You would think that might have settled it, but no, along came Astarte Moonsilver to say,

The “evidence” you are using to support your belief comes from second hand testimony of the disciples who were supposedly present with Jesus, and even you must acknowledge that large portions of the New Testament are letters that Paul wrote to several different groups of people, claiming knowledge about Jesus that he could not possibly have witnessed first hand himself, having written these letters based on a vision he had of Jesus, not actually meeting him or knowing him in the flesh. Paul wrote based on faith, asserted it as fact, and millions of Christians believe based on Paul’s assertions and testimony of his vision, not on actual first-hand accounts. This is not evidence of anything except one man writing several letters claiming to know something he could not have known, except for having a vision one night on a deserted road near Damascus.

I’ll admit I didn’t take the time to give Astarte much of an answer. I only said,

So many people who think they know so much when they have studied so little.

In other words, thank you for your authoritative information offered with absolutely no supporting evidence whatsoever. I’ll give it all the consideration such a comment deserves.

Meanwhile on a skeptic’s blog, Kent wrote (I cannot find links to specific comments) a paragraph or two complaining that I had no proof of the Bible’s veracity. I responded,

Kent, first of all, the available evidence confirms that the Gospel writers knew their geography, their customs, their names and places, their politics, and more. Supposed disconfirmations of these things have foundered on the facts unearthed by current scholarship. The Resurrection account of I Cor 15:5-8 in particular goes back in the record to within just a few years of the event.

Secondly, the point of my blog post was never to prove any of that. I brought it up here just to lodge my own opinion of your opinion. Neither of us provided any evidence for our claims, and for my part I’m content with that, because it’s irrelevant to the point of my blog post.

The point I was making was that the word “faith” is definitionally related to knowledge. Definitions are a matter of human convention, and such convention arises out of literature and conversation. The literature on the word faith in Western culture is massively dominated by the Bible. Thus whether the events in the Bible are true are not, still the conception of faith that has obtained among people who have thought much about it down the centuries is one that is closely connected with knowledge, because the Bible presented it that way.

Boghossian’s conception of faith ignores and/or overturns all that.

Now on this website Robert has written,

The problem with your rebuttal of his arguement is that you claim Jesus presented himself after his ressurection as evidence. well, I’m sorry, but that in itself is a faith claim. You’re saying the evidence for christianity [sic] being true, is the story in the bible. [sic] which you believe to be true. Where is your evidence that it is true.

And it was when I read his comment that I decided to post this aggregation of answers to that question.

(As an aside, I can’t help but wonder why so many people have trouble identifying proper nouns and capitalizing them. It happens to be a pet peeve of mine. If you’re one of those writers, please double-check the discussion policy.)

Series Navigation (Peter Boghossian):<<< Review: Boghossian’s <em>A Manual for Creating Atheists</em>An Open Letter to Peter Boghossian On “Doxastic Openness” >>>

13 Responses to “ No, This Part of My Argument Doesn’t Depend On Believing the Bible ”

  1. J R R Tolkien wrote fiction
    J R R Tolkien wrote about dragons, elves, dwarves and rings
    But because he wrote fiction, his writings tell us nothing about what the words dragon, elf, dwarf or ring mean.

  2. Not to mention orcs, Uruk-hai, ents, and (of course) hobbits. These words have meanings because of the literature that gave them meaning.

    That’s something literature does. It’s not what authoritarian professorial pronouncements do.

    Am I harming my case by referring to fantasy characters? No, I don’t think so. My point has to do with where words’ meanings are established and developed. This principle of literary-source heritage applies to all language, regardless of its referent.

  3. Literary theorists attack definitions of terms, such as woman and man, precisely because texts (stories, poems, etc.) codify what those words can mean. They want to expand those terms beyond conventionality, which supports what Tom is saying: words are defined by usage in common parlance and literature (which is another reason why theorists ‘interrogate’ texts to uncover power structures that restrict meaning).

    As Orwell has said, in order for tyrants to standardize thought, they must first standardize the language; that is, redefine words for their ideological uses. Boghossian and other atheists are essentially employing a similar tactic. It’s nothing more than a straw-man.

  4. Tom-From your perspective, what is the difference between the definition of faith and the definition of belief?

  5. Faith is a subset (species) of belief: all faith is belief, but not all belief is faith. To believe X is to consider that X is true. I consider it true that I’m sitting in a restaurant right now, which is not a matter of faith. I believe that Jesus Christ is coming again, which is a matter of belief and of faith.

    My best definition of faith is probably here and here.

    Hope it’s okay to send you away to other links. I’m about to hit the road and I can’t add more for a couple hours. Those two pages should probably answer your question, at any rate.

  6. I think I understand the point you mention regarding the definition of faith, but modern believers do not have any such evidence as people within the Bible allegedly had, yet they still use the term “faith”.

    And part of the reason this new definition took hold among both groups is specifically because Christians began demonstrating that way of thinking in their actual behavior and beliefs. No matter what, they believe what they want to believe, regardless of how much of a non sequitur their reasoning is, or however fallacious in other ways. For example, Martin Luther and some other theologians even said things like “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” which would contradict what you say is the Biblical definition.

    So doesn’t Boghossian’s definition of faith hold up? Aren’t we really speaking about the current situation? In other words, he’s using the term “faith” according to modern usage, not a Biblical one.

    Essentially my point is just that when atheists discuss faith, we are referring to the trend of irrationality and presupposition we see dominating Christianity and its apologetics. And that issue is the topic of debate, regardless of what word is used to label it. As you noted, definitions are a matter of human convention. So they take on alternate meanings. We just need to recognize which meaning is being used then proceed from there.

    My apologies if you feel that you have already answered these points, but they seem to be currently un-addressed.

    (Also note that I haven’t read Boghossian’s book so I am not defending whatever else he said in there, or even if his arguments make any sense. I’m just speaking about his use of the word “faith”)

  7. Aaron,

    we are referring to the trend of irrationality and presupposition we see dominating Christianity and its apologetics

    We see a trend of irrationality and presupposition in the atheist movement, therefore they would have “faith” if you want to go that route.

    No matter what, they believe what they want to believe, regardless of how much of a non sequitur their reasoning is, or however fallacious in other ways.

    Which is exactly the route the skeptics have taken in this line of argument. No matter how fallacious the argument is shown to be they do not disown the argument and go back to the drawing board.

  8. Then one thing that can be agreed on is that if Peter Boghossian’s definition of faith was held by a Christian (claiming knowledge based on faith, including say the essence of the Apostle’s Creed), then this sort of faith is false and unsupportable? In these instances, you would all be in agreement with his argument?

  9. GrahamH,

    I wouldn’t go that far. God can grant knowledge without evidence; it is within is sovereign power to do so. The great error Boghossian makes is to suppose that faith is divorced from knowledge, and that all faith-knowing is pretending.