On James Lindsay’s Response to My Open Letter To Peter Boghossian

James, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your response to my Open Letter to Peter Boghossian. You anticipated many of my thoughts, answered several others, and gave me much to think about.

As you might expect, however, I do have some concerns.

A Children’s Book By Dawkins

A Christian thinker could little other than lament the situation, however, where he has presented an argument heavily influenced by the great Christian thinkers of all times, and he is answered by a reference to Richard Dawkins, who has trumpeted his lack of interest in thoughtful Christian literature down the ages. Not just that, but the reference is taken from a children’s book! Something very important is missing there, as I hope further reflection will lead you to recognize.

Tradition, Revelation, Authority, and Evidence and Reason

You didn’t expect Dawkins’ observation to be controversial, that “te methods of faith rely upon tradition, revelation, and authority.” I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that actually is open to dispute among Christians. On my understanding and in my experience, faith has always been built upon reason and evidence as well. If you care to look into my reflections on that, you could find some here and especially here. Tradition, revelation, and authority are among the raw materials of faith, but they are testable, and they have been tested, through historical, philosophical, archaeological, and other lines of evidence and thought. Augustine speaks of “trust in a reliable source” — do you think he had no interest in knowing how one could know that the source was reliable?

You and I differ as to what can be concluded from the evidences Christians draw upon. This is hardly unexpected. I’m disappointed, though, that you devoted the bulk of your response to a discussion of whether there is good evidence for God. That’s an interesting and important topic, and I’ve written many words on it; but it was not the topic of the letter you were ostensibly responding to. That letter was mostly about Boghossian’s distortions of the word faith.

Defining Faith According To the Relevant Evidence: Its Conventional Usage

(I thought it was rather droll the way you said I repeatedly assert that “Christian faith fails Boghossian’s definition.” Technically that’s a true statement, but it places the “failure” in a funny place. Did you intend that as humor?)

Anyway, granted that we disagree on how the evidences should be attributed and interpreted. Still, the word faith as Christians understand the word does not mean belief without evidence. I thought I explained this in my open letter: It was not understood that way in the original literature, the Bible, and it has not been understood that way in the great majority of the relevant literature written since then. Since the conventional meaning of a word is gained through its usage, and definitions are of course a matter of convention, then faith should be understood in light of the relevant literature. It simply has never, until relatively recently and mostly in the words of those trying to undermine it, meant belief apart from evidence.

In my open letter, I think I dealt with the matter of whether the definition referred to a reality or not. That was the point of my reference to Tolkien and orcs, and I also addressed it in a section titled, “But What If Our Beliefs Are Wrong?” Suppose faith is always founded on error: the word still means what it conventionally means.

This in itself is a matter of evidence, by the way: to determine the meaning of a word, one looks to the evidence of how it has been used.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that Boghossian himself said he was seeking to change the meaning of the word (at around the 47-48 minute mark here). That’s a more or less explicit admission that his definition is novel and probably unrelated to how anyone has thought about the word before. In my view it’s a rather authoritarian approach to thought, language, and, well, faith. I don’t know what gives him the right to pronounce his definitions correct above all others.

If this conversation continues, and I hope it does, I’d really like to see you deal with the matter of conventional usage of the term, and answer the question, “How can someone like Boghossian think that his preferred definition must rule over all others? What evidence can they give, to show that this is (and has been) the conventional usage of the term?”

Why It Matters

Now let me explain how this matters, and how it should matter to you (or at least to Richard Dawkins) as it does to me. Dawkins has decried the “child abuse” of raising children “as Catholics” or “as Muslims,” etc. Part of his objection is his (ironically unscientific) belief that Christian teachings themselves harm children psychologically. Part of it, if I recall correctly, was also in the idea that children ought to have the freedom to choose their beliefs based on evidence, when they get to an age at which they have the capacity to do so.

Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form.

Perhaps you’re okay with that. Maybe you like the idea of taking the very form of the question from as many people as possible. I hope not, for I consider it quite reprehensible, myself. It’s the very antithesis of free, open, and evidence-oriented inquiry. It’s question-begging: the conclusion is contained in the premise by which faith is understood. Containing a fallacy right within it as it does, it’s hardly conducive to Boghossian’s value of promoting sound, critical thinking.

Summary

Therefore it seems to me that Boghossian’s definition is:
a) Divorced from most of the relevant evidence relating to the use of the word.
b) Authoritarian
c) Question-begging in practice
d) Harmful to thought and discourse

It’s wrong in fact, and it’s wrong in practice.

Where To Go From Here?

I know I haven’t addressed your issues about whether Christian faith is a reliable way of knowing. I don’t feel bad about that: after all, you didn’t address most of my open letter, in the response you wrote to it. You even missed the two brief points where I showed that the question of faith’s accuracy or reliability was tangential to the question of how the word is conventionally defined.

So once again, I’m going to request that if it’s your purpose to respond to my open letter, would you please respond to the content and argument of the letter. If we work through that, then I think it could be very productive to move on to the new issues you raised. I opened this article with words of appreciation for the thoughtfulness of what you wrote. It did indeed raise some interesting points; it’s just that they were points that had little to do with what I thought you were responding to. Until we work through the actual argument of my open letter, though, I’m going to have to regard it as standing with essentially no resopnse to it, so far.

Comments 3
  1. Tom Gilson

    P.S. Not that it matters, James, but in one of your first tweets to me you said you thought it was “interesting” that I had an “obsession” with Peter Boghossian. You re-stated your opinion again here that I seem to have an obsession. I don’t suppose it even matters, but I’m going to respond to that briefly by saying that I think Boghossian’s book is important, in that he is the best tactician the New Atheists have today. It’s worth paying attention to. A book-length response to his book and his interviews and lectures would hardly be out of order, and I doubt anyone would call it “obsessive” to write one. Thirteen blog posts take less time and effort than a book.

    You may continue to feel as interested as you like in my level of interest in Boghossian, but to call it obsessive is to go beyond the evidence you have. And I know you believe in evidence.

  2. SteveK

    James seems obsessed enough with you, Tom, to write a response. I don’t see this kind of obsession as being a bad thing, but to the degree it is for you, if at all, it is also for James.

  3. Pingback: Why Won’t I Answer James Lindsay’s Questions? - Thinking Christian

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