For A Man Who Claims To Value Evidence…

For a man who claims to value evidence and to disdain evidence-free belief, there’s a whole lot of rank evidence-free conclusion-drawing in James Lindsay’s post about my ebook today. That doesn’t just apply to Lindsay, though: Peter Boghossian thinks his post is “the best single demolition of (the Christian) faith” he’s ever read.

Let me just pull out a few quotes, to examine the quality of the evidence in Lindsay’s post. The first point or two are rather nit-picky, and I’d set them aside if they weren’t part of an overall trend. The substance of my criticism increases, generally, as I go along.


Christian apologist (and stalwart defender of traditional definitions of the word “faith,” regardless of what the word means in usage) Tom Gilson has taken his paranoia with Peter Boghossian to a new level:

The diagnosis of pathology here is consistent with his earlier descriptions of me as “obsessed.” He ought to know better than to diagnose from a distance. Awareness and response are not equivalent to obsession or paranoia. He has made an evidence-free assessment of me in these cases.


I, along with at least one other, have posted a few times about Tom in the past, engaging in a blogged discussion with him, and it appears to have helped vault Tom into compiling a short ebook against Boghossian’s recent Manual for Creating Atheists.

I’d be hard-pressed to find any evidence anywhwere that he helped vault me to writing the book. Sure, he hedged his claim with “appears to have helped.” But even that’s unwarranted; there’s nothing anywhere to “appear” that way. It’s also false. I would have done it regardless. This belief is lacking in evidence.


All of that aside, I’m interested in this tiny bit:

For the sake of our faith, and our children’s faith, Christians need to know about this.

My question is “why?”–and especially if Christianity were really true.

The answer is really quite simple, and as I’ve noted before, it seems Tom Gilson knows it: the objects of belief in Christianity that Tom Gilson considers so important are not discoverable facts about the world….

This is why every Christian needs to know about Boghossian’s book and the threat it represents to their faith. It’s because faith is a failed way to know, and Tom Gilson knows it plainly, though he still wishes to defend it.

I know that? How does he know that I know it? Actually I disagree with it rather strongly. There’s no evidence for this conclusion of his at all. Does he like to practice evidence-free belief like this? He’s pretending that he knows it, but he doesn’t.


Thus, like all exercises in religious apologetics, Gilson’s book from front to back is one long exercise in pretending to know something that he does not know.

This is rolling-on-the-floor hilarious. Even if Boghossian’s definitinon of faith as pretending to know what one doesn’t know were correct, it wouldn’t apply to my book, because my book isn’t a defense of faith in that sense. The great majority of it isn’t religious, it’s a linguistic and philosophical analysis of what Boghossian writes. True, I defend a Christian-oriented definition of the word “faith,” but that definition is based in literary history, not on mysticism or religious belief. Again, some of the literature I refer to in that defense includes the Bible, but there the defense I conduct is a literary/philosophical one, not a “religious” one.

I have a very brief section at the end where I refer readers to other books that defend the faith of Christianity. It’s a page or two long. From “front to back”? Hah! That’s the only portion that even Boghossian or Lindsay could credibly call “pretending to know what I don’t know,” according to their own usage of that phrase.

So on this point, his claim not only ignores the available evidence, it runs counter to it! But he believes it anyway, with no evidence to support it.


To elaborate, every Islamic cleric in the world could tell Tom Gilson at length about the miracles and historicity of the Islamic beliefs, and historical evidence leans ever so slightly more heavily on their side. (We have better reasons to accept that Muhammad was a real historical figure than Jesus, even without the God-made-man nonsense.)

Actually, if he were actually to read some comparative Muslim and Christian apologetics he would know that there’s no parity in the evidences they offer, or even in the kinds of testable facts for which they attempt to give evidences. Sure, Islam has historical evidence supporting certain facts surrounding its origination, but Islam itself insists that the Qur’an has existed since eternity past, so unlike the Bible, its truth is entirely independent of historical facts, miracles included. It’s not an evidence-based religion even in its own terms! This is James’s pretending to know ignorance on display.

The number of serious New Testament-era scholars who doubt the historicity of Jesus is vanishingly close to zero. Those who do doubt it have two things in common. The first is that in the opinion of the vast majority of historians of that era, they deny the evidence in favor of their preconceived opinions. They draw virtually evidence-free conclusions. The second is that among those who study that era of history, the Jesus-mythers are universally regarded as “fringe” characters.

This is just fact; it’s a plain description of the state of today’s scholarship. Here’s a convenient compendium of sources. And no, they’re not all Christians. Bart Ehrman certainly isn’t.

It seems that if James were really interested in repudiating failed epistemologies, he might want to be more careful about confirmation bias influencing the scholars he choose to stand behind. After all, there are moments when “pretending occurs to stabilize belief, even if it happens subconsciously or preconsciously.”


They could tell Tom Gilson exactly how they know not only that Islam is the one true religion but also exactly how they know that Christianity errs in a grievous way on the central point. And Tom Gilson would ignore every one of them, talking about his “evidences” while they talk about theirs.

Ummm, no, actually, I wouldn’t ignore them, any more than I’m ignoring James. But he was willing to conclude that of me, absent any evidence. Odd.

So then, James, before you imply that you know what’s in a book you’re critiquing, you ought to read it and find out what’s in it first.

Or, alternatively, you could just pretend that you know. But I had hoped for better from you than that.


Your mentor thinks highly of your take-down of Christianity. I think it would be salutary to compile all the evidence-supported claims you made in it (since he does love evidence). We’ll see just how effectively you’ve destroyed the foundations of Christianity after all, and take the opportunity to wonder whether he might have been just a tad over-enthusiastic.

But I’ll save that for another year.

21 Responses to “ For A Man Who Claims To Value Evidence… ”

  1. Interesting that James links to here as evidence that he vaulted you, Tom, into writing a book. I don’t see it there either. Perhaps he did somewhere else, but I don’t see it there.

  2. Do you mean the one, James, about whether faith is a reliable way of knowing?

    But I thought you read my book. I explained in there what faith is.

    More to come on the flawed premise of your question. Next year.

  3. By the way, there’s another problem with your question that needn’t wait until tomorrow or the next day. It’s been a problem from the beginning, but I’ve just come to realize a better way to articulate it. In general, you want to know how I can think I have adequate evidence to support my faith claims. It’s a matter of facts to be brought to bear on the issue. You forget that Boghossian eschews facts in favor of discussing what faith is. That’s what I’ve been concentrating on: what faith is, and how he gets that wrong.

    You seem to find fault with me for focusing on the same thing he focuses on. Maybe you could explain for me what’s wrong with that.

    More to come, though, as I said.

  4. Boghossian eschews facts in favor of discussing what faith is.

    Isn’t the idea behind Boghossian’s definition of faith that faith is used as a replacement for evidence? His claim is that if evidence exists then one would not need faith, as I would read it. Faith is used as a foundation to claim things as true which one does not know are proven to be true, so if a person could provide evidence for their every claim they made then he would never encounter the faith he seeks.

  5. Aside from the fact that it’s a false definition, that’s also not the context in which he says this, Oisin, as James would know from reading the book.

  6. So when he is speaking with people, and asking them how they know the things they claim to know and they answer, “I just have faith, etc.”, are they also employing a false definition? Boghossian claims that this is how the word is used in conversation, and says that it amounts to a way to make claims that a person has no evidence for, “pretending to know things one does not know”. This is the faith that Boghossian wants to get rid of.

  7. I left out some crucial distinctions, Oisin. It is possible genuinely to know something without knowing how you know it. (I really can’t think of the examples right now, but later today I could dig some up. I’ve read it in an epistemology textbook somewhere, but I don’t remember where.)


    It’s possible to know something, and know how you know it, but not give access to that knowledge to another person. “How do you know you have a backache, and you’re not just defrauding your employer over it?”

    And it’s also possible to know something based on good reasons but not be able to articulate those good reasons under pressure of conversation.

    None of those are “pretending” to know.

    Then there are cases where a person really does pretend at faith. I’m with Boghossian: let’s eliminate those. I’m with Boghossian: let’s utilize good Socratic diagnostic questions. I’m not with Boghossian: let’s encourage them to have real faith.

    What Boghossian gets desperately and foolishly wrong is his evidence-free belief that there is no genuine faith based on knowledge in any Christian.

  8. Chesterton, once again, puts it this way in Orthodoxy:

    If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, “For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves in Christianity.” I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion. Now, the non-Christianity of the average educated man to-day is almost always, to do him justice, made up of these loose but living experiences. I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.

    I’m almost at the point that the precise definition of “faith” hardly matters anymore. My reasons for belief is so much more than just the minimalistic way in which faith is defined by some.

    I entirely understand that what he is doing is subverting the traditional meaning of the word in order to change culture, and that we should point it out, but somehow I’m beginning to wonder if it even matters. We don’t mean “that kind of faith” anyway.

    Chances are you even cover this in the book. Haven’t read more than a few pages yet :-)

  9. What Boghossian gets desperately and foolishly wrong is his evidence-free belief that there is no genuine faith based on knowledge in any Christian.

    This is his finding so far, he is open to bring proven wrong about the evidence for a God and this has not happened, so is now operating under the assumption that people use faith as a way of avoiding changing evidence-free beliefs. This is borne out in his many conversations with religious people, like Buddhists, Jews, Christians, etc. If there was evidence for the belief he just wouldn’t call that faith!

  10. Further on your central question, James. You keep pushing on that, almost as if it were the test of whether I’m serious about this discussion. I remind you that in every posting, you have continued to parrot Boghossian’s definitions of faith without offering any serious answer whatever to the literary and historical reasons by which I’ve shown that he is wrong. If you were serious about this discussion, you would either respond and show that I’m wrong, respond and grant that I’m (at least to some extent) right, or hold your opinion in abeyance until you have opportunity to respond.

    In effect, you haven’t responded at all to my central question. And mine preceded yours.

    Later this week I will show that your own question flows from a flawed premise. But you need not wait for me to do that before you respond to the one that was put forth first in this discussion.

  11. If there was evidence for the belief he just wouldn’t call that faith!

    That’s because he mis-defines faith. How many times has that been said here, and shown as well???

    It’s also, in my opinion, unbelievable that he has never encountered an evidence-based faith in any Christian. I am quite sure that he’s not speaking the truth there. I’m sure he’s met at least some Christians who offer reasons for their belief. If he doubts that they are sufficient reasons, then he needs to sit and chat a while with Phil.

  12. Tom, I think it’s as plain as day that James Linsday is not above resorting to rudeness when he interacts with you. I also think that he plays (and replays) childish word replacement tricks as if they are substantive and devastating arguments.

    With this in mind, I want to again mention his about page. Holding these words over-against the reality of his interactions here and on his own site, I can only conclude that when the about page mentions his desire to clarify the religious landscape and heal the related harms that it is factually incorrect.

    I’ve stopped reading him because of his behaviour, which is sad because he is obviously an intelligent guy with some interesting challenges.

  13. Ah! I see that James has apologised, which is always admirable in such cases. Maybe this means a return to a more focused debate and a leaving aside of the patronising psychology – or at least his need to use the language when addressing you.

  14. It appears to me that Boghossian and his devotee’s have a two stage strategy that they are using in their unilaterally declared war on faith and religion:

    First, claim by fiat that you have a monopoly on reason.

    Second, marginalize, dehumanize and/or demonize anyone who dares to challenge that claim. This means you don’t need to show your unwanted
    interlocutors any kind of respect. For example, if you don’t have the time don’t worry about using fallacious logic or even outright ridicule… Why waste time on people who you know are irrational? (Even if you have never met them or really have gotten to know them.)

    To me this two stage strategy sounds more like a con game than anything to do with serious, sober thinking. But then I found myself thinking, what con artist would be this obvious? They’d have to be pretty stupid if they were. However, it still might be a con game but it appears that the only people they have really succeeded in conning are themselves.

    Nevertheless, they have me convinced. They are indeed paragons of clear thinking and reason. Well, at least in their own little world they are.

  15. It’s not quite that simple. Close, but not quite.

    They have a particular mark they want to con. Boghossian is quite open about this (without the “con” language, of course).

    He won’t talk to apologists or “fundamentalists” who have been “so infected with the faith virus” that their “doxastic pathology” prevents them from being “improved” through his “treatment.”

    The quotes are all from Bogh’s book, and in context they mean what I represented them to mean.

    (Did I say he wasn’t using “con” language? I repent of that.)

    Translation: some people don’t understand their faith very well, some do. He’s targeting the former, but not the latter. People like me are not on his radar, and Boghossian is ignoring me, although he did send an indirect message via Twitter. (He couldn’t help himself, I suppose.)

    Clear thinking and reason are in their language but not in their performance, their preaching but not their practice.

  16. Can I just say that he’s got the Latin wrong? Does that mean he’s writing the Latin based on faith, since he’s pretending to know what he doesn’t really know?