How Peter Boghossian Gets Faith Wrong

I’ve been saying Peter Boghossian gets faith wrong, defining it as “pretending to know what you don’t know.” This should hardly come as any surprise; he gets all kinds of things wrong, including good thinking and/or honest communication, as I’ve shown earlier in this series, so why would anyone think he got faith right? Nevertheless, the complaint I’m raising against his (ahem) “definition” demands that I provide the real one.

What’s a Good Definition?

Before I launch in to that, it behooves us to consider what makes one definition better than another; for there is one sense in which Boghossian’s is excellent: it serves his manipulatire rhetorical purpose of undermining faith and instituting atheism.

Yes, I know he says atheism isn’t his chief rhetorical objective, and that good critical thinking is instead. That would be easier to believe if he hadn’t gone public multiple times with arguments that wouldn’t merit a “D” on a freshman philosophy paper (see earlier posts in this series). If sound, evidence-based, logical thinking were his goal, one would think he would demonstrate it. But he does precisely the opposite.

Private Purposes or Public Communication

Anyway, for his own purposes his definition of faith serves admirably. But words aren’t for just one person’s purposes. They’re for sharing. They may have private functions in our minds or perhaps in our journals, so if Boghossian wants to use faith his own way in his own space, I don’t mind. But he’s hit the lecture and podcast trail insisting we must change the public meaning of faith. He even got into a bit of a spat with The Good Atheist over that, with his host holding fast to the sensible thought that changing the meaning of faith would be a bad campaign to pursue.

What then constitutes a good public definition? I’ve hinted at it already: it serves the purpose of conveying meaning from one person to another, reliably and accurately. (There are other characteristics of a good definition — Aristotle’s genus and species come to mind — but I think this is the relevant thought for now.) Thus when A says faith to B, and B asks what A means by faith, the goal ought to be for B to find out what A means. The goal is not to tell A what A means, as a certain Professor B is trying to do with his definition.

Biblical Faith

So then, what is faith?

As a Christian, I’m in interest in its meaning in a biblical context and in the history of Christian thought and experience. Others can say what they think it is in their systems of thought.

Faith in the Greek is pistis, trust. The Holman Bible Dictionary’s entry on faith (as found in Accordance 10.2) indicates that “throughout the Scriptures faith is the trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.” It is trust connected with knowledge in a certain way. Again from Holman: “biblical faith is a kind of limited personal knowledge of God.”

Multi-dimensional Meaning

When Christians speak of their faith, this is approximately what they mean by it, although it really cannot be encapsulated in such a short statement. I spoke recently on how obviously wrong Boghossian must be about faith simply on grounds that the term couldn’t possibly be as one-dimensional as he says, and I don’t want to make the same mistake here. Quoting Holman again,

The concept of faith has been radically redefined in some philosophical and theological circles during the past century. Those definitions rarely address the complexities of the biblical concept, a concept in which the whole person, the physical world, God’s Word, and God Himself play crucial roles. Those alternative definitions often do not grasp the objective and subjective characteristics of biblical faith.

Again, with reference to the Old Testament term for faith,

When employed to describe relationships between God and people, aman is used to express a complex concept. It describes both the subjective and objective nature of trust in God and an objective quality of God Himself. God, who exists objectively outside of human beings, receives trust generated from within individuals (Deut. 7:9). He and His words are objectively faithful, constant, and reliable (Ps. 119:86). God enables people to possess these objective virtues, faithfulness and reliability (Josh. 24:14; Isa. 7:9).

Faith As Trustful Response to God’s Word and Actions

Faith is a “trustful human response to God’s self-revelation via His words and His actions.” In biblical usage, the one that Christians seek to convey when we use the word, it is always connected to some source of knowledge. It is a response to knowledge.

Let me illustrate with one Old Testament example. Psalm 106 speaks of the Israelites’ breaking faith. It begins with a review of what their ancestors had seen God do, including:

Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
So he saved them from the hand of the foe
and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
And the waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them was left.
Then they believed his words;
they sang his praise.
But they soon forgot his works;
they did not wait for his counsel.

Then they despised the pleasant land,
having no faith in his promise.

These early Israelites had knowledge: they saw God at work, at the Red Sea as noted here; before that, in the Passover; following that, in God’s provision of water and food. They had seen him keep promise after promise, but when they reached the point of entering the land to which he had promised to bring them, they were afraid to enter. They had no faith in his promise to bring them safely there.

Knowledge of God’s Power and Character

Now, is this pretending to know what one doesn’t know? Did they know it was safe to enter the land of promise? Wrong question. Did they know the character and the power of the One who had made the promise? They should have. Did they have reason to know that Moses was a trustworthy messenger of God’s word? They should have. But they quailed, and they failed.

That’s a negative example. There were positive ones at the time: Moses himself, and Joshua and Caleb, who said (Numbers 14:8f), “If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us…. Do not fear the people of the Land, for… their protection is removed from them and the Lord is with us.”

What If It’s a Fiction?

Someone will object that the Exodus didn’t even happen, so how can I use it as an example? Of course I’m convinced it did, but let’s set that aside. If the Exodus never happened, what would that mean for the historic and contemporary meaning of faith? This Psalm is one classic depiction of how the word has been used for centuries, by millions. At the risk of redundancy: this is how millions have used the word for centuries. Boghossian’s definition is how one man has used it for less than a decade. Which one comes closer to a publicly useful definition?

More to Come

There are many more positive examples of faith, and more to be said about faith as trust and knowledge, but this is enough until next time. The point here is that faith is (among other things) trust based on God’s observable actions.

Starting with my next post I’ll leave Boghossian behind, initiating a new series on “What Is Faith?” (Enough is enough. At least until he does something new that merits attention.)