Peter Boghossian author of the not-yet-released Creating Atheists, is on an urgent mission. It isn’t really an atheistic mission, he says, except indirectly: he’s crusading for clear thinking, which he says will lead inevitably toward atheism.
I have reason to wonder about that.
Last Saturday I wrote that he’s a dangerous man. I know more about him now. I spent the rest of the day scanning hundreds of family photos into my computer, in preparation for the family celebration of my dad’s 90th birthday party next week. It was almost all mechanical and image-related work, which afforded me the time to listen to hours of Professor Boghossian, in these lectures and interviews:
I’ve altered my assessment of the man since hearing all this. The most salient thing about him is how confident and yet how self-contradictory he is.
In one interview (MG, 37:45) he said,* “In order to counter my new book, they’re going to have to come up with extreme silliness: ‘It’s the Devil’s book!'” Well, that itself is silly. I don’t have his book — it hasn’t been released yet — but I do have hours of his thoughts by way of audio. I can counter it (I promise) without saying, “he’s of the devil.”
I have much to say, so this will extend into additional posts. Today I’ll begin to take up his definition of faith.
1. What is Faith?
Boghossian contends in several locations here that faith is “pretending to know what you can’t possibly know.” I don’t know where he got that from. He doesn’t say. He does admit, near the end of the May 6 talk, that he has no empirical support for the pretending aspect. Lacking that, it’s hard not to conclude that he might have picked it out of thin air for rhetorical purposes (see below).
He certainly didn’t get his definition from the Christian thinkers who described faith as notitia, assencia, fiducia: knowledge, assent, and trust. He didn’t get it from the one most relevant source — relevant, that is, if he’s trying to understand and to counter Christian faith: the Bible, Christians’ source documents, wherein faith is illustrated and explained as placing one’s trust in what one has full reason to know.
2. Jesus as the Great Destroyer of Faith?
Boghossian’s confusion is on clear display in MG, at about 28:30, where he and the host are talking about what it would require for them to change their minds and become believers in God. He says, “If an apparition of Jesus came, you wouldn’t need faith…;. No evidence could do that, because then it wouldn’t be faith.”
Really? If so, then the Bible presents Jesus as a great enemy of faith; indeed, as the great destroyer of faith. Consider Luke’s introduction to Acts:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
Jesus destroyed Thomas’s faith when he offered Thomas the evidence he asked for. Jesus destroyed the disciples’ faith in John 21 when he dined with them.
So Thomas could no longer pretend to believe something he didn’t know: he knew this was Jesus standing before him. The same for the other disciples, and for all those whom Luke described in Acts 1:1-3.
Now before you object that this is all just what the Bible claims, realize that that’s what counts here. If Boghossian is right, then the Bible depicts Jesus as a destroyer of faith.
But every Christian down through history has seen Jesus as the source and author of faith (see Hebrews 12:2). What this must mean is that for every believer, faith has always meant something other than what Boghossian claims it means.
I’ll come back to that long-standing meaning of faith in a later blog post.
3. Manipulating the Definition of Faith
But I’m not sure that would bother him. He’s quite candid in saying that he’s attempting not to clarify but to change the meaning of the word faith. He’s doing it intentionally, to make it more rhetorically vulnerable to attack. He states that quite openly at about the 47 to 48 minute mark in GA. His host there is smart enough not to accept the ploy; though he, too, is an atheist, he can see the illegitimacy of Boghossian’s move.
He does try to make one clarifying move by “disambiguating” faith and hope (May 6, PSU, and GA). He’s too late: it’s been done, long ago. See Romans 8:18-25, where Paul speaks of hope in a manner completely different from his use of faith throughout the entire letter up to that point. The ambiguity he describes doesn’t exist. (I’ll probably have to come back to that point later, and spell it out in detail. Not today, though.)
So what Boghossian is doing is making a strategic move to make faith more vulnerable to attack by associating it with pretending, even though he knows that’s not the way it’s been conceived of for the past couple thousand years. His definitional move here is pure rhetoric, and it’s totally manipulative.
4. Boghossian’s Atheistic Mission
I’ll have more to say next time on this word “pretending,” and I promise you’ll be surprised at what Boghossian himself says about it. I’ll add additional thoughts about his rhetorical manipulativeness, and more besides. For now I’ll close with this:
Dr. Boghossian has described himself as on a mission to destroy pretending to know what you don’t know. I wish him well: I hope he succeeds. His mission as such has nothing to do with Christian faith, for his definition of faith is far removed from ours. I’m sure that eliminating pretense could only be helpful to our cause.
And if combatting pretense is really his purpose, it would further his cause considerably if he would drop his efforts to confuse terminology.
But maybe that’s not really his purpose. Maybe he really is on an atheistic mission, above all else: even above his stated intent of promoting clear thinking. We’ll see.
*Some quotes in here are approximate. They are accurate with respect to the thoughts they represent. I did not rewind all the audio to ensure I was getting everything word-for-word.
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