I’m not sure how best to characterize Peter Boghossian’s methods for undermining the word faith. He says faith is pretending to know what you don’t know. What then is the correct word for acting as if you’re contesting a certain position, when in reality you’re only teasing around with it, at its easiest and most inconsequential fringes? How about this: Peter Boghossian’s pretend arguments.
That may seem like a harsh assessment to make of a philosophy professor, or maybe even a little too cute, and not quite professional. I think, though, that when you find out what he’s trying to put forth, you’ll agree it’s hard to take his arguments more seriously than that.
“Five of the only ten things that can be said for faith”
I’ll start with his May 6 lecture to humanists of Greater Portland, which he mentioned more than once in his later podcasts, indicating he seems to think it important — definitive, even — in some respects.
In that lecture he said that faith is pretending, in fact, “it’s definitive of faith that it’s pretending.” How does he support that assertion? He tells the group there that “there are only ten things that can be said for faith.”
Now, based on the way he introduces the talk, it could be that he’s focusing specifically on the linkage of faith and morality, which “is a potent cultural force, and we must terminate it.” (He speaks elsewhere of how his anti-faith campaign is the focus of his entire life.) But in the relevant portion (around 4:00) he seems to step away from that specific focus to speak about faith in more general terms, as he returns to his “only ten things that can be said for faith.” He details five of them:
“Life has no meaning without faith.”
“I’m having a crisis of faith.”
“Science can’t explain quantum mechanics.”
“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”
“My faith is true for me.”
Really now: are these the top five (or five of the top ten) things to be said for faith? No. This list is not weak; it is worse than that. Let me deal with each of these items in turn.
Five of the Most Serious Straw-Man Fallacies Of All Time
“Life has no meaning without faith.” I’m sure one could find many examples of this being said, but with respect to Christianity, it always comes packaged together with the explicit or implicit meaning, “… faith that is connected to a real God.” For careful thinkers, the true statement might be, “My life has no meaning without my relational connection to God through faith.” Or in certain philosophical discussions, “Life has no objective meaning unless there’s a God to give it meaning.”
Granted, unbelievers have vigorously contested both of those. But the key point is this: the version Boghossian offers isn’t one that apologists offer as grounding for the truth of Christianity. He’s debunking a non-argument.
“I’m having a crisis of faith.” Let’s deal with this one the easy way: it just doesn’t belong on a list of “the only ten things that can be said for faith.” It isn’t even something that can be said for faith! Who would think that it was? How did he think that belonged here? It’s an astonishing statement to include on a list like this.
“Science can’t explain quantum mechanics.” I’ve been in working in Christian apologetics a long time, and I’ve never heard that raised as a point in favor of faith. Boghossian told this lecture audience he couldn’t help laughing when he wrote that one down. What or whom was he laughing at?
“I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” Now that’s a valid objection with respect to atheism, but only in context of an explanation of what one means by it. My friend Frank Turek wrote a book and delivers talks by that name. But Boghossian uses it instead to run a riff on apologists’ “pretending.” Then he explains that most atheists don’t claim to know there’s no God, only that there’s not enough evidence to conclude there is a God. It’s a fair point, but it’s also irrelevant to the content of Frank’s message. It’s a red herring, in that context.
My faith is true for me. Good point: this is something people say about faith, and it is totally invalid. Does Boghossian know, however, just how much effort Frank Turek (to name just one example!) and other apologists and preachers have put into trying to conquer that very misconception? Here Boghossian has named a valid target for ridicule: but it’s one that careful Christian thinkers would also place high on their list of false beliefs. It’s hard for him to use something like this as proof that Christianity is wrong, when even Christians agree that it’s flawed.
“The First Two Miracles I’d Debunk, To Show That Miracle Claims Don’t Support Faith”
So what, then, can we say in summary of all this? I’m sorry, but it’s a bit too soon yet to say. We need to turn to his PSU talk, wherein he speaks (after about 29:00) of “three core reasons for why one believes one’s faith tradition is true…. Reason number one: Miracles. We’re going to examine a few miracles.”
Let me pause and ask you to consider which faith-attesting miracles he might want to examine and debunk. The resurrection? Healings? Visions? No, none of these. Ladies and gentlemen, for the safety of your clothing, please lower your drinks We don’t want you spilling anything when you burst out laughing. The miracles he chooses to debunk, and thereby to destroy the attesting value of miracles, are:
Transubstantiation: the substantial change of the Eucharist elements into the body and blood of Jesus, according to Catholic doctrine…. and
Tongues, or glossolalia.
Or, Two More Ridiculous Straw-Man Fallacies
Now, it could be that someone, somewhere has said that tongues constitute miraculous evidence for Christianity. I might have even heard such a thing myself, somewhere along the way. But I spend a lot of time reading arguments for and against Christianity, and honestly I cannot remember the last time I heard tongues mentioned. It’s been decades, at least. No one offers up tongues as evidence for the miraculous. Or if they do, most of us know that it’s weak; so weak that we don’t ever put it forth. Ever. Boghossian is debunking another non-argument here.
As for transubstantiation, that’s even worse. Dr. Boghossian has studied philosophy, so he’ll understand this language. The doctrine of transubstantiation states that the elements are changed in their substance, not in their accidents. Their accidents remain as they were before. If you don’t understand substance and accidents, don’t worry: just realize that the professor does (or should) understand; and that because of this philosophical aspect of the doctrine, no one thinks transubstantiation demonstrates a miracle. Catholics believe there is a miracle going on there, but they do not think there’s a miracle demonstrated there.
So in attacking the apologetic value of transubstantiation and tongues, Boghossian has debunked nothing whatsoever. He puts it forth as the kind of ridiculous thing Christians believe. But he’s lying, that’s all.
It’s time to tie all this together. There are libraries filled with strong arguments for Christianity. But Boghossian has taken aim at — how shall I say this? — not weak arguments, but statements (or versions thereof) that no one even thinks of as arguments.
He obviously has great fun tearing down faith this way. Fine: whatever entertains him, I don’t care. But he’s supposed to be an educator. Throughout his many interviews and lectures I’ve listened to, he emphasizes that his real goal in life is to promote serious critical thinking.
And this is his example of serious critical thinking: putting up the weakest possible straw men and knocking them down.
Peter Boghossian’s Pretend Arguments
His performance in both these lectures amounts to a parade of fallacies.
Yet if you watch these two lectures through to the end, you’ll find that the audiences eat it up; or many of the people do, at any rate. They’re being taught by a distinguished looking university professor. They like what they’re hearing. It agrees with their prejudices. And — in the role of an educator, mind you — he’s leading them on with obviously fallacious thinking. There’s something seriously wrong about that tactic.
He says faith is pretending to know what you don’t know. I ask again, what is the correct word for pretending to do battle against a worldview, when in reality you’re only teasing around with it, at its easiest and most utterly irrelevant corners? What’s the word for carrying on with that kind of pretense when you’re old enough to know better?
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