The Absurdity Of “Faith” as Pretending To Know

James A. Lindsay, atheistic mathematician and physicist, decided to take Peter Boghossian’s advice to heart and put the absurdity of”faith” on display—faith as he understands it, that is. He has edited the 1566 Roman Catholic Catechism of Trent, according to this plan:

After reading Peter Boghossian’s thought-provoking book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, I thought it would be rather interesting to engage in an exercise he recommends. Specifically, I am taking a piece of text and changing out the word “faith” for the phrase “pretending to know things one doesn’t know,” taking some license with the grammar for smoother reading. Because I think it would be good for more of this kind of thing to be out there, I encourage this behavior heartily.

[From God Doesn’t; We Do: Practicing my Boghossian, Catechism of Trent Edition]

The result left one commenter wondering whether he should laugh or cry. I had the same reaction, though for different reasons. Here’s part of what Dr. Lindsay produced:

Necessity Of Pretending to Know What One Doesn’t Know

That pretending to know what one doesn’t, thus understood, is necessary to salvation no man can reasonably doubt, particularly since it is written: “Without pretending to know what one doesn’t know, it is impossible to please God.” For as the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding, it was therefore necessary that he should pretend that it be made known to him by God. This knowledge, however, is nothing else than pretending to know what one doesn’t, by which we yield our unhesitating assent to whatever the authority of our Holy Mother the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God; for those who pretend to know what they do not know cannot doubt those things of which God, who is truth itself, we pretend to be the author. Hence we see the great difference that exists between the kind of pretending to know what one doesn’t know which we give to God and that which we yield to the writers of human history.

He was aiming at ridicule, and he achieved it; in fact, not only that but also rudeness. Whether he cares that it’s rude or not, I do not know; that’s up to him; and really, it’s rather a bore anyway. I can only bother paying so much attention to such things.

He was also aiming at absurdity, and he achieved that as well; but the absurdity is not where he thinks it is. That’s what I find most interesting about his blog post.

Great Thinkers Who Couldn’t Distinguish Knowing From Pretending?

I need to make it clear that I am a Protestant, and that this Catechism comes out of the Roman Catholic Church’s dispute with Protestantism. I do not entirely agree with everything in it, including some aspects of Catholicism’s use of faith. Nevertheless, I  have enormous respect for Catholicism’s heritage of reasoned thought. Augustine and Aquinas stand out above all others; they are, in fact, widely considered to be in the top tier of philosophers of all time. Aquinas, in particular, exerted enormous influence on the stream of thought leading to this Catechism; and he was as deeply committed to knowledge and reason as any man in history.

Atheists may find that assessment derisible. Richard Dawkins thinks a paragraph or two were all it took to dismiss Aquinas’s Five Ways. Richard Dawkins is not (pardon the huge understatement) destined to be honored among the top tier of philosophers of all time. There is a reason his Five Ways remain topics of serious discussion, even among thinkers who believe they can be refuted. Aquinas was—begging your pardon for another massive understatement—no idiot.

What Kind of Fool Were They?

Dr. Lindsay’s distorted Catechism of Trent, on the other hand, is thoroughly idiotic. He intended it to be.

Let’s take a look at the kind of idiocy it entails, however. It’s built on the assumption that every person of faith throughout all the stream of thought leading to it was unaware of the difference between knowing and pretending to know. That includes not only Augustine and Aquinas, but also the founders of Europe’s great universities. It includes the early (proto) scientists William of Conches, William of Ockham (famous for his “Razor”), John Buridan, Nicholas Oresme; even Copernicus (more here). All these were men of faith. None of them could reasonably be considered men of pretending to know.

The same could be said for the great medieval artists, poets, authors, composers, and (especially) architects. Notre Dame de Paris was not built by pretense of knowledge.

Wrong ≠ Pretending

Someone might object, “But look at how wrong these people’s scientific views were! They thought they knew something, but clearly they were only pretending to know!” The problem with that view is that today’s science is as subject to revision as yesterday’s. It wasn’t very long ago that doctors “pretended to know” that ulcers were caused by stress, geologists “pretended to know” that continents didn’t move with respect to each other, and biologists “pretended to know” that large proportions of DNA were “junk.”

It’s not that any of them were right. It’s that Boghossian’s approach makes “pretending to know” indistinguishable from simply being mistaken. Surely there’s a difference between the two—a difference that applies in religion as well as in science.

Pretending To Know: Religion Only?

It might also be objected that these great thinkers only worked according to pretense when it came to specifically religious matters. When they were (for example) designing great cathedrals, they reverted to genuine knowledge-based thinking. If so, then the same principle must apply to all men and women of faith throughout history. Thus Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Carolus Linnaeus, James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Johann Gregor Mendel, Wernher von Braun, and Francis Collins (to name just a few) have all been afflicted with a similar defect: not knowing the difference between knowing and pretending. Which seems implausible; absurd, in fact: for every one of them has placed faith at the very center of their cognitive life. If they were that deficient at the core of their intellect, it’s hard to see how they could have been so productive as scientists.

(I could draw examples from among other great thinkers and artists, not just scientists, but Dr. Lindsay is a scientist, and most contemporary atheists take science to be the sine qua non of knowledge.)

The Absurdity of “Faith” — As They Understand It

I’m not saying that this absurdity proves that faith is true or good. I’m saying that it highlights just how far beyond reasonability Boghossian’s thesis takes us. James Lindsay demonstrates that equating faith to “pretending to know what one does not know” leads to a completely absurd outcome, which should give atheists reason at least to wonder whether Boghossian’s definition could be true.

To Dismiss By Ridicule Is Often To Reveal One’s Ignorance

Ravi Zacharias has said somewhere (I’m paraphrasing here) that to the extent one thinks one can dismiss an opponent by mere ridicule, to that same extent one shows that one probably doesn’t understand one’s opponent’s position. I think it’s a fair statement, applicable to Christians and atheists alike (or Republicans and Democrats, hunters and PETA members, pro-choice and pro-life advocates …). And I can’t help wondering: Is there any reason not to consider Lindsay’s exercise here an outstanding case in point?

Dr. Lindsay and I have been trading messages on Twitter. He has been expecting this blog post, and he has told me he is looking forward to it. I’m also looking forward to his promised article on my Open Letter to Dr. Boghossian. In that letter I provide more than just reasons to wonder about Boghossian’s definition of faith: I give reasons to consider it simply (and rather obviously) wrong. I’ll be fascinated to find out how Dr. Lindsay responds.

Update at 5:20 pm: I’ve corrected my earlier misspelling of Dr. Lindsay’s name, and I offer my apologies for the error.

Comments

  1. John Moore

    Lindsay’s rewritten Catechism of Trent still makes perfect sense to me, and I really don’t understand why Christians should get upset about this.

    After all, the Catechism states that “the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding.” We should therefore have no presumption or expectation of knowledge. In order to please God, we must assent to whatever the authority teaches. Thus, even though we don’t know God, we must act as if we somehow do know God. This is the miracle of faith.

    It only sounds absurd from a narrow scientific point of view or a coldly logical point of view. For a person of faith, this should make perfect sense, I think.

  2. SteveK

    Not sure your opening comment makes sense, John, but maybe I’m not understanding correctly.

    To say the revision makes perfect sense means that Catholicism teaches that we humans can’t know God at all, which means that it teaches the apostles didn’t know Jesus was God, but instead pretended to know things an apostle couldn’t possibly know.

    But the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that, so you can see why I am confused.

  3. Post
    Author
    Tom Gilson

    The part you quoted makes sense, John, although not with the implications you draw from it. The fullness of knowledge of God is above human understanding, but the knowledge of Christ on earth, his death, and his resurrection is accessible to a great degree.

    I don’t know where you got this from: “In order to please God, we must assent to whatever the authority teaches.” Hebrews 11:6 says that without faith it is impossible to please God, yes; but there’s no equating “faith” with “assent to whatever authority teaches.” That’s another definition without a source.

    Do I know God? No and yes. I do not know him fully, but I know him as far as human limitations (my own limitations, specifically) permit. God is higher than humans, yes: high enough that he is able to communicate himself to us; for if he were unable to communicate himself to his own creation, he would not be God at all.

    And still the parts of Dr. Lindsay’s post where faith is converted to pretended knowledge are absurd.

  4. BillT

    “…the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding.”

    John,

    How is it that you equate this specific quote about the “….the end proposed to man…” as meaning we should have “no presumption or expectation of knowledge” or as applicable to knowledge of God in general. Seems a somewhat less than nuanced reading.

  5. John Moore

    The Catechism (as quoted above) says “we yield our unhesitating assent to whatever the authority of our Holy Mother the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God.”

    I guess that’s more of a Catholic sentiment, so it’s understandable if you rebellious protestants balk at it.

    Anyway, it’s clear that people know some things and don’t know other things about God. How do you deal with the things you can’t know as an earthly human? Can we say that faith is the way you deal with it?

  6. Billy Squibs

    How do you deal with the things you can’t know as an earthly human? Can we say that faith is the way you deal with it?

    Tom has been running a series of blog entries on faith over the last number of months. I believe that you have been involved in some of these, John. Therefore, I’m confused why you would ask this question in light of the 1000’s of words that have been written to explain and defend faith.

    Perhaps you can first answer your own question because it looks like your understanding of faith is different to most of the regular posters here.

  7. Billy Squibs

    I just had a quick look at Dr Lindsay’s site and in the Bio section he writes the following:

    “[Dr Lindsay] writes and speaks in an attempt to clarify our religious and cultural landscape and by doing so to help heal the related harms”

    Great words. However, when one ignores what the other person is saying (and redefining “faith” to mean “pretending” is doing just that) and then resorts to ridicule the result is neither clarification nor the healing of harms.

  8. BillT

    How do you deal with the things you can’t know as an earthly human?

    So John, how do you deal with the things you can’t know as an earthly human? What? Your chosen method of acquiring information about yourself and the world around you leaves you with no unanswered questions? If you can show me that’s so I’ll publicly convert to your worldview right here in this thread.

  9. BillB

    All these were men of faith. None of them could reasonably be considered men of pretending to know.

    I’ll just point out that this “pretending to know” accusation often gets thrown around in both directions.

    Unbelievers are regularly accused of (or implied to be) pretending about their honest lack of conviction that God exists. Often using Romans 1 and its teaching that “all men are without excuse”, I think Christians are reluctant to admit the possibility of honest disbelief in order to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell for a mistake.

    I don’t know if you agree with this interpretation, Tom, but it is a common sentiment among Christians in my experience.

    [Edited to fix tags]

  10. Billy Squibs

    Of course, orthodox Christianity doesn’t teach that God sends people to hell for a mistake. It teaches that all are condemned by their own sin and it only through Christ that we are saved.

  11. BillT

    Ray,

    And you believe that your worldview makes all the things you don’t know to be knowable. And on what basis do you hold that belief. Couldn’t be faith could it?

  12. Ray Ingles

    BillT –

    And you believe that your worldview makes all the things you don’t know to be knowable.

    Nope. Just that there’s never any use in deciding anything’s unknowable. And that conclusion is based on reason, not faith.

  13. BillB

    @Billy Squibs

    Of course, orthodox Christianity doesn’t teach that God sends people to hell for a mistake. It teaches that all are condemned by their own sin and it only through Christ that we are saved.

    Sure, but it’s impossible to believe on Christ and be saved if one is honestly convinced that He doesn’t exist. (Exist as the second Person of the Godhead, I mean, and not just a figure in history).

    So yeah, in this case it’s essentially a mistake that makes the difference between damnation and potential salvation.

    In any case, do you agree that it is possible to honestly disbelieve in God? Or do you think anyone who claims to do so is (at some level) pretending to know?

  14. BillT

    Ray,

    The irony here is that while here on earth both you and I will confront lots of things that are unknowable. And they will be unknowable whether you believe (another faith claim?) they are or they aren’t. However, when all is said and done I will have the truth about it all revealed to me. You will be left with your unknowable things for all of eternity.

  15. Billy Squibs

    Sure

    By “sure” are you accepting that you didn’t accurately represent what Christianity says?

    but it’s impossible to believe on Christ and be saved if one is honestly convinced that He doesn’t exist. (Exist as the second Person of the Godhead, I mean, and not just a figure in history).

    Not if you are Rob Bell

    So yeah, in this case it’s essentially a mistake that makes the difference between damnation and potential salvation.

    So when you said “sure” do you actually mean “no”? I’m getting mixed messages here.

    In any case, do you agree that it is possible to honestly disbelieve in God? Or do you think anyone who claims to do so is (at some level) pretending to know?

    If I’m to take the Bible seriously on this then the answer is, “no, I don’t”. For example, I think that somebody like Richard Dawkins is closed to the possibility that God exists. And I don’t suppose that anything beyond some direct intervention will shift him out of his position. I might add that this is different to saying that he is pretending to know something.

    This said, I struggle when it comes to individuals who have seemingly engaged in an honest exploration of the evidence and the possibility that God exists and still end up without belief. How do I explain this? Well, I don’t because I have no idea what motivations play on the heart-strings of men. Speaking frankly, my moments of doubt comes subtly in the form of personal desire.

    The difference between the “pretending” definition of faith and the Biblical claim that God’s existence is evident (Romans 1:20 etc.) lies in a matter of principal.

    Allow me to assume for the sake of argument the premises that there is no God and this can somehow be known. Even then I can understand how people can honestly look at the evidence and conclude that he – or some other deity – exists. For example, one might be swayed by the moral argument (it’s certainly moves me) or have a personal experience such a prayer that seemed to be answered.

    If one returns the favour and for the sake of argument grants that the God of the Bible exists then he has made himself known and therefore non-belief isn’t a matter of a mistake.

  16. BillB

    By “sure” are you accepting that you didn’t accurately represent what Christianity says?

    Okay, re-reading what I wrote I think I see what you mean. And I’ll grant that my wording was inaccurate. Even if you allow for the possibility of honest mistakes regarding God’s existence, God still sends us to hell “for” our sins and not “for” the mistake.

    But it seems to me a distinction without a difference. The mistake, while it may not cause the damnation, is how we lose any chance of salvation via faith in Jesus.

    Assuming it is possible to genuinely make such a mistake, it seems unfair to those who make it. Again, they don’t go to hell because of the mistake, but they do lose any chance of salvation because of it. Non-mistaken people can freely choose faith in Jesus, but the mistaken ones cannot choose Jesus because they (mistakenly) believe He doesn’t exist.

    This is not likely to bother a Calvinist who believes in double predestination anyway. But I can easily see how this should bother one who believes there is an element of human free choice in the plan of salvation.

    … I might add that this is different to saying that [Dawkins] is pretending to know something.

    But you seem to be making an even stronger claim. You’re not saying he pretends to know there is no God, but you are saying he is pretending to be personally convinced that there is no God. His conviction can’t be honest, after all, if he is truly “closed to the possibility that God exists”. Elsewhere you suggest that unbelief is rooted in “motivations [that] play on the heart-strings of men”, that unbelief is not genuine but emotional.

    Whatever the semantic difference, it still seems like the same accusation Tom gets from Boghossian — that unbelievers only pretend to know (or to believe) that there is no God.

  17. Billy Squibs

    A distinction without difference is an oxymoron. There seems to me to be a difference between dying of a disease and dying because you refused to take the cure for the disease.

    Moving on – I think you missed the point of the latter half of my post. Within the context of Christianity – all the Jesus, salvation and judgement stuff – there is no chance of making a mistake. If you are going to criticise Christianity about what it teaches then there is no sense in selectively ignoring the answer it provides to your criticism.

    A couple of other points.

    You’re not saying he pretends to know there is no God, but you are saying he is pretending to be personally convinced that there is no God. His conviction can’t be honest, after all, if he is truly “closed to the possibility that God exists”.

    1) I’m not intending to get into an epistemological discussion. For the purposes of this debate I’m drawing no distinction between knowing something and personal conviction. With this in mind, if I had meant to say that “he is pretending to be personally convinced” then I would have said it. Dawkins is personally convinced of the truth of his atheism and I’d not insult him by insinuating that he is just “pretending” not to believe.

    2) I’m quite happy to state that I think that emotions play on the heart-string of all men in all situations. I’ve yet to meet anybody composed entirely of reason. And even if I did then perhaps there is some truth in Hume’s statement, “Reason Is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions”.

  18. BillB

    A distinction without difference is an oxymoron. There seems to me to be a difference between dying of a disease and dying because you refused to take the cure for the disease.

    Refusing to take the cure once I know I’m infected is obviously foolish. But it’s also possible I might be honestly mistaken about the infection in the first place. Don’t forget, eternal damnation as “the wages of sin” is a Christian doctrine, not at all obvious to those who aren’t already Christian.

    I accept that you don’t believe it’s possible to be honestly mistaken about this. But don’t you think this is very much the equivalent of Boghossian’s accusing those with faith of pretending to know?

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