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.