McGrew-Boghossian Debate Live Blog

Thinking Christian
Thinking Christian
McGrew-Boghossian Debate Live Blog

Update: The podcast is up and available for you to listen to now. Comments are open here.

Probably the most amazing thing Peter Boghossian said in this debate was that almost no one uses the word faith the way McGrew does. When McGrew said that none of the thousands of people he’s interacted with agree with Boghossian, Boghossian contradicted him, and told him that this could only be true of 50 to 100 “in Tim’s universe,” people that McGrew interacts with academically. He said the same thing at least twice during this debate.
I’m willing to bet that McGrew has interacted on “faith” with more than 75 people. Lots more.

Did Boghossian think McGrew was deluded or lying? And for one who is so committed to using evidence, what evidence did he draw upon to come to that conclusion?

For more on Dr. Boghossian see my ebook Peter Boghossian: Atheist Tactician.

Original Post

At this web address, beginning at 9:30 am EDT today, I’ll open an interactive live blog for reactions to the McGrew-Boghossian debate on Unbelievable radio.

You’ll definitely want to be listening to the broadcast. Comments will be open after the event ends, subject as always to the discussion policy.

Since I’m trying a new thing here, and I don’t know how well it’s going to work for me, I’m holding open the option of interrupting this live blog and switching to Twitter once it gets started.

Live Blog:


Live blogging begins in 3 hours.


Justin Breierley: “What a stonker of a debate we have for you today.”



Tim McGrew’s specialty is in epistemology and evidence: both exactly on topic for a debate with Boghossian.

09:42 Updated : 09:43

PB: “The goal is getting people to think more rationally, more reasonably.” If only the book reflected that!


PB: “to lead people to be more cautious in how they use words like … faith”


PB: “to lead people to be more cautious in how they use words like … faith”


PB says “faith” is “exactly” evidence without belief


“Billions of people use ‘faith’ this way”


TM: many problems with that. Billions of people? No, just Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. No serious believer has ever endorsed it. OED says, “complete confidence or trust.”


TM: erases distinction between definition and description; a description can be a lousy definition.


PB says this is in “Tim’s universe,” 50 to 100 people use the term that way, but not the vast majority of people.

He’s wrong on that.


TM points out even an atheist who disagrees (The Good Atheist).


TM: “Faith in evolution” is a question of evidence.


PB: how people actually use terms. “I think when Christians use that term they mean it’s assiging a confidence value higher than warranted than evidence;” and if you don’t see it you’re “extraordinarily isolated.”



TM is pressing PB on his definition, showing that evidence is not so irrelevant after all.


PB says there’s no one standard definition! Isn’t that contradicting his own view?


PB “what does ‘I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist’ mean?” TM: it’s picking up a debased usage of the term. That’s a concession to the atheists’ debased usage.


“On your own terms, no.”


Now PB is conceding on the numbers! He’s saying his definitions are not the only ones used. And TM makes point that PB’s usage is very minority.


TM: alternate conceptions of evidence do not entail zero evidence.


TM: Faith is “trusting, holding to, acting on what one has reason to think is true, even in the face of difficulties, for example where the outcome of one’s action is out of one’s control.”


Now Tim McGrew is answering PB’s question about the difference between faith and hope.


PB: Where does evidence stop and faith take over? TM: Prejudicing the question, as if faith had to make up for the lack of evidence. The fact is when we act, we act all the way. If I’m only 67% sure the parachute will open I don’t pull the ripcord slower. I step out into matters beyond my control, but not blindly, rather with evidence. (99.9993% is actual parachute safety percentage.)


Assessment so far: PB is backing down on his insistence that faith is only to be defined his way.


PB: speaking now of evidence entering into the parachute jump decision. You don’t need to assign a higher confidence value; you don’t have to use the word faith. Why don’t we talk about faith in the existence of chickens?


TM: still smuggling in your definition of faith as assigning a higher confidence value than warranted; that’s the point in question. The difference in faith is venturing something.


Now in response to TM’s explanation, PB pauses, flounders, says, “what does that have to do with how people use ‘faith,'” and TM answers by explaining the difference between faith in a parachute and faith in chickens.


what does that have to do with how people use the word? TM: It’s a more accurate definition.”


Now PB is admitting that faith need not be used in religious context only!


PB ducks a question from JB, and says only a fraction of people use “faith” that way. We’re supposed to take that on his authority!


TM: Even Muslims claim to believe on the basis of evidence; we can argue whether that’s true or not, but it’s about evidence.


TM: “I’m not venturing on Islam so why would I speak of ‘faith’ that it’s false?” To venture something is to engage in a course of action whose outcome you care about when the outcome is outside your control. Not to do so blindly but to place the outcome at the disposal of factors outside your control.

In the vast majority of cases, faith is not something that requires the absence of evidence.


JB questions PB on his extremely negative view of faith, his call to eradicate it (a strong call in the book!!) and his conflicting claim to want to be civil.


PB: “Very unfair to say that I target Christian faith…. I’m equally hostile to all faith traditions.” “My intent isn’t to demean anyone, the opposite is true, I address people sincerely and bluntly as adults.”


Now PB speaks of supposed damage done by people of faith.


He supposes Tim might agree that other religions are “mental disorders,” but whether that’s so or not, that doesn’t entail that it’s faith itself; but PB says faith itself is the problem.


TM: To define faith this way is to reduce disagreement to derision. It’s demeaning, diminishing dehumanizing. What if we defined atheists as people who have misunderstood the evidence for God? That might be an accurate description, not a good definition.


PB: I don’t open conversations that way. I saved this part for chapter 9 in the book.


PB: “It’s not an intervention strategy it’s a containment strategy.”

It’s about strategy. He believes it but he won’t pull it out on anyone until he thinks it’s strategic.


PB: “Ridiculing religion has it’s role.”

“People suffering from faith are not well.”

But when that’s repeated back to him, he says, “no, no, no, no.”

And then he says yes, yes, yes, paraphrased, as he tries to explain.


PB: have you read the Qu’ran, Tim? TM: yes; but it’s not necessary to investigage everything to make a decision; you don’t have to read every 1860s biography to conclude JWB shot Lincoln. We can have good reasons to think G Relativity true without having studied every possible alternative.


Back a few moments ago PB said “I’m not trying to put you on the spot, but have you read the Qu’ran?”

He was trying to put him on the spot


PB: “Anyone who listens to this conversation knows that everyone views faith the way I do except the 50-75 people Tim engages with.”

What’s his sufficient evidence that Tim only engages with 50-75 people?


If more than 50-75 people on the Facebook poll agree with Tim, is that evidence to PB?




TM: If Peter is so sure faith is defined his way, then they need to talk to the OED about it!

Tom Gilson

Vice President for Strategic Services, Ratio Christi Lead Blogger at Thinking Christian Editor, True Reason BreakPoint Columnist

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16 Responses

  1. Juniper says:

    I listened to the podcast and I’m up to Chapter 7 in P. Boghossian’s book. have numerous issues and disagreements with him and his material. I’ll limit myself to two and a bit of snark. First, he harps on the Socratic method. The Socratic method, while it is touted by Boghossian as a method to arrive at truth, is a teaching method. Given his doctorate is an Ed.D. this seems fitting. Teaching assumes someone with more knowledge is trying to get an idea across to someone with less knowledge. It is a method that can be used to guide someone to a particular conclusion. The Socratic method is great but not benign. It is fairly easy to use it to manipulate someone who has less knowledge or difficulty articulating why they hold a particular belief. Second, his rationale for doing what he is doing does not pass the smell test. Allowing people to have a “sense of wonder” or “rational thought life” is somewhat vague. He describes faith (whatever he means by it) as a mental illness but declines to elaborate significantly on what harm it causes. He neatly dodges his issue in the interview except for a moment where he falls into a few statements of the “religion is the cause of all evil” variety. It would be nice were he to explain in detail why he thinks religion is so bad, that despite its manifold comforts (and other benefits), it is worth causing someone the trauma of losing their faith in God (he acknowledges this trauma in his book but has little help to offer.) On a slightly snarkier note, I thought his argumentation was clumsy. “Have you read the Koran?” Really? Thank you for the opportunity to vent.

  2. Bill L says:

    Thanks for posting that Tom,

    It was interesting to hear that both participants seemed to actually agree on the others definitions of faith, but they differed dramatically on the relative amount of people who actually adhered to those definitions. McGrew thought that far less than 1% would adhere to PB’s concept, while BP thought the vast majority of believers would.

    Maybe I’m being naive here, but the solution seems rather obvious: McGrew is right when he points out that almost no believer would say that he believes without evidence (who would admit such an unreasonable position?).

    But PB says ‘when believers are honest’ they do believe without evidence. In my experience this is correct of many believers and non-believers. When pushed or deeply questioned on many specific issues, either side will ultimately admit a kind of belief in an area that is not supported by evidence. When I encounter this in believers, they usually claim that they have faith (most participants on this blog excepted). I’m not sure it’s much better on the part of non-believers when they give a reply about bubble universes and their hope that one day science will solve such questions.

    I hate to come across as just placating both sides on this, but it seems that both McGrew and PB are correct.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Except for this: PB really says in his book and lectures that his definitions are the only ones. He made quite a concession in this debate when he said there might conceivably be rare exceptions. He has never allowed that before.

    He has also never allowed before (as far as I know) that “faith” could apply in non-religious contexts. Astonishing though that is, he really has insisted on it. He bent a little on it today.

  4. Billy Squibs says:

    Just a few quick thoughts.

    1) I was extremely disappointed with PB’s performance. Is this usual for him or did he have an off day? His earnest offers for opponents to debate and his insistence that he just couldn’t find any was laughable given his refusal to debate with Randal Rauser or acknowledge yourself beyond a tweet.

    2) While TMG did very well, I would have liked him to emphasise more what the Bible teaches faith is. (He mentioned pistus very briefly.) In a sense it doesn’t matter if millions of the faithful actuall people actually share PB’s laughably idiosyncratic definitions of faith. If he is debating a Christian, Muslim, Jew or anyone else suffering from the “faith mind virus” then the defence should ultimately return to what these religions say about the nature of faith and evidence.

    3) I’d agree with Bill L to some degree. Attempting to put numbers on it is silly. For example, does PB have any evidence that BILLIONS of people share his definition of faith? TMG shouldn’t have played this game by putting a figure on it. Though in saying this I’m glad he did point out that bad evidence isn’t the same as believing without evidence.

    4) I really wish TMG had pressed PB on “faith is his mind virus and needs to be treated” rot. Assuming anyone other than PB actually takes this talk of treatment seriously, it is a very disturbing goal that I don’t think TMG really . Still I am glad that PB is happy to mention it in public seemingly unaware of how threatening (I imagine) it sounds to so many people.

    PB gets 3 out of 10
    TMG gets 7 out of 10

  5. Bill L says:

    In an unrelated note Tom,

    I don’t know if others are experiencing problems, but my link to your blog on my computer does not seem to refresh the information. I hadn’t realized that anyone had replied to this page until I just opened it on my work computer.

    I’m not much of a computer geek. Perhaps I just need to delete the link and then try to open it again(?)

  6. Bill L says:

    I wanted to fill out your survey, but I still feel the questions are bad ones or there are not enough choices…

    Most believers start with the position of “I have trust and confidence that what I believe is true, and I disagree that I’m pretending and/or have no evidence for it.” But when pressed to detail they resort to something like the other two options.

  7. Tom Gilson says:

    thanks for looking at it, anyway!

  8. Nigel Owen says:

    PB claims several times that he has talked to thousands of people about faith. It would be nice to see a bit more information of what those conversations were like and how they lead him to his definition.

    It seems likely that none of those conversations involved using the word faith outside of a religious context. As he seemed quite bewildered that the word faith could be used outside of a religious context such as the skydiving example.

    PB also seems to be confused over how the word faith can be used both as a verb and a noun.
    E.g. I have faith (n) that God exists. I have faith (v) in God to answer prayer.

  9. Rob says:

    This was a fantastic debate and the fallacy of PB’s argument was exposed early and often. Tim did an excellent job of methodically and rationally dismantling PB’s assertions. The telltale came towards the end when Tim rightly pointed out PB’s (and atheists in general) trick of using word control to change and control the debate. I thought PB was going to lose it on the Orwell reference and PB’s response demonstrated how uncomfortable he was with being exposed.

  10. Billy Squibs says:

    Tom, I see over on Randal Rauser’s site you have been accused of selection bias by a sometime commenter, John (adj), to his blog. Apparently he has emailed you about this. I’d be interested if you could address this criticism when you publish your results.

    I can’t link directly to comments but there are only 50 or so in total and the criticisms shouldn’t be hard to find.

  11. BillT says:

    But when pressed to detail they resort to something like the other two options.

    The fallacy in this position is that for faith to have the definition “I have trust and confidence that what I believe is true…” is that some great majority of Christian believers must be accomplished apologists for it to be true. The correct standard is twofold. One, what does the Christianity say its definition of faith is. Two, if that definition claims it to be fact based can it back up that with the facts.

    To claim that “…when pressed they resort to something like the other two options.” as a proof of another standard is to commit the genetic fallacy. We are trying to determine what the valid definition for our faith is based on the teachings of Christianity not taking a poll on the apologetic skills of its followers. The facts of Christianity are implicit in its teachings whether or not all believers can recite them by rote.

    This is, of course, also one of the dishonesties in PB’s approach. Instead of looking at Christianity and dealing with what it says and whether it can confirm that, PB adopts the wrong factual basis for his conclusion. As BillL does above, he uses “pretending to know what one doesn’t know.” where it’s implicit that the “one” that “doesn’t know” is the members of the general body of believers. He uses that basis (without any real evidence, BTW) to impugn Christianity’s definition of faith. It’s a bit of double dealing.

  12. Tom Gilson says:

    Billy @12: Here’s my emailed answer, most of which is also now up on Randal’s blog:

    I apologize for being slow to answer, John; I was in surgery for a broken foot this morning. I have answered on Randal’s blog, and I’ll repeat the answer here. Thank you for asking.

    No. John, there is no selection bias. Selection bias obtains when a survey sample fails to be representative of some larger population concerning inferences are drawn, especially when this comes as a result of some systematic over-weighting of some group in the sampling. If no inferences are drawn to any larger population, then selection bias cannot happen.

    In fact, however, I never describe this as a “survey.” I describe it in the intro as a “survey-like questionnaire,” to allow people to “voice what they really mean when they use the word ‘faith,’ especially as it was discussed in a recent debate.”

    I am well aware that the sample will be neither random nor representative of any definable population, so I have no intention of making inferences to any population from it.

    Why run it, then? You might think of it (I do) as something like a petition, a nose count of people with a certain opinion. Boghossian has said that there are very few people who disagree with him, or maybe none.

    It would be possible to construct a very carefully designed survey covering a carefully chosen representative sample to find out what proportion of some population(s) agree or disagree with him.

    That takes tons of resources, however. For my purposes, it’s sufficient to show that there is some large number of people who count as counter-evidence to Boghossian’s (evidence-free) opinion that no person of faith uses “faith” in any manner other than Boghossian’s definitions.

    (BTW, please note that in his lectures and book, Boghossian was insistent that his definitions were the only acceptable ones. He softened on that somewhat in the debate. It’s a good move in the right direction that I’d like to support.)

  13. Billy Squibs says:

    Thanks, Tom.

  14. Billy Squibs says:

    Meant to say that I hope the surgery went OK.

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