Boghossian’s “A Manual for Creating Atheists”: A Preliminary Report
I have been reading Peter Boghossian’s book fairly closely over the last week or so. Here is a first instalment of my notes on this book. As you will see, I think there are serious problems with the book. I think it is fundamentally wrong-headed. It is based, in my view, on a mistaken notion of faith, and the consequences are disastrous. These are simply undigested notes from Notabene Lingua Workstation, which is a word processor, note taking, bibliography, text search program without parallel. Well worth your while if you need a place to keep all your work in one place, organised, with a searchable database of everything you have written. And before the new version (Notabene 10) is released within the next couple of weeks, you can get a copy on sale (notabene.com). This critique also includes many of the reasons I have become, over the last few years, much more sceptical of the trend that contemporary atheism has been taking. The following text is very long (some 15000 words in all), but for that I make no apology.
Boghossian, P. (2013) A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing (Kindle edition)
“Hitchens may be gone? but no Single individual will take his place. Instead of a replacement Horseman, there are millions of Horsemen ushering in a new Enlightenment and an Age of Reason. You, the reader, will be one of these Horsemen. You will become a Street Epistemologist. You will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought-out positions. This is work that needs to be done and work that will pay off by potentially helping millions— even billions— of people to live in a better world.” Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 226-227). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition. The reference to “unquestioned faith,” while pretty standard amongst atheists, is not true to a large segment of thoughtful Christianity. Indeed, issues of faith are scrupulously reasoned, tested, argued over, and very often undecided. Fundamentalism, a contemporary distortion of the idea of faith, while it does betray all the signs of epistemic and doxastic closure that Boghossian identifies with faith, is not representative of the Christian tradition as a whole. Of course, many people are guilty of doxastic closure, but religious believers are not the only ones. I have been concerned for some time with what I consider the epistemic closure that has become characteristic of contemporary atheism. Boghossian betrays this tendency, and thus the cause that is so close to his heart.
Most paragraphs begin with a quotation from the Kindle edition of Boghossian’s book. My contribution is in the form of commentary. These are, as I say, fairly undigested notations, and I offer them with appropriate epistemic humility.
“faith … 1. Belief without evidence. “My definition of faith is that it’s a leap over the probabilities. It fills in the gap between what is improbable to make something more probable than not without faith. As such, faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities.” —John W. Loftus, “Victor Reppert Now Says He Doesn’t Have Faith!” (Loftus, 2012)” (Boghossian 2013, 303–308). This may be widely thought to be true, but, while faith is often defined in terms of “deepities”, faith is something that thoughtful Christians discuss endlessly, and by no means conclusively. Take Tillich’s “definition” of faith as an “act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself.” (Loc 283) I couldn’t find it on the page reported by Boghossian (and there is no indication that the Harper Torchbooks edition has a different pagination than the original), but I did find this, in a French translation of The Dynamics of Faith: “La foi est donc universelle, elle se retrouve au cœur de tous les actes humains où le sens de l’existence est impliqué [my italics]. On peut dire que toutes les fois que l’inconditionné, l’absolu, est recherché en quelque domaine que ce soit — esthétique, juridique, social — la religion est présente. La religion n’est donc pas une fonction spirituelle parmi d’autres : toute expérience où il est question du sens profond de l’être a une signification religieuse.” (Tillich 1968, 13) This comes very close to the point that Dworkin makes in his book Religion without God. What Tillich is talking about here is the deep sense of existential awareness, which is presumably what he means by ‘reason reaching ecstatically beyond itself.’ That is, reaching into realms that, while able to be discussed and argued about (endlessly, perhaps), also cannot be decisively decided by reason itself. In other words, faith pertains to that of which we have a deep sense of awareness, without the ability to put that awareness into definitive descriptive or empirical terms. Yet reason, it is supposed, can take us part of the way. What Tillich says is not simply a deepity, if you take the time to unpack it a bit. It is also wrong of Boghossian to ignore the surrounding text, where all the controls of critical history, philology, etc. are being respected. The section from which he quotes is entitled, “The Truth of Faith and Historical Truth.” And throughout the chapter he is contrasting faith with science, and pointing out that theologians should not use science to ground faith. Taking the quotation out of context is basically dishonest. It’s only a deepity if, indeed, it is taken on its own, without the surrounding qualifications. That’s not to say that the faithful never resort to deepities, for of course, like scientists themselves, they do, but it is prevarication to suggest that only religious voices utter deepities. Remarks by some new atheists regarding free will, and the supposedly defective “responsibility system” dependent upon it, are as close to deepities as it is possible to get, and it is irresponsible (I think) to suggest otherwise.
The second definition of faith Boghossian suggests is “pretending to know things you don’t know.” ‘As a Street Epistemologist, whenever you hear the word “faith,” just translate this in your head as, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”’ (Boghossian 2013, 328–329) He suggests the following as an interpretation of “She’s having a crisis of faith”: ‘“She’s having a crisis of pretending to know things she doesn’t know.” Alternatively, “She is struck by the fact that she’s been pretending to know things she doesn’t know.”’ (Boghossian 2013, 365–67) This won’t do, because having a crisis of faith is having an existential crisis, for faith is more about the meaning of life as a whole than it is believing specific things that you don’t know. It’s simply an oversimplification of the way that the word ‘faith’ is used in many religious contexts. And when people are talking about faith, they are not simply speaking about things they don’t know; they are speaking about real experiences in their own lives. This was Tillich’s point too. By reducing religious faith to the belief in a supernatural (yet at the same time an apparently natural) entity, religious faith is torn out of its context. Yes, such beliefs do occur in religious systems of belief, but religious belief systems are much more holistic than that. It is a weakness of modern fundamentalism that it assimilated its belief system to the belief system of science, instead of revising it so that explicitly pertained to the existential instead of to the existent. Indeed, as many contemporary theologians have pointed out, you can dispense with belief in supernatural entities altogether without necessarily destroying religious systems of belief as the framework for functional worldviews.
A clue to Boghossian’s aim is to be found in the following: “When the faithful say, “Jesus walked on water,” they are not saying they hope Jesus walked on water, but rather are claiming Jesus actually did walk on water.” (Boghossian 2013, 379–80) Well, but all sorts of Christians do not pretend to know that Jesus walked on water, or to have faith that he did, nor are they pretending about Jesus’ abilities to defy the laws of physics. Fundamentalists, perhaps, but not everyone who has faith. If he is attacking fundamentalist ideas of faith, then his target is well set up and deserving, but he shouldn’t suggest that this is simply what the word ‘faith’ means. He really must do some more conceptual analysis than this. Notice Tillich’s point: “toute expérience où il est question du sens profond de l’être a une signification religieuse.” This profound sense of being, and the wonder that derives from it, and the sense of existential crisis, if you like, that comes when one is no longer sure that one has a grasp either on its importance or its profundity, is what he identifies as the heart of faith.
Boghossian suggests that the key lies in the idea that the words ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ are being taken as synonyms, and he issues this challenge: “Give me a sentence where one must use the word “faith,” and cannot replace that with “hope,” yet at the same time isn’t an example of pretending to know something one doesn’t know.” (Boghossian 2013, 383–384) (By the by, Boghossian, for a philosopher, uses double quotes for mentioning words rather than the more usual single quotes.) But a simple sentence using the word ‘faith’ that cannot simply be replaced by ‘hope’ is this: “I have faith that my life has objective meaning, value and significance.” (This is something like Ronald Dworkin’s secular religion.) I am not pretending to know something in this case, though I am expressing my belief in a certain state of affairs, and am not just hoping that this is so.
Things become even more problematic when Boghossian suggests that faith is an epistemology: “Faith is an epistemology. It’s a method and a process people use to understand reality. Faith-based conclusions are knowledge claims. For example, “I have faith Jesus Christ will heal my sickness because it says so in Luke” is a knowledge claim. The utterer of this statement is asserting Jesus will heal her.” (Boghossian 2013, 427–430) In a note (12), he expands on this: “Faith is an epistemology because it is used as an epistemology. It is epistemology as use; people use faith as a way to know and interpret the world. For example, approximately a third of North Americans think the Bible is divinely inspired, and more than half think it’s the actual word of God (Jones, 2011).” (Boghossian 2013, 656–658) Well, that only means that some people use it as an epistemology, or, at least, use the Bible as an epistemological tool. But this doesn’t mean that faith is an epistemology. Nor even that it is a failed epistemology. Faith may be a response to life expressed in storied (and ritual) terms. Most contemporary theologians who are not fundamentalist understand that it is impossible to adjudicate the claims of Christians (of different varieties), Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc., though it is reasonable to suggest that some responses are more rational than others, and have more salutary social consequences. Problems of religious beliefs begin where it is imagined that religions make true knowledge claims about realities that we cannot, by definition, experience. However, if we begin by using Boghossian’s very simplistic analyses of religious language, we not only do violence to the claims of many religions, but also to the way that faith functions in the day to day life of those who are not fundamentalists: the only kind of religionist that Boghossian seems to acknowledge. For example, he thinks that the claim that the earth is 4,000 years old (or 6,000 – it makes no difference) is a faith claim. Indirectly, I suppose, it is. It is based on the belief that the Bible is the word of God, and that it is factually reliable. If that is what faith is, then faith is risible. But many Christians (certainly) do not use the word ‘faith’ in this way, and do not believe the Bible to be a scientifically or historically reliable source text. How could it be – since there is real development within the Bible itself? It may be right to argue in this way with those who do so believe, but it is silly to argue in this way with people for whom faith is something entirely different. However, by lumping all remarks about faith together – Tillich’s amongst them – he is suggesting that all “believers” use the word ‘faith’ in the same way, and this is not true; it is in fact pretending to know something he doesn’t know. None of this means that, for someone like
Tillich, there are not severe philosophical problems with the way he accounts for and describes faith, but it does mean that Boghossian’s approach simply cannot be taken reasonably to apply to those problems.
Boghossian goes on to say that “Faith claims are knowledge claims. Faith claims are statements of fact about the world.” (Boghossian 2013, 442–443) However, it does not follow from the claim that some faith claims are knowledge claims that all faith claims are so. I do not think he could show that all faith “claims” are knowledge claims. He needs evidence to show this, and he provides none.
A factual error. Boghossian states: “For example, approximately a third of North Americans think the Bible is divinely inspired, and more than half think it’s the actual word of God (Jones, 2011).” In Canada, however, according to a recent (2011) poll, a total of 12.787% of Christians believed that the Bible is the word of God. (See Wikipedia on Religion in Canada) The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada suggests that the figure is 19%, according to their own poll, but they report it this way: “19% of Canadians (12% Protestant and 7% Catholic)” – however that is 19% of Christians, not Canadians! The differences between Canada and the US are quite striking. So Boghossian apparently has faith, for he pretends to know something he does not know. It is simply moronic to combine Canada and the US (and Mexico?) and suppose that a meaningful fact about belief in the Bible as God’s word can be stated about that artificial conglomeration.
Nevertheless, he continues to press the point about faith and epistemology: “Part of the confusion on the part of those who don’t use faith to navigate reality is that they understand that faith is an obviously unreliable process of reasoning. Consequently, they either don’t view faith as an epistemology, or they don’t think others really use it as an epistemology. They view it as something else, something weird, something other, something personal, something malicious, perhaps even something redemptive. But at its root, faith remains an epistemology. It is a process people use to understand, interpret, and know the world.” (Boghossian 2013, 663–668) This simply won’t do. It does not follow from the fact that some people do not use faith as an epistemology that “they don’t think others really use it as an epistemology.” Nor is it necessarily the case that people use faith “to understand, interpret, and know the world.” It is much more reasonably thought to be a matter of existential “understanding” and “conviction”, not a matter of empirical knowledge claims at all. (Perhaps that is included in ‘understanding and interpreting,’ but, if so, Boghossian should not claim that he is still working within the limits of empirical knowledge of the world.) Even those who believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead are not doing so on the basis of faith (at least in general). They almost always attempt to provide probabilistic arguments to show that, given the historical evidence at our disposal, it is more probable than not that something extremely like the miracle of a resurrection occurred than that it did not. They may give greater weight to the biblical text than is historically warranted, but even here they tend to argue that the weight they assign to it is reasonable, based on contemporary evidence. I am not, of course, convinced that this is true, but it is nevertheless evidence that not faith, but historical reasoning, is the basis of such belief. Faith comes into play when the significance of this supposed event is entertained. The reality of the event itself, as most theologians seem to agree, cannot be established by faith, for it is not at all clear, on reading the gospels, what is meant by the notion that Jesus rose from the dead. Thus faith is not, in this case, used as an epistemology, though it certainly drives the pursuit of epistemological warrant. Indeed, the resurrection is often provided as the impetus for faith, not as something established by faith.
Faith has many faults, and is often used as an enemy of the truth or of the search for truth. There is no question about that. However, I wonder if the following could be established on the basis of a history of Christian thought: “Faith taints or at worst removes our curiosity about the world, what we should value, and what type of life we should lead. Faith replaces wonder with epistemological arrogance disguised as false humility. Faith immutably alters the starting conditions for inquiry by uprooting a hunger to know and sowing a warrantless confidence.” (Boghossian 2013, 713–715) Doubting that such high-handed remarks about faith are well grounded is probably the reason for Terry Eagleton’s challenge to read some of the medieval theologian/philosophers. Or, consider Augustine, whom Boghossian mentions. “One could easily,” he says, “fill an entire book with faith deepities —many, many authors have. Christians in particular have created a tradition to employ deepities, used slippery definitions of faith, and hidden behind unclear language since at least the time of Augustine (354– 430).” (Boghossian 2013, 295–297) But he could scarcely accuse Augustine of a lack of curiosity! Nor could he, I suggest, think of Christian theology, as it developed in the later middle ages, as characterised by “epistemological arrogance disguised as false humility”! While Christianity did not itself, perhaps, generate science all on its own, it is significant that science did not develop in China, the Islamic world (and to the extent that it did in the Islamic world it is arguably largely because of the influence of Greek and Indian thought amongst its non-Muslim subjects), amongst the Hindus, etc. What was it about middle to late medieval thought that did provide the basis for the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? It is faith as fundamentalism that seems to curb our curiosity, not faith as such. Many scientists are religious, and more scientists are Christian, perhaps, than adherents of any other religion. (But that is only a guess.)
Regarding the following there can be no complaint: “Among the goals of the Street Epistemologist are to instill a selfconsciousness of ignorance, a determination to challenge foundational beliefs, a relentless hunger for truth, and a desire to know. Wonder, curiosity, honest self-reflection, sincerity, and the desire to know are a solid basis for a life worth living.” (Boghossian 2013, 718–720) However, there is a lack of self-consciousness of ignorance in Boghossian’s way of characterising faith, without any sense that he is prepared to revisit his position. There is an epistemic closure or doxastic closure about much that he says about faith, as though religious believers are stuck with the interpretations he foists upon them. Indeed, he notes where people might disagree, and yet continues merrily on his way regardless, merely saying that they are wrong. But this needs to be shown, not just said. Boghossian’s position is scientistic, in the sense that science is thought to provide everything that can be known. I think there are reasons for doubting this. I think Dworkin’s book Religion without God (Dworkin 2013) is a good corrective to Boghossian’s rather confined notion of what we can be thought to know, and it is noteworthy that Dworkin uses the term ‘faith’ throughout without apology, without meaning “pretending to know what we do not know” by it.
Boghossian quotes Wittgenstein in a way inappropriate to the context. As Boghossian says: ‘As Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Investigations (§ 118): “What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand .”’ (Boghossian 2013, 738–739) But, of course, what Wittgenstein had in mind was the way that, in philosophy, our minds are often bewitched by our uses of language, and philosophy’s task, he said, was to clear away such misunderstandings, so that we are no longer puzzled – or, as he expressed it: “to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.” This is entirely irrelevant in the context of Boghossian’s discussion of faith and (lack of) curiosity and self-questioning.
Boghossian also seems to misunderstand the problem of the “hermeneutic circle.” He seems to think it has to do with confirmation bias. But the hermeneutic circle is different. It really deals with areas of human understanding that are in fact based in interpretation, where there is no external fact to which we can refer, and which can confirm our beliefs, though within which much reasonable argumentation can be and is carried out. Argumentation in this case is internal, as it is, for example, in mathematics. Boghossian says: “Academicians frequently talk about confirmation bias and a hermeneutic circle—when interpreting something, our assumptions dictate what we feel, hear, see, and experience.” (Boghossian 2013, 725–726) Our assumptions may, at the outset, “dictate” how we interpret an experience, but hermeneutics does probe more deeply, and here Kierkegaard’s anxiety (to which Boghossian also refers), or Socratic ignorance, comes in. We cannot be content with our original interpretation. We must acknowledge the interpretive character of our beliefs, and this in itself arouses anxiety, because relying on internal cues for understanding, and because there are always lines of exploration yet to be considered. But notice that, in a Socratic dialogue, there is no place at which interpretation escapes the circle; it is just that the circle is more and more refined, or, sometimes, expanded, as it takes into account an increased amount of interpretive work. Aesthetics, ethics, and even philosophy of science (and so what we understand by science itself), function in this way. Indeed, perhaps the most important aspects of human understanding are hermeneutic in this sense. Boghossian is surely not simply unacquainted with the idea of the hermeneutic circle to be so doxastically confident as to dismiss it in terms of confirmation bias.
The claim that “faith is by definition the belief in something regardless or even in spite of evidence,” (Boghossian 2013, 746) is in need of support. (The definition, by the by, is Massimo Pigliucci’s.) We may have faith is all sorts of things for which there is, at least, some evidence of probative value. Whenever we fly, or ride in a bus on busy highways, we do so with at least some faith (or trust) in the pilot or driver, faith that he or she has been chosen for particular skills, and is not simply a nepotistic appointment regardless of lacking such skills, or possessing them less fully than other applicants for the same position. We have some evidence, but in individual cases not very much. The same goes for religious faith in many instances, though some people’s faith may be belief held in spite of evidence to the contrary. It all depends upon what that faith consists in, and there is no general description of the meaning of the word ‘faith’ which can take all faith positions into account. Boghossian’s definition is deliberately dismissive instead of descriptive. And, for a philosopher, this lack of analytic refinement indicates a serious lack of professionalism. That does not mean that many beliefs are not unreasonable, and sometimes adopted in the teeth of the evidence. In some cases it is a matter of whistling in the dark, despite one’s fears.
Tertullian did not say “I believe because it is absurd,” as Bohossian suggests (Boghossian 2013, 789–790). What Tertullian said is far more complex – as follows:
Crucifixus est Dei Filius, non pudet, quia pudendum est;
et mortuus est Dei Filius, prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est;
et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile.
— (De Carne Christi V, 4)
“The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful.
And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsuitable.
And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.”
(See Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Credo_quia_absurdum.) This is important. ‘Credo quia absurdum’ might be translated as “What I believe cannot be proved.” In all fairness, Tertullian’s remarks are meant to be challenging to the status quo regarding what could reasonably be considered respectable religious belief and its priorities. What he is saying, is, if you like, ironical. Christianity represented, according to Tertullian, an overthrow of conventional religious understandings of belief. Without this qualification, his words could be used as Boghossian unreasonably uses them. Of course, William Lane Craig meant his words to be taken literally, but then he is a fundamentalist: “I mean that we do not infer that our faith is true based on any sort of evidence or proof, but that in the context of the Spirit of God’s speaking to our hearts, we see immediately and unmistakably that our faith is true. God’s spirit makes it evident to us that our faith is true.” (Boghossian 2013, quoted 791–793) And this really is contemptible. But Boghossian needs to beware of confirmation bias when choosing epigraphs.
Boghossian uses the term ‘doxastic closure’ to “mean that either a specific belief one holds, or that one’s entire belief system, is resistant to revision.” (Boghossian 2013, 812–813) Doxastic closure, as he points out, is variable. It may be absolutely closed to revision, and may be reasonably so, although Boghossian does not acknowledge this. Ethically, most of us would hold the belief that “Torturing babies for fun is wrong” to be doxastically closed, and count ourselves reasonable so to hold it; just as “Raping women is a morally acceptable way of ensuring the perpetuation of one’s genetic line” should be. Doxastic closure is thus not necessarily a criticism of a belief. Most scientists are doxastically closed about fundamental theories (which have achieved the doxastically relatively closed status of facts) — for which Dawkins coined the word ‘theorum’ (see The Greatest Show on Earth, 11).
However, it is not clear that Boghossian recognises this. For instance, he points out, correctly: “Combine clustering in like-minded communities with filter bubbles [as in the way that the net or Google filter content and attract like-minded people], then put that on top of a cognitive architecture that predisposes one to belief (Shermer, 2012) and favors confirmation bias, then throw in the fact that critical thinking and reasoning require far more intellectual labor than acceptance of simple solutions and platitudes, then liberally sprinkle the virulence of certain belief systems, then infuse with the idea that holding certain beliefs and using certain processes of reasoning are moral acts, and then lay this entire mixture upon the difficulty of just trying to make a living and get through the day with any time for reflection, and voilà: Doxastic closure!” (Boghossian 2013, 840–845) That is something that I have noted on the new atheist web. It is very easy to get a negative response to anything that questions what seems to be the reigning orthodoxy. Just suggest that there is something, after all, to be said for religion, consciousness, or free will, and, hey, presto!, one is categorised as a faith-head. Happens all the time. Atheists and scientistic atheists are as liable to be doxastically closed as religious believers.
Boghossian recommends doxastic openness: “Doxastic openness, as I use the term, is a willingness and ability to revise beliefs. Doxastic openness occurs the moment one becomes aware of one’s ignorance; it is the instant one realizes one’s beliefs may not be true. Doxastic openness is the beginning of genuine humility (Boghossian, under review) (Boghossian 2013, 847–850). However, this ignores the fact that there are often good reasons to be doxastically closed about some things. I do not think I will ever be open to revision of my ethical beliefs expressed in the last paragraph but one. We should always be open to the possibility that we may be wrong. Doxastic humility is important if we are to arrive at the truth. However, there are some things that are so foundational that belief that they are wrong would simply destabilise the whole system of our beliefs (see Wittgenstein’s On Certainty here). (This is what happens in the case of people who are going through a “crisis of faith.”) Such beliefs may be the foundational beliefs of a given science at a particular time, or the beliefs that anchor someone’s faith in the meaningfulness and purposefulness of life. These remain fixed unless there are transformative reasons for revising them.
According to Boghossian “faith-based” beliefs are resistant to revision. Indeed, he goes so far as to call it doxastic pathology. “Doxastic pathology is especially evident in faith-based beliefs. That is, faith-based beliefs occupy a special category of beliefs that are particularly difficult to revise.” (Boghossian 2013, 884–885) Speaking about pathology here is of questionable value, especially in view of the fact, as he goes on to point out, that faith-based beliefs are accorded special status in law, besides the fillip they get from cultural approval (which thus gives them a special status in the minds of young people), although his confidence about the criticism of economic beliefs is, I suspect, a bit of doxastic pathology in its own right: “Tax-exempt status has allowed faith to become big business, but unlike faith, big business is always in the spotlight and under constant criticism.” (Boghossian 2013, 889–890; italics original) Big business is not always in the spotlight and under constant criticism, I suspect, certainly not in an operative sense, and in the United States especially seems to be accorded an almost faith-like protective shell. That’s why 50% of the wealth in the US is owned by around 400 individuals. The problem here is obviously that what gets called pathology, and what is considered normative, depends upon the hermeneutic circle, and needs to be more vigorously and critically addressed. The same goes for science. Many scientific beliefs are effectively doxastically closed. There are good reasons for this, since doxastic closure at some points is necessary to allow doxastic openness at others. But, of course, the same goes for ethics and religion as well.
Boghossian’s idea of (or at least the way that he extends the idea of) pathogenic belief is questionable: ‘A pathogenic belief is a belief that directly or indirectly leads to emotional, psychological, or physical pathology; in other words, holding a pathogenic belief is self-sabotaging and leads one away from human well-being. Examples of such beliefs are, “I’m unlovable, I’ll always fail in romance,” “I’m pathetic, weak, and worthless, and without Christ’s love I couldn’t quit drinking on my own,” and “Without Scientology and auditing, I’ll never be able to limit the effects of the trauma ruining my life.”’ (Boghossian 2013, 896–900) There are many people whose self-concept was in need of a boost, and if Jesus was enough to boost that self-concept, then belief in Jesus is not pathogenic. Some beliefs are obviously self-defeating, but a belief that leads to beliefs which are self-enhancing can scarcely be called pathogenic. For all sorts of good biographical reasons, people have low self-esteem. Sometimes religious cocooning provides a way out of the self-flagellating dead end. Lots of recovered or recovering drug addicts and alcoholics are evidence for this. So, while the belief that “I’m pathetic, weak and worthless,” may be pathogenic, the belief that only with the help of Christ’s love have I been able to overcome my dead-end of a life may at least appear to be true. Whether he could have done it without that belief is at least questionable, since that is how he did it.
I question this claim: “For the Street Epistemologist, the conclusion to draw from increasingly resolute verbal behavior is that if you make headway into someone’s epistemic life— in helping them to question their beliefs, and the way they come to acquire knowledge— you may observe the opposite in their utterances and behavior. Once you expose a belief or an epistemology as fraudulent, you’re likely to hear statements of greater confidence. It seems that Street Epistemology has made your client more doxastically closed, when in fact this strident verbal behavior indicates a glimmer of doxastic openness.” (Boghossian 2013, 916–920) Of course, it may sometimes be true. But was Thrasymachus unsure? Or could he no longer think of a way to counter Socrates’ questioning? I think the latter. That’s why he left. It’s easy to feel brow-beaten in argument, even the most apparently peaceful and respectful argument. In my experience, leading people to the point of aggravation, often concealed, because they no longer have a response, is not necessarily a sign of doxastic openness. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. Indeed, it may reasonably be taken as evidence for tighter doxastic controls, e.g., avoid such heretics/apostates/unbelievers in future; they are corrupting. Athens didn’t kill Socrates because the city council doubted its grasp of the truth. By being so doxastically open, Socrates threatened the state with chaos, and made eminent citizens look like fools. Well, he did, didn’t he? That doesn’t mean that Socrates had shaken a few bricks loose in the structure of their beliefs. Indeed, it may have a tendency to bake such bricks into place more firmly. (Of course, Boghossian recognises this too, but does not seem to recgonise how widespread a tendency this is.)
Consequent on the foregoing comments, I do not think that what Boghossian calls intervention in the lives of those who “start with a faith-based belief or a faith-based epistemology,” (Boghossian 2013, 1165) really deals with religious belief generally. With acupuncturists it may (but is not likely to) work, even perhaps with Christians who believe they have given you reason to believe that they have provided falsification criteria for their beliefs (though this is not likely either). But with someone like Hans Küng, for example, is it likely to work? Not so likely, I suspect. I can understand fundamentalists being more likely to give up faith gradually, than those who do not hold literal beliefs – which is perhaps why a large number of converts from religion come from evangelical backgrounds. I questioned most Christian dogmas, yet I not only thought Christian faith a genuine possibility for me, but that, more importantly, a liberal (or perhaps more correctly a radical) belief system was necessary to preserve a place in contemporary discourse for faith, and that such a system is relatively easy to learn and more humane in application than many secular alternatives. I did not leave the church because I no longer had faith, but because too many of the church’s official policies (regarding gay people or assisted dying for example) presupposed fairly literalist premises regarding the authority of the Bible. Though, to be candid, there is absolutely no reason, based on a biblical text, for believing that suicide is wrong, or abortion, if it comes to that. And as for homosexuality, to refuse to permit the change in historical and cultural circumstances to inform one’s judgement of alternative sexualities is simply a form of anachronism. You cannot import Paul’s strictures on homosexuality into the contemporary context without perverting the plain meaning of the text. Which is one of the reasons why ideas of God (which are temporally quite specific) need to be left out of moral discourse. And anyone who believes that Jesus was the Son of God based on biblical texts has to be reading those texts in a way prescribed by dogma, and not the other way round. It took a long time for the church to settle on an account of the status of Jesus, and even then it was not finalised, and was still (and is still) open to interpretation. If one is a fundamentalist there are simply too many reasons not to believe. I could never have been a fundamentalist, though that is the way I was brought up. I never believed in the so-called “virgin birth”, never believed in life after death, inconsistently was afraid of hellfire and damnation, never knew what was meant by calling Jesus the Son of God, never believed in a bodily resurrection (always thought of it as some kind of eschatological belief), yet was quite prepared to recite the Nicene Creed Sunday after Sunday as expressing my historical link with the faith of the early Christians, even though they would not have understood my own expression of faith as anything but heresy. I simply find Boghossian’s conception of faith as too simplistic, based, perhaps, on an experience of American fundamentalism, and not on a general understanding of what many more liberal, reasoning Christians have believed. Call it the Neville Chamberlain school of hermeneutics if you like, but there is no reason, in the context of religious discourse, why all of these beliefs have to be read in the plainest literal sense of the words.
“It’s more likely.” Boghossian writes, that “you’ll earn success if you view what you’re doing as an intervention and consider a person of faith as someone who needs your help— as opposed to passing judgment.” (Boghossian 2013, 1180–1181) Well, that is, of course, already to have passed judgement. If all faith is infection with a “faith virus” in need of cure, then judgement has been passed. “Interventions,” he writes, “are not about winning or losing, they’re about helping people see through a delusion and reclaim a sense of wonder.” (Boghossian 2013, 1190–1191) Fundamentalists, who need to hold the literal sense of religious belief with a tight grasp, may lack a sense of wonder, but religious belief is, by and large, characterised by wonder at both the awesome beauty and the mysterious puzzle of the universe, and our being alive in it. To suggest that religious people (as such) lack a sense of wonder seems a particularly strange thing to say. Indeed, religious experience (what Otto calls the experience of the numinous) is characterised by wonder (as well as by repulsion).
“Helping people to think clearly and to reject unreliable epistemologies is not another shot across the bow in the culture wars. Your discussions with the faithful are a genuine opportunity for you to help people reason more reliably and feel less comfortable pretending to know things they don’t know. They also present an opportunity for you to further develop a disposition conducive to anchoring beliefs in reality.” (Boghossian 2013, 1203–1206) As a priest, every homily was an attempt to help people “reason more reliably and feel less comfortable pretending to know things they don’t know.” Indeed, this was my stated goal, repeated often. Even within faith communities this sort of discourse is possible, and in my view necessary, since the public face of religion in the media is fundamentalist, which is an untenable form of religious belief. We need to face the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be, and religious people are as capable of doing this as are any others. Keep in mind that every religion developed as a way of understanding and living life in the world, navigating both its wonders and its more harsher aspects, and that the biblical god is one who brings both good and evil. This is clearly stated, later philosophical speculations notwithstanding. This is often misunderstood. Intercessory prayer has had a tendency to shift religious belief towards the idea of goodness and consolation, but nothing in the Jewish scriptures can be taken, without qualification, in this sense.
“Keep in mind the possibility the faithful know something you don’t, that they may have a reliable method of reasoning that you’ve overlooked, that there’s a miscommunication, or that they can somehow help you to think more clearly. As long as you keep in mind the possibility someone may know something you don’t, and as long as you’re open to changing your mind based upon evidence and reason, you’ll eliminate much of the potential for creating adversarial relationships, and avoid becoming that against which you struggle.” (Boghossian 2013, 1206–1210) But, of course, given the starting point, that faith is a failed epistemology, it is not likely that the street epistemologist will pay much attention to what the “faithful” believe they know, so the conception of “evidence and reason” here may be doxastically closed to what Dworkin speaks of as interpretive knowledge, which is comprised partly of internally critiqued understanding of the significance and value of life, for which no empirical evidence can be given. I agree, however, with this: “The moment we’re unshakably convinced we possess immutable truth, we become our own doxastic enemy. Our epistemic problems have begun the moment we’re convinced we’ve latched on to an eternal , timeless truth. (And yes, even the last two sentences should be held as tentatively true.) Few things are more dangerous than people who think they’re in possession of absolute truth. Honest inquirers with sincere questions and an open mind rarely contribute to the misery of the world. Passionate, doxastically closed believers contribute to human suffering and inhibit human well-being.” (Boghossian 2013, 1223–1227) But labelling something as a pathology is already to have taken a step in the direction of doxastic closure, if not into a dead end of doxastic closure, permitting no escape. Sometimes, of course, it may be possible for the more thoughtful, and more epistemically humble street epistemologist to be doxastically open, even in the face of obdurate faith, but just defining faith in terms of pretending to know what you don’t know is already to have hopelessly muddied the waters, and made adversarial encounters much more likely.
“Remember: the core of the intervention is not changing beliefs, but changing the way people form beliefs—hence the term “epistemologist.” Bringing facts into the discussion is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem: the problem is with epistemologies people use, not with conclusions people hold.” (Boghossian 2013, 1252–1254) Agreed, but with the caveat that the street spistemologist can’t suppose that they have epistemology down pat either. That’s one of the problems with epistemology. What are we entitled to claim to know? What are we entitled to believe? These are two different questions, and they have quite different answers.
“Nearly all of the faithful suffer from an acute form of confirmation bias: they start with a core belief first and work their way backward to specific beliefs.” (Boghossian 2013, 1263–1264) I do not see this as being true, except in cases of fundamentalist believers, who have their confirmation biases lined up like ducks in a row. Most religious believers do not think in terms of justification at all. They believe because they have been taught to believe, and, to a large extent, because, in their own experience, belief seems to work. Religion is a cultural formation, and it includes so much more than beliefs. It is social, political, cultural, and, often institutional. It is inherent in the air that children breathe (or not, as the case may be). Learning to think of beliefs, and to justify them, is beyond the reach of all except those who already have a defence to hand, because they are, like street epistemologists, eager to cure others of either their wrong beliefs or disbelief. Learning to defend your beliefs is crucial to the fundametalist enterprise, and it is usually done in a straightforward proof text way, even when quoting Aquinas. Indeed there are similarities between Boghossian’s street epistemology and apologetics.
“Another example of confirmation bias occurs when someone tells their pastor, for example, that they’re having doubts about their faith. Their pastor in turn tells them to read the Bible and pray about it.” (Boghossian 2013, 1276–1277) I can assure Boghossian that I would never have said any such thing, and few of the priests I know would do so either. Indeed, questions and doubts are integral to almost all sincere faith. This sometimes lulls those who hold faith in this way into thinking that the doubts have been adequately dealt with, but asking someone to read the Bible and pray about it is never something that most clergy that I know would suggest (despite the disastrous effect of the Alpha Course on Anglicanism generally). Indeed, the Bible, read critically, as anyone familiar with biblical criticism should be aware, raises more questions than it answers. So this remark can only refer to the narrowest of fundamentalists, and the pastors in this case would not recommend the Bible, but specific texts of the Bible, which are guides as to how to read the Bible as a whole.
“Street Epistemologists should use a foundationalist paradigm when deconstructing a subject’s faith.” (Boghossian 2013, 1303–1304) This is bad advice, since many of our beliefs are justly held on coherentist grounds. Indeed, Susan Haack has coined the term ‘foundherentism’ to account for scientific knowledge, since scientific beliefs are held largely on coherentist grounds, with foundationalist criteria at the forward edge of discovery. New discoveries have a way of shifting the total system of beliefs, so that they cohere differently by assimilating new discoveries. But the coherentist criteria are vital, if not to justifying beliefs, at least to the way in which to justify holding certain beliefs. And this is especially true of those who are not familiar with the science. They simply have to take it on trust (as a matter of faith, if you like) that (1) scientists have reliably shown what they claim to have shown, and (2) that it is reasonable to accept, as true, scientific beliefs which the average lay person will never be in a position to justify with reasons. Why, in this respect, should religion be any different?
Besides, a foundationalist model will only work if we take a scientistic approach to knowledge as our model. It is not convincing. “It’s helpful,” he writes, “to conceptualize the structure of belief architectonically— a belief system is like a large house. There are foundational beliefs at the base of the house that hold up the entire edifice. There are also secondary and tertiary beliefs that act as scaffolding for the structure— these beliefs are important to give coherence and solidity to the structure but they are dispensable to the structure’s support.” (Boghossian 2013, 1305–1308) The last claim is almost certainly not correct. The supporting relationship between sceintific beliefs is much more complex than that. Most people could not hold their beliefs together but for the scaffolding, about almost all of which they will not be in an epistemological position to justify. Indeed, even for scientists at the cutting edge (and most scientists are not at that point) the scaffolding is necessary in science simply to justify particular avenues of exploration, which cannot simply stand on their own, but are implications of the structure itself. Of course, if faith is, as is claimed, pretending to know things you don’t know, then obviously faith is something to be attacked. And sometimes, of course, faith is precisely that, like the acupuncturist’s faith that acupuncture works. But we should remember that the acupuncturist of Boghossian’s story presented herself as a naturopath. In that light, addressing oneself to the professional sceptical literature about acupuncture, while perhaps addressing oneself to the foundations, was to address only a small portion of the foundation, and perhaps other parts of the foundation are much stronger than that. In this case, a coherentist paradigm would be better, but would Boghossian have been so confident about addressing naturopathy globally? Perhaps not.
“Trying to disabuse people of a belief in God (a metaphysical conclusion that comes about as a result of a faulty epistemology) may be an interesting, fun, feel-good pastime , but ultimately it’s unlikely to be as productive as disabusing people of their faith. Attempting to disabuse people of a belief in their God(s) is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. God is the conclusion that one arrives at as a result of a faulty reasoning process (and also social and cultural pressures). The faulty reasoning process— the problem— is faith.” (Boghossian 2013, 1334–1338) I don’t think this is true. Religious faith is not always, as Boghossian seems to think, believing the Bible literally. It is not even pretending to know things. Sometimes it is not a claim to know at all. Did I know that Jesus existed? No. I always believed that he did, and still do. But I never thought that the gospel Jesus ever existed in history. There is too much interpretive work going on, though there is a good margin of coherence so that Jesus comes out very much as a radical Jewish teacher, set to overthrow the establishment. In any event, the gospel Jesus is a figure of faith, but faith is not believing that anyone quite like the Jesus of the gospels ever lived or said and did the things ascribed to him. Many of those things derive straight from the Jewish scriptures, and are not plausibly thought to be history remembered rather than prophecy historicised, but they are reasonably thought to cohere around an historical person. But what to say about Jesus was disputed for centuries, and even now people have not reached agreement. But the church’s faith did transform many things about the way people regarded each other. Certainly, people were still greedy, selfish and cruel. Christians were still people, after all. But the belief that Jesus was an expression of God’s love, however that came to be interpreted, made an enormous difference, in time, to the way people treated each other. Christianity probably attracted people because Christians believed that they should express God’s love, just as Jesus was thought to be an expression of that love. So, faith in Jesus didn’t pretend to know things that were not known. Indeed, had he said it, Tertullian’s Credo quia absurdum est is a precise expression of not making a claim to know, and because not knowing (or even knowable), pointed instead to the importance of acting according to what was thought by contemporary standards to be absurd (and still is very often thought to be absurd). That has much to commend it. It is, in fact, an expression of Kierkegaardian anxiety, or Socratic ambiguity, as well as doxastic humility. It is, to quote Tillich, reason reaching ecstatically towards transcendence, that is, not allowing the everyday norm to govern what we believe or do. This may be a deepity, but in context, it is a meaningful one, despite Boghossian’s dismissive attitude towards it. If faith is thought of in Tillichian terms, one gives ultimacy to something that, in purely prudential terms, seems absurd, but which, in human terms, somehow redeems the times. If Muhammed was an expression of God’s power, Jesus was an expression of God’s love, and it is not surprising to find that Christianity has adapted to a more humane way of regarding the human condition whereas Islam simply cannot. There is no basis in the sacred texts of Islam for such humanity. The belief that God became human may be unintelligible in metaphysical terms; but in moral terms it made an important contribution to contemporary ideals of human rights. And none of this is based on pretending to know things one does not know.
And this is also what is wrong with Boghossian’s interpretation of James’s will to believe. For the belief in question is not one that can be decisively settled by the evidence. What James seems to be talking about is what are living options as forms of life, not particular instances of belief. So, James’s is not a case of doxastic voluntarism, but of what types of belief about the universe and human life are truly living (momentous, even forced) options for one. Boghossian, of course, is a philosopher, and, moreover, an epistemologist, and so his belief in the centrality of epistemic thought is understandable. But for many people the question is not about epistemology, but what it is possible to think, what feels right, what seems, all things considered, one’s outlook on life. There is something passionless about Boghossian’s ideal of epistemic purity. This is not to say that epistemic grounds are unimportant, but they may not be crucially relevant to a particular feature of a person’s belief system. For one’s world outlook is not simply a belief about a particular reality, but about the shape of one’s life taken as a whole. Particular beliefs, such as whether Jesus existed exactly as the gospels portray him, may be very unimportant in relation to the whole structure of one’s beliefs about Jesus or about one’s life. Or if one is a fundamentalist, and one’s whole structure of belief depends upon the literal truth of the gospels (and then one is really in trouble!), then it may be very important, even of central importance to the structure of one’s beliefs as a whole. Boghossian does not seem to consider this. Nor does he ask whether there are any beliefs within the corpus of scientific knowledge, which, though marginal, are simply wrong, and what that may do to one’s epistemic health as a scientist. There is, in Boghossian’s book, a puritan epistemic rigour that reminds one of the moral rigour of Calvin’s Geneva. If, of course, he is aiming only at a particularly salient form of fundamentalist belief, then he should define his terms more carefully. The question whether an ethics of belief can reasonably be so severe as Boghossian’s or Clifford’s (whose viewpoint Boghossian reflects faithfully) is one that is not easily answered.
“As a Street Epistemologist, one of your treatment goals is to change the perception from faith being a moral virtue (similarly , the idea that belief in a proposition makes one a good person) to faith being an unreliable process of reasoning— that is, from faith being something to which one should morally aspire, to faith being a failed epistemology.” (Boghossian 2013, 1402–1404) (Note the word ‘treatment,’ if we are concerned about coming across as judgemental.) Again, though, to emphasise the point, faith is not a form of reasoning. It is an attitude towards life, often as a whole. It is often framed in the form of belief in the value of life, and the value, more importantly, of living the best life possible, taking responsibility for one’s life, and for the values one adopts in one’s course through life. (The word ‘god’ stands in for all that, so, ultimately, it may come down to faith in God, as though God were the guarantor that life made sense – and that is by no means a certainty — that is, the life makes sense.) Someone said (Whitehead perhaps) that religion is morality touched with emotion. The emotion derives from the stories or myths in terms of which one’s religious “beliefs” are expressed, though particular beliefs may be of slight importance in the structure of one’s life as a whole.
“There’s not just one correct way to conceptually divorce faith from morality in the minds of the faithful. Contextualizing and understanding the reasons why subjects believe faith claims is important. I’ve tried many strategies, to various effect. My current preferred ways to begin the disassociation between faith and virtue are:
“By redefining faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Even though much of the discussion tends to revolve around the meaning of the word “faith,” I’ve found interventions using this strategy to be surprisingly productive. This strategy also provides an opportunity to further disambiguate faith from hope.
“By explicitly stating that having faith doesn’t make one moral, and lacking faith doesn’t make one immoral. I usually provide examples of well-known atheists most people would consider moral: Bill Gates (for donating his vast fortune to charity) and Specialist Pat Tillman (for abandoning an incredibly promising football career to give his life for his country). I then ask subjects if they can think of any examples of the faithful who are immoral.” (Boghossian 2013, 1405–1413) It’s true, of course, that many people think people who lack faith are immoral. Some think that faith itself is a virtue, and even that believing but not seeing (see John’s Thomas) is a virtue. Of course, we too would probably like people to think of us as good people, morally good, perhaps even generous and kind, even though they did not have the good fortune of knowing us, but, that aside, in general, believing something on inadequate evidence is not admirable, and in many cases is dangerous, like Clifford’s ship owner, who let his leaky old ship sail without reflecting on his responsibility, in doing so, for the safety of the passengers. However, again, we have the question of identifying faith as pretending to know things we don’t know. (Of course, Clifford’s ship owner didn’t pretend. He thought: “It’s recently weathered a journey. There’s no obvious reason it won’t do it again.” And he’d probably be right. Is he a man of faith, or is he pretending to know something? It’s not obvious.) Faith as pretending to know something we don’t is not helpful, in general, though in some cases it may be. And, as to disambiguating faith from hope, it is not unreasonable to express confidence in something that we are not really sure about, hoping that it is true. I may tell someone not to worry, “The pilot knows what he’s doing.” Am I expressing faith, or trying to encourage hope, or trying to bolster my own? Same with life. We may think that life has a purpose, and that values are somehow part of objective reality, that the wonder and beauty of the universe is truly awesome, and that we are responsible for living the very best lives that we can. Is thinking so an expression of faith or hope? It’s hard to say, but it is not pretending to know something we do not know. I think it is probably both an expression of faith, and an earnest hope that this short period of life that we spend here has been worthwhile. But we have no external evidence that there is conclusive truth one way or the other. And yet much of life is about precisely this kind of uncertain belief, and the kinds of life such beliefs express. Life often depends on faith in this sense, and meaningful, worthwhile life most of all.
The second question Boghossian would put to a “believer” (if there is such a thing to be found in the singular), after asking how his belief could be wrong, is: ‘“How would you differentiate your belief from a delusion? We have unshakable testimony of countless people who feel in their heart that the Emperor of Japan is divine , or that Muhammad’s revelations in the Koran are true. How do you know you’re not delusional?”’ (Boghossian 2013, 1432–1434) Most religious beliefs I can think of are not the kinds of belief that could be delusional. They would be more in the nature of questioning beliefs, about life, about the good, about how we should live our lives, how a particular story played out in terms of living a life, not in terms of how I could justify literal belief in the story, or justify any particular detail of the story in an ancient text. Delusion seems to be the wrong argument here. Many religious beliefs may be delusional, in that they lead to expectations of the end (apocalyptic), or specific details about the nature or being of something called God, about which we have no reason to be confident that we could know such things. Perhaps such delusions are like near death experiences, or out of body experiences, in which people really do have visions of apocalyptic endings, or of the being of God (though it is hard to see what kind of vision this would be). Indeed, many people have been led to religious faith through peculiar experiences. I once met a man who had an out of body experience lying in No Man’s Land after being wounded in the First World War, and this led him to religious belief. This, I believe, is a mistake. For religious belief is not about the specifics of the nature of a god or gods, or about strange experiences. Religious belief may have originated in such experiences (or early experiences of consciousness may have been truly bewildering so that dreams and reality flowed together in particularly disorienting ways – see Lewis-Williams 2010), but faith has very little to do with such experiences now (though they are sometimes used – as in the Alpha Course – to reinforce the tribal idea of belonging to the group of “true believers”). And even belief in God is a bit marginal. Trust in God, if you like, as Joseph Hoffmann says in a recent piece, but more than that, trust in life, trust that there is value in life, that there are important values that should govern our lives, and that we should live those lives with concern for others, with kindness and generosity, and a willingness to give something of ourselves – at least that’s a part of Christian faith (though, of course, this has often been extended into a moral rigorousness that serves a tribal function). But as to pretending to know things we don’t know: that’s not a central part of many people’s religious faith. If push came to shove, and you asked people point blank about God and Jesus, they might feel themselves compelled to say something that would make their participation sound relevant, but it wouldn’t be central to their experience of faith. Community, maybe, and reaching out towards others in justice: these could be important elements. Just the support of others in trying to live a meaningful, purposeful life, and the way that religious observance helps to organise time. But pretending to know things? No, that’s not central at all.
And, arguably, delusion in any straightforward sense has no role to play either. In fact, it’s odd to have it stated so bluntly and unapologetically, and it took remembering how most “conventional” believers apprehend faith to see the strangeness of Dawkins’ book title, The God Delusion, for this makes it seem as though faith is fundamentally, somehow, a genuine mental delusion (something like a psychotic episode) about the existence of something that we have no means of confirming, and we don’t notice the inconsistency. But most people’s faith is not like that, and nothing that Boghossian says convinces me that he understands what it is like to be a “believer”. Indeed, arguing in the way that he recommends might shake a few people loose from faith, but would that be because they finally understood what they were doing wrong, or because under cross-examination they formed a limited conception of what they took themselves to have been doing for so many years? I know, for example, that, as a teenager, my son (and daughter, perhaps, too) seemed to think that the faith as I taught it was completely orthogonal to what I did teach. They simply thought of my beliefs as fundamentalist, when they weren’t, since this is how religious belief is often popularly conceived. It’s so easy to become convinced, under questioning, that one was mistaken, only to find out that the mistake was not yours, but your interlocutor’s.
So Boghossian corners a guy in church (Boghossian 2013, 1552 et seq), and asks him whether, if he knew God commanded it, he would kill all left handed people he met, and of course he gets the expected response. First, that the guy would feel like shit. And second, that God wouldn’t command anyone to do that. Boghossian brings up the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, as the underlying premise, that God has already made such a command. But, of course, that’s only if you read the Bible literally. If you don’t and the story of the binding of Isaac is, as a matter of interpretive understanding, taken to be an explanation of why the first-born is no longer accepted as a sacrifice (as it was in local religion), that it records an originative (mythic) event which prohibits the sacrifice of one’s children, then it would have been harder to back the boy into a corner. Of course, that’s not to say that the story of the binding of Isaac is troubling enough in all conscience; but it should not be taken as a straightforward understanding of what God requires, but more reasonably as an example of someone who believed this is what his god requires, only to find that, the end, this is not what his god required. If it really was what God required, the appearance of a ram in the wilderness would hardly have shifted his view. If I think God forbids, say, the consumption of alcohol, would the availability of a bottle of scotch change my mind as to what God requires? It’s always possible to loosen a few bricks in a person’s intellectual structure, if you push the points in a way that allows you to control the interpretation. Of course, the problem arises in the case of, say, gay people, whom many Christians condemn on the basis of what the Bible does say, and here there is a more reasonable wedge that the street epistemologist might drive, for many Christians believe that God has proscribed homosexual behaviour. But even here, many theologians have said (and I agree) that this is simply a misapplication of an ancient value system in a completely different historical context. A literal reading of the Bible is not required, and the Bible has always been subject to interpretation, and when it backs up local prejudice, so much the better (or easier), if you’re a fundamentalist who is prejudiced in this way. But it’s important to see that a process of revision is, in fact, contained within the Bible itself, because biblical writers change the story. Exodus says that the father’s sin will be visited on the third and fourth generation. Ezekiel and Jeremiah say that it is the doer of the sin that will die; the guilty party alone bears the guilt and the penalty.
However, I acknowledge – this is my biggest concern – that the tug of the sacred text keeps morality regressive instead of progressive, makes it difficult to see that we now have reasons to value things differently, such as gayness, assisted dying, abortion, etc. But let’s drive the wedge in the right spot, rather than hanging the guy on a peg we ourselves have created. Of course, the point of being sure that it is God talking to you is a good one, which is why most Christians steer away from the belief that God does speak to us in that direct way, but only does so through the church, or the recognised authorities, etc., or through ambiguous testimony. This may be no better, but it does at least give the person room to breathe. Those who speak about God’s will are very careful as a rule to confine themselves to things that are reasonably believed to have characteristised Jesus’ ministry, and here, of course, there is room for considerable hermeneutic disparity. If we think we can only have knowledge of empirical facts this obviously won’t help, but there is the same kind of interpretive disagreement about moral values, and there are reasonably critical ways of addressing these disagreements. We won’t always achieve consensus, but we will at least be providing reasons for what we do believe. The problem here is that Boghossian only accepts empirical evidence. This is not enough to constitute anything that can reasonably be considered a rich human life.
I’m not going to discuss the chapter on the Socratic method in detail. I think for Plato the Socratic method was the crucial way to put his own beliefs forward, by constructing dialogues in which his beliefs win out in the end, just as philosophers argue their positions, point by point. However, if you read some of the dialogues, while the Platonic ideas are put clearly, it becomes obvious that, with enough gerrymandering you can in fact back people argumentatively into corners from which there is no escape, not because their ideas are wrong, but because the directed conversation is designed to do precisely that. Many teachers have this facility down pat, and make students look pretty stupid, since they didn’t come to the answer that was expected, and the teacher is in a good position to govern how the dialogue unfolds. Some of Boghossian’s examples are good templates for this sort of argumentation. Arguments are limited encounters that only permit the person to use whatever means within his or her reach to deal with the subject matter raised. So, it is no wonder that you can back someone into a corner, if you are in control of the argument. There is something, however, not altogether fair in this process. Certainly, as a way of presenting ideas, it is often helpful, though it is seldom used in philosophy. It is very hard to present a realistic dialogue, and there is always some doubt as to which character represents the writers.Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion are a case in point. Was Hume Philo or Cleanthes? Most people say the former, but I have read others who think that Cleanthes represents Hume’s mature opinions. Many of Socrates’ interlocutors are obviously being bullied into accepting the conclusion to which Socrates is moving all along. I can show you, by careful probing, taking your responses as cues, that you have not really thought seriously about a certain subject, but that does not mean that it is impossible to do so, just that you haven’t; and if you haven’t, then the likelihood of coming up trumps is pretty slim. I find Boghossian’s suggestions unhelpful, because they presuppose that the person of faith is not thoughtful about faith, and of course many of them are not. But this does not mean that they are using a false epistemology. It may mean that it has never occurred to them to think epistemologically about their beliefs at all, and that, if they did, they might recognise that Boghossian’s idea of what faith is is inadequate to comprehend their own ways of qualifying the idea.
“The Muslims will tell you to repeat the name of Allah until you come to believe. The Christians will tell you to open your heart to Jesus to find true belief.” (Boghossian 2013, 2385–2386) Well, I find the idea of opening the heart to Jesus to be very odd. It’s not something I would ever have said. Indeed, I’ve always thought that Christians who spoke that way were often smug, self-satisfied, largely anti-intellectual, doctrinaire, and above all, intolerant. This may be the way it is with evangelical Christians, but I do not recognise this as an appropriate way into faith. Indeed, I don’t know what it means. Nor do I know what it means to attend to the Spirit within. This is simply so much gobbledegook, though it is distressingly common. It is because religion so often degrades to this level of pointlessness that makes religion difficult (if not entirely impossible) for me, but it is reasonably thought to be an impoverishment of religion, not normatively religious. This is not a no-true-Scotsman fallacy, for it is certainly a way of being religious, but it does not exhaust the ways.
“Unlike God’s spokespersons— the rabbi, the priest, the imam— I would never presume to tell someone which path is best for them. That kind of paternalism and arrogance are the behaviors that contribute to people turning their backs on religion.” (Boghossian 2013, 2395–2397) It’s so easy to characterise what supposed spokespersons for God would presume to do, and some of them do so. However, as with all counselling, pastoral (or “spiritual”) counselling should not tell people which path is best for them. This is something that only individuals can determine. Often, the best thing for people to do, if they have reached this stage, is to give up on faith, and I have often concurred with people who believed that that is what they ought to do. “Given your belief as to what faith is, and your inability to consider that that is an intellectually appropriate way to live, your only choice seems to be leading you away from faith. You might consider other understandings of what it means to have faith, but, given your reigning conception of what faith comprises, you cannot be a person of faith.” That’s a perfectly reasonable thing for a “pastor” to say.
“Faith has fallen. What goes in its place? Wonder.” (Boghossian 2013, 2426–2427)The suggestion is that anyone who lacks wonder and awe lacks faith. I cannot see the dichotomy between faith and wonder. They belong together. I wondered when I read this what Boghossian thinks that faith is. Yes, I know, I know, a failed epistemology. But his is simply a perversion of what faith is or can be. “Wonder, open-mindedness, the disposition of being comfortable with not knowing, uncertainty, a skeptical and scientific-minded attitude, and the genuine desire to know what’s true— these are the attributes of a liberated mind.” (Boghossian 2013, 2427–2429) Well, yes, but it is not clear to me that the person of faith needs to have a tethered mind. This sounds like defining faith in terms of fundamentalism. It is an inadequate account of faith. Boghossian is not being epistemologically rigorous enough for me.
I certainly don’t want to intrude on Boghossian’s account of his mother’s death, but I wonder whether the idea of wonder is appropriately raised in this context. Here is part of what he says: “When I reflect back, and think about my mother making the sign of the cross with the small figure of Jesus, I know offering her wonder was not enough. Not nearly enough. She needed something else … maybe the news that her grandchildren were safe and doing well … maybe to know that my dad and I were with her , holding her hand, and that we loved her so completely. Or maybe something else entirely?” (Lewis-Williams 2010, 2248–2252) I think that is dreadfully small-minded. It sounds to me as though he is not permitting his mother’s awareness of the imminence of death to open doors of perception (about the reality of life) that had been closed for so very long. She may have been facing, for the first time, wonder at the improbability of life, and at its mysteriousness, a sense that she could only express, at that point, by a few half remembered actions from her remote religious past. Certainly, uncertainty at this point is what was obviously most striking, and, in the midst of uncertainty, a sense of both the mysteriousness and the unfairness of life. It is simply no help to think in terms of a failed epistemology at this point, but it does point to the inadequacy of epistemology to deal with genuine puzzlement at the mystery (and perhaps a sense of the meaninglessness) of life. My mother, when she died, did not fall back on religious belief at all. She just believed that she should have been allowed to die, a living will that was ignored by the doctor, who performed an unwanted surgery and so saved her life so that she could die slowly over the next nine months. It is not only the religious who live by dogma and doctrine, and often the religious (which my mother certainly was) do not. What Boghossian says about death is stupifyingly shallow. “What can we offer people like my mother in their most trying moments? I’ve thought about this question for quite some time, and the answer is as disconcerting as it is disparaging. Perhaps nothing. Once one has been indoctrinated and infected by faith, there may be nothing we can offer those in need that would grant them the same psychological and emotional comfort offered by their misplaced trust in the unknowable.¶ However, at the same time we know we’re all going to die. Though a life without certainty can engender upon some a level of despair, there is hope in the idea that every human being is now equal in death. The human species is made stronger by the fact that in the end we’re all going to die.” (Boghossian 2013, 2452–2457) No expression of wonder here at all, and encountering people on the threshold of death is a truly awesome experience, something Boghossian seemed determined to deny his mother. What might have been offered could have been a listening presence, someone to talk to about her fears and expectations. It’s not so much that she was religious. Apparently she was not. So the reference to infection is irrelevant. She dealt with her fears in the only way she knew. But someone could have helped her to understand her fears and perhaps to still them, to help her understand that her life was purposeful and meaningful, and that her last days could also be lived with dignity (and if not, that there were alternatives to the indignity of dying).
Boghossian’s reference to the basis for hope is so silly as justly to be ridiculed. “I’m aware.” he writes, about his mother’s last days, “that my lack of action goes against the thesis of this book, but I was unable to even engage my mother about her faith in the last days of her life.” (Boghossian 2013, 2464–2465) Since he has such a limited understanding of faith as failed epistemology, there’s nothing that he could have said that would have helped. But someone who thinks of faith differently – as a kind of unifying conception of one’s life and the values expressed in it, and the outlook premised on this – might have been able to say more to the purpose. However, he need not have said anything. He could simply have helped her to express her own sense of what dying meant to her, what losses she was experiencing, and, perhaps, how inadequate faith was to facing the fact that she was going to die, although those were the only terms that she had left in terms of which to understand what she was undergoing. All sorts of possibilities were simply missed, because Boghossian misunderstands what faith might mean to people. This is very sad. Dismissing his mother, then, he rests his hope of the next generation. Now, that really is to have faith! Perhaps not altogether well grounded.
The word ‘faith’ itself has different meanings. In one sense it may mean adherence to the beliefs of a particular religion. But its base meaning, according to the OED, is this:
Pronunciation: /fe**θ/ Forms: ME feið, ME feiþ, (ME fei*þ), ME–15 feith(e, ME feyth(e, ME faiþ(e, ME–15 fayth(e, (ME … (Show More) Etymology: < Old French feid, feit (pronounced feið, feiþ : see Suchier in Gröber’s
I. Belief, trust, confidence.
a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine). Const. in, †of. In early use, only with reference to religious objects; this is still the prevalent application, and often colours the wider use.
(http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/Entry/67760?rskey=ltIAA3&result=1#eid; accessed 2 January 2014)
The basic meaning here is confidence or trust, and this spills over into confidence or trust in the truth of certain beliefs. But, fundamentally, religious faith comes down to trust and confidence in God, God’s promises, or one’s expectations of God’s goodness, love, or other characteristic. This may not express a clearly conceived idea of God. Very often it will be held in terms of a communal narrative within which one’s life is conceived and integrated. To quote Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith again, but in English this time: “The ultimate concern gives depth, direction and unity to all other concerns and, with them, to the whole personality. A personal life which has these qualities is integrated, and the power of a personality’s integration is his faith.” (Tillich 1958, c1957, 105) The question at issue for Boghossian’s mother was how was her life integrated so that dying could make sense of the whole. That she reverted to childhood apotropaic gestures suggests that she was aware of some lack of integration and wholeness. Exploring this with her might have helped.
I will only briefly discuss Chapter 7: Anti-Apologetics 101. Here Boghossian considers what he considers and exhaustive set of eleven defences of faith. Most of them are uninteresting. One that has some interest is the common idea that faith is more widely evidenced. The role of faith in science or in relationships. You have faith in your wife, John Lennox told Dawkins, and Dawkins responded with, no, I have evidence of my wife’s love. This really doesn’t escape the problem of faith, for on the basis of this evidence Dawkins no doubt believes that his wife will not betray him (in ways that he thinks it important that she not do so). So, he trusts his wife, which is (see OED above) to have faith in her loyalty and faithfulness (note that word). The same goes for science. Science is not self-grounding. It takes a considerable amount of non-empirical trust that the conclusions arrived at do, in fact, model the world accurately. Hawking speaks about “model dependent realism.” This is already a faith statement of a sort. Perhaps not as dodgy as some religious beliefs, but nevertheless not something that is empirically supported. There is also the belief that what one is doing as a scientist is a worthwhile way to spend a life. And before we rush to the conclusion that science is a benefit to humanity, let’s remember how much of a disbenefit it also is. Science has enabled killing on a vast scale. Perhaps it’s not sciences’ fault. Human beings are just given to doing nasty things to each other. But science has streamlined our ability to do that. The same goes for religion. Religion is often used for evil purposes. Is that religion’s fault? No more than the enhanced killing ability of modern weapons is science’s fault. People just do evil things, and it doesn’t take religion, as Weinberg suggests, for good people to do evil things. It can take political conviction, some doctrine of necessity, or concept of collateral damage, etc. for good people to do truly bad things. Human beings just are composed of crooked timber, as Kant suggested, and almost anything can be justified if we are clever enough. Just the ability to do something is often thought to justify doing it. The fact that we can conveniently shuttle people around in small, individual capsules, does not make the continuing development of more and more roads to accommodate them a good thing to do. Indeed, while I don’t myself care for public transport, this may be the best thing to support, and the continuing fixation on individually directed capsules may, in the end, be the worst thing for the environment, the responsible use of resources, etc. Driving around in cars may indeed be something very wrong indeed, and, in the end, evil. The point is that many of our priorities depend upon faith, often misplaced faith, and are not based on evidence at all.
The one argument for faith that interests me is the ninth one: “Life has no meaning without faith.” Boghossian takes it as “a statement about the consequences of faith as opposed to whether or not one’s faith latches onto truth.” (Boghossian 2013, 2911) However, if I understand it, it is no such thing. The point is to give life some sort of comprehensive meaning. We can give meaning to many of the things that we do simply by doing them, and finding them rewarding. But the faith in question here has to do with something more general, the kind of thing that Dworkin is speaking about in his short book, Religion without God. Dworkin thinks of religion, not in terms of gods or goddesses, but in terms of comprehensive value. Listen: “Religion is a deep, distinct, and comprehensive worldview; it holds that inherent, objective value permeates everything, that the universe and its creatures are awe-inspiring, that human life has purpose and the universe order.” (Dworkin 2013, 1) He fleshes this out later in the book, but this is what philosophers like Solomon probably have in mind when they say things like “Without hope or faith life becomes meaningless; an empty charade to be played out before an unseeing and unhearing audience.” (Boghossian 2013, quoted 2907–2908) Now, we may disagree with this, but it is not clearly irrational or unreasonable. Those who do not feel the need for such faith simply do not have the religious point of view or attitude, but it is hard to think how one could prove such an outlook to be false, nor is empirical evidence to support it available, except insofar as people who adopt this attitude live lives that seem to be full of meaning, comprehensive direction and purpose. Indeed, this extent of a religious attitude I myself possess, and find anything else pretty grim and lacking in humanity. Many scientists have expressed this sense of the comprehensive value and wonder of the universe and of natures laws. And they often have an experience of awe and wonder that is reasonably thought to be numinous, not just a matter of feeling, but a reflection of how the universe really is. Einstein seems to have had this sense, not cashable in terms of theism, but certainly expressed in terms of a genuinely exalted sense of the real. The point is that for someone like Dworkin, and possibly Einstein, it seems to be a fact that they do not see how life can be given meaning by engaging in meaningful activities seriatim; meaningfulness and value resides in the structure of the real itself. And Dworkin spends some time dealing with the idea that the truth of scientific theory, and (say) the beauty of its associated equations, are closely allied. The argument is long and detailed, so I will not address its depths here. However, I think the cavalier manner in which Boghossian dispenses with faith (which need not include belief in supernatural beings) is unhelpful, and simply misconstrues the nature of faith (which is a problem throughout his book).
The argument that morality is dependent on belief in a god or gods is almost certainly false. Dworkin suggests that making morality dependent upon God puts things in the wrong order, as it does. Morality precedes supernatural beliefs. But it does not follow, as Boghossian seems to think, that morality will not suffer devolution as a result of giving up faith itself (understood more globally, as Dworkin proposes). (see (Boghossian 2013, 2939, et seq.)) Boghossian refers, predictably, to the Scandinavian countries, which are largely secular, and seem to be much better, in terms of moral standards of behaviour, contentment, etc., than more religious regions of the world. This, however, doesn’t prove the point. Indeed, it may be that religious values have been secularised in Scandinavia, and that this has enabled them to flourish in ways that religious competition does not allow. (But keep your eye out for the effect of Islam on these otherwise largely secular cultures.) It may be that people there have faith beliefs which are not god-based, for political, moral and social beliefs can be religious in the way that Dworkin suggests. But it does not show what might happen over the long haul, were such faith to atrophy. This is simply closed to us, and those who make historical predictions are often wrong. Indeed, in most Scandinavian countries the church still exists as a background against which life is still lived. It is plausible to suggest that Scandinavian social democracy originates in the social gospel of the liberal church in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. What would happen should this background simply disappear and the related secularisation of religious values no longer seem to have a ground? That is, were it to happen that people lacked a more comprehensive idea of what it was to be human? We have no idea. Historical prognostications are, by their very nature, not supported by evidence. Boghossian says that ‘“Without faith, society would devolve morally,” is an empirical claim. It’s a claim about the world. It’s also false.’ (Boghossian 2013, 2948–2949) But, of course, Boghossian has no evidence of its falsity, which is, thus, an expression of faith, on his terms, that is, pretending to know something he doesn’t. We simply do not know enough about cultural evolution to be able to be confident about this kind of claim. We simply don’t know what the result of widespread disavowal of religious traditions portends. Indeed, it is just as likely that a more virulent religious tradition may take over, as that the future will be rosier, since more firmly based on empirical evidence. This leaves out so much of the human experience as to make it virtually unrecognisable. The Scandinavian experiment with social democracy is simply too recent to be able to base any comprehensive claim about the effect of loss of faith (if, indeed, this is the source of Scandinavian social democracy). Why did this kind of social democracy develop in countries that were once thoroughly Christian, and did not do so in places indelibly Muslim? And what will happen if the balance between the religious traditions is upset in significant ways? We simply do not know enough to claim that the proposition “Without faith, society would devolve morally” is false. I am reminded here of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s idea that, since Islam is so dangerous to the social and democratic fabric of liberal democracy, the Catholic Church should establish a mission to Muslims in the liberal West. Is her recommendation simply wrong? It is not clear to me that it is. While I hold no brief for the Roman Catholic Church, and think that it is itself an enemy of freedom wherever it has political leverage, the claim that, if one must have faith, Christian faith is better than Islam, is not obviously false.
I guess one of the things I am arguing for is more respect for our moral traditions, which, while not identical with our religious traditions, once included them. Is a passion for human rights a religious or a secular faith? This failure to have respect for our traditions is not likely to have helpful moral consequences. Indeed, one of the things that I fear is that, by defeating Christian and Jewish moral theism, we may be clearing the decks for far less humane religious beliefs, such as those of Christian fundamentalism, or those promulgated by Muhammad and his followers, especially since so many people are reluctant to criticise Islam in a serious and comprehensive way. (The amazing response to Resa Aslan’s book about Jesus is clear testimony to the fact that people are quite prepared to criticise, and enjoy criticising Christianity, but are reluctant to criticise Islam, for Aslan’s book is obviously a book of Islamic apologetics.) But when it comes to criticism of Islam, liberal values then quickly kick in, and to justify a reasonable fear of the violence that might flow from such criticism, we will be told that such critiques are somehow contrary to liberal values. They are not. Indeed, if we take the Enlightenment as a guide, one of the greatest concerns of Enlightenment thinkers was that, because the nature of religion is to gather large pressure groups together, the existence of large power-blocks composed of religious believers could be subversive of democratic forms of governance, something that we can see clearly in places like Iraq, Syria and Egypt (and of course elsewhere), as well as in places where the Roman Catholic Church has the upper hand. The critique of Christianity has become so jejune and juvenile – using arguments of the form “A and B, ergo Jesus,” which is just a parody – that it threatens to leave Islam as the only form of religious faith left standing. This is a dangerous trend, and should be discouraged. Until critics of religion are prepared to address critiques of Islam as comprehensively as they address critiques of Christianity, the atheist critique of religion is dangerously one-sided and inadequate, for Islam has more problems per square inch of text than either Christianity or Judaism, since Islam has never been forced to face the critique of science, and other rational-critical studies, and is not disposed to allow us the freedom to address such critiques to a religion about which, we will be smartly told, (a) we do not know enough, and which (b) has no central authority, and therefore no central tradition, governing tradition. Both are inadequate counters to a reasoned critique of Islam (such as some of Robert Spencer’s books, which, while widely panned as Islamophobic, certainly are based on close readings of Islam’s sacred traditions), because we can critique Islam out of its own mouth (the Qur’an and the Hadith – see his book The Truth about Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, and ask whether anything in that book is simply a wrong-headed harangue against a respectable world religion), and central authority in Islam is clearly oppressive and not so diverse as is often supposed. See here Nick Cohen on “Why can’t we admit that we’re scared of Islamism.” (churchandstate.org.uk/2013/11/why-cant-we-admit-we-are-scared-of-islamism/) And if you read it, don’t skip watching the video that accompanies it.
Boghossian, P. (2013) A Manual for Creating Atheists. Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing (Kindle Edition)
Dworkin, R. (2013) Religion Without God. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press
Lewis-Williams, D. (2010) Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. London: Thames & Hudson
Tillich, P. (1958, c1957) Dynamics of Faith, Harper torchbooks. New York: Harper