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.