Recently, the Christian UK talk show “Unbelievable” hosted an hour-long debate between Dr. Peter Boghossian and Dr. Tim McGrew. You can listen to the debate here:

So I have read a lot of reviews from the Christian side claiming victory and exposing Peter for some diabolical intent to harm believers and classify them as ignorant or defective human beings. I think this misunderstanding of what Peter is trying to say is lost in translation. I am not going to go over each point in this debate like many other reviews have already done, I would expect that if you read or comment on this, you have listened to the hour of debate by now on Premiere Radio. I want to talk about how poorly we communicate and why defining words (and sticking to those definitions) is so important to having these conversations.

Once, in a debate over morality, William Lane Craig brought up the use of the word “good” and claimed that it depended upon how the word was used. For example “I think you are good at your job” or “That’s a good way to get yourself killed”. We seem to live and die by definitions and sometimes have to take a step back and ask “how are you using that word?” in order to understand the context. To add more confusion, we introduce slang into the mix. Suddenly the word “bad” means “tough” as in “bad-ass” – when another use of the word can mean the complete opposite. As Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

Peter defines faith in his book in two ways, which in my opinion, is the first mistake. His first and primary definition is “a belief without evidence”, and the second definition is “pretending to know things you don’t know” – which to Tim’s point was more of a description than a definition. I could tell during the discussion that Peter really wanted to stay on this point and argue his definition. However, the host Justin Brierly wanted to move on to some other issues he had with the book, so I understand why they did move on. This proved to be a mistake, as we never actually came to terms with the definition that would allow us to move forward with a proper discussion. But hey, this is radio and you have to move along. But let’s take a moment to go back and really hear what Peter was talking about.

Despite the claim of an automatic win from Tim by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) definition, we have several if not infinite uses of the word “faith”. Faith can mean your religion or belief system itself, faith can also be a verb to mean trust or confidence in a person or belief, and faith is often used (as in the Bible) to have belief in things unseen. We can have people of faith, or faith in/of propositions, contracts made in good faith and so on. Peter was confident that the general public is using the word to mean “in the absence of evidence”, which I think is a good point. When pressed on this, Tim claimed that “no seriously religious person would define it that way” so we end up in a “no true Scotsman fallacy”. Most of the general church-going public will use faith in this way. When I press Christians who are not deeply involved in apologetics (family members and acquaintances who want to engage in discussion) they eventually resort to statements like “Well, you just have to take it on faith”.

Take a listen to this brief conversation with a Pastor on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience.

This is a prime real-world example of what Peter is talking about. Pastor Brian cannot justify his belief and he proclaims that “you can never prove that it is true”. I think, if pressed further, Pastor Brian would eventually claim that faith would be his prime reason for belief. Faith becomes the reason (in a religious sense) for believing things that you can never prove to be true. So this is the elephant in the room, and what I believe Peter was attempting to say. There is a tendency for us as human beings to stop using evidence and claim belief. This was touched on briefly in the debate, but Tim was adamant about not calling this “faith”. So what should we call it? I think Peter believes that confirmation bias creates a tendency for the credulous to believe that religious claims are true, even if they have not met the burden of proof. Pastor Brian believes the Bible is true because the Bible says it is true, and this is where the intellectual honesty and critical thinking ends. This is the “sickness” that Peter is referring to, call it whatever you like. Peter calls it “faith” – for lack of a better word.

One thing I would like to point out is the part of the show that did get ugly. Justin wanted to talk about the claim of mental illness that Peter brings up in the last chapter of his book. Aside from the Orwellian Newspeak propaganda mud-slinging that went on, Justin managed to re-define faith to refer to general religious beliefs. “Are you saying that people who believe in God are mentally ill?”. That makes for good radio and it helped demonize Peter, but it did not actually address the point – especially since they had not come to any prior understanding or agreement of the first time they defined the word “faith”.

If we are talking about the mechanism of how people believe things without evidence (or with bad evidence) by bypassing the critical thinking process, we should look at an extreme case. Peter was close when he was talking about Scientology, but the discussion became about good vs. bad evidence and never returned to the offending mechanism. Let’s take a real extreme case: the Heaven’s Gate cult. Now these were, for the most part, perfectly normal and reasonable individuals who were swept up in a religious cult and essentially gave up their critical thinking abilities, thus willing to castrate themselves, strap on a pair of Nike shoes and commit suicide. It is easy to look at the 39 members of that cult and just classify them as “crazy”, but they had evidence. The evidence was so compelling that they were willing to die for it – an argument I hear about the Disciples of Christ so often to prove the truth of their claims.

“Evidence” is yet another word that we tend to use loosely. I think this is where a lot of the hostility is coming from, as atheists are telling the religious that they don’t have enough evidence but the religious will claim that they do. It fascinates me when some of the Christians I talk to will take every miracle claim at face value and not need a shred of evidence (other than the story itself) yet look at the overwhelming evidence of evolution and claim it is “just a theory”. You may facepalm here.

I think we do have a varying scale when we are talking about the severity of the “faith virus”. Most Christians I know can compartmentalize their religious beliefs so it never comes into conflict with using standard critical thinking skills in the real world – say, for example, choosing the best car on the lot. Most people research reviews, prices, reliability, then take it for a test drive. Rarely is this done with vast majority of traditionally religious people, as the family religion is normally indoctrinated into children practically from birth – and perhaps this is the problem to begin with.

Culturally, these faith traditions are part of a long line of people not asking hard questions. Faith is often taken for granted as just something you do, often in the state of mind of Pascal’s Wager. What we should be doing is teaching children how to think critically from an early age, and leave the religion as an option for when they are old enough to reason. But the fear of eternal damnation is a strong deterrent, and most traditionally religious parents won’t take that chance. It is unfortunate that God sets up a system in which you will be tortured for eternity for the crime of asking questions, but I digress.

Finally, the last issue with this debate was the act of constantly moving the goal posts. Justin and Tim can re-define faith as they wish, even defending Frank Turek’s book “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist” by classifying it as merely a pejorative – goal post moved. Or when Peter brought up the fact that Christians claim Biologists have faith in evolution, definition changed and goal post moved again. Essentially, the Christians can change the meaning and use of the word all they want, but don’t you dare touch that “faith” word, atheist!

Perhaps we just need a new word here, in order to sanctify the purity of the word “faith” so the religious won’t get so up-in-arms. Something akin to that “missing link” they are always screaming about when it comes to evolution. If you are going to claim that something is true because you “just know it is” like Pastor Brian, perhaps we should call that a “gnostic leap”.

Brian Broome


      • Brian Broome

        Yes, that was one of the better reviews I read on the debate. I also think it is more severe than just confidence, as the claim becomes accepted knowledge (in the mind of the believer) without evidence to support it. And while a biologist will be forced to change their beliefs upon new evidence for evolution, a true believer is less likely to do so, as the knowledge is from an internal bias and not necessarily based on external evidence.

    • KP1983

      Peter’s original definitions were textbook examples of straw-man arguments. Simply define “faith” to mean something that you want it to mean and then attack it.

      To this Brian says: “When pressed on this, Tim claimed that “no seriously religious person would define it that way” so we end up in a “no true Scotsman fallacy”. Most of the general church-going public will use faith in this way. ”

      It’s interesting that you make this claim, because a poll was done directly after this show and it showed that Christians don’t define “faith”in this way.

      This is simply the epistemic commitment of Brian Broome and Peter. Using a straw-man argument and then incessantly sticking to it doesn’t prove your case.

      Aside from that, Peter’s definition cuts both ways. If you want to take the least educated of believers, such as the phone call referenced, and say “see, they have no evidence to justify their beliefs, therefore Peter’s definition is the correct one,” then certainly you do realize that there are many many atheists who can’t provide evidence to justify their beliefs also? I work in the arts in New York City. The majority of people I know are atheists, most are educated. Yet only a handful can give a reasonable explanation for why they are atheists. Most simply say “science says there is no God,” but can’t provide any evidence themselves.

      • Brian Broome

        Thank you for the comment KP.

        What may seem like a straw-man is actually not, due to the fact that a definition has not been consistently used for the word faith. Is it a noun to describe a group of people or a verb to describe the confidence to jump out of an airplane? You can not deny that many Christians use this word to deflect from giving evidence for belief. For Christians that are not engaged in apologetics (which is the large majority), this is the reasoning they give – “just have to have faith” means not asking questions.

        Do you really think Unbelievable listeners are truly representing the majority of the church going public? These listeners are engaged in apologetics and take offense to the idea that they would claim to know things without evidence – hence the results of the poll. Perhaps an accurate poll should be done by asking a series of questions to a random assortment of church-goers to get a more honest result. If you want to marginalize them as just “uneducated”, that is up to you – but they do represent the majority of the religious public.

        I am happy to hear that the majority of the people you know are atheists, I hope the trend continues. Much like New York, I live in a very liberal and secular area of California which is packed with atheists. However, most are not interested in being involved in atheist activities, they just don’t care about religion. If pressed, they will claim to be atheist by default, but how would you expect someone to justify a position of non-belief? Why don’t you believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn? I demand to know!

        You and I are polarized at different sides of a discussion, one that we think everyone should be having. The reality is that most people don’t care, it is very low on their radar. It is impossible to fit everyone into a specific category to rate their level of belief and non-belief. We are the specialized minority of people who do care about philosophical truths, but the majority in the middle either accept religion as a family tradition and attend very passively or simply give it up and not ever think about religion again until Christmas when they feel compelled to attend church once a year.

    • Bumpingums

      I heard Tim distinguish several times between adjudicating what might count as evidence and whether or not someone thinks they base their faith on evidence. The main difference being, while someone may not be able to articulate their reasons and evidence for something, it doesn’t follow that they aren’t basing their faith on something. Albeit, it may be that we disagree as to whether someone’s basis is sufficient warrant. It seemed like McGrew was wanting to go down that road several times and Boghossian either didn’t notice the opportunity or wasn’t interested. Since I do not know I can’t say.

      Couldn’t Boghossian just come out and ask,”Do you think lay people (billions of them) generally lead a contemplative and reflective life, thinking deeply and clearly about what they have gathered and based their understanding of the world on?” I believe Tim would feel quite comfortable answering this question in the negative. But, again, it’s an entirely different thing to suggest, “Since someone has not thought deeply and clearly about what they have based their view of life on, they have not based their view of life on anything.” I see this mistake happen most often when some men treat women like they aren’t being rational simply because they either don’t know how to articulate their reasons at the moment or are exacerbated and don’t feel like carefully making their thoughts known in a given moment. Boghossian very easily could have clarified by saying, “McGrew, my complaint with religious folks is must like complaints with fideism.”

      So, when it comes to having an exchange with others I wholeheartedly think it’s unfair to act like we don’t have to do the difficult work of searching our mind and experience and finding adequate ways to make ourselves known to others. But, I hardly think it follows therefore that these people do not base their faith on something. Unless we are just going to retort to special pleading with others on account of what we think evidence is (scientific method, experience, reason, or etc.,) then we must have a conversation on what we have taken as warrant and whether or not that is reliable.

      That said, it really seems like rhetorical jeering and presumption rules the day. Since so many people of faith don’t seem to base their faith on “evidence,” many go on to assume all if not most of them couldn’t care less about evidence. I not only think the conclusion is presumptuous, but it also smears important cultural tension over how these conversations have been going down in the past and present. I would think more people would appreciate that people of faith realize how stupid they look to enlightened and modern atheists these days. My question then is, “Beginning with the prospect of having been already assumed stupid before you ever begin, why wouldn’t someone feel like they are against the wall?” Hang in there with me please. People of “faith” behave this way too. I think it’s a characteristic of being a jerk, not what you take as evidence.

      Before you rail against me, please know I am one of those people who find it awkward that many Christians think America was better when prayer was allowed in school…WHILE THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT WAS UNDERWAY! I also think it’s awkward that Christians complain about not being able to consider a divinely directed evolutionary process in public school, SINCE THEY DIED ON THE WRONG HILL BACK IN THE 1920’s! This was aimed mostly at my own circles. But, I have more complaint with what passes as conversation these days than I do with the reality that people disagree with me about what counts for evidence. In fact, I hardly ever get to talk charitably about what counts as evidence because the conversation train has derailed before we begin. I may not be able to overstate how annoyed I am at general conversation between people of faith and people without religious faith. I admire Matt Dillihunty and I think he’s a better listener than most of the callers. I guess I wish he’d ask his callers why they don’t value listening more than they do. To me it’s frustrating to go on in a conversation when you already realize the people aren’t listening. I keep wondering why Matt continues conversations with people like that. That’s not to say he’s wrong. Just, it comes across like you get something else out of it than helping people think more deeply and clearly about these questions.

    • InvisiblePinkUnicorn

      This reminds me of the folks who refuse to accept that newborn babies are atheists. (see 50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P Harrison – chapter Someone I trust told me that my god is real). They’ll refuse to accept that babies can be atheists and then say something like, “well, then a cat or a rock is an atheist”. Regardless of what ‘atheist’ actually means, human beings can be broken up into two categories:
      1) Those who hold the belief that a god exists
      2) All humans who don’t fall into category #1.

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