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”.