Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Manual for Creating Atheist: Defining Faith


In chapter two of his project, Boghossian wastes no time striking at the center of a Christian Epistemology. Specifically, he begins with two distinct definitions of faith: “belief without evidence,” and “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Boghossian believes that faith claims are knowledge claims and that faith is therefore an epistemology. We will come back to this point of view in the analysis section of this post.

Boghossian accuses the faithful of offering vague definitions of faith, which he calls “deepities.” “A deepity is a statement that looks profound but is not. Deepities appear true at one level, but on all other levels are meaningless.” [loc. 265] Boghossian then points to a number of examples of vagueness, one of which is Heb. 11:1. The rest of his examples seem to be arbitrary selections designed only to prop up his straw man approach at this point. Apparently, “faith is a leap over the probabilities.” He says faith is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief.

The second definition of faith, pretending to know things you don’t know, is like someone giving advice about baking cookies who has never been in a kitchen, says Boghossian. Boghossian then inserts a table with commonly heard phrases that believers use about faith and he inserts the phrase “pretending to know things I don’t know” in place of faith in each instance. It truly is a type of brain washing of the atheist. Boghossian pretends to be equipping atheists to help the faithful cure themselves of their faith but what he is actually doing is attempting to find a better way to protect the atheists during their exchanges with the faithful. This tactic is designed to create a cementing of the atheist’s mind. Do not take the individual’s argument seriously. The atheist should view the faithful’s conversation as an incredible and foolish joke from the outset of the conversation. By taking this approach, Boghossian hopes to shield the atheist from genuinely thinking about the statements of the faithful.

Boghossian then attempts to essentially annihilate the meaning of faith by ripping central components of its meaning away. It seems the author views faith as purely epistemological in nature. But this would be more closely aligned with a philosophical or purely intellectual and even a rationalistic understanding of faith than a theological one. Clearly, Boghossian’s understanding of Christian theism is terribly insufficient to the task he sets out to accomplish. It is a philosophical howler to criticize a view that you do not even understand. For the Christian reading this post, you should take solace in the fact that no godless philosopher, atheist or otherwise, really understands Christian theism. The core ingredient to understanding biblical Christianity is the illuminating work of God the Holy Spirit coupled with the gift of biblical faith. Absent that work, a genuine understanding of Christian theism and its principles and concepts is impossible.

Boghossian defines “atheist” as one who “believes there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a divine, supernatural creator of the universe.” As I interact with the author, I will ask questions about these kind of statements. A critical thinker would ask, what would be sufficient evidence? Additionally, what qualifies as evidence? Again, what does Boghossian mean by warrant? If we turn the guns on this belief, we would ask if there is sufficient evidence to warrant the belief that all beliefs should have sufficient evidence in order to be warranted or justified? What evidence could Boghossian provide for the belief that beliefs should come with sufficient evidence? How could the atheist justify such an epistemological structure and then unify that structure with his belief that the universe is a product of chance, a grand accident of accidents?

Boghossian defines an agnostic as one who believes there is not sufficient evidence for the existence of God but who says it is logically impossible to make a definite conclusion, so the agnostic just doesn’t know. This is fair enough as far as a definition goes.

Boghossian claims that, “Faith is an epistemology.” [Loc. 423] The critical task of philosophy is to question truth claims whenever they are put forth. We cannot fault Boghossian for any questions he might ask, so long as they are genuine questions. However, Boghossian has invited the faithful into this discussion. And the faithful are not trained philosophers per se. We are theologians. As theologians, our philosophizing is always theological. Now, the task of the theologian is fundamentally different from the task of the philosopher even if there is a great deal that we have in common. “The task of dogmatic theology, in the final analysis, is nothing other than a scientific exposition of religious truth grounded in sacred Scripture.” [Bavinck, Dogmatics, V. 1, 26.] What Bavinck means by scientific is nothing more than a disciplined inquiry into the revelation that is Sacred Scripture. He is emphasizing a studious process or methodology that for our culture has long been abandoned outside the academy. What the Christian must always guard against is what Bavinck said earlier in his work: “Neither the subjection of dogmatics to philosophical presuppositions nor the dualistic separation of confessional theology from the scientific study of religion is acceptable.” [Ibid. 25] Boghossian does not appear to be asking questions as much as he is making dogmatic affirmations. What is remarkable is that he is making such assertions about a subject in which he is not a specialist: theology. When it comes to the nature and definition of faith, we must turn to the theologian for our education. He is in a much better place to tell us what this word means and how it relates to the field of human knowledge.

Boghossian pushes the conversation of faith as epistemology to a place of confusion. He calls faith a method and a process people use to understand reality. This is a thoroughly rationalistic perspective of faith. Now, it is certainly true that Scripture asserts that we understand by faith, that the world was created by the very words of God. In other words, faith is the instrument by which we arrive at our knowledge that the world was created by the very words of God. However, faith is not, strictly speaking, an epistemology. Faith is closer to the idea of trusting God’s word to accurately inform us. We may ask if it is possible to think of the role of faith as providing the necessary preconditions for epistemology to get going in certain respects. At any rate, faith is far more than Boghossian seems to consider thus far in his project.

Boghossian writes, “Knowledge claims purport to be objective because they assert a truth about the world. Subjective claims are not knowledge claims and do not assert a truth about the world; rather, they are statements about one’s own unique, situated, subjective, personal experiences or preferences.” [Loc. 422] If knowledge is justified true belief or warranted belief, then it follows that subjective claims can be knowledge claims so long as they rise to the level of warranted belief. For instance, my belief that I had a dream last night about the Browns winning the Super Bowl is a knowledge claim even if it is an insignificant one. Boghossian’s reduction of knowledge claims to external, objective claims seems to be driven more by his not so obscure agenda than by anything else. His definition of knowledge precludes the possibility of experiential knowledge and we know that such a scenario is utterly absurd. I know that I love my wife and kids. But according to Boghossian, such knowledge really isn’t knowledge at all. Knowledge claims are more than just propositions about the world.

Boghossian says that faith claims about the world are knowledge claims about the world. I wholeheartedly agree. Boghossian then asserts that the knowledge claims of faith are unreliable because there are so many different faiths and these faiths have serious disagreements about the state of affairs that has obtained. However, one has to wonder how disagreements among differing faiths proves that faith is unreliable as an epistemological method any more than disagreements among atheists about epistemological methodology means their respective methods are unreliable. If rationalists can disagree without compromising rationalism, then so too can faiths. Boghossian writes, “If a belief is based on insufficient evidence, then any further conclusions drawn from the belief will at best be of questionable value.” [Loc. 440] I believe he is right. Indeed, before I am finished evaluating Boghossian’s project, I shall subject his basic beliefs to this belief to see if his own system can withstand his own scrutiny. This is the process that presuppositional apologetics employs to show the unbeliever the internal contradictions of his own system. After all, the difference between us comes down to warrant. What do we mean by the expression, “insufficient evidence?” If we can pinpoint the meaning of this expression, we can then pinpoint our difference. Is it as simple as faith? I think the answer might be yes and no. I will come back to this point as I work through Boghossian’s project.

Boghossian writes, “faith claims have no way to be corrected, altered, revised, or modified.” Surely he is not correct. In this respect, there is a way for just such a process within Christian theism, which is the sort of faith that I defend. In concluding the chapter on faith, Boghossian writes, “The only way to figure out which claims about the world are likely true, and which are likely false, is through reason and evidence. There is no other way.” [Loc. 456]

The Christian Rejoinder

Before you read this section, I would encourage you to go back to the beginning of this post and read it again. The goal of this section is to respond to the major claims put forth by Boghossian’s second chapter on faith and to provide you with a method for interacting with the atheist or street epistemologist (hereafter SE).

We first have to ask the SE to justify his definition of faith. Remember, the SE defines faith as “belief without evidence” and as “claiming to know things you do not know.” The first point is that the Christian is not interested in defending “religious belief” or “generic faith.” The Christian theist is only interested in discussing the faith of Christian theism and no other. Unless you make this distinction, your defense of “faith” and “religious belief” is sure to stumble. We are not interested in a generic conversation about religion. We are interested in giving an account for the hope that is in us. We are interested in giving the gospel of Jesus Christ. By it, we know that blind eyes are opened, and true knowledge is imparted to the sinner. We must avoid the temptation to wax philosophical even though we know a thing or two about the discipline. Our focus must be on the gospel, that gospel which alone possesses the capability to do what we are seeking to do in the grand scheme of things: persuade the sinner to believe the gospel and to embrace the Christ of the gospel.

This is a good time to contradict Boghossian’s perspective and definitions of faith. Bruce Malina writes, “In American culture, faith has a strong intellectual character. It is an act of the mind. Because this culture is so strongly rational, faith takes on the further nuance that a person believes something or someone merely on a word of authority, even – perhaps even especially – when the evidence doesn’t necessarily add up.” [Malina, Bruce. Handbook of Biblical Social Values, 75] The NIDNTT defines faith as “the trust a man may place in men or the gods, credibility, credit in business, guarantee, proof, or to trust something or someone.” [Michel, NIDNTT, 594] Louw-Nida inform us that faith is “to believe to the extent of complete trust and reliance—‘to believe in, to have confidence in, to have faith in, to trust, faith, trust.” S.S. Taylor writes, “The biblical concept of faith/faithfulness stands at the heart of the relationship between the God of the Bible and his people, a relationship which, in its essential bi-polarity, is intensely personal, dynamic, and multiform.” [Taylor, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 488] Returning to Malina, “In sum, faith primarily means personal loyalty, personal commitment to another person, fidelity and the solidarity that comes from such faithfulness.” [Malina, Handbood, 74] Having challenged Boghossian’s definition of faith, and having offered a theological understanding of the term, and having established the limits of our discussion to involve a discussion of Christian theism, we are now in a better position to speak with him concerning the hope that is in us. It is absolutely critical that the Christian engage in critical thinking from the start, taking nothing for granted, and remembering exactly that their calling in this situation is both high and holy. The next question the Christian asks Boghossian concerns his belief in the principle of justification. 

When Boghossian says that beliefs based on insufficient evidence produce other beliefs that are of questionable value, we have to focus on this principle of justification. The basic problem with justification is that it is not self-justifying. If every belief requires sufficient evidence, then where is the evidence for this belief? In the end, and at bottom, the Christian will eventually hear the retort, “well, that is just the way things are.” Seriously then, the principle of justification cannot survive its own demands. When it is asked to provide sufficient evidence for itself, there is nothing but silence. If you use this question on an atheist that understands your question, I promise you the initial look on their face will be priceless. If absurdity has not entered the conversation by this time, fasten your seatbelt because it is about to begin.

Finally, Boghossian’s accusation that faith provides for no self-corrective feature is simply not true. Apparently, Boghossian is unfamiliar with Christian theism’s view of the authoritative and corrective nature of Scripture. It is against the standard and teaching of Scripture that our beliefs are measured. At the end of this chapter, Boghossian provides a picture perfect view of viciously circular reasoning. He informs us that the only way to get at truth is through evidence and reason. And of course he knows this is true because of reason and evidence. In other words, the proof for reason is reason and the proof for evidence is evidence. But as far as it goes, where is the evidence that evidence is the best way to establish truth? Where is the reason for reason? These are both synthetic statements (statements about the word) that Boghossian claims to know a priori. How is it possible to insist on evidence for such a priori knowledge since such knowledge by nature, exists apart from human experience? We will come back to this concept of knowledge later in our interactions I am sure. It is enough to say that there are different types of truth claims, different ways of knowing, and different kinds of evidence about which we must all be aware as we provide answers to those who ask us to provide an account for the hope that is in us.


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