Sunday, 17 November 2013

A casuistry in equivocation and imprecision

The atheists are acclaiming a new book in their armament. Peter Boghossian, a , has written A Manual for Creating Atheists.
philosopher from Portland State University

Disclaimer: I have only read the foreword and first 2 chapters of the book.

From the description of the book,
A Manual for Creating Atheists offers the first-ever guide not for talking people into faith--but for talking them out of it. Peter Boghossian draws on the tools he has developed and used for more than twenty years as a philosopher and educator to teach how to engage the faithful in conversations that will help them value critical thinking, cast doubt on their religious beliefs, mistrust their faith, abandon superstition and irrationality, and ultimately embrace rationality and reason.
While I support a more rational approach to theology and encourage Christians to think more deeply, the early parts of this book do not aid this endeavour and I suspect the subsequent chapters will fail also.

I will refrain from commenting in detail on Michael Shermer's foreword here save to note that his understanding of Christianity (despite his previous claim to salvation) is somewhat shallow. The first chapter "Street Epistemology" is a encouragement to fellow atheists to evangelise the world for unbelief and offers hope for a utopia free of religious constraints and political correctness—ironic given Boghossian's use of "she" for the generic person; as well as his promotion of fornication, gay "marriage", abortion, euthanasia, and opposition to (school) corporal punishment, all the trendy ideologies brought to us by the same men who gave us political correctness.

More concerning is the chapter on faith. Faith is a somewhat difficult term in that it does have more than one meaning. But for all his discussion on faith he fails to mention the common meaning attributed to the word by both the Bible and Christian theologians. The closest he gets is the quote from Hebrews which he dismisses as a "deepity"—a pithy phrase that has the appearance of profundity but is in fact meaningless on any level except the surface level. Well, let's take the surface level.
  • Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1 KJV)
  • Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)
  • Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (ESV) 
Faith is defined here as a confidence or assurance in that which we hope will be the case. Not a hope that is a wish, but a hope that is looked forward to. Not the hope that my stock will rise tomorrow, but the hope an engaged woman has for her approaching wedding day. It is the assurance or conviction of things unseen, or yet to be seen; the certainty of what we know is the case but is not visible, or not yet formed.

The reason men are approved for their faith relates to whom the faith is in, not the mere presence of faith, an attribute that is hardly limited to pious. We can also understand what Christian faith means by the fact that the Bible translates the same word variably as "faith", "belief" and "trust".

Conversely, Boghossian invents meanings for this word. Meanings that "faith" has never had in it long existence are now attached to it. Apparently no human has ever known what he meant by the word "faith", but now we can know thanks to Boghossian's belated discovery of the meanings. Of course this makes dialogue so much easier as the atheist does not need to understand the person they are taking with, the atheist can instead ascribe the new meanings to the word and inform his opponent of what he really means.

The meanings? Faith can either mean
  1. belief without evidence; or
  2. pretending to know things you don't know.
The first is almost the opposite of what faith does mean. The very issue with faith is that there is evidence. Perhaps not evidence of the actual event (which may still yet be future), but evidence of the faithfulness of the person teaching us or making us promises. The child who has faith that his father will buy him a bar of chocolate on the way home from soccer (as he said he would) may not have the evidence of the chocolate bar in his hand but he does have the evidence of chocolate bars after every previous game and probably a thousand other promises besides.

The second definition is just hubris. Perhaps I may be making claims about things I don't know, perhaps not, but how do you know that I don't know? Where did Boghossian gain the knowledge that when he disagrees with the theist that the theist is not only incorrect, the theist cannot possibly know what he claims to know?

We are shown several examples of definition 2 where the atheist can apply the author's rhetoric: "My faith is beneficial to me" can now be understood by the atheist to mean "pretending to know things I can't know is beneficial to me". But the list of examples has at least 2 broad categories of "faith" here. "Faith" is analogous to "trust" or "belief" in several examples but it is also used as a metonymy for "religion". If a word has a definition this does not apply when it is used as a metonymy. That we can use "crown" for "government" does not mean that the definition of "government" is "a jewelled headpiece". For a philosopher this is incredibly imprecise!

Next we are informed that
Faith and hope are not synonyms. Sentences with these words also do not share the same linguistic structure and are semantically different—for example, one can say, "I hope it's so," and not "I faith it's so."
I agree "faith" and "hope" are not synonymous, though they are related. But the rest is just nonsense. "Faith" is a noun in English not a verb. "Hope" is both a noun and verb. Boghossian forms a sentence using "hope" in its verb form then shows that you can't replace a verb with a noun without modifying it. Well no you can't. But convert "faith" to a verb-form and it makes sense. How about
I have faith it's so.
I trust it's so.
These are perfectly fine. Or use "hope" as a noun and change it to faith. Compare
I have hope that you will return.
I have faith that you will return.
Further, these examples show that "hope" and "faith" are related concepts.

There are a couple of other problems in this chapter. Atheism is defined as not having enough evidence to believe in God but be willing to change one's mind if evidence is presented.
[The atheist] simply thinks the existence of God highly unlikely. A difference between an atheist and a person of faith is that an atheist is willing to revise their belief (if provided sufficient evidence); the faithful permit no such revision.
The example of the author of his foreword notwithstanding, why would one stop believing in someone he has met? Does (perceived) lack of evidence really compete with actual evidence. The atheist merely needs evidence that God exists, but the theist needs strong evidence that overrides what he already knows.

Is not this atheism just agnosticism? But the author does not like the term "agnostic", further he considers it superfluous. Yet what to call the person who really does not know? And despite the so-called willingness to change one's mind, do not most atheists assert that there is no God?

Boghossian has some relevant things to say about objective and subjective belief. He rightly notes that religion makes objective claims (which he views as false). He then tries to show how wrong belief, or rather belief based on faith and not reason which he implies will invariably be incorrect, leads to bad consequences. How does he do this? Appeal to the fruit of Islam as seen in Afghanistan and several other states that follow Sharia law. Why Islam? Presumably because he could not do this with Christendom which has led to most of the markers of prosperity that he names: exports, imports, literacy, economic aid, public health, life-expectancy, infant-mortality, household income, GDP. (He also quotes the Happy Planet Index, I had to look that one up). And thanks to the 20th century we have an atheist comparison. The atheist governments killed millions of their own people, fared poorly on Boghossian's markers of prosperity, and were failed states, or escaped demise by abandoning their economic policies.

I realise that it may seem unfair to review a book that remains partially unread. There is some merit in this complaint. Unfortunately I am not particularly willing to commit my money and time given the significant faults in the opening chapters.


  1. Excellent post. A lot of this is the basic atheist tactic of equivocating with religious terminology. That description is enough for me to tell that the book as absolute junk.

    I don't know if you remember, but I wrote an article on Hebrews 11:1 awhile back. You commented on it before I had posted the full article, so I don't know if you read the whole thing ( To me, I don't think the verse is even really defining the word in as much as it is pointing out that faith causes things to happen. It brings what you hope for into fruition because by trusting in it, you act on it.

  2. Thanks JCF. I used Hebrews as that was what the author quoted. I still think that Christian faith is essentially trust in someone who is faithful (trustworthy) which. That is, without Hebrews I would still write what I have.

    Concerning your post, I am not sure. What I get from what you are arguing is that you think Hebrews 11:1 means:

    Now faith brings about the substance of things hoped for,
    it proves things not seen.

    Is that correct?

    Not sure if I agree, and think that the Greek tense may contribute at least a little for or against your argument. On that I cannot opine.

  3. Thanks, I saw the Tektonics article on the book and I note Vox Day has started a series which I will peruse.



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