Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists is not a subtle book. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 promises that it will teach the reader ‘how to talk people out of their faith’; the author is methodical in his approach to doing so.
From Chapter 2 onwards he attempts to nail down the meaning of the word ‘faith’ in a manner that opposes it to ‘reason’; the favourite descriptive term for the side that Boghossian (unsurprisingly) believes he represents.
In his famous essay on ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, Aldous Huxley identifies redefining words and eliminating unapproved meanings of terms as a key part of the strategy of thought control. Boghossian embarks on this project with more vigour than rigour.
He first redefines ‘faith’ as ‘belief without evidence’, immediately glossing this as not having enough evidence to justify a belief (which is something quite different). Yet Boghossian really does believe the stronger claim that faith is completely un-evidenced belief, reiterating it in an excerpt from an email note written to a recent deconvert: ‘Here’s the evidence for the existence of God: Nothing. There is no evidence for God’s existence.’
The second definition he offers is: ‘Pretending to know things you don’t know’, which he illustrates with a helpful chart explaining that expressions like ‘I have faith in God’ should be translated as ‘I pretend to know things I don’t know about God’. Small wonder that he also describes faith as ‘an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue’ and ‘a public health crisis’. Everyone who disagrees with him, it seems, is either insincere or insane.
Ironically, Boghossian’s definition of ‘faith’ begs for application to itself. It has no warrant in scripture and little traction in Church history, two subjects that Boghossian largely avoids. He makes one painful attempt to shrug off Hebrews 11:1 (‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see’) as a ‘deepity’, thereby revealing that he understands neither the verse nor the meaning of Daniel Dennett’s whimsical term.
He trots out the obligatory quotation from Tertullian, ‘Credo quia absurdum’ (‘I believe because it is absurd’), but he shows no awareness that Tertullian is using a standard rhetorical device described by Aristotle. He even clips a few sentences from the work of Christian philosopher William Lane Craig that give, in isolation, the very serious misimpression that Craig does not advocate the support of Christian beliefs by rational arguments. This sort of blatant quote-mining does not inspire confidence that Boghossian has done his homework.
Boghossian’s experience teaching ‘tens of thousands’ of students provides, from his point of view, ample confirmation of his definition of faith. Yet I cannot help wondering whether he is hearing what he wants to hear – making him a victim of the very confirmation bias that he repeatedly attributes to believers.
‘Belief without evidence’ is not, in my experience, how most religious people describe their own faith. Even those who have no interest in scientific or historical evidence will frequently point to the evidence of their personal religious experience or conscience, or a transformed life. These are not things that Boghossian would count as evidence for their beliefs. But then, pretty much nothing else is, either. That fact tells us at least as much about his inveterate opposition to religious belief as it does about the epistemic practices of the faithful.
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect 1 Peter 3:15
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t Blaise Pascal Faith isn’t believing without proof – it’s trusting without reservation William Sloane Coffin
A LACK OF CRITICAL THINKING
The impression that Boghossian has made up his mind prior to an examination of the facts is reinforced by the way that he dismisses all arguments for God’s existence. He claims to have discovered a ‘deathblow’ to the cosmological argument that the universe had a beginning caused by God. He asserts that ‘the possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out’. Yet he makes no attempt to argue for this claim. Moreover, given his own formulation of the cosmological argument, the mere possibility of an eternal universe is irrelevant. This logical miscue is not an encouraging display of critical thinking skills.
Are some religious believers mistaken? Of course. They must be, since they disagree even on fundamental matters. Do they always change their minds when presented with contrary evidence? No, though in this respect religious beliefs are hardly unique. Would it be desirable for believers to come to a clearer awareness of the scientific and historical evidence for the things they already believe? Absolutely. Do these concessions entail that faith is a delusion that should be officially categorised as a mental illness? Not even remotely. That sort of inflammatory rhetoric may play well to the audience at atheist conventions, but as a public policy proposal it is more than a little Orwellian.
BOGHOSSIAN IS HEARING WHAT HE WANTS TO HEAR
WE NEED SOUND APOLOGETICS
It would be easy to ignore Boghossian on the grounds that his ideas are too shallow and his rhetoric is too shrill to be taken seriously. But I think that would be a mistake. A determined ideologue with a plan may be much more dangerous than an urbane professor who is content to be sardonic in the faculty lounge.
Boghossian is earnest about sending out 10,000 ‘Street Epistemologists’ to deconvert the world. Their techniques may be sheer sophistry, but sophists have always been dangerous to the unwary and the unprepared. Hence the urgent need for sound apologetics, not just among the clergy and the intelligentsia but in our sermons, our magazines and the educational programmes of our churches.
As CS Lewis remarks in The Weight of Glory: ‘Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.’