Sunday, July 20, 2014

McGrew and Boghossian Debate on Faith

In a recent debate about Boghossian's book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, Tim McGrew and Peter Boghossian disagreed on the definition of 'faith'.  Boghossian had given two definitions in his book, the first being "belief without evidence", and the second being "pretending to believe what you don't know".  It is understandable that Christians take exception to these definitions, because they are not consistent with what any Christian would say faith means to him.  One commenter said of Boghossian: "his idiosyncratic definition of faith is just that - i.e., made up and totally bogus" and calls him "arbitrary, pigheaded, and dogmatic".  Is this commenter being unfair?

To some degree, the two were talking past each other.  McGrew insists that faith is based on evidence, and that the vast majority of people use the word in that sense.  Boghossian says that most people use it in the sense of believing without evidence.  But there is no single definition of the word that fits in all cases.  The most common, according to Oxford, is "Complete trust or confidence in someone or something".  Certainly people sometimes use the word in a manner that is consistent with evidence-based belief, as in "I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow."  But that definition does not imply that faith must be based on evidence.  Often, it's not.  It could also be used as in "I have faith that you will live to a ripe old age."  But Christians seem to think that their religious faith is more in line with the first sense.

A second definition in Oxford is: "Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof."  This definition specifically excludes evidence as the basis of belief, and this definition is generally the most appropriate one when the topic of discussion is religious faith.  Since neither of these dictionary definitions include evidence as a basis, I have to give Boghossian the first round in this debate.

But it is true that people think they have good evidence for what they believe, regardless of whether that is actually the case.  Mcgrew admitted that a Muslim's faith in the stories of the Koran may not be based on good evidence, but it is still based on evidence that he thinks is good - that being the words of the Koran.  And this is consistent with Christians' belief as well.  They believe in the Bible, which they see as good evidence for their faith.  The religious believer thinks his evidence is beyond reproach.  To an objective observer, it is not obvious that the evidence justifies the belief.

It might be enlightening to see what the Bible itself says about faith.  
Because you have seen me you have believed, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29)

Now faith is the reality of things being hoped for, the proof of things not being seen (Heb. 11:1).
The Bible itself does not make a strong case for evidence as the basis for faith.  So why do Christians insist that it is wrong to say that faith isn't based on evidence?  I think the answer comes from church dogma.  This is how one Christian site puts it:
Though Webster's Dictionary says we don't need evidence to have faith, as Christians we do have evidence for our faith.

        We have the Bible: 66 books, 40 authors, written in 3 languages, over 1600 years, prophecy, and moral and spiritual truth,
        We have the resurrection of Jesus; confidence in His words, and evidence of God's truth in our lives.
So they believe that the biblical stories are self-evident, like a mathematical axiom.  The trouble is, they are only self-evident to a Christian who already believes them.  They are not self-evident to non-Christians.  Ask any Muslim if he believes what the NT says.  The fact is, you have to be convinced of the truth of biblical claims in order to be convinced by them.

And here are some passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:   
143 By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, "the obedience of faith".

157 Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but "the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives."  "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt"

159 Faith and science: "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth."  "Consequently, methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are."
The first of these makes it clear that faith takes precedence over reason.  If a Catholic sees evidence that would lead him to reasonably conclude that his religion is false, he must disregard that line of reasoning.  The second gives him the confidence (and perhaps the arrogance) to proceed with the assurance that nothing can possibly crack his resolve to believe, and no argument to the contrary is worth listening to.  The last allows him to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak.  It is the dogmatic declaration that scientific discovery cannot contradict the faith, and if it seems to do so, the science must be incorrect or incomplete.

The Catholic Church clearly places faith above reason.  It is based on revelation (arbitrary).  It says that the believer should have no room for doubt (pig-headed).  And its dogma provides rationalization for any apparent conflict between observed evidence and religious faith (dogmatic).  It's no wonder that Boghossian loses the debate in the eyes of Christians.

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