Sunday, December 22, 2013

Tom Gilson is confused about the term faith

As certain events have cropped up in my life all of a sudden, I only have a little time for a reply to Tom Gilson's latest response to me on his Thinking Christian blog (you can read it here), part of our ongoing discussion about Peter Boghossian's use of the word "faith" in A Manual for Creating Atheists--which I'm glad to say that Gilson rightly recognizes as an important book.

To borrow a phrase from Gilson, "in due time," meaning at the least when I have more of it, I'll respond more thoroughly to the issues he raises, since he seems to think this is very important. For the moment, though, short on time, I will merely make a huge point that I think is necessary to moving our conversation forward: Tom Gilson is confused about the term faith.

Now, of course, our primary issue of contention is on the definition of that word. Gilson hearkens to the literature and classical, denotative usage of the word, which he at one point summarizes by Augustine's famous "trust in a reliable source." I side with Peter Boghossian's "pretending to know something one does not know," or more accurately, "placing more confidence in a hypothesis or belief than is warranted by the evidence." This is a kinder use of the word than my own, which identifies faith as a cognitive bias that plays the role of putting more confidence in a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence by distorting the role evidence plays in the evaluation of that hypothesis. This is not my point here, and it's not how I'm accusing Gilson of being confused.

Indeed, I think Gilson's understanding of the denotative use of the word and its appearance in classical literature is quite good, but I think it's irrelevant. Boghossian's insight into the connotation of the word "faith," meaning how it is used, as "pretending to know something you do not know" should supercede the classical denotation--that being the primary argument I made in my most recent reply to Gilson (which can be read here). While Gilson may be hung up on this point, it isn't how I'm accusing him of being confused about "faith" here.

Whether it be wilful obscurantism or genuine confusion due to using the same word for two purposes is not my goal to discern. I merely want to quote something Gilson has said to me twice now. First, he worded it this way:
Boghossian’s approach to faith undermines children’s freedom to choose anything but non-faith. Here’s how. Suppose Adam and Ann Atheist teach their children to think of faith the way Boghossian recommends. Those children will have great difficulty making their own assessment of the reasons for or against Christianity or any other faith; for their conception of faith would always be deeply rooted in terms of, “This is pretense; there is no evidence for it.” The question of whether there is evidence for faith becomes, “Is there any evidence for that for which there is no evidence?” The question become un-askable in its very form. (italics his, bold mine)
The second time he uses this, he writes:
This is incredibly confused thinking. Let me explain by translating what you wrote. Faith, they would be led to understand, is irrelevant. Thus when someday they come to assess the value of what they’ve been taught is irrelevant, they would know that this that they’ve been taught is irrelevant is, by definition, belief without evidence, and pretending to know what one does not know. Armed with those intellectual tools they will have a better, more noble opportunity to assess whether or not Christian faith is based on evidence and is relevant. Is that the case you’re trying to make? Really?! Do you not see how it undermines itself?  (italics his, bold mine)
Yes, it is the case I'm trying to make, and I was utterly confused about how this could confuse Tom Gilson, who is clearly quite intelligent and perceptive, until I realized he's juggling two completely different meanings of "faith."

We can talk about faith as an epistemology, a way of knowing and making claims about the world, or we can talk about faith as being essentially synonymous with the word "religion." We often do this in vernacular speech, saying things like "the Christian/Muslim/Hindu faith" and meaning the whole belief structure, which is the religion. I thought I had clarified that by changing the word faith (from the first quote of his above) in the relevant location in my previous response to the word "religion," but apparently not.

The most charitable explanation for this situation that I can think of boils down to that Gilson seems to think that Boghossian's argument isn't just fatal to Christianity but is so unfairly because he is using the term faith--putting more confidence in a hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence--to mean religion as well, as in "the Christian faith."

Because of this apparent confusion, he sees Boghossian as advocating that people, including children, be taught that the Christian religion is really the Christian way of pretending to know what one does not know, but this is an implicit admission on his part that to believe the tenets of the religion requires believing things that are not sufficiently warranted on the evidence.

Again, this is not what Boghossian--or anyone that's serious enough to count--is advocating. Boghossian is attacking the epistemological method that is "faith," not the religion itself. He is, in fact, clear on this point in his book: the religion, whatever it is, Christianity or otherwise, will fall as a consequence of understanding the word faith as it is used: putting more confidence in a belief or hypothesis than is warranted by the evidence for it, i.e. pretending to know something one does not know.

Admittedly, I know it's an aside, but I'm getting increasingly interested in how Gilson would handle my argument that the plausibility of the God hypothesis is almost surely zero, which I've argued in both of my books, as previously noted.


  1. James, it should have been clear enough the second time around, for I did not say *the* Christian faith, as in, "the Christian religion." You added the definite article in your analysis. I don't know why you did that. I said "Christian faith," as in, the Christian way of believing.

    Admittedly I used the word in the other sense the first time. You may take the second time as a better explication of my point; although I would point out that if "Christian faith" is definitionally tainted in the manner you propose (according to my analysis, that is), then "the Christian faith" is, too. In Christianity, "faith" and "the faith" are mutually interdependent to that extent. So while I'm sure you're happy to discover that I'm "confused," the confusion is not so great as you seem to think.

  2. You might also want to look at Boghossian's own mixing of terms in the lectures I analyzed at . So if I made that mistake, I made it in famous company.)

  3. The problem doesn't vanish even if the Christian insists on defining faith as "trust in a reliable source."

    If this is the case, then "Christian faith" can only mean "trust in a source that Christians, but not others, consider reliable." And trust does not in itself establish reliability; the reliability has to be established objectively. If the source's reliability is not objectively demonstrable, the trust is unwarranted and "faith" becomes merely "pretending to know something you do not know."

  4. All of these protestations involving the definitions of faith are twaddle; Boghossian, Dawkins, et al. have merely provided rhetorical packaging for the obvious -- that subjective, unreliable, and unverifiable claims should no longer be privileged. If one doesn't agree with the characterization, demonstrate that your faith claims are objective, reliable, and verifiable. Otherwise, the complaints of an apologist resemble nothing more than the leavings of a squid under attack.