Monday, January 6, 2014

A challenge to Tom Gilson, Phil Vischer, and others

Christian apologists like Tom Gilson (and Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer) really don't like Peter Boghossian's analysis of the word "faith": pretending to know what one does not know. They all seem to want to insist, though, that Boghossian has something right with his definition and impugn other Christians for not being serious enough in knowing about their faith. In other words, they agree that Boghossian's analysis of "faith" is right sometimes, but differ drastically with him on the extent.

Okay, fine. I have a challenge for them.

I recently opened up an opportunity for people to practice "Boghossification" of a treatise on faith written by the Pope last June, in effect creating a parody of that document when it's done. "Boghossification" is a process in which a document talking about faith is transformed (I say clarified) by replacing "faith" with "pretending to know what one does not know," as is appropriate to the meaning. This project can be found here, and the instructions for doing it are here.

Tom Gilson derided me for this project on Twitter for what we must assume are his own reasons, but he's engaged in the process on his own blog before to try to reduce it to absurdity. This is where my challenge comes in.

To Tom Gilson, Phil Vischer, and any other believer that wants to defend faith in a way that follows them, or otherwise, this is my challenge:
Boghossify a few sections of the Lumen Fidei document for me (and for you)--that is, participate in my little project.

I am not inviting you to do this as a challenge to your faith but rather as a challenge to your defense of faith because there is, of course, a condition. I want you to take a few sections of the Lumen Fidei document and change "faith" to "pretending to know what one does not know" everywhere that you think it is appropriate. If you can clarify faith in a better way in other places it arises, I encourage you to do that according to your own purposes. Using the word "faith" itself, though, is strongly discouraged.

To make it sporting, please choose a passage in which at least one instance of "pretending to know what one does not know" is the right interpretation of the word "faith" that is given by Pope Francis.

I should note that I'm not doing this to trap you or make fun of you or set you up in any way. I have personally already found it very rewarding--enriching my understanding of how religious people use the word "faith"--to engage in this little effort (because sometimes "pretending to know" just doesn't seem to fit without some real effort to glean the clear meaning of the words and sentences in which it appears). Since I got an enrichment in my understanding of the word "faith" out of this effort, I fully expect you will reap that reward many times over, so when I say that this project/challenge is for you, I really mean that.

I look forward to your submissions.


  1. In my experience, it's very easy to predict how those who suffer from cognitive dissonance will behave when faced with a seemingly innocuous challenge such as yours; the faith-based believer will recognize that your exercise poses a grave challenge to their cherished belief, and they will pretend that they can free themselves while maintaining a veneer of rationality. So, I predict one of the following:

    1) Quibble over definitions as an endless diversion;
    2) Demur based on insignificant doctrinal differences, etc.;
    3) Ignore your challenge and hope it goes away;

    There are many variations on the above but they seem the most popular. The gist of it is that those to whom you present the challenge face a dilemma: the truly rational thing to do is to test one's beliefs by undergoing your exercise, and yet they will resist this because they (rightly) fear the increase in their dissonance. Thus, they will resort to the appearance of rationality with variations on the objections above, all the while avoiding the only rational act -- to go through your exercise as a means of testing their beliefs and improving their understanding.

    1. Gilson's reply so far: "James, I have trouble believing you’re taking this project seriously. No thanks."
      Vischer's: "Francis seems to be using the word accurately. Substitute with 'confidence in God's promises.''

      I have assured Tom that as an exercise to complete the "Boghossification," I'm not at all serious, but as an exercise to engage with the definitions of the word "faith," I'm very serious. It's a useful exercise--so much so that it surprised me in that capacity.

      Vischer's rebuttal is more nuanced in quality. My problem with it is essentially that since I have to pretend to know God exists to use "confidence in God's hypotheses," he hasn't actually succeeded in doing anything by moving it one step back (to faith in faith, if you will, instead of just direct faith). That makes me want to Vischerify a bit, here from the beginning of Section 4:

      Pope: "There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim."
      Vischerified: "There is an urgent need, then, to see once again that putting confidence in promises we pretend, but do not know, came from God is a light, for once the flame of confidence we pretend, but do not know, comes from God dies out, all other lights [seem] to dim [for those who put there confidence there]."

      I'm particularly curious how they will go about it, though, since they indicate that sometimes the word gets used to mean "pretending to know what we do not," and I think it's pretty well beyond debate that at least some of these times is the meaning conveyed by the pope in this document.

      Hopefully, the short Viscerification I did just there indicates how there is some serious amount of having to engage with the context of the sentences--this isn't just a rote find and replace exercise--to do well with it. That engagement is of profound usefulness, and I'd argue that for both believers and the rest of us.

    2. Pardon the the grammatical errors above (including a use of "there" instead of "their"!) It's really cold, and that's presenting some minor problems that have me slightly distracted just now.

    3. Grammatical errors all pardonable (as I get older I notice myself doing more of them -- the odd ones are the purely phonetic substitutions, like "won" when I am thinking "one." Interesting something about how language is actually handled in the brain, I suppose.)

      I am fascinated by the topics you are exploring. I find myself mostly wondering how to help the deluded free themselves in ways that aren't coercive, and I think your current posts are great attempts -- I think that what you are doing is far more likely to be successful in disabusing the deluded than arguments, ridicule, etc.

      My uncle has a professor friend who works to better understand "fringe" groups that may lead to terrorist acts, etc. When we talk about this topic my uncle's friend (and I got this second-hand, so some caveats) indicated that one of the only productive techniques they had found to "de-program" [my words] was to have them do exercises similar to yours. Not often successful, I understand, but more successful than arguing, bringing up contrary evidence ad nauseum, etc.

      Enjoy your stuff. Keep it up.