What troubles me here is that McGrew is deliberately engaging in what we might call the apologist two-step. The way this works is that apologists say radically different things about the same topic, allowing believers who come to them for cherry-picked support of their beliefs (if we're honest) to cherry pick whichever support best suits them. To illustrate what I mean, I want to compare what McGrew has to say about the definition of faith espoused by many Christians and apologized for directly and in absolutely plain English, without the least bit of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, by the surprisingly popular apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist ignominy.
Geisler and Turek
I'm particularly taken by the characterization of faith given by Geisler and Turek in that book, which can be found on Page 26 in the introduction: "We mean that the less evidence you have for your position, the more faith you need to believe it (and vice versa). Faith covers a gap in knowledge." This is their working definition of faith, and it comports exactly with the characterization that Boghossian presented in his Manual for Creating Atheists, the object of much of his discussion with McGrew. For all their abuses of the term evidence, and the observations so characterized, throughout their famous book, Geisler and Turek are at least quite clear and forthright upon the meaning of the word faith.
For comparison, note, on p. 23 of Boghossian's Manual, that he writes, "'Faith' is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when just goes ahead and believes anyway." This is exactly the meaning given by Geisler and Turek on p. 26 of their own book. "Faith covers a gap in knowledge" fits perfectly on the end of Boghossian's characterization--and his whole theme about epistemology--without the need for a single change in anything he said. This is also more than enough to dispel the rampant pedantry that Boghossian changed his terms from "belief without evidence" to "believe without sufficient evidence," despite his acquiescence (on the spot) in the "debate" that there's an important distinction (there's not). Simply, Boghossian clarified exactly what he meant immediately after the "without evidence" as I just quoted.
Timothy McGrew says...
At one point in the interview (at timestamp 21:28), Boghossian asks directly, "So, what do you think they [Norman Geisler and Frank Turek] meant when they said, 'I don't have enough faith to be an atheist.'? When they wrote a book about that, what do you think they meant by that?"
McGrew replies, "Right, I think what they mean is that--there's a debased sense of the word faith going around, and it's been picked up--mostly by critics--to mean a belief in something in the face of certain difficulties--and they say, 'well, if it's a matter of comparing the difficulties on the one side and comparing the difficulties on the other, there are greater difficulties lying on the one side than on the other. But I think that that's also partly a bit of a concession to a debased sense of the word that has got mostly prominence in atheist and freethinking circles, and so they're picking up on that aspect of the semantic range of it and saying, 'well, if that's how you're gonna use it, if you have this pejorative sense of it, then let us spin it around on you and say that if that's what you want to mean by the term then, on your own terms, we're going to say, "well, no, actually the shoe is on the other foot."'"
At this point, Brierley interrupts McGrew to say, "My suspicion is that if you actually went to ask Frank Turek and Geisler they'd probably agree with Tim in terms of how faith should be defined."
Back to the not-so-fun kind of G&T, then
While I cannot say what Geisler and Turek would agree to if asked, particularly on the spot, particularly if they were aware of the context of the conversation, I can say that McGrew's take is enormously curious, at least to anyone who has read the beginning of Geisler's and Turek's book. The entirety of the introduction to I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist lays out exactly what they're talking about, and in it they spend much of the introduction making a sustained case that the term "faith," whether it applies to religious believers, skeptics, atheists, or anyone else, means concluding something is correct without "exhaustive information to support it" (p. 25). What they mean is what Boghossian said.
Consider a few more quotes from Geisler's and Turek's introduction:
- "While some faith is required for our conclusions, it's often forgotten that faith is also required to believe any worldview, including atheism and pantheism." (p. 25)
- "Nevertheless, some faith is required to overcome the possibility that we are wrong." (p. 25)
- "Since Barry, like Steve, is dealing in the realm of probability rather than absolute certainty, he has to have a certain amount of faith to believe God does not exist." (p. 26, emphasis original)
- "Although he claimed to be an agnostic, Carl Sagan made the ultimate statement of faith in atheistic materialism when he claimed that, 'the Cosmos is all that is, ever was, or ever will be.' How did he know that for sure? [JAL's Note: by definition.] He didn't. How could he? He was a limited human being with limited knowledge. Sagan was operating in the realm of probability just like when Christians are when they say God exists. The question is, who has more evidence for their conclusion?" (p. 26, emphasis original)
- "Even skeptics have faith. They have faith that skepticism is true. Likewise, agnostics have faith that agnosticism is true." (p. 27)
- "[W]hat we are saying is that many non-Christians do the same thing: they take a "blind leap of faith" that their non-Christian beliefs are true simply because they want them to be true. In the ensuing chapters, we'll take a hard look at the evidence to see who has to take the bigger leap." (p. 30, emphasis original)
- "Since all conclusions about [religious truth claims] are based on probability rather than absolute certainty, they all--including atheistic claims--require some amount of faith." (p. 32)
So what conclusion can we draw about McGrew's on-the-spot characterization of Geisler's and Turek's understanding of faith? I think it's fairly hard to escape the conclusion that McGrew was actively warping it to his purposes. Certainly, Geisler and Turek wanted to show that there's "more evidence" for Christianity than any other religious position or, particularly, none, so Christianity requires "less faith" than, say, atheism, but it's abundantly clear what they mean by "faith" in the process, and McGrew was screwed by it.
It gets worse
Boghossian recognizes the importance of this particular point and presses it, despite Brierley's interruption and attempted deflection from the topic. Boghossian asks McGrew directly, "What percentage of Christians, Tim, do you think use the word faith in the way that I've defined it? Not the pretending but the first definition [belief without (sufficient) evidence]." Bear in mind that Boghossian's characterization, the "first definition," comports perfectly with that of Christian apologists Geisler and Turek.
McGrew responds boldly: "Something, something well below 1%. And I'm talking about people across all, I'm talking about people across all levels of academic achievement and study, from people who never got out of high school, to people who've got doctorates, people in the churches, people in the pews."
Pardon me while I try to pull my straining left eyebrow back down and put my bugging-out left eyeball back in.
Who reads who?
It's impossible to overlook the fact that Geisler and Turek's book is wildly popular amongst Christians. In fact, it is in the top ten best-selling Christian apologetics books on Amazon (significantly outselling Boghossian's Manual as well). I can't count the times I've been told--both online and in person--a regurgitation of Geisler's and Turek's title and subsequent characterization of faith by Christians, as compared to the whopping zero times I've heard McGrew's strange, complicated, stretched (read: ad hoc) definition. Of course, maybe I've somehow unfortunately only run into that "well below 1%" out there, and perhaps most of those people buying and repeating Geisler's and Turek's line do so because they disagree with them (or are executing a carefully calculated rebuttal to a debased definition, so surreptitiously deployed that, just like Geisler and Turek, they never mention the fact that they're doing it).
In short, we have every reason to believe that far more Christian people read Geisler and Turek and accept their definition of faith than read McGrew and his technical, weird definition. It's unfortunate for McGrew's case against Boghossian that Geisler's and Turek's characterization matches Boghossian's exactly.
But there's a double-standard, of course
Let's turn our attention where we shouldn't, to Christian apologist David Marshall, for instance. Quoting him from my own blog, in the comment thread on my post following the Boghossian-McGrew discussion: "Dr. McGrew and I co-wrote the chapter for True Reason in which we set forth the definition of faith that he used in this debate: 'trusting, holding to, and acting on, what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties.'" One might surmise that Marshall, co-author of their odd (read: ad hoc) definition would have been appalled by Geisler's and Turek's take on faith. Nope. At least, apparently he wasn't.
David Marshall's review of Geisler's and Turek's book awards it four stars (compare two for Boghossian, as well as for Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, and just one for Hitchens, for their most famous "New Atheism" titles), under the banner "A Wealth of Evidence, Mostly Good" and takes no issue with their should-be-egregious interpretation of the term "faith." Thus it is made very curious that he vehemently opposes Peter Boghossian's application of exactly the same meaning--that which fills in the gap between justification and the extended degree of confidence. Apparently, on the accusation that he's "pretending to know" things he's presumably 100% sure of, on faith, across a gap in knowledge that even conservatives like Geisler and Turek are willing to admit exists, David Marshall is offended deeply enough to apply a double standard.
He creates the opportunity to call out Geisler and Turek, but then he doesn't do it. Marshall can't marshal the nerve to criticize his own for exactly what he yammers incessantly about when it comes to his opponents. Marshall writes, "Several critics assume that Christian faith means 'a firm belief in something for which there is no proof,' or that religion 'tells us to ignore reason and accept faith.' Having just completed a historical study of Christian thought on faith and reason from the 2nd Century to modern times, I would argue that this is not at all what Christians usually mean by faith. In fact, as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne points out, faith in the Chrisitian sense is arrived at by means rather similar to scientific hypothesizing." On the matter of it covering the gap in knowledge, Marshall makes no comment.
He wasn't quite so generous to Boghossian's take in his two-star review of his Manual, ranting instead that Boghossian is "pretending to know what he doesn't know" about faith. Instead, he asserts directly that what (Christians, apologists even!) Norm Geisler and Frank Turek explicitly mean by faith in a book about faith written for Christians isn't what Christians mean by faith.
On his (decidedly feral) blog, he had more to say about Boghossian, though, for exactly the same characterization of faith as given by Geisler and Turek: "[I]f Peter Boghossian really believes that crack-pot definition of faith on which he bases his entire book, and apparently his career as a government-paid proselytizer for atheism, then he is deeply and probably willfully ignorant. This is why he does not seem to like to interact with informed Christians, but just pick off the lame caribou foals at the back of the herd, like his young and ignorant students." I'd love to see him say the same about Geisler and Turek, but he already wasted that opportunity on a vain attempt at self-glorification.
And so we see the two-step
Most Christians are treated to the apologist two-step here. Each can read the very popular (amongst them) Geisler and Turek, who clearly agree on this point with Peter Boghossian in their own book about faith, give it four or five stars, repeat it at want or need, and yet fall back on the "more sophisticated" (read: more sophistic and ad hoc) characterization given by McGrew and Marshall that "refutes" Boghossian if anyone presses them on it. And so it is always with apologists.
The two-step is their game. The way it's played is simple: give multiple characterizations for everything, including God, faith, Christian, etc., and then whenever someone calls you out for the problems in any one of them (and there are always problems), switch to another. Dance, dance, dance. Pretend, pretend, pretend. Whatever it takes to avoid having the cherished beliefs treated with intellectual honesty, which would destroy them.
Afterword: Please, though it is very long, take at least a few minutes to look through or read what I wrote about evidence a while ago, explaining why I think "belief without evidence" is the correct understanding of faith, in that I do not think that there is any evidence for God or Christianity, not none. Update: I've added a briefer version of my long essay about evidence. The shorter version can be found here.