Thursday, June 12, 2014

The apologist two-step--McGrew and Marshall on Boghossian

Something has been bothering me, thinking back upon the "debate" between Christian apologist and philosopher Tim McGrew and Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. The "debate" was on a Christian radio program called Unbelievable?, hosted by Justin Brierley, and among a number of other troubles with what McGrew had to say, I'm bothered by McGrew's attempt to dismiss what seems to be an extremely relevant part of typical Christian faith--that it is, indeed, as Boghossian said, belief without evidence (yes, without, see what I mean here). (NB: Boghossian's "belief without evidence" isn't as strict in meaning as mine, as we will see.)

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)
I'll note that nowhere in the introduction of their book do Turek and Geisler mention that they're using a "debased" version of the word "faith," nor do they so much as mention that atheists and skeptics have introduced this perverted version of the word and that their desire is to beat them at their own game. Geisler's and Turek's conveyance is clear: they take faith to mean that which extends the justified warrant of the evidence in order to confer belief.

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.


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  2. It is a constant source of wonder for me as to why so many Christians feel it is entirely permissible to mislead, and even lie, in order to "protect" their belief system.

  3. It's not perfectly on point; nonetheless, I find the following quotation to be apropos:

    'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.' -- Upton Sinclair

  4. Part 1 of 2:

    James, I think you've got it the wrong way round. There are, plainly, two distinct definitions of the word 'faith'. There's what you might call the secular definition - which you or I might use: belief in something where you have not got all the evidence but you still think is true. You have faith in the postal service or the banking system: it's the kind of 'faith' society needs. Then there's the religious definition - which is about believing something on the basis of emotional conviction, or trust. I think you will find that really is how the word has been used, in religious contexts, for centuries. This definition is not so much about not having evidence, as not being focused on the evidence. It's a bit like having faith in the person you're married to - the idea is that you trust them, rather than ask for evidence (as Jesus tells Thomas in the Gospel of John, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe"). It's a relationship-based model of faith, and for Christians their faith is a relationship, with God. [Of course, it's really a relationship with other believers, and the faith is really a faith in their own community, but that's another issue].

    You've probably noticed that this says nothing about evidence. But of course, there is always a question of evidence, and despite what exasperated atheists may think, Christians are rarely idiots. They require evidence. In fact, they will almost always cite some sort of evidence for their beliefs, whether it's a personal experience of God, or the existence of beautiful sunsets, or the text of the Bible. And of course if they are expressing trust, it's in what they have been told - the are saying that they trust this because the person saying it is trustworthy - that's a kind of evidence. It's not about not having evidence, it's about not *testing* the evidence.

    The problem with this approach is that you can't not test the evidence, even in your head. No matter how hard you try, there's always a question in your mind about whether this is true or not. You either think that it's probably true (as with secular faith) or suppress the thought, deep down, that it's probably not true.

    It's impossible to say, with certainty, what another person really thinks. So I don't agree with Boghossian's statement that faith is about 'pretending to believe' something. That suggests a plain intent to deceive others, and I think that's rare. I am sure there are many believers who deceive themselves - suppressing their doubts very deep - but there are many others who manage to convince quite simply that they are right. In each case, there is always a consideration of evidence. Christian bookshops are full of examples of evidence-based apologetics. It's really not difficult to find evidence for the truth of Christianity. It's just that any sincere consideration of the evidence will come to a different conclusion. It's all about confirmation bias. Here's the difference, and it's a subtle one. A truly rational belief is evidence led: the belief follows the evidence. Faith - religious faith - is the other way round: the evidence follows the belief.

  5. Part 2 of 2

    You might wonder why an apparently sensible person would think that way. Well, here's an interesting point. If you ask any Christian if their faith is reasonable, they will assure you that it is. Is it supported by evidence? Almost certainly they will say yes. But ask if it is based on evidence, and you might get a different answer. Ask if, since their evidence is so clear and reasonable, they actually need faith and they will say yes. Christians love evidence, but they love faith more. Because faith, in a religious context, is not a convenience - it's a virtue. Belief without faith is valueless, no matter how well supported by evidence it is.

    Of course, in a rational world, this makes religious believers uncomfortable. There's a modern trend to squeeze the non-evidence element of faith as small as possible: to make the traditional leap of faith into nothing more than stepping over a crack in the pavement. This is what David Marshall is referring to - C S Lewis is the great exponent of this modern trend in apologetics. In place of the traditional commitment of faith as 'assenting' to a belief received from others, and accepting on trust what one cannot ever really know by reason, there is a very new concept of faith as 'holding on' to something of which you are already convinced, by reason. That's barely a virtue.

    Now what Turek and Geisler are doing is the real two-step. It's a bait and switch game. They are using the secular definition of faith to insist that Christians and atheists are the same, both using faith. But in doing so they are deliberately conflating the two definitions of faith. It's a stretch to say that scientists use faith, but it's kind of true - you have to take a lot on faith in Physics, say, you can't repeat every experiment and check every footnote. But of course you *can* repeat the experiment, and you *can* check the footnotes. It's evidence-based, and evidence-led, faith. Turek and Geisler are trying to prove - to their audience who want to minimise the irrationality of their beliefs - that it's okay to have faith because even scientists have faith. This is a disingenuous argument, because it acts as if there is no difference between secular faith and the kind of traditional, emotional, religious faith that believers have and Tim McGrew sings the praises of.

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  7. If faith is "trust," then trust in what? It appears to be a trust in the veracity of one's religious beliefs. But those are subject of degrees of probability, while faith apparently is not so subject. So, faith appears to illustrate a bias of sorts.

    There's not a lot of evidence to sample in the case of miracles and claims of the historical Jesus since he wrote nothing himself, so we cannot be sure exactly what claims were made by the historical Jesus himself but only have claims made by others about him, years after he died. Same with miracle tales connected with Jesus (and unfortunately Jesus never did many miracles in Jerusalem, but instead in the smaller towns in Galilee or even in the wilderness, or on a mountain top in front of only three apostles, per the stories that survived in the Gospels).

    So we are left with religious beliefs that rely heavily on merely repeating various assertions written in the Bible by someone else regarding for instance, miracle stories, heaven or hell, how to get there, and who Jesus was.

  8. It's not simply a question of repeating assertions in the Bible. The greatest proponent of faith in Christianity was Paul, who never read the Gospels because they had not been written, and most of the miracle stories had not yet been invented. He tells us what his faith is and what it is based on: the one Big Thing he had been told, which was that Jesus had risen from the dead and was coming back very shortly to bring the End of the World.

    Why would he believe that? Because he trusted what he had been told by the people he met.

    Why did he trust them? Because they sounded reliable? Partly. Because what they told him sounded probable? Hardly - it was highly improbable.

    But here's the important point. Your viewpoint assumes that the greater the probability, the more you should believe. If you're simply wanting a realistic assessment of the evidence, that is what you do. But that's not what faith is trying to do.

    Why was faith so important to Paul? Because the idea was so exciting to him, so liberating, that any rational assessment of the evidence would simply get in the way. It allowed him to change his name, his career (he was a tentmaker) and find his purpose in life.

    Did he ever question whether it was true? Yes, undoubtedly. When the Corinthians wrote to ask him why Jesus had not come back as promised, he doubled down on his commitment. He told them that if their faith was false, they were the most deluded of men. That's a pretty extreme case, but it's typical. The point is, it's not about the evidence. It's never about the evidence.

    Except that it is, but in a different way.

    Thomas Aquinas in one of his works sets himself a puzzle. To believe in God, he points out, is virtuous. Satan and his demons believe in God: are they, then, virtuous? No, he answers. Because they know God exists - they've seen him. There is no virtue in believing what you know. The reason faith is a virtue is because you don't know.

    That's why trust is important, and evidence is not. If you believe because of evidence, there is no need for faith. And you cannot be virtuous without faith.

    The conclusion of this is obvious: if you want to be virtuous, you must have faith. And in order to have faith you must believe something that cannot be believed without faith. Faith is trust because it is a test of commitment. To believe without asking for evidence, or without testing the evidence, is faith.

    That doesn't mean the evidence is not there. It does not mean the claims are false. It just means that faith works much better if they are.