The “Unbelievable” Radio Show and Podcast is always worth listening to. Anyone who wants to understand the width, length and depth of the gap between popular culture and the Church should listen to the debate between Professor Timothy McGrew and Dr. Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. Boghossian is both a rising star in the ranks of the New Atheists and a professional philosopher. So it was bewildering, and slightly disturbing, to hear such ill-informed nonsense from a man who should know better.
Professor Tim McGrew, a saint and a scholar of renown, ably challenged and easily dismantled Boghossian’s case; what stunned me was that Boghossian seemed to be encountering Professor McGrew’s counterarguments for the first time. On the show Boghossian defended two claims, one preposterous and the other slightly disturbing. First, he claimed that faith means “belief without evidence”; second, he compared faith to a mental virus which needs to be contained and eliminated.
Let’s examine Boghossian’s claims:
1) Does “faith” mean belief without evidence? Perhaps some might mean something like this when they use the term derisively. Some atheists, for example, might believe that there is no convincing evidence for any religion. Therefore, they could consider all “faith” to be irrational and use the word pejoratively. However, this is not the standard meaning of the term and it is certainly not what Christians mean by “faith”.
2) Curiously, Boghossian based his definition of faith on how he believes others use the term when he discusses religion with them. This is very odd; he does not appeal to, and does not appear to have consulted theologians, lexicographers, social scientists or philosophers. His belief in the true definition of faith depends on his personal interpretation of how others use the term; his definition is not based on evidence. By his own reasoning, Boghossian’s definition of faith is an act of blind faith and should be abandoned.
As David pointed out in Atheism’s New Clothes:
“…the New Atheists have simply assumed that faith is belief without evidence. No doubt there is plenty of faith that is of this variety, but they have given little or no attention to what Christian thinkers actually take faith to be and how they relate it to reason. Ironically, their account of faith seems itself to be a belief without evidence to support it or, at least, only a highly selective use of evidence. Hence, their account of faith is an example of irrationality by their own lights.”
3) As Professor McGrew pointed out, “faith” means “trust”: a personal commitment to a person, institution or set of ideas. “Faith” goes beyond mere belief that some statement is true. We are practically, emotionally (or even existentially) invested in the object of our faith. Discovering that our faith has been placed in the wrong person, cause or project implies that we will suffer some personal cost.
4) David draws out another distinction between “belief in” (faith) and “belief that”
Belief in, or trust, is an action and so it is different in this respect from belief that; you can decide whether to trust someone, but you can’t just decide to believe that some statement is true. Even if you have very strong evidence that a rope bridge will support you and you desperately want to get to the other side, the seriousness of something going wrong (no matter how unlikely) might prevent you from acting on your belief, i.e. you are not willing to trust the rope bridge by stepping on to it.”[Emphasis mine]
5) Like belief, faith can be irrational or rational; it can be based on appropriate evidence or it can be naïve. As any relationship counsellor will confirm, we should never trust another without thinking. One should not trust one’s lecturer if there is good evidence that they have not read the relevant material to teach the course; we should not place our trust in parents or partners who abuse us. However, we can earn the trust of another person and we can have good reasons to place our trust in another.
6) As we have argued repeatedly on this site, God expects our faith to be rational. We have excellent evidential and existential reasons to trust God and his Gospel. Indeed, the more with think about our reasons for the hope within us the deeper our trust will be.
7) Boghossian seemed to be targeting the faith of violent religious extremists with his comment that faith is a virus of the mind. He also pointed out that unbelievers are offended when they hear evangelists warn them that they are guilty hell-deserving sinners. So Christians are hypocritical if they complain when their faith is compared to a disease.
But Boghossian misses the point. I do not mind the insult at all. I do rather worry, though, that his rhetoric could carry some rather serious consequences for public policy if anyone of importance took it seriously. The Christian believes that the state cannot save anyone from God’s judgement. It cannot make people Christians because the law can at most create outward conformity to a set of rules. God is not interested in our religious acts if they are compelled because he “looks on the heart”. We need to be transformed by God inwardly, because if we are to truly worship God we must worship him willingly. This means we must choose God freely. A theocracy would just multiply the number of religious hypocrites in the land and make it more difficult for people to come to genuine faith. True faith requires free choice. As Tertullian argued: “It is no part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by free choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”
However, the state can eliminate a disease. Indeed, if this disease leads to terrorism and oppression the state ought to eliminate the disease. Boghossian’s rhetoric is not without historical precedent, and its ancestry is far from honourable. If we look to central Europe in the mid-Twentieth century, we will find political parties referring to various communities as bacteria and parasites which needed to be eliminated from the body of the nation. Today we have secularist activists referring to faith as a virus which needs to be excluded from the public square. Now, I don’t for one minute think that Boghossian has sympathy for totalitarians of any stripe. In fact, secularists and evangelicals in the UK often find ourselves fighting in the same trenches against the state’s advance against free-speech. I just wish New Atheists would stop describing faith as a virus, or religious instruction as child-abuse, before someone with political power starts to listen.