We now turn to Boghossian’s definition of faith. He begins with the following porcine illustration:
“The word ‘faith’ is a very slippery pig. We need to get our hands on it, pin it to the ground, and wrap a blanket around it so we can have something to latch onto before we finally and permanently subdue it.” (22-23)
One might think that the way to go about this is by focusing on some academic paradigm definitions of faith. For example, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin have somewhat different conceptions of faith, and both have been enormously influential in the Christian tradition. So Boghossian could have simply opened up Thomas’ Summa Theologiae and Calvin’s Institutes and had two very important definitions to work with.
But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he quotes John Loftus’s spurious definition of faith as “a leap over the probabilities” and adds to it his own comments to come up with two definitions of faith:
1. Belief without evidence. (23)
There is nothing per se wrong about believing without evidence. Any foundationalist will tell you that. (And many if not most epistemologists today adopt a foundationalist theory of noetic structure. Problems only arise when you believe a putative basic belief despite a strong defeater for that belief, or when you believe a non-basic belief without evidence. For more you can see my debate with Chris Hallquist.)
However, in the accompanying paragraph Boghossian explains further that when he says “Belief without evidence” he really means contrary to evidence: “‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.” (23) This further explanation makes clear that “Belief without evidence” means, in fact, a violation of epistemic deontological norms or, put simply, belief that is irrational.
This is where the problems begin for this isn’t a definition of faith that is widely held by Christians. Indeed, at an academic level the most plausible candidate for this kind of view might be 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who is sometimes classified as an “irrational fideist”. But that is a mistaken assessment and does not accurately represent his view (for more see C. Stephen Evans, Passionate Reason: Making Sense of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments (Indiana University Press, 2001).
Can one find individual lay Christians here and there who insist that faith is by definition an irrational form of belief? Frankly, I’ve never met one. I have met many Christians who believe that faith can include beliefs and actions which are, or appear, to be irrational. But I’ve never met one who simply defines faith in these terms. I will come back momentarily and say more about these “irrational exceptions”.
2. Pretending to know things you don’t know. (24)
This definition is even more way out. I don’t know any Christians who hold this view. So far as I can see, this is nothing more than rhetorical nonsense. To see just how ridiculous this “definition” is, consider one of the several “translations” Boghossian offers in support of this second definition.
Claim: “I have faith in God.” Translation: “I pretend to know things I don’t know about God.” (25)
This “translation” obviously has nothing to do with the original assertion. We can illumine the fundamental implausibility of this reading by considering a parallel instance:
Claim: “I have faith in my spouse.” Translation: “I pretend to know things I don’t know about my spouse.”
When a wife says she has faith in her husband she isn’t saying she is pretending to know things about her husband that she doesn’t know. Rather, she’s simply saying that she trusts him. Likewise, when a Christians says he has faith in God, he isn’t claiming he is pretending to know things about God that he doesn’t know. Rather, he’s simply saying that he trusts God.
With that in mind let me return to the occasional instances where Christians allow for faith to include actions which seem irrational. Consider this analogy. Imagine you’re mountain climbing with an expert mountaineer. You slip over the edge of the cliff and are suddenly swinging in a thick fog by a single tether. You are convinced the only way out of this predicament is to climb back up. But then through the fog you hear the mountaineer’s voice call: “Cut the tether!” he says. In that moment, you do the “irrational” thing by suppressing your instinct to climb (or wait) and you cut the tether. And you fall five feet into a snow bank. In one sense it seemed irrational to cut the tether, but at the same time your relationship with the mountaineer was such that you could trust him to do what would seem otherwise to be crazy. That’s the way Christians who allow for those “irrational” exceptions generally seem to think about them. They are not literally irrational because they are borne out of a relationship and set of beliefs about the other person. That which appears irrational is, in fact, a more radical sense of trust.
* * *
Now it is time to focus squarely on Boghossian’s method of definition invention. To get a sense for how spurious and offensive this is, consider an analogy. Imagine that Rush Limbaugh writes a book about winning democrats to the Republican party. But rather than consider how democrats understand their own party he makes up his own definition of “democrat” as “a bleeding heart who loves big government and the nanny state”. That’s exactly what Boghossian is doing: ignoring standard definitions by presenting his own. While he promised to jump on the “slippery pig” of faith with a definitional blanket, when it comes down to it, he ignores the “pig” and simply invents his own.
Thus far in this series of critiques I’ve heard folks defend Boghossian’s shirking of formal academic definitions because he is not writing an academic treatise. Rather, he is laying out a plan for atheistic evangelism. This response has two problems.
First, whether one is writing an academic treatise or a popular evangelistic textbook, it is still indefensible to invent spurious definitions and attribute them to one’s opponent.
But, one might reply, what if the definition was effective at getting converts? Would it be justified then?
At this point one’s answer will rest on whether one cares more about truth or converts. If one cares about truth then one will eschew such strawman definitions and grapple seriously with how the term faith is defined by those who exercise it. But if one cares only about winning converts, then I guess they might continue to spew whatever rhetoric will suit their purposes.
The irony is, however, that even according to Boghossian’s own goal of making converts, he’d be far better off if he set aside the invented definitions and considered the way real Christians understand the concept of faith. I mentioned John Calvin above. His understanding of faith as a type of knowledge is very common today. It is defended by leading epistemologists like Alvin Plantinga. Nicholas Wolterstorff and (the late) William Alston. And it is also widespread among the laity.
Consequently, if Boghossian were really serious about making converts, he would equip his readers to understand the real concepts of faith common among Christians and how one might critically engage them.