Thus far in my review I’ve argued at length that Boghossian’s definitions of key terms — deepity, faith, atheism, agnosticism — are wholly spurious. I have identified my method as one of taking core samples or test cases (i.e. my analogy with testing the candidate for his adeptness at sign language translation). Given that Boghossian fails in the matter of basic definitions, we have good grounds to expect his failure elsewhere.
At this point I’m going to speed things up and aim to wrap up my review in a couple more posts. In case you think I am engaged in over-kill by this point — and apparently some readers do — let me reiterate that the unparalleled badness of this book provides a devastating indictment of the many atheistic leaders (e.g. Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Richard Carrier and John Loftus) who have so enthusiastically embraced it. I shall conclude my review in a couple posts by returning to that point.
But first, let’s turn in this installment to look at evidence for Boghossian’s own doxastic closure.
Boghossian and Doxastic Closure
In chapter 3 Boghossian introduces the concept of “doxastic closure”. He writes:
“I use the term to mean that either a specific belief one holds, or that one’s entire belief system, is resistant to revision.” (49)
As usual, Boghossian presents a terrible definition. By this definition the person who is resistant to revising their belief that “1+1=2” is guilty of doxastic closure: it is, after all, “a specific belief one holds” for which one is “resistant to revision”.
However, I don’t want to belabor the point. By now it is amply clear that Boghossian has not a clue how to define terms. I am guessing that what Boghossian really has in view is something like this:
The inability to subject one’s own ideological commitments to critical scrutiny.
In other words, “doxastic closure” is closely aligned with “indoctrination”.
This is where things become interesting. As I argue in my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think (Biblica/Intervarsity, 2011) one key hallmark of indoctrination is the adoption of a grossly simplistic binary opposition wherein one’s own ideological commitments are portrayed positively (e.g. “rational” and “humble”) while all those on the other side of the opposition are portrayed negatively (e.g. “irrational” and “arrogant”). The stronger and more unqualified the division, the more powerful the indoctrination and doxastic closure.
The reality is that there are intelligent, thoughtful and humble atheists and there are intelligent, thoughtful and humble theists. There are also unintelligent, unreflective and obnoxious atheists and there are unintelligent, unreflective and obnoxious theists. And the sooner one recognizes this fact, the more likely they are to engage in reflective and mutually illuminating dialogue with the other. The more one tries to obscure that fact by invoking indefensible binary oppositions, the more one submits to categories of indoctrination and thereby speeds doxastic closure.
What makes Boghossian’s book so subversive is that he places references to “doxastic closure” out front, as if he really cares about forestalling indoctrination. And yet, every page reinforces the devastating binary oppositions that make doxastic closure such a subversive force. Of course, this is common practice among ideologues and propagandists. Consider, for example, the infamous Soviet newspaper “Pravda” (Truth) which was, in fact, a subversive force for disseminating propaganda, indoctrinating the population, and thereby securing doxastic closure. Boghossian’s book functions similarly. Title your chapter “Doxastic Closure, Belief, and Epistemology” and then perpetuate the very indefensible binary oppositions that indoctrinate and secure doxastic closure.
Examples of Doxastic Closure
Let’s consider some examples.
“Faith taints or at worst removes our curiosity about the world, what we should value, and what type of life we should lead. Faith replaces wonder with epistemological arrogance disguised as false humility. Faith immutably alters the starting conditions for inquiry by uprooting a hunger to know and sowing a warrantless confidence.” (43)
This quote is soaked with irony. Indeed, it’s cup runneth over. After all, Boghossian himself reflects an “epistemological arrogance disguised [rather poorly, it must be said] as false humility.” He “alters the starting conditions for inquiry” by the very indefensible binary opposition he proposes. And his unshakeable confidence in his own binary opposition is nothing if not “warrantless”.
“many apologists (especially American theologian William Lane Craig) have had considerable success reasoning people into holding unreasonable beliefs (Craig, n.d.). This is a despairing statement about the effectiveness of the faithful’s tactics. There are entire bodies of apologist literature detailing how to reason and persuade unbelievers into faith.” (47)
Boghossian is an unapologetic evangelist for his beliefs. That’s okay, I guess, because he’s on the right side of goodness and light. But evangelists for the other side like Craig are not to be trusted, and their “tactics” and “success” are a cause for “despair” as they are “reasoning people into holding unreasonable beliefs”. Full stop.
Examples could be multiplied ad nauseam but let me close with one final yet inexcusable attempt on Boghossian’s part to demonize all Christians as irrational fideists in keeping with his binary opposition.
On page 47 Boghossian quotes from Tertullian, a theologian writing in the early third century, who famously wrote “I believe because it is absurd” (Credo quia absurdum). And he uses this to preface a section titled “Believing the Preposterous”. Clearly that settles it: Christians are irrational fideists who “believe the preposterous”.
Note that this is coming from a fellow who purports to care about evidence. The irony couldn’t be greater. To begin with, it is simply absurd to draw universal implications from one sentence quoted from one theologian of the third century. That is like quoting a sentence out of Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method to draw general conclusions about science.
At this point the reader faces a dilemma. Either Boghossian thinks Tertullian’s sentence is broadly representative of Christian theology, in which case he is inexcusably ignorant. Or he knows that it isn’t in which case he is nefariously deceptive. Either way, the quote serves merely to prop up his indoctrinational binary opposition.
What is more, Boghossian’s quotation of Tertullian is little more than ignorant proof-texting. The passage (which appears in Tertullian’s book On the Flesh of Christ, a polemical response to Marcion), reads as follows:
“The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must be needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. But how will all this be true of Him, if He was not Himself true—if He really had not in Himself that which might be crucified…”
The first thing that should be obvious to any marginally literate person is that Tertullian is invoking rhetoric to make a point. Indeed, it is a sharp invocation of hyperbole. Does Boghossian really not know this?
Imagine the absurdity of proceeding the way Boghossian does. A man sits down to dinner and declares that he is so hungry he “could eat a horse”. If we are to adopt Boghossian’s method, then we should conclude that the man is an inexcusable glutton with a peculiar penchant for equine flesh.
The fact is that Tertullian is skillfully employing the rhetoric of hyperbole to make a perfectly valid point, namely that the plausibility of some truth claims is increased to the extent that they do not conform to commonly held assumptions. As Tertullian points out, the Christian story of incarnation and atonement confounds common Greco-Roman assumptions about deity and thus suggests that the genesis of the belief cannot be explained merely by appeal to the familiar tropes that circulated in the ancient world. Sometimes truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction. And the very strangeness of a claim can testify to its truth.
To be sure, whether you agree with Tertullian or not is really beside the point. The real issue is that Boghossian ignores the context of the quote, thereby distorting its meaning and proof-texting it in an indefensible attempt to broad-brush the entire Christian tradition.
And why does Boghossian behave in such an indefensible manner?
Because that’s just how you behave when you suffer the effects of doxastic closure.