On Saturday, May 24 “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley hosted a discussion/debate between Peter Boghossian, the atheist bigot and author of A Manual for Creating Atheists, and the brilliant Christian philosopher Tim McGrew. If you haven’t heard it yet you can listen to it here.
The discussion starts off with the two bizarre definitions of “faith” that Boghossian presents in his book: “belief without evidence” (23) and “pretending to know things you don’t know.” (24) (You can see my discussion of those two definitions here.) McGrew points out that Boghossian has presented pseudo-definitions which do not represent the way the concept of “faith” is used by Christians or anybody else. As he notes, Mark Twain and a smattering of other religious critics have offered satirical definitions of faith along these lines, but that is hardly support for Boghossian’s serious proposal. Further, McGrew points out that Boghossian’s definitions are not in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Instead, the first definition contained in the OED represents the mainstream use of the concept of faith as something like trust or confidence in. And that is broadly the definition that McGrew defends in the debate, though he notes that faith includes an existential dimension.
Boghossian doesn’t even try to defend his absurd second definition (that is, “pretending to know things you don’t know”). It is as if the man recognizes that at that moment his own rhetoric got the better of him, but he is unwilling to admit it.
However, he does makes a lame claim that “billions” of people hold to his definition(s) of faith. Yes, he said billions. Does Boghossian have any evidence that billions of people agree with his definitions? No. (Of course, if this were indeed true, then one would expect to see Boghossian’s definition at least being mentioned in the OED.) In fact, he fails in the interview to provide one example of a Christian (or anybody else) who accepts the definitions that he presents. Moreover, he ignores the fact that McGrew cites the OED and multiple practical examples to illumine the definition he provides.
What an ironic picture that Boghossian talks dismissively about faith while claiming to exalt evidence, and yet he shows absolutely no interest in providing any evidence to support his ridiculous definitions. All he does is repeatedly insist that he’s right. Alas, hearing Boghossian talk about “evidence” is like hearing Justin Bieber talk about responsibility. The man clearly hasn’t a clue.
By contrast, McGrew did an outstanding job in slicing and dicing Boghossian’s incompetent ramblings. He never availed himself of low blows or rhetorical cheap shots, and instead acted like a first-class attorney cross-examining a hostile witness on the stand. Nor did he come across as a stuffy ivory tower academic. While McGrew is a first-class academician, he also ably used accessible examples to develop his position and dissect Boghossian’s. Consider, for example, the point where he explains the use of the term faith with a sky-diving example. As McGrew points out, statistically about 99.993% of sky divers survive their jumps. Based on that, when you go on your first jump you could say that you have faith that your instructor packed your parachute correctly and thus that you’ll survive. This faith action isn’t a position without evidence (and it certainly isn’t pretending to know things you don’t know). It is, instead, a fully rational act of existential trust.
In the second part of the debate attention shifts to Boghossian’s disturbing suggestions for classifying religious people as being mentally ill and instituting new methods of forcible treatment. In my critique of this atrocious section of Boghossian’s book, I note that he is essentially engaged in a form of indoctrination. So I was heartened to hear Tim McGrew point out that Boghossian’s stubborn persistence in inventing spurious definitions to marginalize groups is reminiscent of George Orwell’s discussion of “newspeak”. This is a good reminder that while Boghossian may be a complete buffoon and a bigot, he presents his rhetorical nonsense in support of the very disturbing goals of forcibly suppressing those with whom he disagrees. In short, he’s not just a wing-nut. He’s a wing-nut on a mission.
McGrew also notes that Boghossian has reduced intellectual exchange to “derision”. As he retorts:
“Suppose I define an atheist as a person who either is ignorant of or has misevaluated the evidence for the existence of God? I imagine that Peter would object and I think he should.”
And yet, as McGrew notes, this is precisely how Boghossian operates in labelling the religious people with whom he disagrees as being mentally ill by definition.
At the end of the exchange Boghossian engages in a nauseating “make nice” bit by inviting Justin Brierley and Tim McGrew to drop in and see him, should they ever be in Portland. That’s like listening to a misogynist rant for an hour on how women are intellectual inferiors who should stay in the kitchen and then adding a final make nice: “But if any of you lovely ladies are ever in Portland, be sure to give me a call.” Talk about pathetic.
Will the minions who have inexplicably praised Boghossian’s stinky book be shaken by his embarrassing performance on “Unbelievable”? Time will tell. But in his closing words of the interview Boghossian makes clear who he thinks won the debate:
“I think anybody who sincerely listened to this conversation knows exactly that I am correct and that this is how the overwhelming majority of people have it.”
Right. I suppose it is not surprising that the same man who defines his opponents into absurdity without evidence should continue his modus operandi by defining himself into the winner’s seat, again without evidence.