This week Justin Brierley read some of the many responses to last week’s debate between Tim McGrew and Peter Boghossian. One of those responses caught my attention and I’m going to address it here.
The response was from an atheist who reported that in his experience when he asks Christians for evidence for their beliefs, they fail to provide it. And if he presses them, they will eventually retreat to saying “I just have faith”. This fellow took this response as evidence that Boghossian is correct.
In fact, it doesn’t provide that evidence. But it does reflect a common misunderstanding of the data and so I’m going to explain why it constitutes an errant analysis.
First let’s note that Boghossian’s second definition (i.e. pretending to know what you don’t know) isn’t even in the running here. I haven’t heard anybody provide a serious defense of this definition. All the attention thus focuses on his less ridiculous first definition, i.e. “belief without evidence”.
So does this Christian’s response — “I just have faith” — support Boghossian’s first definition?
Well no, it doesn’t, for two reasons.
To begin with, let’s take a closer look at the data. The atheist asks for evidence and the Christian responds with faith. This doesn’t support the conclusion that faith is defined as belief without evidence. At most it supports the conclusion that faith can be sustained without evidence.
Consider an illustration. If you see the body of a car with paint visible on some panels and primer on other panels, it doesn’t follow that primer is only on the panels where it is visible. In fact, the primer is also present where it is not visible, i.e. underneath the paint. By analogy, the fact that faith is invoked when evidence is not present doesn’t mean it isn’t also present when evidence is present.
Second, the atheist is assuming that the failure to provide evidence to satisfy him means the Christian lacks evidence altogether. This is a false assumption.
At this point it is worth illumining the important point that good evidence for belief that-p is not always persuasive to a third party. But it still may be persuasive for a particular individual. For example, let’s say that you believe you saw Pastor Smith walking into the liquor store on Saturday evening. So you confront Pastor Smith in the church foyer Sunday morning (your church is full of moralistic teetotallers). He replies by insisting that he was home alone at that time. Assuming that he isn’t lying, his personal memory that he was home may provide evidence to him that he never visited the liquor store. But if you are persuaded that you got a good look at him then it wouldn’t be good evidence for you. That doesn’t mean, however, that Pastor Smith eschews evidence in support of his claim, for in fact he rests his claim on the evidence of his own memory. It only means that he lacks evidence to persuade a skeptical third party like you.
Obviously, I was not there for the conversations this atheist has had with various Christians. But if they are typical Christians then they would have shared claims that they believe constitute evidence for them to accept the truth of Christianity, even if it was obviously insufficient to persuade the atheist skeptic. For example, the Christian may have shared the way his life changed after his conversion (he kicked his drug habit, for example). And he says he experiences God’s presence daily as a living, abiding reality. And the words of scripture have been shown to him to have a life-changing power. The atheist, not surprisingly, is not moved by this kind of evidence. But note that whether the evidence is considered satisfactory to a second party or not is irrelevant to the fact that the Christian does appeal to evidence in his faith. The fact remains that the Christian believes that for him all this data does provide evidence for his belief. And that means he eschews Boghossian’s definition of faith.
In conclusion, the fact that Christians say they “have faith” when they are unable to provide evidence sufficient to satisfy an atheist does not constitute evidence for Boghossian’s claim that Christians believe faith is belief without evidence.