Philosopher Peter Boghossian continued his criticism of faith with a succinct and cogent speech on May 6 in Portland, Ore. The Humanists of Greater Portland sponsored and hosted the Sunday morning event, which drew so much interest that the group opened three overflow rooms during the talk, said one volunteer.
I enthusiastically support Boghossian’s goals, and was able to grab an excellent seat for this discussion. I interviewed Boghossian for my a podcast last month, and have posted about him here, here and here.
Boghossian, a professor at Portland State University, sparked controversy recently with a speech titled Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No! He recently criticized faith in an interview with the Portland Mercury, a local weekly publication, and he calls faith a “cognitive sickness.” This presentation, while more succinct than the East Bunny speech, was no less blunt and controversial.
Boghossian began by saying this:
My talk today begins the process of divorcing faith from its current moral foundation and how we perceive faith. Currently, people of faith are viewed as good people. This is not true. They are neither good nor bad people. Faith has nothing to do with being moral. My talk begins the process of creating a counter-cultural tide against the wedding of faith with morality.
During his speech Boghossian noted that Christians have equivocated on the term since the time of Augustine. The most common definition of faith is, “belief without evidence,” and Boghossian proposed his audience think of the word faith as meaning, “pretending to know things you don’t know.”
Boghossian used this definition, sometimes humorously, with five defenses or examples of faith. He substituted the word faith and it’s current meaning,“belief without evidence,” with the phrase “pretending to know things you don’t know,” which elicited the following results:
- “Life has no meaning without faith,” becomes, “Life has no meaning without pretending to know things you don’t know.” This is obviously an odd thing to say. The new definition clearly illustrations the problematic nature of the claim better than the old version.
- “I’m having a crisis of faith,” equates to, “I’m having a crisis pretending to know things I don’t know.” This is a consequence of epistemic humility, says Boghossian. Boghossian added, with irony, that if anyone is having this crisis, he is the best person to consult.
- “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist,” becomes quite a mouthful. It changes to, “I don’t pretend to know things I don’t know enough to be a person who doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to a creator of the universe.” This kind of argument is used by Christian apologists. According to Boghossian,
Christian apologists, by the way, are people who have taken ‘pretending to know things that they don’t know’ to an entirely new level. They also attempt to convince other people that they should pretend to know things that they don’t know.
- “My faith is true for me,” converts to, “Pretending to know things I don’t know is true for me.” This is an obvious confusion of the subjective with the objective, says Boghossian, who said he hears this from his students often.
- Boghossian also mentioned the use of quantum mechanics to support the idea of faith. The religious contend that mysteries at the quantum level leave open the idea for miracles and the use of “faith.” Boghossian quoted personal correspondence he received from physicist Victor Stenger,
Just because quantum mechanics is weird, it doesn’t mean that everything that is weird is quantum mechanics.
In other words, strangeness at the level of the very small does not mean you need to “pretend to know things you don’t know.”
People often confuse “faith” with “hope,” said Boghossian. Hope is a desire for an uncertain result, it is not a claim to knowledge. This is different from faith, which is not a synonym to hope – faith is a knowledge claim. When someone says that he has faith that Jesus walked on water in Matthew 14, they mean that Jesus actually did perform that action. They are not hoping he did, they claim to know he did.
Finally, Boghossian gave the audience a thought challenge. He said,
Give me a sentence where one must use the word “faith,” and cannot replace that with “hope,” yet at the same time isn’t an example of pretending to know something that someone doesn’t know.
Boghossian doesn’t think this is possible. He ended the speech with this statement:
Today, right here, right now, you can stop pretending to know things that you don’t know. From this moment on, when someone asks you a question that you don’t know, just say, ‘I don’t know.’ Right now, let this be the moment for you. Pretending to know things you don’t know does not make you a moral person. You do not need to pretend to know things you don’t know to live a good, decent or meaningful life.
I doubt any Christian is able to rise to Boghossian’s challenge. I’d wager that the majority of believers are incapable of forming a coherent conception of the word faith, an ideal they hold in such high esteem. Faith is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories: It’s easy to consume, but it does no real work.
You can read more about Boghossian at Philosophy News. The speech was videotaped, and I will provide links to that when it becomes available. I tweetcasted the speech. Search twitter for hashtag #StopFaith at my twitter account, @malcontentsgamb.
You can follow Boghossian on Twitter @peterboghossian. If you want to join Boghossian’s mailing list and learn about his upcoming public lectures and debates, from your mobile phone text “DELUSION” + your email address to 22333.