Peter Boghossian and the Atheist Definition of Faith

By Robin Schumacher

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How do you know that Jesus walked on water?

Atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian is fond of asking Christians that and other similar questions, such as how do you know that Jonah was swallowed by a large fish? [1] When met with the reply, "Because the Bible says so," Boghossian reminds his Christian audience that Muslims believe Muhammad flew to Heaven on a winged horse because of the "night journey" chapter contained within the Koran.

Back in late 2013, Boghossian released his book entitled, A Manual for Creating Atheists where he redefines faith to be "pretending to know things that you don't know" and "belief without evidence." [2] He calls faith "an unreliable epistemology," [3] a "virus," and calls for a process and agenda that will "ultimately eradicate faith." [4]

Let's take a brief look at Boghossian's claims to see if he's right about what faith really is and see how Christians should answer him on Jesus walking on water and other similar questions.

A Flawed Foundation

It's strange that someone who champions evidence and empirical inquiry for validating truth claims chooses to invent out of thin air the foundation on which he builds his case. Boghossian's definition of faith is in reality a twisted redefinition of the term, and his assertion of faith being an epistemology (a system or study about how one acquires knowledge) is simply incorrect.

Taking the last error first, faith is not an epistemology or a way of acquiring knowledge. Most introduction to philosophy textbooks will tell you there are at least five ways [5] of gaining knowledge that justify a particular belief or position that a person might hold, none of which equate to Boghossian's characterization of faith:

1.  Rationalism — through reason alone.
2.  Subjectivism — through human intuition and contact with the subject itself.
3.  Testimony/authoritarianism — through witnesses and authorities on the subject.
4.  Empiricism — through the natural sciences alone.
5.  Existentialism — through experience alone.

In no way is faith an epistemology, but rather it is a trust based on prior information about someone or something, which has been gained through the use of one or more valid ways of acquiring knowledge. Boghossian fails in not recognizing (either willingly or unwillingly) this fact and builds right from the start on a flawed foundation.

A Flawed Definition

This leads us to Boghossian's disingenuous redefinition of the term "faith," which he says is "pretending to know things that you don't know" and "belief without evidence." His first redefinition is concocted out of his own imagination and is illogical, [6] with his second subtly altering one of the definitions that is found in most dictionaries.

Look up "faith" in any dictionary and you will be presented most likely with the following: [7]

1.   confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
2.   belief that is not based on proof.

The first definition always supersedes the second (and for good reason), but it is not put forward by Boghossian as a definition of faith because it does not suit his purpose.

He changes the second definition to be "belief without evidence" vs. "belief that is not based on proof" in hopes of dissolving the important differences between "proof" and "evidence" and advancing the false notion that worldviews like Christianity contains no valid evidential foundation. Any law enforcement expert will tell you there is a big difference between "proof" and "evidence" and that it is through a cumulative case method of gathering multiple pieces of evidence that a person arrives at a conclusion on whether a truth claim is correct or not. [8]

Boghossian also errors by performing no Biblical morphological word study of "faith." If one is going to tell billions of people what their term for "faith" means, you would think he'd work through that exercise vs. simply presenting one or two verses from the Bible and leaving it at that.

But there's a reason he doesn't.

In the Greek language there are a number of words that could have been used to reference faith in the New Testament. The Hellenistic and classical Greeks used the term nomizo to describe faith in their gods. The word basically means "I believe" only because something was passed along by tradition (e.g. by parents, etc.). In other words, there is no real rationale for the belief — a definition that dovetails quite nicely with how Boghossian and other atheists want to define "faith" in Christianity.

Unfortunately for them, that word is never used in the Greek New Testament to speak of faith.

Instead, the term pistis is used in Scripture. It is a noun that comes from the verb peitho, which means "to be persuaded." If you check the best lexicon (BDAG) for the meaning of pistis, you'll find the following:

  State of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted
  Trust, confidence, that which evokes trust
  Reliability, fidelity, pertaining to being worthy of belief or trust

The same is true of the Hebrew term for faith (ěměṯ), which denotes firmness, trustworthiness, constancy, duration and truth. [9]

Boghossian's redefined faith of "belief without evidence" is foreign to both the Old and New Testaments and unsuccessfully impacts Christianity because (1) it fails to understand that faith is a trust given in response to acquired knowledge as we'll see in just a minute, and (2) it fails to make the important distinction between faith in something and faith that something exists.

Continue to Page Two

1. These are fine questions to ask and deserving of good answers. One thing Boghossian is correct about is that we should think critically about beliefs and have valid reasons for believing what we do.
2. Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing, 2013), Kindle Edition, Chapter 2.
3. Daniel Shepard, "Faith is not a virtue."
4. I will not broach the subject in this article, but Boghossian's incendiary language is very dangerous and can easily be classified as hate speech. History is replete with examples of various atheist regimes "eradicating" faith by eradicating the people who held that faith.
5. Geisler and Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), pp. 103-117.
6. Tom Gilson shows Boghossian's error here by pointing out that one may be incorrect about a truth claim, but that is not the same thing as "pretending" you know something that you don't. For Gilson's complete rebuttal of Boghossian's book, see: Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician.
8. See one explanation for the difference from former detective J. Warner Wallace here: "There's a Difference between Evidence and Proof."
9. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HAL).

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Published 5-7-2014