apologetics, atheism

“Is Faith a False Epistemology?”- Debate Review: Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian

question-week2Peter Boghossian, whose recently wrote a book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, recently met with Tim McGrew in a debate on the Unbelievable? radio program. Here, we’ll take a look at the debate and what we might conclude from it. The Unbelievable? show is set up like a moderated dialogue, and Justin Brierly often asks thoughtful questions throughout the dialogue. Unless otherwise noted, anything in quotation marks are the exact words of the speakers.

McGrew Opening

McGrew notes that he went into epistemology and philosophy of science due to his interest in evidence for his faith. He shares his chagrin that there doesn’t seem to be any “trickle down” from academic arguments about the faith into internet debates–though he tongue-in-cheek noted that it is “surprising” that someone on the internet might be wrong. He notes that philosophy of religion has given many different reasons to think that faith is grounded in evidence and good reasons to think Christianity is true.

Boghossian Opening 

Boghossian notes his movement of “street epistemology” is not about evangelizing for atheism but rather a call to people to think more rationally. He says he wanted to write a book which was aimed at the kind of conversations people have on the street. Developed theology, he says, is “purposeful obfuscation” which has no respect for. Brierly asked Boghossian what, in his view, would believers reaction be when challenged on their thinking, to which Boghossian answered that people would be “disabused of… superstitions” and must be more careful with how they use the word “faith.” He sees people leaving their faith as a consequence of reasoning. His book, he says, is a way to equip people to dialogue about faith without being uncivil.

Dialogue Highlights


McGrew states that Boghossian is defining terms in “irregular ways,” particularly the definition of “faith.” He states that he knows of no one outside of Boghossian and those he has encouraged, who defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know” (this is the actual definition Boghossian provides for the word “faith”).


The primary definition of “faith” should instead be seen as “belief without evidence.” He says he’s focused on how people use the word faith as opposed to dealing with definitions. He states that this is how “literally billions” of people define faith (belief without evidence). “Pretending to know what you don’t know” is “a very valid” definition of faith, though “belief without evidence” is to be seen as the primary definition.


The vast majority of people do not use faith to mean belief without evidence. Even atheists like “The Good Atheist” are opposed to Boghossian’s definition of faith.


I’m concerned with how “people actually use terms.” When people use the term “faith” they mean there is confidence over and above the value of the evidence. Prominent Christians also use the word “faith” to mean belief without evidence.


Boghossian has already changed his definition of faith by now saying that “faith” means “belief with confidence above that which is allowed by the evidence” (paraphrase). These definitions are not the same as belief without evidence. Well below 1% use faith in that same fashion. There may be different conceptions of what counts as evidence, but this does not mean that people think they are believing without evidence.

Faith should be defined as “trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true in the face of  difficulties.” McGrew uses an example of a parachute: one who is going skydiving may be apprehensive about jumping out of a plane despite knowing that the vast majority of people make the ground alive when they go skydiving. One can know all of this evidence, but can still say they have “faith” that their instructor packed the parachute correctly. There is a distinction between hope and faith.


People use faith and hope as synonyms, but they are not. But where “does evidence stop and faith take over?”


Putting it that way prejudices the outcome of the question, because it puts the question in such a way that faith has to “sometimes make up” evidence for action or belief. But when we act, we are not acting on percentages but rather we are acting or trusting in something on the basis of the evidence we have, despite not having complete certainty.


Justin Brierly eventually cut in and moved to refocus the conversation around Boghossian’s claims that faith should be seen as a mental illness, complete with entire institutions devoted to treating faith as a disease and working towards “interventions” to move people away from faith. Brierly was quoting from Boghossian’s book in this section, and he asked Boghossian to expand on this.


It is “very unfair” to say that I target the Christian faith. “I am deeply hostile to all faiths… My attempt isn’t to demean anybody.” Religions should be seen as possible mental illness, and to exclude faith from treatment as a mental illness is hampering science. Faith “hijacks the thinking process… We need to help people through these delusions they have.”


There still seems to be no point of agreement. To define faith in this manner is to “reduce disagreement to derision.” By defining faith as belief without evidence, Boghossian has derided people of faith. Essentially, the definition is propaganda: defining faith as inferior by default and so demeaning those people of faith.


When people have conversations with people of faith, they should not have a one-on-one conversation with name calling. The advocating of putting religion on the DSM (a manual for diagnosing various mental disorders) is not connected with everyday conversation and is so not insulting.


Boghossian’s overall body of work defines faith in a way which is demeaning: “pretending to know what you don’t know.” If this is the strategy, this is like “newspeak” in 1984 by George Orwell.


The difference is that in public lectures, one should not do this. Instead, we should have “interventions” with people. People who have faith are “not well.” Apologetics is confirmation bias and is damaging.


Boghossian seriously misunderstands the role of apologetics, which is the pursuit of whether a conviction holds up under scrutiny. It is no more necessary to make a detailed scholarly study of every faith before coming to a settled belief that only one is true than to have to read every biography of every person who was alive at the time Lincoln was shot to conclude that John Wilkes Booth shot him. To say otherwise is to “pretend” that one can’t have good evidence unless one concludes one doesn’t have good evidence for other things. We don’t have to rule out all alternatives to a theory, rather, one just has to have good evidence to hold that which they do.


It should be fairly clear that Boghossian’s attitude towards people of faith is not one that is friendly, as he apparently claims. When someone says that people of faith need to have “interventions” and be studied as mentally ill, that hardly is a way to respect them. Moreover, he then advocated a kind of split-personality: when someone is one-on-one, they should not bring up the notion that the person of faith is mentally ill because that would be insulting, but apparently it’s not insulting when someone writes a book saying that very thing.

Clearly the biggest issue in this debate was that of the definition of faith. Here it should be seen that once again, Boghossian’s view did not hold up. He ended up actually changing his definition in the course of the conversation, when pressed, to belief beyond the evidence. But he still claimed that “billions of people” use the term “faith” to mean “belief without evidence.” I would simply ask Boghossian: what is your evidence for that claim? Has he talked to billions of people to discover this? Where is his data to back up this claim? It seems to me that Boghossian’s definition of faith is based upon his “pretending to know something he doesn’t know”–namely, that this is how people of faith define faith.

Polemical use of the term aside, I strongly suspect that Boghossian truly does not have evidence for his use of that term faith as backed by “billions.” Moreover, I wonder whether Boghossian defines faith in that way simply because he rejects the evidence for, say, Christianity, and has gone from his own view that there is no evidence for Christianity to saying that Christians must be having faith as “belief without evidence.” But of course disagreeing with someone else’s assessment of the evidence does not entail that the religious “other” believes they are believing without evidence.

McGrew did a fantastic job of continually orienting the discussion around the topic at hand: epistemology. Boghossian’s continued appeal to certainty or the alleged need to explore every faith to know if one is true was thoroughly shredded. As McGrew pointed out, Boghossian could hardly hold a single belief if one truly had to reject every other possibility in order to hold to one as true. Boghossian’s epistemology, it seems, is the faulty one.


Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

“Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician”- A brief look at the e-book by Tom Gilson– Tom Gilson has challenged Boghossian on a number of points, including his view of the meaning of “faith,” in his e-book “Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician.” It is well worth the read, and this review provides a summary of the major points.

Check out Tom Gilson’s live blog of the debate.



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


8 thoughts on ““Is Faith a False Epistemology?”- Debate Review: Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian

  1. “He notes that philosophy of religion has given many different reasons to think that faith is grounded in evidence and good reasons to think Christianity is true.”

    – It’s funny that Christian apologists haven’t taken much notice of the philosophy of religion, then. Atheists don’t see any great evidence nor good reasons to think that Christianity is true.

    Atheists like me only see very poor evidence, and bad reasoning. I would actually like to hear about your better evidence or your much better reasoning. That would be great.

    Posted by Ray | August 28, 2014, 7:33 AM
    • ” It’s funny that Christian apologists haven’t taken much notice of the philosophy of religion, then.”

      I’m going to assume this is a joke. Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, Caroline Franks Davis, William Lane Craig–just off the top of my head these are Christian scholars who have published with Cambridge or Oxford presses and who are doing philosophy of religion and apologetics. The list could be expanded for quite some time. A statement like the quote above honestly just shows ignorance.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 28, 2014, 5:21 PM
  2. Really good overview, J.W. I really enjoyed the dialogue between these two–well done.

    Posted by R.W. Johnson | November 25, 2014, 10:41 AM


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