Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Having Faith in Our Definitions

I recently posted about WLC’s quibbles over the definition of “atheism.” In my opinion, when two people disagree on the definition of a term, the best way of resolving the issue is to go with the definition proposed by the person who self-identifies with the word. For example, in the case of Dr. Craig’s issues with the definition of “atheism,” we should utilize the definition claimed by someone who calls himself an “atheist.” Otherwise, any arguments that are made against that person’s atheism run the risk of becoming straw men, as they are based around false precepts. This week, Dr. Craig’s podcast once again attempts to wrestle the control of a word’s definition away from atheists. In response to Dr. Peter Boghossian’s new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, WLC discusses what he views as a faulty view of “faith” raised up by opponents of religion.

And, in a marked twist for this blog, I actually agree with William Lane Craig, in this case.

One of the popular arguments from atheists against religion is that faith is not a virtue. Such atheists define “faith” in this case as believing in a concept even without reasonable evidence. Since this makes “faith” irrational by its very nature, these atheists argue that any religion which is based on faith is, therefore, obviously flawed. According to the argument, then, religion is irrational by definition– and anything irrational is obviously something we should avoid.

Of course, those people who support and defend religion obviously do not define “faith” in this way. In his podcast, Dr. Craig and his co-host, Kevin Harris, seem to prefer a definition for faith more along the lines of “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” They argue that “faith” and “reason” are not opposite positions, and that it is completely possible for someone to utilize reason while simultaneously having faith. In fact, Dr. Craig argues that the cause of his faith is the rational evidence he has for God.

Ironically, these same atheists who insist on defining “faith” on their terms also deride WLC and other apologists for doing the same with the word “atheism.” They complain that the apologists’ arguments against “atheism” are straw men, without realizing that their own arguments against “faith” are similarly fallacious. So, when Dr. Craig relates his cute little anecdote about “schmatheism,” during the podcast, atheists rightly cringe at the fact that WLC is blatantly admitting that he is avoiding his opponent’s actual position in order to attack an easier target. Unfortunately, many of those self-same atheists do not recognize that they are, themselves, arguing against “schmaith.”

There is nothing wrong with “faith,” as it is defined by the religious. When I was a Christian, I would say “I have faith in Jesus” with the same intent and meaning as I might say “I have faith in my wife.” I meant it as indicative of a bond of trust. The vast majority of religious people with whom I’ve conversed do the same. They have faith– they have trust. The problem is not the faith, itself. The problem is in the reason and evidence behind the faith. A person can have faith in a person or thing based on good reasons, to be sure; but they can also have faith based on poor reasoning. Quibbling over whether “faith,” itself, is problematic turns into a game of semantics which resolves nothing.

Dr. Craig asserts that he has faith in God, and that is faith is based upon the reasonable evidence laid before him. First and foremost amongst this evidence is the witness of the Holy Spirit, in his heart, which he calls “a self-authenticating means of knowing Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence.” Unfortunately, Dr. Craig’s personal experiences and revelations cannot be demonstrated to any other person, nor can they be tested in any way. Neither is there any way to differentiate Dr. Craig’s personal revelations from those of a Muslim who claims to have felt the will of Allah; nor from the Asatruar who claims personal relationships with Odin, Freyja, and Thor; nor from the Voodoo priest who has communed with Baron Samedi; nor from the pantheist who claims to know the unity of the cosmos. Et cetera, et cetera. Worse yet, there is no way to differentiate the witness of the Holy Spirit in Dr. Craig’s heart from a complete delusion. These experiences could very well serve as powerful evidence for a person– powerful enough to convince them that their faith is justified; but they can never demonstrate that justification to anyone else. That makes such evidence very poor, epistemologically. So, if a non-believer is to be convinced of a religious person’s position, we are going to ask for something other than personal experience or revelation. We will need to see evidence which is epistemologically strong. While many other apologists do not recognize this, Dr. Craig seems to acknowledge this fact, and has spent his career attempting to find this demonstrable, strong evidence.

Dr. Craig is right to chastise atheists for misappropriating the word “faith.” If we find such a tactic fallacious when used against us, it does not suddenly become sound argumentation when used against claims we oppose. Worse yet, it creates a semantic firestorm which distracts the discussion from its true and intended goal. We should allow those who are making claims based on faith to define what they mean by the word, just as we should allow those who call themselves “atheists” to define what they mean. It’d be nice if we could start addressing the actual positions held by an opposing point of view, rather than harping on about the dictionary that they are using.

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6 thoughts on “Having Faith in Our Definitions

  1. I do think that there’s an important distinction, however. We never, ever, ever, use the word “faith” for something that we know. Nobody has ever said (outside of a pure philosophical discussion) “I have faith that the sun exists.” Nobody has ever said “I have faith that I have brown hair.”

    And while the denotations do include ‘belief in the absence of evidence’, the connotation is distinct enough that we can say there is a real and clear distinction between that which we know, and that which we have faith in. Now, while that doesn’t paint faith as, necessarily, inherently irrational, it does evince the fact that the only things we relate to with faith, are those which are immune to both confirmation and falsification.

    And that distinction, of course, leads us to a further question which would, by necessity, be: what difference, then, does the ability to confirm or refute a claim make, and what is it that the relative strength of a claim, linguistically, seems to hinge on whether or not we can test a claim and thereby call it evidence.

    So it’s no so much that faith is inherently irrational, but by shifting the discussion to one of faith, one can sidestep the discussion about objective evidence.

    • Typically, when an Evangelical Christian makes a claim which is “based on faith,” they do not mean that they believe the claim without evidence. They mean that the believe the claim because they trust God. Such people truly believe that they have a relationship with God which is just as real and meaningful as any of their human relationships– I, myself, held this belief while I was still a Christian. So, for example, Evangelicals do not believe in the Inerrancy of the Bible just for the sake of believing it, despite the lack of evidence, but rather they believe in the Inerrancy of the Bible because they trust God wants them to have the truth.

      Whether or not this faith is justified is another matter entirely, and one which cuts closer to the true heart of the argument. That is why we should let those who self-identify as having “faith” define what they mean by that word, then address their arguments in that light.

  2. objectivefeatures on said:

    Look up faith in the dictionary and you will find definitions that say “belief without evidence.” It isnt atheists who are defining faith in that way, it’s actually some theists.
    according to hebrews 11:1 “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…”
    There really are theists who believe that blind faith is actually a good thing.
    in his book Peter Boghossian actually speaks to some of these people and there are videos online of him speaking to them in person. These people exist.
    Billy Crag, who has been among such theists, must know this and he must disagree with those theists. In which case I don’t understand why he doesnt support Boghossian’s book.
    To say that this isn’t something that any theist believes is just factually wrong. There are 30,000 different denominations of Christianity. How could someone create a magic key that debunks them all? Why would someone expect them to?

    • Look up “atheism” in the dictionary and you will find a definition that says, “a belief that not gods exist.” However, most self-described atheists would vehemently disagree with such a definition. There really ARE some atheists who define it in this manner. That doesn’t make it any less fallacious when theists try to generalize that definition to all atheists.

      Similarly, it is fallacious to generalize the definition of “faith” as “belief without evidence” to all Christians.

      If a Christian makes the claim that faith is “belief without evidence,” then by all means, base your discussions with that Christian on that definition. However, if you are conversing with a Christian who defines faith in some other manner, it is dishonest and irrational to insist that they actually mean your definition, instead.

      • objectivefeatures on said:

        Any Christian who does not use faith as a type of evidence, and is defining faith more like trust, can no longer use faith as an argument. Because after they do this, they need to justify that trust with evidence. Any other way of defining faith actually makes it useless for the debate. Some christians jump back and forth between definitions and then use a quoque fallacy here (just like you have faith in your brakes or that the sun will rise…) in order to make an appeal to faith argument still relevant even while avoiding the unappealing “belief without evidence” clarification.
        Seeing them do this shows me that pointing out how faith is gullibility, is a direct hit. It has started them to compartmentalise their beliefs more abstractly. Where before there were tests of faith and leaps of faith and having faith in spite of evedence to the contrary were considered good, now that idea is challenged. At this point it is functionally a broken word in the debate.

        I agree with the definition of atheism that an atheist believes that no gods exist. They carry the burden of justification for that positive belief. In my case the evidence that there are no gods depends on the God.

        Usually it is that this God is logically contradictory, Incoherent or poorly defined putting me in a state of igtheism or theological noncognitivism. This is for most of the “Omni” Gods- Gods that can know they are all knowing (how?) and yet give us free will, or Gods that are 3 entities at the same time and in the same way. These are meaningless concepts like a rock that isn’t a rock.

        Other Gods that are merely logically possible require an unnecessary step beyond what is warranted. These are deist gods and non-intervening prime movers that just exist but don’t interact with the world. We cannot subscribe to believing in something merely because it is logically possible.

        But the most common Gods people believe in are as disproved as possible. They are as false as any fiction book. This is because they make claims about these Gods in their sacred writings and these claims, if they were true, would leave behind evidence if such a thing existed.
        For example a prayer answering god would leave some statistically measurable clues among faith groups, a God that caused a global flood would leave behind evidence of that event reccognised by all geologists. if there is no such evedence we know this God isn’t actual.

        And then there are Gods who are love or they are a feeling of awe that you have when you think about the universe. I don’t think I need to be an atheist about these, everyone is a theist about these “Gods” but it is really just semantics.

        Finally It is far more likely, given our track record and tendency toward created/creator relationships and to centralize our importance and to anthropomorphize nature, that gods are created by people. This is something we know about and experience when actual Gods are not something we experience.

        Everyone carries a burden to justify their beliefs. I do not envy a theists burden which seems insurmountable. A belief that minds can exist absent brains, a belief that it’s possible for a mind “powerful” enough (whatever that could mean) to cause things to exist by thinking of them (magic) often at odds with scientific and historical facts. I don’t know how you’d even start to actually believe that.

        • I’ll agree that defining “faith in God” as something more along the lines of “trust in God” means that such faith should be built upon an evidentiary foundation. However, the evidence upon which most Christians (in my experience) have laid their faith tends to be from personal experiences which are not demonstrable. I completely understand why a person might interpret their experiences in this manner, as I myself once did, though I have come to disagree with that position.

          As for debating the ontology of gods, I am not a theist and have absolutely no idea what a random conversant means when they mention that they believe in a god or gods. I’ll let each conversant describe what they mean, and I’ll construct my counterargument (if any) based upon their definitions. If I were to assert positively that “gods do not exist,” I would be taking an unnecessary burden of proof upon myself. I would need, in such a case, to prove that every possible conception of “gods” represents a non-existent entity. That’s far more work than is necessary to rationally assert that I am an atheist.

          I am an atheist simply because I do not believe theist claims, not because I have disproved all claims about the ontology of gods.

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