What is faith? (Peter Boghossian vs the Oxford Dictionary)

November 20th, 2014 in clues. Tags: , , , , ,

Using your head

Last post I discussed philosopher and educator Peter Boghossian’s ‘crusade’ to help atheists wean christians off their dependence on faith.

But is Boghossian’s understanding of faith correct? What do christians mean when they use this word?

Different definitions ….

One of the surest ways to have a frustrating conversation is to be using different definitions of a key matter. This is clearly happening in many discussions between atheists and christians.

Peter Boghossian says faith is “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”. He says “faith is an epistemology” (way of knowing), but an unreliable one.

The Oxford Dictionary (OED) gives several definitions:

  1. Complete trust or confidence in someone or something
  2. Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof
  3. A particular religion
  4. A strongly held belief

Many christian scholars over centuries have defined faith as trust or confidence, and a practical commitment to God on the basis of good reasons to believe in him. They say faith and reason work together rather than being opposed.

For example, CS Lewis wrote: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in. …. Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.”

…. different uses

The OED’s range of definitions cover the christian scholars’ definition and don’t imply that faith is a way of knowing. None imply lack of evidence (though one includes lack of proof). So OED doesn’t support Boghossian.

How does the average christian use “faith”?

However Boghossian argues, quite reasonably, that he is not interested in dictionary or scholarly definitions, but in how the average christian uses the word. But then quite unreasonably, he fails to offer evidence for, or examples of, his chosen definitions.

(He also, somewhat inconsistently, argues in a footnote that the Hebrews 11:1 in the Bible supports his definitions of faith. You can read a christian response to this (and also here) and an atheist reply. I doubt that Hebrews 11:1 is a definition at all, but rather shows how faith works.)

Observations from 50 years’ experience as a christian

I have no more conducted sufficient research than Boghossian has, but my impression is that the average christian will give different answers depending on the question you ask.

If their belief is criticised, a christian may respond “you need faith to believe” – thus apparently supporting Boghossian’s view.

But if asked why they think christian faith is true, the average christian is likely to give one or more of the following reasons:

  • “Something must have started it all off” – an embryonic form of the Cosmological argument.
  • “Because of Jesus”, and if questioned further, “the gospels are historically true” – basing belief on historical evidence.
  • “God has answered my prayers and changed my life” – based on personal experience.

And if asked why they pray, a christian might reply that God has answered prayer in the past so they have faith he will answer again this time.

An alternative view

I conclude from this that some christians probably fit Boghossian’s definition, at least some of the time, while others don’t, at least most of the time.

But atheist Mike D offers a different view. He analyses 7 different definitions or models of faith and concludes that 4 of the 7 fit Boghossian’s critique, one is meaningless and the other 2 are unhelpful. These two merit examination.

Faith as provisional assumption

Some christians say that faith is the decision to commit to belief in God because it is probable and despite it not being certain. Mike argues that this is reasonable in science, which has a method to test provisional assumptions objectively, but unreasonable for belief in God, because (he assumes but doesn’t actually show) there is no way evidence can settle the question.

This seems to me to be weak. Theists believe there is ample evidence to support the provisional assumption. Mike may critique that evidence, but until he does so, his argument is incomplete. He seems to realise this because his final statement is that “faith” is an unnecessary word since we already have “provisional assumption”, which is no argument at all.

Faith vs trust

He also argues another model of faith “needlessly conflates religious belief with ‘trust'”. But this doesn’t invalidate this model, it simply points out that the definition of other words like trust and belief may overlap with faith.

Is faith a way of knowing?

Some atheists argue that Boghossian’s definition of faith is a red herring, and his main point is to argue against the christian view that faith (however we define it) is a means of knowing (“faith is an epistemology”). But do christians believe this?

I suppose some christians may, but most christians do not, even if they may seem to sometimes.

I say this with confidence because I remember as a young christian being taught that faith in itself was useless, the important thing was the strength of the object in which faith is placed. It doesn’t matter how much you believe a flimsy bridge is strong, it will be the engineering strength of the bridge that determines whether you can cross safely.

So most christians, I think, don’t believe because they have faith. Rather they trust the gospels or they trust their experience of God, or they trust their pastor (which may not always be so wise!). Faith or trust describes their response to evidence, not their reason to believe.

Do christians pretend to know things they don’t know?

Some undoubtedly do, but to really know that you’d have to define “knowledge”. If “knowledge” = certainty, then I believe no christian can logically claim knowledge for everything they believe – and neither can anyone else! But if “knowledge” = justified belief (as a philosopher might define it), then christians clearly have concluded their belief is justified by the evidence.

Does faith prevent critical thinking?

Boghossian says: “A difference between an atheist and a person of faith is that an atheist is willing to revise their belief (if provided sufficient evidence); the faithful permit no such revision.”

Again, there is a measure of truth here – christians are generally resistant to evidence that apparently counts against their belief. But so, arguably, is everyone else! Few people change belief easily, and I find it difficult to believe that high profile atheists are any less resistant to changing their beliefs than christians.

The fact is that some christians have converted to atheism (just as some atheists have converted to christianity), so they clearly were not totally resistant as Boghossian alleges.

So I feel Boghossian is generally mistaken in all these matters.

My conclusions

1. Many people are unreflective

Many people, both believers and unbelievers, are not very reflective. They say things that may be contradictory. Some christians undoubtedly say things about faith that don’t stand up to analysis. But we shouldn’t build arguments against christianity or atheism on the basis of poorly expressed beliefs.

(Of course, in the end, Peter Boghssian isn’t interested in winning an argument, he’s interested in breaking down what he sees as faith. And unreflective people are an obvious target.)

2. There are many definitions of faith

The following definitions or models are still viable:

  1. trust in God (similar to trust in a friend);
  2. commitment to following a belief and putting it into practice in one’s life;
  3. making the jump from a conclusion based on good reasons to a decision to believe (a little more than “provisional assumption”);
  4. continuing to believe when moods change but evidence does not (again similar to trust in a friend);
  5. believing something we cannot know because of well-based trust in the one telling us (similar to trusting a doctor’s diagnosis).

I think I have probably thought most of these sometimes. I think #5 may be the one I would put most value on, with #3 and #4 also helpful.

3. These definitions don’t have to be mutually exclusive

The above definitions have overlapping meanings, and I can see value in all of them. I see no reason why they all can’t be part of what “faith” means. Different people will emphasise different aspects.

4. Faith isn’t a way of knowing

Faith is a way of responding to evidence or justified knowledge.

5. Let the real discussion resume

If these conclusions are reasonable, then we can get back to the real question – is the evidence for christian faith really strong enough to justify believing and following Jesus?

6. Please thank Peter Boghossian

Peter has done christians a service. He has exposed some woolly thinking by some christians, even though his own woolly thinking has itself been exposed.

Christians need to clarify and learn, and christian philosophers, teachers and writers need to help christians think more clearly. Faith isn’t a reason to believe on its own. The evidence of the truth of christian belief is the reason to believe, and faith is the way we respond to that evidence.

I couldn’t have come to that conclusion a month ago. It has taken a lot of reading of internet commentary and quite a bit of wrestling in my mind to reach a new understanding. It has been a good exercise!

Next post

Do atheists pretend to know things they don’t know?

Picture: The Naked Pastor.


  1. I really enjoyed this rather lengthy examination of the meaning of faith to the religious believer. I tend to think like you that anyone firmly set in their opinion doesn’t readily engage in truly critical thinking.

    A definition of faith I recently stumbled upon and wrote down comes from Philosophy professor Michael W. Austin, Ph.D, and is: ” A better definition of faith is a power to believe what you have reason to think is true.”

  2. All this pondering of the meaning of the word “faith” is all very well but for me it rather misses the point. I see two main aspects that explain why different people faced with the same information choose to believe different things.

    People have different standards of what constitutes good evidence. Even though belief or not in some things may be very important this standard varies from insisting on scientific standards of evidence right down to acceptance of nebulous claims with no evidence at all.

    People have a predisposition to believe what they would like to be true. In this I include conformation bias. This also various from those of us who believe that how we feel about something has no bearing on its correspondence to reality believing that belief is not a matter of volition to those who are unable to accept scientific findings backed by the scientific method and scientific consensus because they don’t like them.

  3. Good day to all. The matter is FAITH I see. You say that faith is believing in something that you can’t see?

    Well, my take on faith is something TOTALLY DIFFERENT, and has great validity. Faith for me is seeing God in action. Faith is watching God perform miracle after miracle after miracle, and that is why I, now at age 67, am serving this incredible God who works these miracles time after time. So you say PROVE IT! NO PROBLEM. I literally have hundreds of stories, but I’ll share two with you for now that have happened rectently out here in NC where we live, in our little town. Enjoy as you read. When you work for God, expect miracles. Scripture says that, “Faith without works is dead.” We use that to say that if we have faith in God, then we will do what God tells us to do, but you can also look at it like this: If we have faith in God and He does not work for us or perform miracles, then our faith without God’s works are dead also! So, here we go:

    1) A man that I net one dark and rainy night, who was very drunk, got down on his knees and cried out to Jesus, “Jesus save me,” and Jesus did. That man used to be an alcoholic and a homosexual. Jesus took all that away from him. That alone would be enough, but that’s only the beginning. This 35-year old man started having severe headaches, so he went to the doctor’s to find that he had brain cancer. They gave him six months to live. That was eight monthts ago, that he should have died. We laid hands on him and anointed him with oil, and prayed for him, just like it says to do in the Bible. Shortly after that, the headaches started to go away, so he went to the doctor’s and they found that the tumor was shrinking. They couldn’t figure it out! When we pray, by the way, we pray thanking God for answering the prayer already; it’s a DONE DEAL we say! Shortly after that, the headaches went away, so he went back to the doctor’s and they did two MRI’s just to make sure that their findings were correct. They found that the tumor had completely gone. There was no trace of cancer at all, period! He now has his own place (he was homeless), and he has a full-time job with a contractor at Camp LaJeune in South Carolina. YES, THAT IS FAITH, and God continues to work miracle after miracle here, every week and all the time.

    2) This is also a true story and it has a cute little twist at the end. I also minister with the veterans home in town. I went there one day and found that they were going to get evicted, because the person they were paying rent to did not pay the bank, but they kept the money themselves. We prayed. On their filing cabinet was a magnet that said JIREH CLEANERS. I asked the manager of the home if she knew what that meant, but she did not. You see, it is a Hebrew word. The complete phrase in Hebrew is JEHOVAH JIREH, or “God will provide.” It really means “God will see,” but when God sees our needs, He provides for us, especially when we pray to Him and put our FAITH in Him! They got a new place that was bigger and better, for less money, no less! Well, they had an extra room now that they did not have before, so they needed furniture. I put it to God in prayer, and He led me to a furniture store in town. I told the manager that we needed TWO COUCHES, and FOUR CHAIRS for the kitchen table. He told me that I should have come a couple months ago, because that is when they donate. I just stood there, because I literally could not believe that God would let me down. I was totally speachless, which is not like me! The manager said, “Come and follow me to the back of the warehouse. He asked if the sofa and love seat was OK, and it was! He took me to another part of the warehouse, and he showed me THREE (NOT FOUR) kitchen chairs. I paused a moment and thanked him profusely for his kindness. I told him that I didn’t have any way to get them to the veteran’s home, so he said that they would be glad to deliver them free of charge, because I told him initially that I had no money, but I was on a mission from God. They delivered them that afternoon, so I went over to see the manager and she was in tears, since she was so grateful to get all this free of charge.

    I apologized for falling short of the four kitchen chairs, and that they only had three. I couldn’t understand why God would fall short of this prayer and my FAITH. The manager told me, “Oh, don’t worry, one of the men is in a wheelchair, anyway, so we only needed three!

    YES, GOD IS IN THE MIRACLE-WORKING BUSINESS, and yes, FAITH IN GOD WORKS! It is not a blind faith for me, but a very living faith, because I know how God works and that God works. I hope this helps others on their faith walk, also. When you pray, say this at the end of your prayer, “Father in Heaven, thank You for answering this prayer; it’s a done deal!” Jesus taught us how to pray; He told us to pray directly to the Father, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…,” and at the end of the prayer, say, “I pray this in the name of Jesus.” Jesus told us to ask anything of the Father in his name, and it will be granted to you. Yes, we have to know what to pray for, what is OK, and what is not, and we can find that out only by reading the Word of God, the Bible.

    Be blessed, y’all! I hope you enjoyed these faith stories. I enjoyed watching God perform these miracles and answer my prayers IN FAITH!

  4. Hi Doug, I like that definition! I think it fits with the conclusions I came to.

    G’day Gordon, we don’t always agree, but in this case I think I agree almost 100%. I am considering a future post on the levels of evidence we each seek, as you mention.

    Hi David, thanks for your stories.

  5. Thanks for this. The “faith is belief without evidence” is a short cut to winning an argument without actually doing the hard work of engaging in the argument. Its a power play of definition to wield power.
    My definition of faith is belief in, trust in (and often loyalty to) an idea or ideology. This may or may not be based on evidence. It may be completely baseless, or it may have very good reason to be held. That it is faith in action doesn’t presuppose the presence or absence of evidence.
    The definition “belief without evidence” presupposes the absence of evidence and therefore short circuits the exploration. It therefore discourages examination and, ironically, is itself not based on evidence.

  6. For me, definitions are less important than what we do with the thing being defined. I would argue that faith is behind everything that everyone does. As I conclude in the chapter on faith in my book : “each of us must choose what to believe, and we can only do that based on limited data, on personal experience, on reason and on feelings. And for each of us, that is an act of faith, whether we are conscious of it or not.”

  7. Hi Phil, yes, you’re definition is similar to my #3, and I agree that in that sense we all exercise that form of faith all the time. It could be called “reasonable inference”, but it can still be seen as an act of faith to believe we can trust reasonable inference.

  8. @Phil Hemsley

    I would argue that faith is behind everything that everyone does

    Presumably this subject has been tackled to try and get a handle on what most people mean when they refer to their religious faith. It seems to me that yours is the worst of the obfuscations to appear on this thread so far.
    If I jump out of the way of a speeding car it would be an unusual use of the word “faith” if I were to explain that I had faith I was in danger.

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