Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian

What did I think of the debate on Unbelievable? Let’s talk about it on the Deeper Waters Podcast.

Recently on the Unbelievable podcast hosted by Justin Brierley, there was a debate between Tim McGrew and Peter Boghossian. The subject was Boghossian’s book “A Manual For Creating Atheists” which I have reviewed here. It was my high hopes that Tim McGrew, a real professor of epistemology, would be the one to expose Boghossian before a listening world.

Request granted.

Boghossian could not reply to a single source that Tim McGrew had on the meaning of faith. Boghossian defined it as “belief without evidence” or “pretending to know things you don’t know.” McGrew defined it as “trust in evidence.” All Boghossian was able to use was his “personal experience” of talking to Christians. McGrew said his experience was different. Now of course, when two people get together who have different personal experiences, then they need to look for something outside of their personal experience. McGrew went to the Oxford English Dictionary and how it shows that faith is best to be understood as trust. Boghossian could not counter this nor did he ever even attempt to. For Boghossian, he was just repeating the same refrain again and again about what he encountered.

Now I don’t doubt that there are many Christians who have a false view of faith, but is that really the way to say you’re going to go around creating atheists? Boghossian says atheism is a result of criticalthinking. Of course, if atheism is true, critical thinkers should be atheists, but that is the very premise in question. Is atheism true and you don’t say “I’m an atheist, therefore I’m a critical thinker” or “X is a Christian, therefore X isn’t practicing critical thinking” nor could the reverse apply.

McGrew points out at the end that he could not define atheists as people are ignorant about reality because they deny God exists. Now of course, if God does exist, then atheists are ignorant about reality, but that would be a terrible way to define an atheist before the debate even gets started and every atheist should rightly call McGrew on that if he does that, as McGrew himself agreed.

Boghossian also asked McGrew if he had read the Koran which no doubt gave the shocking reply of “Yes.” He went on to name other holy books that he has read. I am quite confident in my position that McGrew has read far more scholarly works that he disagrees with than Boghossian has.

Boghossian also wanted to know if the Muslims believe without evidence that Muhammad flew on a horse. McGrew rightly answered that they do not. They point to what they think is the beauty and elegance of the Koran and conclude it is a divine work and then trust it. Is that conclusion right? Of course, McGrew and Boghossian and myself don’t think so, but that does not mean that Muslims lack a reason or what they think is evidence for their claims.

This is an important distinction McGrew kept coming back to. What matters most is what one counts as evidence and what is considered reliable. One could even agree with the conclusion and disagree with the evidence presented. Suppose I meet someone who is a Christian and says they are because the Holy Spirit just told them that Jesus rose from the dead. I would really want them to have something more than that, but I cannot deny that they have reached the right conclusion.

Boghossian wanted to know about the difference between faith and hope. McGrew pointed out that faith is when you’re willing to act in a way where you’re venturing something. You can’t absolutely 100% prove something but you’re going by evidence. This is a mistake I think Boghossian doesn’t realize. He had said you needed to examine every religious worldview before you could choose one. No. You just need sufficient evidence to choose one.

For instance, if that is the case, Boghossian no doubt considers himself a macroevolutionist, yet he has said he is not an evolutionary biologist. Before siding on his worldview, is he going to go out and examine every claim of say, young-earth creationism, before he’s willing to sign on the line of evolutionary biologist? He has said he is now studying the Koran. Does that mean he chose a position on God, namely that He does not exist, before studying all the evidence?

If the only way we can reach any decision is by studying all the evidence, no one will ever conclude anything. There are always books that are going to be unread. There will be arguments unheard and in fact, arguments unanswered. What one has to say is “On the whole, which explanation best explains all the evidence.”

To get back to faith and hope again, McGrew used the illustration of sky diving with the statistic that over 99% of people who jump out of a plane while skydiving land safely. The person who jumps is still venturing something. He needs more than just “I hope my instructor packed the parachute properly.” He needs to have good reason to think it was done that way. Then he acts and that act is referred to as faith. Boghossian is right one point. Faith is not an epistemology. He’s wrong on the point that he always treats it that way and unfortunately, his whole book is built on this false premise.

Also noteworthy is Boghossian’s view on how people of faith should be treated. Faith for Boghossian should be classified as a mental disorder and a virus of the mind and the person who is trying to reason someone out of their worldview is doing an intervention. It is hard to see how Boghossian is not just outright dehumanizing his opponents. For all the talk Boghossian has about practicing doxastic openness, it looks like he needs to learn some.

This means Boghossian is a bully and in fact, one of the worst kinds of bullies. He thinks those of us who are Christians are wrong. Okay. I get that. That is not being a bully. I have several friends who think the same way. What’s next is that he thinks that we automatically have a mental illness. This is when we start getting into bigotry. If that was where it stayed, that would be bad enough, but it is not. In his own book he says to treat faith as a public health crisis. He says that there are things we cannot do obviously due to freedoms we have here, like the freedom of speech, but it is scary to think about what Boghossian would do if he had power in a country like a Muslim country or in a place like Russia where those little restrictions didn’t get in the way.

Even worse is that Boghossian is not basing this on evidence. If his interventionist strategy works so well, why did it not work here? The simple reason is Boghossian is just highly uninformed and has unfortunately convinced himself that he is right. He is engaging in what I call atheistic presuppositionalism.

This is the idea that right at the start, he is right and a critical thinker by virtue of being an atheist. If anyone else disagrees, they are obviously not engaging in critical thinking and there must be some reason why they don’t see the light. Perhaps they are “Suppressing the truth in faithfulness” or “Their eyes are blinded by a bias they do not see and they need the scales removed from their eyes.” Either way, Boghossian knows he cannot be wrong because of his personal experience with walking his life of atheism for years and because of the inner testimony of his “voice of reason.”

In fact, it’s the same for some of Boghossian’s biggest fans who just can’t bring themselves to admit that Boghossian got, as one skeptic put it, his chickens slaughtered by McGrew. A sad example of such a fan who cannot seem to accept this reality can be seen here and you can see my comments to him on the blog.

Boghossian has strangely enough said he’s interested in a round two. We would like to see it, but it is certainly clear that Boghossian is going to have to improve his game dramatically before he steps into the ring again with McGrew. Perhaps it would help if Boghossian practiced more doxastic openness and avoided his idea of “Avoid facts.” For now, all he has his personal testimony while McGrew and those like him have data from scholarly sources. Therefore, by Boghossian’s own standards, Boghossian should be sitting at the kid’s table until he can bring forward some facts.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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13 Responses to “Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian”

  1. When ‘street epistemology’ met a real epistemologist | aRemonstrant'sRamblings Says:

    […] Nick Peters has responded over at ‘Deeper Waters’ Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian. […]

  2. Grey Hooper Says:

    “Even worse is that Boghossian is not basing this on evidence. If his interventionist strategy works so well, why did it not work here?”

    Methinks Mr Peters should consider reading Boghossian’s book.

  3. Mike Gantt Says:

    What I found strange about the discussion – even absurd – is that Peter kept insisting, from the beginning of the program through to the end, that he knew what definition Christians used for faith even though two out of the two Christians with whom he was interacting made clear from the outset that they did not hold to it. Thus he had empirical evidence of Christians who claim to have faith based evidence, yet he would not acknowledge that such faith was staring him in the face. An honest listener could only conclude that he preferred to do battle with a caricature of faith rather than faith itself. How can this be a person atheists look to as a champion of their view?

  4. Why Does Virginity Matter? | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] have been on Unbelievable’s Facebook page in a debate about Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian and saw another thread asking what the big deal is about virginity. The poster stated that he was […]

  5. labreuer Says:

    Boghossian is a mediocre sophist. Sadly, there are so many mediocre people out there (of all stripes) that he is pretty good at it compared to average. For anyone who wants a neat intro to sophistry, see Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language ~~ Abuse of Power.

  6. Art Klym Says:

    As an atheist I agree that Boghossian got outpointed by McGrew. That was the case because McGrew was better prepared. McGrew also used a tactic that apologists often use. He gave the impression that the Oxford English Dictionary did not support the definition that Boghossian was using. Here are the first two definitions of faith from the online Oxford English Dictionary.

    1Complete trust or confidence in someone or something:
    this restores one’s faith in politicians

    2Strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof:
    bereaved people who have shown supreme faith

    The first definition does not support McGrew’s definition. It uses the term “trust”, but does not use the term “evidence.” It most certainly does not say “trust based on evidence.” The first definition is completely consistent with the second definition. It is not consistent with McGrew’s definition.

    McGrew misled the audience. Worse yet, he knew that he was misleading. You Christians may be impressed by a good debater who misleads, I suggest even lies. I am not.

    • labreuer Says:

      Art, I suggest a look at the Greek words pistis and pisteuō, which are the words translated ‘faith’, ‘believe’, and ‘trust’ in the NT. In my admittedly non-systematic study of those words (I haven’t gotten books on exclusively those words), I just haven’t seen anything that denotes the lack of evidence.

      It is curious that OED #2 definition uses the word ‘proof’, not ‘evidence’. In the first century AD, there was no ‘proof’ that equality before the law for all humans was either a truth to be discovered, or something unambiguously good. However, one might say that there was ‘evidence’. It was probably evidence that could be interpreted in one of multiple ways, requiring people to risk in order to select one of those ways and pursue it.

      You are welcome, though, to assert that most people trust politicians based on zero evidence. Sadly, that might be true in too many areas. However, what you must do is establish that the OED #1 definition likely indicates this failure mode, instead of the times where politicians really do provide you with evidence and reason to trust them, even if it is spotty and you have to “fill in the gaps”, as it were.

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