Jerry Coyne (a Professor of Biology & a well read atheist) released a piece criticizing a recent article that I authored at my blog. His critique came to my attention after my article was, literally, bombarded by an atheist mob (evidently all 50 of them came from a closed Facebook group (Street Epistemology) dedicated to discussing and actualizing Boghossian’s book), and Coyne also happened to provide a pingback in the thread. And since I’ve spent some time going back & forth with these atheists I felt that I could really nip this in the bud by providing a response to Coyne’s article.
Nonetheless, my article was an attempt to answer a misconstrued definition of faith that the atheist Peter Boghossian had supplied in his book. It was also a brief look into how Boghossian by calling the faith that many religious people possess a virus (alongside a mental illness), a virus that that needs to be eradicated, is ultimately hateful & militant. But I do strongly feel that Jerry Coyne has misrepresented some of the ideas and points that I made in my article and for that reason our purpose here will be to answer him.
1. Jerry Coyne: “I’m not quite sure who “James Bishop” is, as I hadn’t heard of him previously, but he writes at the website Historical Jesus Studies, and the header of his public Facebook page is strange. Has anyone else described their official position as “apologist”?”
There are some below the belt shots here, I feel. It’s quite nice that we’ve now been introduced although an inability to have a good handshake is unfortunate. That my page name is: James Bishop, Apologist is relatively unamusing. After all, an “Apologist” (one who defends Christian theism) is an official title just as “Theologian” or “Philosopher” are titles. It’s immaterial, we should move on to Coyne’s next paragraph:
2. Coyne: “What brought Bishop to my attention was discovering that he wrote a bizarre article called “Answering Peter Boghosssian—atheist hate & the definition of faith.” And I want to say a few words about it because, although the piece is abysmally written, it appears to support a criticism leveled at many atheists, and at me in particular: namely, our conception of what “faith” is is completely off the rails. Moreover, Bishop goes farther, saying that those who use the classical conception of faith are promoting hate speech.”
Again Coyne strikes low by saying that my piece was “abysmally written.” However, I don’t feel that I am in an English class so should I make a blunder, or many blunders, I’m not expecting a teacher to crack a ruler on my shoulder. So, how competent my grammatical skills are is really immaterial; what is important is the context & content of what is written. And evidently on that note something worked, or Coyne wouldn’t bother to respond. Yet, I sense irony in the fact that Coyne chastises me for grammar yet at the same time he clearly includes an error in the title to his very article (he has now corrected it). But I am not one to harp on about irrelevant details that matter little. Also, I sense that feelings are mutual. Coyne calls my piece a “bizarre article” and I believe Boghossian’s (on whom we are focusing) redefinition of faith provided in his book is equally bizarre, and I have already explained why.
Coyne then writes that my piece “appears to support a criticism leveled at many atheists, and at me in particular.” Well, that is true since many atheists (now, I won’t disrespect other atheists who do not see faith as a virus in need of eradication, or that religious people have a mental disease) are clearly extremists & bigots who hate religion. Also, Coyne should hardly be the one feeling offended, after all no-one is claiming that at the core of naturalists worldview there is faith in need of eradication. It is clearly the case that the atheistic naturalist has faith in his naturalism. This faith I view as superstitious and irrational, but I am no bigot & thus I don’t classify it as a virus. So, Coyne needn’t be the one to feel under attack here.
3. Coyne: “…Bishop appears to tout something called “evidence-based faith”, which apparently means “religious belief based on evidence”.
I see it more in the way that Christian truth claims (an objective claim to reality as in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, for example) is supported by evidence (namely historical evidence).
4. Coyne: “The good thing about Bishop’s admission is that, since he claims there’s evidence supporting his Christianity, we can now engage him in a debate about the nature and strength of that evidence—in other words, a scientific debate.”
True, we can now engage in a debate about “the nature and strength of that evidence” and I would be more than willing to do so, particularly on the resurrection of Jesus since that is where Christianity is at its strongest in my view. However, I think that would involve more of a historically based debate than a scientific one, since it is ultimately the historical evidence that would be at the center of our attention.
5. Coyne: “He also clarifies, as have some other Christians, that belief really is about evidence—that religion more than just communality, fellowship, values, and morality, but, to be meaningful, must at bottom rest on verifiable epistemic claims.”
Yes, that is correct. I believe that evidence does play a part here and that it does “rest on verifiable epistemic claims.”
6. Coyne: “I’ve taken my own definitions of “faith” from the Bible itself as well as statements by philosophers and some believers. Here are two ways it’s construed in scripture: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) & “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:29)”
Here one can easily accuse Coyne of cherry-picking verses to support his strawman definition of biblical faith.
Well, what about other verses he willingly neglects & of which clearly demonstrate the exact opposite; at least the opposite of how he intends us to interpret the biblical meaning of faith? For example, 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts Christians to give a “defence” of what they believe & for the hope that they have. According to the Synoptics Jesus instructs us to love God with our entire mind (Mat. 22:37, Luke 10:27) – that would include using our mind in apologetics, science, philosophy, art, in worship etc. Scripture tells us that reason, wisdom, and logic are virtues (Proverbs 3:13), that studying the Bible to see that it is true is required (Acts 17:11), and that God gives wisdom to those who ask him (James 1:5). Even though these super important verses & teachings are neglected by Coyne the two verses that he brings up can be answered relatively easily.
Firstly, when Jesus says that “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” it is a correct interpretation of the experiences most Christians have. After all, most Christians have never seen Jesus yet they are blessed as a result of their faith in him based upon what Jesus has already done for them in the world. In other words, history supports belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection and therefore it is reasonable to believe in Jesus & his message. So, Jesus is not commanding blind faith here. After all, Jesus’ own words also apply to me since I have never seen Jesus – but I have studied the evidence that he left behind & find it compelling (that’s why I believe). Likewise I am blessed because I believe in what Jesus did for us, namely take our place in death so that we could have eternal life with God.
Another point worth mentioning that it simply does not make sense that Jesus expects us to have blind faith (as alleged to be the case in his appearance & words to Thomas) especially in the wider context of his ministry. Jesus performed many miracles that convinced crowds of his authority, hence why they follow him everywhere. In the same gospel Jesus even instructs his followers to not believe in him unless he proved himself to them (John 14:10-11) & that he was unique in the miracles he performed (John 15:24). This could be multiplied elsewhere and in much more detail. So, it would appear that Jesus evidently used his miracles and deeds as an apologetic to support his message and spoke against any form of blind faith. So, then why would he appear to Thomas and contradict himself?
Then Coyne quotes Hebrews. However, the author of Hebrews clearly does not intend to come across as promoting blind faith. We can tell because a few chapters later he criticizes teachers for not learning and growing in understanding (Hebrews 5:12-14). Why would the author contradict himself a mere few chapters apart?
Nonetheless, Hebrews 11:1 ultimately says two things about faith. First, it says that faith is the substance of things hoped for. Second, it says faith is the evidence of things not seen. It is this phrase (“things not seen”) that critics take to designate belief without evidence. Again, it is a true diagnosis of belief (except not in the way that critics think) since, for example, we have never seen God or how God created the world. That is true; namely that these are things unseen and that require faith (the Christian has faith that God exists). However, we can have conviction that these unseen things are reasonable to believe in on evidential grounds, namely by the application of standard historical criterion to Jesus’ ministry & resurrection. And when we do that we come away with a divine Jesus who validates things that are yet unseen (namely that God exists & that heaven is real etc.). Then Hebrews 11:1 also tells us that faith involves more than only belief. It also involves hope. So, in other words, not only do we believe in the “thing not seen” but we also place our hope and trust in it. So, not only have we not seen God but we can still place trust in him based upon what he has revealed in the world (this could include Jesus’ ministry & resurrection, the design in nature, our moral compass etc.).
In short, I don’t see these two verses as exhorting Christians to have blind faith. Instead, it would appear that Coyne simply cherry-picks verses and then fails to exercise careful exegesis.
7. Coyne: “There and elsewhere in the Bible, demands for reason and evidence are seen as inimical to religious belief.”
I clearly showed that such is not inimical “elsewhere in the Bible.” Since I demonstrated that in point 6 above Coyne, at least in my eyes, is being disingenuous or entirely ignorant.
8. Coyne: “But there’s no denying that many—perhaps most—religionists do see faith in the way Boghossian does and the OED does above, even though they would like evidence to buttress their beliefs. But at bottom, if you ask them why they’re Christians rather than Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, most will cite not evidence, but feeling, i.e., revelation or preference or “what makes sense”. We can argue about this, and of course different believers will have different definitions of “faith.”
Here Coyne is basically saying that most Christians base their belief in Christianity on feelings rather than evidence.
However, the very same thing applies to atheists in the world, and this is something I’ve well discovered in my discussions with a great many of them. You will be surprised at just how many people are only atheists because of manner in which they sadly lost a loved one, or because of a crippling disease or condition they (or a loved one) have. Other atheists can’t stand that God is the ultimate authority and that they will one day end up answering to him. Others are atheists because they deem Christianity to repressive, or they just can’t stand the way the church sees certain things (such as pre-marital sex, or homosexuality, for example). These atheists are only atheists because of feelings.
Then Coyne says that people are only Christians because it is “what makes sense.” However, that is hardly a conclusion based on feelings. Worldviews that can make sense of reality are better than ones that can’t. In my mind Christianity makes far more sense than does naturalism since Christianity can ground realities that naturalism cannot, things like consciousness, rationality, morality, personhood, big bang cosmology, order in the universe, design in nature etc. – all of which undermine naturalism (see my Series on this).
9. Coyne quotes a piece from my article where I write: “consider Boghossian’s view to be bordering on hate speech. It’s not simply Boghossian’s redefinition of a word that appears hateful but it is the implications it has when it comes to human people – since many religious people do in fact match Boghossian’s definition of faith. In other words, history well tells us that it is an incredibly dangerous thing to single out a people or a group in such a way as to ostracize and demonize them. That is what it would appear Boghossian is doing here.”
Coyne then explains my quote: “I’m not sure if this is muddled thinking or muddled writing, but saying that “many religious people do in fact match Boghossian’s definition of faith” is giving away the game at the outset.”
To which I humbly respond that it is neither muddle thinking nor writing. I was well aware of what I meant and it certainly does not give “away the game at the outset.” To simply state that many Christians do believe in the face of opposing evidence (take the Christian who believes the Earth is 6000 years old based on their interpretation of Genesis. Many, such as Coye, would accuse such a Christian of maintaining an exegesis of scripture that is at odds with powerful opposing evidence) is not giving away anything. Many other Christians simply sit in pews nodding their heads at the preacher, but yet they have no clue of what Christian apologetics even is. They also don’t know what the Minimal Facts apologetic to Jesus’ resurrection or the Cosmologic or Teleological arguments even are. However, that many Christians blindly believe is clearly not representative of the biblical definition of faith and for Boghossian to assume that it is is a strawman. So, just because I agree that many Christians match Boghossian’s definition (namely that they hold “belief without evidence” – precisely because they are not even aware of what that evidence is) of faith, does not at all suggest that I agree with Boghossian’s definition. I certainly do not.
10. Coyne: “But even if we ignore that admission, criticizing the epistemic (or nonepistemic) basis of religious belief hardly “ostracizes or demonizes” believers. Such a claim is that of of a Special Christian Snowflake who is offended when we question the underpinnings of his religion. And I can’t be bothered to sympathize with Bishop’s argument that it’s hateful to say that faith is a “virus that needs to be eradicated.”
It is actually quite the opposite of what Coyne would have us believe here. In fact, I love it when people question my religion precisely because I enjoy giving answers and being forced into being critical of my own views. I wouldn’t have a site dedicated to that purpose if I did not enjoy it. Apologetics is exciting, that is why I am an apologist (there are reasons that are far more important, such as Apologetics being a medium for worshiping God, as well as bringing him to lost people etc.). So, Coyne is clearly incorrect by saying that I am some “Christian Snowflake who is offended when we question the underpinnings of his religion.” Hardly. But what I do take exception to is being told that I, and other Christians, have faith (which the likes of Boghossian & Coye clearly misunderstand – and who clearly define it in a way that has no resemblance to the biblical definition at all) that needs to be eradicated. Who would not be offended at this?
But then there is a part to Coyne’s statement that deserves some consideration; he writes “criticizing the epistemic (or nonepistemic) basis of religious belief hardly “ostracizes or demonizes” believers.”
History disagrees. 20th century despotism shows us exactly what happens when people in power (atheists like Stalin, for example) demonize religious belief. Since people will not relinquish their religious belief without a good fight, then what would a tyrant like Stalin do? He persecutes & kills them. This is precisely because atheists like Stalin are not “constrained by any moral principles except those of their own devising, they find themselves free to pursue their heart’s desires, unhampered by any constraints. This is moral anarchy, and it is a direct result of Atheism as a worldview” (1).
Now, an atheist like Boghossian (a bigot with whom Coyne evidently agrees) wishes to eradicate faith. Although he will claim it is only the faith, not the person holding the faith, that he wishes to eradicate this is exactly how tyrants, much like Stalin, begin. Boghossian, like Stalin (2), believes that faith is a mental illness (3). Boghossian, like Stalin, believes that faith needs to be eradicated. Are we beginning to see the similarities? The point is that history testifies to what happens when a person who thinks like Boghossian makes it into a position of power, and we need to learn from history. As Schumaker, of whom I quoted in my original piece, tells us: “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” (4).
10. Coyne: “But surely Bishop can’t see Christian truth claims as being supported by as much evidence that he’ll land safely in his plane, can he?”
Coyne clearly misses the point of the plane analogy. Evidence supporting the faith-based belief that a plane will get me to my destination is different to what evidence we have for a Christian truth claim, as in Jesus resurrection for example. Up to date statistics & studies will tell me that I can have faith that my plane will make it to its destination. Having been on previous flights I can likewise base some of that faith on experience since no plane with me inside has ever crashed. On the other hand, when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection it requires us to make sense of historical data; namely our New Testament corpus. The plane analogy was really just a very simple attempt to explain what a Christian means by “evidence based faith.” To say, as Coyne does, that I am equating the same amount of certainty between two events (flying in a plane & the resurrection of Jesus) is to miss the point of the analogy.
11. Coyne: “Well, yes he does—because the Bible tells him so… This is a classic case of “begging the question” in the genuine sense, for it assumes what it wants to prove: that stuff in the Bible is true.”
That is simply false. The Bible, both the Old & New Testaments, is a vast array of historical literature that needs to be analyzed by the historian. When applying historical criterion we can get historical facts from it, precisely because the New & Old Testaments are historical documents. In other words, faith in the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of the historical facts does not assume that the Bible is the word of God, or that the Bible is even inerrant. By simply treating the New Testament as historical documents we can make an apologetic to support the resurrection. I feel that much substantive debate that could be had is often wasted by the atheist’s misunderstanding of the nature of the Bible. And to that end there is no “begging the question” to be done here.
12. Coyne: “But if you go that route for Jesus’s resurrection, then how can you rule out anyscriptural claim since all are supported by “historical data”? The Exodus? Didn’t happen, but it’s historical data? The Flood? Historical data! Adam and Eve, still thought by the Vatican to be real people and the ancestors of us all? True, because it’s historical data.”
Again, there is a major misunderstanding underlying Coyne’s point. I strongly urge him to become accustomed to at least basic Christian apologetic views on the Bible, or what the Bible actually is as a historical library of documents. Jesus’ resurrection is simply not in the same category as is the flood, or the Exodus. The flood & the Exodus come down to us in single sources: the books of Genesis & Exodus respectively. On the other hand, Jesus’ resurrection is based on ample historical data; this data includes our pre-gospel materials, the gospels themselves, the Pauline & general epistles. In other words, the historical data for Jesus’ resurrection is far stronger than for what we have on the Genesis flood or on the Exodus. That, however, does not negate the fact that Genesis & Exodus are historical documents; it simply means that the claims made within them do not enjoy the same support as does the resurrection.
13. Coyne: “And how is Bishop going to argue with a Muslim who cites the Qur’an and hadith as showing completely contrary “historical truths”? If faith is based on evidence, let believers decide among themselves what the true faith is, just like we scientists argued about the true structure of DNA and settled it. At least we can usually come to a consensus!”
Actually, for Coyne’s own information, there are events in both the Koran & in the later Hadiths that contemporary historians do view as historical. And that is precisely because historians know what they are doing, and evidently Coyne hasn’t the faintest clue. But again, he is simply equating apples with oranges here. The Bible is not a single book but a compilation of historical documents whereas the Koran & the Book of Mormon are single books. In other words, Coyne should be asking a Muslim this question & not the Christian.
13. Coyne: “In the end, Apologist Bishop levels the usual criticisms of atheism: our “belief” is also based on faith. Since I dispel these arguments in Faith versus Fact (and in an article in Slate), I won’t reprise my analysis here, but you might amuse yourself by mentally critiquing Bishop’s conclusion.”
I did include critiques against naturalism, and I look forward to reading Coyne’s article at Slate. I will post a review of it at a later stage.
14. Coyne: “The people Bishop should be engaging, however, aren’t atheists, who, after all, don’t find his evidence for Jesus convincing. He should be going after Muslims, Jews, and Orthodox Christians—at least the ones who agree that faith rests on evidence. Since they all share a quasi-scientific basis for religious belief, let them have a big conclave and decide what the TRUE RELIGION is.”
If Coyne defines evidence based faith in the realms of religion as “quasi-scientific” then so is his naturalism, which is itself a worldview & philosophy that has faith based assumptions. His naturalism is then equally “quasi-scientific” since it clearly makes assumptions not supported by science although the atheist will claim that it does. And Coyne clearly misses the point when he says that religious people should all “have a big conclave and decide what the TRUE RELIGION is.” The point is that atheism is also to be represented in this same conclave; as it has time and time again by many atheist apologists. The atheist naturalist clearly makes objective truth claims about reality & thus he is included within a wide pool of worldviews; worldviews that are all claiming to be the truth. If the atheist wants to be taken seriously he then needs to represent himself in debate & discussion.
So, my conclusion remains. Peter Boghossian is a bigot; Coyne, who supports Boghossian’s radical extremists views, is also a bigot. Atheists who support the idea that religious faith needs to be eradicated & that it is a mental illness are equally large bigots. There’s nothing else to really say.
1. Copan, P. 2011. Is God a Moral Monster? p. 19 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Pospielovsky, D. 1998. Soviet Anti-Religious Campaigns and Persecutions: Vol. 2 of A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory and Practice, and the Believer. p. 36, 140, 156, 178–181.
3. Wartick, J. 2014. “Is Faith a False Epistemology?”- Debate Review: Tim McGrew vs. Peter Boghossian. Available.
4. Schumacher, R. 2014. Peter Boghossian and the Atheist Definition of Faith. Available.