January 27, 2015

Redefining Faith

English: 1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, sh...
1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotic mania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Reprinted in Madness: A Brief History (ISBN 978-0192802668), from which this version is taken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since I picked up a Chromecast back in August, I've been watching lots of atheist-oriented videos on YouTube. One of my favorites so far would have to be this brief talk on faith by Dr. Peter Boghossian from 2012. In the video (embedded below), Dr. Boghossian suggests that we redefine faith as "pretending to know things you don't know." He suggests that this will have at least three benefits:
  1. It will bring greater clarity by helping us avoid some of the more "slippery" definitions used by religious believers.
  2. It will help us separate faith from morality.
  3. It will help us more clearly distinguish between faith and hope.
All three of these benefits strike me as worthwhile. I have encountered many religious believers, mostly Christians, who seem to change their definition of faith (and many other words) on the fly as it suits their purposes. This complicates any sort of meaningful discussion. And Dr. Boghossian is absolutely correct to suggest that the popular association of faith with morality is one of the most significant obstacles we face in promoting reason and working to overcome bigotry toward secular persons. Lastly, the distinction between faith and hope should be obvious in the sense that one is a knowledge claim and the other is not. This rarely seems to be the case, however, and Dr. Boghossian's proposed definition of faith might help make this a bit more clear.

While I like the definition Dr. Boghossian suggests, I do see one potential problem. This came up in the brief Q&A that followed the presentation, and it concerns the inclusion of the word "pretending" and how it implies that an intentional process is taking place. While there are certainly people who pretend to know things they don't know, I suspect that a significant number of persons who accept claims on the basis of faith are not doing so deliberately. Instead of "pretending" to know things, they are engaging in self-deception (i.e., they are not intentionally pretending to know something; they are truly convinced that they do know it).

Every one of us has known someone who was guilty at one time or another of pretending to be something that he or she was not. Think about the sort of positive self impression that takes place on job interviews. When we exaggerate our positive attributes and minimize our faults to gain a desired outcome, it could safely be said that we are pretending. We know what we are doing, and we are doing it deliberately. On the other hand, I suspect that we have all known someone who truly believed that he or she was more talented or had fewer weaknesses than was really the case. It would be a stretch to say that such a person is pretending when he or she is actually convinced of the truth of the presentation. This is self-deception.

If one were to carry this sort of self-deception and lack of insight to the extreme, one would end up with the sort of delusion involved in some serious mental disorders. In such cases, we would not usually say that someone is "pretending" to know what they claim to know. Psychotic delusions generally involve the deluded person not realizing that he or she is delusional. "Pretending" is a word that would typically be reserved for the person who was thought to be faking symptoms. If a person was really delusional, we might suspect that there was something happening in his or her brain producing these symptoms. We'd likely use psychiatric medication to correct this and work to help the person develop more effective reality testing. We wouldn't assume that such a person was pretending.

Thus, the intentionality implied by "pretending" strikes me as an important potential limitation of this particular perspective on faith. At the same time, I am not sure how much this limitation detracts from the points made by Dr. Boghossian. It may be that his revised definition can be practically useful without being completely accurate.

I realize that this video was of a presentation that happened in 2012. I also realize that Dr. Boghossian appears to have used at least two definitions of faith in his writing and his talks. Regardless of whether this video reflects his current thinking on the subject, I found it informative and thought-provoking, which is why I am sharing it here.

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