Is faith a reliable means of aligning your beliefs with the truth? Professor Peter Boghossian says it is not and, in fact, calls faith both a delusion and a cognitive sickness. Having watched his lecture, “Jesus, The Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!” we decided to ask him to share his thoughts with the readers of The Bent Spoon in an effort to further discussion about this important topic. He was kind enough to invite MMA coach and voice of reason Matt Thornton to participate as well.
What follows is the full text of our interview. We hope you’ll find it engaging.
Before we get started, Professor Boghossian, can you please give a brief introduction of yourself to readers who may not be familiar with your work?
I’m in the philosophy department at Portland State University (PSU). My specialty is critical thinking and reasoning. Here’s my PSU homepage: http://pdx.edu/philosophy/peter-boghossian
I’ve invited Matt Thornton to answer these questions with me: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Thornton_%28martial_artist%29 Matt was a pioneer in reality-based martial arts training and remains a strong voice of reason.
Matt and I will be debating religious leaders at some point in the near future. This is a good opportunity for readers to understand our positions.
You have gotten a lot of publicity lately for speaking out against faith-based reasoning. Can you explain why you use words and phrases like “delusion” and “cognitive sickness” when talking about faith?
I’m being honest. When one sees faith claims as knowledge claims then it becomes clear that one of three things must be happening: 1) people are pretending to know things they do not know; 2) people are delusional; 3) people use a process to access information about the world (Jonas lived in the belly of a whale, Mohammad flew to heaven on a winged horse) and that process is inaccessible to me.
Have you gotten any backlash from your friends or colleagues due to your recent outspokenness on the topic of faith? How has religion affected the world negatively? In other words, what’s the harm?
There’s been considerable backlash from my colleagues—including formal complaints. I’ve not experienced any backlash from my friends.
When thinking about why people are upset with me, it’s really rather remarkable. I’m asking to people to do two things: 1) formulate their beliefs on the basis of evidence, and 2) stop pretending to know things they don’t know. It’s both amazing and tragic that this is considered controversial.
Let’s re-phrase the second half of your question: How does superstition affect the world negatively, since religion is by definition superstition. It’s an ongoing, global catastrophe.
Do you feel there is anything good about having faith, or believing in a personal god? If so, what?
What do you make of the people who say that it takes faith to be an atheist?
As I said in my May 6th lecture for the Humanists of Greater Portland, these terms need to be unpacked.
Let’s define faith as, “Pretending to know things you don’t know”. Let’s define atheist as, “A person who doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to a creation of the universe”. While somewhat clunky, after these substitutions the sentence becomes:
“I don’t pretend to know things I don’t know enough to be a person who doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to a creation of the universe”.
How do you feel about the position of agnosticism? Is it maybe an easy way of getting out of answering a question about one’s belief system, or is it a justifiable position to hold?
Atheism is a statement of non-belief. Atheism is not a knowledge claim. The atheist thinks that there’s insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a god. Atheists don’t definitively claim there’s no god.
Once this is clear, there really is no need for the term “agnostic”. I’m not a Tooth Fairy agnostic. I’m a Tooth Fairy atheist.
One popular argument people use to justify faith is that, without God, the world would take a downward spiral into immorality and anarchy. How do you react to this?
I just spoke about this in a recent NEPA Freethought Society podcast. Morality exists despite religion, not because of it. The hijacking of morality by religious clerics is one of the greatest scams of history.
It’s never been clear to me what the relationship is between a god and morality. What does God have to do with morality? If the universe was created by a being that we call “God,” how does this necessitate that we should behave in certain ways? I just don’t understand this move.
If one wants to claim that God is imbued with certain characteristics, like kindness and charity, then I want to know how someone knows this. Perhaps there was a being that created the universe but it doesn’t care one iota what we do with ourselves. Again, the relationship between God and morality can’t be accepted by fiat. Just as one can’t accept by fiat that God created the universe and now it doesn’t care about us.
Now if the claim is that there’s no God, but that we should tell people there is so they’ll act like reasonable human beings and not go on killing sprees, then this is another claim entirely. This is an empirical claim. It’s also one that promotes lying, dishonesty, and insincerity. We’re being asked to compromise our personal and intellectual integrity for the hope of some kind of social consequentialism. I’m not buying it.
Some who identify as having faith often say things like, “Atheists have faith as well. They have faith their family loves them, or that their wife won’t cheat on them. And they have faith in science.” How do you respond to that type of argument?
Stating, “You have faith that your wife loves you,” does not do what the utterer thinks it will do. He thinks that this statement will show that even you, the “militant atheist,” has faith in some things–you just choose to have faith in different things. One person has faith in the promise of an afterlife, while another has faith in a worldly concern that you know to be true.
These claims are not parallel. One is an empirical claim about a living breathing person, the other is a claim about a make believe “spirit” being. It would be akin to comparing belief in horses to belief in unicorns.
Recent studies suggest that atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in some circumstances. Why do you think being an atheist has such a negative stigma attached to it?
Many people agree with what you are saying, but are afraid to “come out of the closet” as atheists themselves. Do you have any advice for someone who may be struggling with this decision?
Try living life authentically. Try having genuine, honest relationships with people. You’ll probably lose some friends, but in all likelihood even your ex-friends will respect you. (It may also be interesting to learn what those lost relationships were based upon).
Being honest, epistemically humble, and not pretending to know things you don’t know, are qualities that you should not be afraid of. These are virtues to which you should aspire.
Follow Peter on Twitter @peterboghossian
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