Other Worldviews

A Manual for Creating Atheists Who Create Straw Men

Author Tim Barnett Published on 02/05/2019

It’s important to read books you don’t agree with. There are many reasons for doing this. For instance, it forces us to think critically. When we only surround ourselves with voices that are all saying the same thing, we can drift towards intellectual paralysis. It may also get us to engage new ideas we never considered before. In some cases, it may even lead us to change our minds.

These are all important reasons to read books we know we will disagree with. But the most important reason is to understand the opposing point of view. After all, a view can only be properly assessed after it is properly understood.

When we—wittingly or unwittingly—misunderstand an opposing view, it’s easy to erect a straw man. A straw man argument is when you misrepresent a view in order to refute it. A straw man is a lot easier to knock over than a real man. In the same way, a straw man argument is a lot easier to refute than the real argument.

This brings me to a book I’m currently reading titled A Manuel for Creating Atheists by atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian. This book contains a number of misrepresentations. Let me highlight just one.

Boghossian devotes an entire chapter to defining faith as well as describing its dangers. Significantly, the dangers of faith he cites directly depend on his definition. Speaking of faith, he says,

If one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. “Faith” is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.

On Boghossian’s view, faith is “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know.” In fact, he says, “As a Street Epistemologist, whenever you hear the word ‘faith,’ just translate this in your head as, ‘pretending to know things you don’t know.’” For example, if someone says, “I have faith in God,” the Street Epistemologist should understand that to mean, “I pretend to know things I don’t know about God.”

What’s incredible about this chapter is how badly Boghossian misrepresents biblical faith to his readers. Boghossian explicitly states that his book depends upon the definition of faith. It’s foundational to his argument. However, rather than building a foundation, Boghossian devotes an entire chapter to building a straw man. In fact, a biblical understanding of faith would undermine the rest of his book.

No thoughtful Christian I know defines faith as “belief without evidence” or “pretending to know things you don’t know.” More importantly, the Bible never uses the word “faith” that way. In fact, biblical faith is always used to describe active trust based on evidence.

Over and over again, Boghossian asserts that faith is an epistemology—a way of knowing. But biblical faith is not an epistemology at all. It is not a way of knowing; it is a way of trusting.

Boghossian should know better.

Not only does the Bible clearly teach that faith is trusting in light of the evidence, but many contemporary Christian scholars also explicitly teach this. For example, philosopher William Lane Craig—one of the leading Christian thinkers alive today—says, “Faith is trusting in that which you have reason to believe is true. Once you have come to believe that something is true, using reliable epistemological means, you can then place your faith or trust in those things.” Furthermore, Oxford mathematician John Lennox writes, “Faith is a response to evidence, not a rejoicing in the absence of it.”

Notice Boghossian—an atheist—is saying the exact opposite of what Craig—a Christian—is saying. Minimally, Boghossian is not representing what Craig teaches. But it’s worse than that. Since Craig is representing biblical Christianity, he’s not representing what biblical Christianity teaches.

Boghossian opens his book by stating, “This book will teach you how to talk people out of their faith.” Yet, he can’t even be trusted to properly define what faith is.

This brings us back to an important lesson: You can only properly respond to a view after you understand it.

Unfortunately, Boghossian doesn’t understand biblical faith. As a result, he resorts to a misrepresentation—a straw man—to make his argument work. Sadly, there are many who will blindly believe Boghossian without looking into what Christianity actually teaches. Boghossian is hopeful that his manual will show atheists how to create atheists. However, instead of being a manual for creating atheists, this is really a manual for creating atheists who create straw men.