Faith and the End of PoR – Part 2

John Loftus referred me to Chapters 7 and 10 of his book The Outsider Test for Faith (hereafter: OTF), so that I could get a better understanding of what he means by the word “faith” in his blog post arguing for the End of Philosophy of Religion (PoR).

Chapter 7 was of no help.  The only clear remarks about “faith” which might have provided a clue to Loftus’ use of the word were the quotations of Timothy Keller on the first page of the chapter (OTF, p.133).  But on the very next page Loftus declares, “…I do not accept Keller’s definition of faith.”  There ends the usefulness of Chapter 7,  as far as my concerns here go.   I found Chapter 7 to be very interesting and worthwhile reading, but it shed no light on what Loftus means by “faith”.

Chapter 10 is, however, a different story.  If anything there is TOO MUCH definition of “faith” going on in that chapter.  But since this is a recently published book, and since Chapter 10 is clearly focused on the meaning of the word “faith”, I have decided NOT to read the various blog posts on “faith” by Loftus, at least not for now.  Chapter 10 provides more than enough material about “faith” to chew on.

Loftus gives three different definitions of “faith” in the very first paragraph of Chapter 10 (OTF, p.207)!  He gives a fourth definition on page 209.  He returns to his very first definition on page 218, and again on page 221.

Loftus also quotes about a dozen different definitions of “faith” by various skeptical thinkers and philosophers (OTF, p.210-213).  The definitions of the skeptics that he gives are somewhat similar to each other and similar to his own definitions.   So, if one rejects the definitions of “faith” proposed by Loftus, one will probably also have to reject the definitions of most, or even all, of the skeptics whom Loftus quotes.  The list of skeptics who define “faith” in a manner similar to Loftus is impressive:  George H. Smith (p.210), Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Matt McCormick (p.212), Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling, Bertrand Russell, and W.L. Reese (p.213).

In Chapter 10 we also see two of the main influences behind the thinking of Loftus about “faith”: George H. Smith and Anthropology professor David Eller.  Of Smith, Loftus says:

There was a time when I thought Smith was foolish, ignorant, and at best philosophically naive.  But not anymore.  Smith is right [about the opposition of reason and faith]. (OTF, p.210).  

Loftus has five different references to Smith on page 210, and appears to agree with each point made by Smith.  Loftus has six different references to writings by Eller, and makes the following comment about him:

David Eller, probably more than anyone else, has explained what religious believers do and why skeptics reject faith of any kind as fundamentally incompatible with scientifically based reasoning. (OTF, p.215)

Thus, to fully understand and evaluate Loftus’ understanding of “faith”, one needs to have some familiarity with the thinking of George Smith and David Eller concerning the relationship between faith and reason, since Smith and Eller appear to be significant influences on Loftus, at least for this topic.

Here are the four definitions of “faith” that Loftus proposes in Chapter 10:

Definition 1:

…faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities. (OTF, p.207)

Definition 2: 

Faith is an attitude or feeling whereby believers attribute a higher degree of probability to the evidence than what the evidence calls for. (OTF, p.207)

Definition 3:

Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate the confirming evidence and underestimate  disconfirming evidence. (OTF, p.207)

Definition 4:

Faith is an irrational cognitive bias. (OTF, p.209)

Actually, we can quickly set aside Definition 4, because it appears to be only a partial definition– a statement about the general KIND of thing that “faith” is.  In terms of genus/species definitions, it gives us the genus but not the species.  Definition 4 appears to state a portion of Definition 3, but Definition 3 is more specific, and thus looks to be a more complete genus/species definition.  Also, the phrase “irrational cognitive bias” seems redundant.  Are there such things as RATIONAL cognitive biases?  The idea of a bias already implies irrationality.  So, let’s set Definition 4 aside, as an incomplete version of Definition 3.

It seems to me that Definitions 2 and 3 are logically incompatible with each other.  If we take both to be genus/species definitions, it looks like we are given one genus in Definition 2 (i.e. “an attitude or feeling”) and a different genus in Definition 3 (i.e “a cognitive bias”).  There might be a causal relationship between these two different KINDS of things.  A “cognitive bias” might on some particular occasion cause mental events that result in a particular “attitude or feeling”, but a cognitive bias is a different KIND of thing than an attitude, and a different KIND of thing than a feeling.

So,  in the very first paragraph of Chapter 10, we are given two different and logically incompatible definitions of “faith”, it seems to me.  There is no attempt in Chapter 10 to try to reconcile what appear to be logically incompatible definitions.  This is NOT a good start to clarifying the meaning of the word “faith”.  Loftus leaves the genus of “faith” unclear.  Is “faith” an attitude? a feeling? or a cognitive bias?

One could try to defend these definitions by saying that “faith” is an ambiguous word, and that it can be used to refer to different KINDS of things.  Sometimes it is used to refer to a feeling.  Sometimes it is used to refer to an attitude.  Sometimes it is used to refer to a cognitive bias.  Perhaps that is an accurate description of the different ways in which this word is actually used.  However, in a philosophical discussion about “faith”, I think it is important to try to be clear and to avoid ambiguity.  I think Loftus would agree with me on this:

Dictionaries only tell us how people currently use words; they do not weigh in on whether the definitions of words are sufficiently precise for nuanced arguments like the ones presented in this book. (OTF, p.216)

Here is an objection that I have to Definition 3.  If I take Definition 3 literally, then I think it follows that EVERYONE has FAITH.   We ALL have cognitive biases.  One cognitive bias that we ALL have is that we “overestimate the confirming evidence” for our beliefs, and we ALL “underestimate the disconfirming evidence” for our beliefs.  At any rate, nearly all human beings have these cognitive biases, including Loftus, Smith, Eller, Harris, Dawkins, McCormick, Bertrand Russell, A.C. Grayling, and yours truly.

Since nearly all of us have these cognitive biases, if “faith” IS the possession of such cognitive biases, then Loftus, Smith, Eller, Harris, Dawkins, McCormick, Bertrand Russell, A.C. Grayling, and yours truly ALL have faith.  But neither Loftus nor I would accept this conclusion, so that implies that the assumption upon which this conclusion is based must be false. If Loftus and I do NOT have “faith”, then “faith” does NOT mean what Definition 3 says it means.  Therefore, Definition 3, it seems to me, is false.



John Loftus has objected to my assertion that “neither Loftus nor I would accept this conclusion” i.e. the idea that EVERYONE has FAITH.  He claims it is, and has been for some time, his view that “we all have faith”.  He cites page 112 of the book God or Godless.  On that page Loftus makes this statement: “…I do agree that almost everybody has faith, but this isn’t a good thing.”  Although this statement does NOT say that we ALL have faith, it does come close to that universal quantification.  That is close enough to show that I was mistaken in thinking that Loftus would not accept the conclusion that EVERYONE has FAITH.

In my defense, I had attempted to understand what Loftus means by the word “faith” by reading chapters 7 and 10 of his book The Outsider Test for Faith.  Those were chapters that Loftus had pointed me to in a comment.  I did not notice anywhere in chapters 7 and 10 that Loftus held the view that EVERYONE has FAITH.  Furthermore, there is a passage in Chapter 10 in which it appears that Loftus holds the opposite view.  He raises an objection against a definition of “faith” by Rauser, saying:

Rauser thinks it’s easy to define faith. He defines it as “assent to a proposition that is conceivably false.”  By doing so he’s lowered the bar so far that everyone could be thought to have faith.

This is an OBJECTION to Rauser’s definition, so it seemed to me that Loftus was making the same general sort of objection to Rauser’s definition that I make above to Loftus’ definition.  It seemed to me that Loftus was implying that a definition of “faith” is DEFECTIVE if it “lowered the bar so far that everyone could be thought to have faith”.  This objection appears to assume that it is implausible to say that “everyone could be thought to have faith.”

Apparently that is NOT what Loftus intended to convey by this objection, but I think any reasonable person would agree that my initial interpretation of this objection by Loftus was a plausible one, and that at least part of the responsibility for my mistaken interpretation rests with the unclarity of the expressions and statements made by Loftus in this passage.

Furthermore, this problem of unclarity ALSO exists in the book God or Godless.  At the beginning of the section where Rauser and Loftus debate about the meaning of the word “faith”, we find the following headings (p.109):


Arguing the Affirmative:  RANDAL THE CHRISTIAN

Arguing the Negative: JOHN THE ATHEIST 

Somebody besides me was ALSO confused as to Loftus’ position, because according to these headings, Loftus is NOT arguing FOR the proposition that “EVERYBODY HAS FAITH”.  Rather, Loftus was (according to the poor misguided soul who edited this book) arguing AGAINST the proposition that “EVERYBODY HAS FAITH”.

If the freaking EDITOR of Loftus’ book is confused about which side Loftus takes on this issue, then perhaps I deserve a bit of grace about my confusion concerning his view on this question.