I don’t usually do atheist book reviews, mostly because I don’t read a lot of books by atheist authors. They often strike me as just preaching to the choir, just as religious books are designed to preach to those who already buy into their sectarian message. I don’t think many atheists really read theist books for any reason other than to tear them apart and the same is true of the reverse. However, I heard some interesting things about Peter Boghossian’s book A Manual For Creating Atheists and while I will admit to having an instant reaction to the concept, I thought that it would be interesting to take a look at his idea of “street epistemology”.
Just to give a little background, I’ve been debating theists for around 30 years and in that time, I’ve done both online and offline debates, discussions, arguments, you name it. I’ve found that there are three general types of theists that I run into. There are the very liberal theists, the people who believe something vague, are happy to hold these beliefs and since their beliefs generally don’t affect their day-to-day lives, they see no reason whatsoever to either change their beliefs, regardless of the evidence, nor to criticize anyone else’s beliefs because, presumably, they get the same benefits from them. Second are the majority of theists, those who use religion as a social tool. They don’t really buy into the beliefs, they show up to church once in a while, they have a Bible on the bookshelf, but they’re generally unaware of the details of the beliefs they espouse, they simply claim to hold them because they think it makes them look good to the neighbors. The third group are the fanatics, the fundamentalists, those that actively evangelize to anyone they meet, who wear their religion on their sleeves and can’t utter a single sentence without mentioning Jesus 17 times. Personally, I think this third group is the only group that’s really worth taking on regularly because they are the only ones that directly cause pain and damage to humanity and to society. The first group, while it generally isn’t harmful, also tends to provide cover for the third group, but the first category also lacks any interest in giving up their beliefs, no matter how false they might be. The second group, the ones who aren’t particularly faithful to begin with, seem to be the ones most amenable to Boghossian’s street epistemology, but also the group least likely to cause any physical, emotional or social harm to anyone. Educating them may provide long-term benefits but it certainly doesn’t solve present-day problems.
He gives four reasons in chapter 3 for thinking that street epistemology can work. I find those reasons unconvincing. First he argues that there are demonstrably people who have walked away from religion and that much is true, but do these people represent a significant number of people given that the majority of people still report to be religious? Certainly, there will always be people who leave any position for another as a natural course, but do these people that are leaving theistic belief because of logic and reason represent more than people who join that same belief for irrational reasons? Secondly, focusing on faith, at least in my experience, doesn’t really help because faith, especially for the fundamentalists, is unchangeable. Third, while it may be true that analytic thinking does promote religious disbelief, it only works for those who are willing to engage in analytic thinking, which I think is untrue of most fanatical believers. And finally, he argues that William Lane Craig, among others, has “reasoned people into holding unreasonable beliefs”. I disagree. While he may coat his arguments in a thin veneer of reasonableness, the arguments themselves are wholly irrational and appeal to those who want to believe, not who demand to be convinced to believe.
Unfortunately, and I say it that way because I’ve fallen into this trap in the past, he seems to think that the only people who won’t fall for his street epistemological approach are the mentally insane. Everyone who doesn’t care about what they believe and can’t be convinced by a few words on the street must have something physically wrong with them, but that’s highly unlikely. There are people who are simply not interested in evidence or facts, they want to live their lives in a manner which gives them emotional comfort, in fact, I’d argue this constitutes the overwhelming majority of theists. Even the ultra-hardcore theists, the Westboro Baptists and the Pat Robertsons and the Kent Hovinds of the world, I don’t think we can characterize them as mentally damaged without some actual evidence that it’s true. They are just fanatics and fanaticism, like it or not, is a part of normal, every-day humans in a variety of ways. These are the people who most need “help” and these are the people who are least likely to accept it.
Even looking at Boghossian’s interventions in the book, I fail to see where he’s actually accomplished anything. Is it possible he planted the seed of doubt? Sure. Did he actually convince anyone on the spot that they were wrong? Not a chance. Even in his discussion with the doctor at the end of Chapter 3, the conversation ends before the doctor admits to being wrong. Could the doctor change his mind at a later time? Certainly but they could also reject everything Boghossian had to say and revert to their blind belief. Likewise, throughout the section on doxastic openness in Chapter 4, it all relies on the desire and ability of the theist to change their mind, examine evidence and be open to reason, which I think most of us understand isn’t the case when it comes to fundamentalists. I also don’t agree that one should avoid facts because it’s the utter lack of facts that drives a lot of theists to think they ought to cling to their beliefs. How many times have you met a theist who is convinced, because he only reads the work of dishonest apologists, that there is copious secular evidence for the existence of Jesus and the resurrection, but are convinced that there is a massive conspiracy by the non-religious to ignore it? The fact that there isn’t a single contemporary eye-witness account for the existence of Jesus at all has never occurred to them, nor would they accept that because it gets in the way of feeling good. It’s an unfortunate reality that the majority of serious theists have no interest of any kind in ever changing their minds and nothing you do can talk them out of it.
Another issue I have here is the assertion that we should attack faith and not religion because religion is a social structure. However, I would argue that faith, especially religious faith, is just as much a social structure. People claim to believe things, to have faith in them, because they think it makes them look good to those around them. This isn’t just a religious symptom but a human symptom. Peter has a discussion with a church member about God commanding him to kill left-handed people and the church member said he would do it if he was convinced God wanted him to. Now yes, the theist could be delusional, they could be mistaken, but this is a self-described thought experiment and the question wasn’t “are you convinced that God commands you to do this”, but “if you were convinced that God commands you to do this”. A fanatical theist who is absolutely convinced that God can and does talk to him and that he is able to absolutely tell the difference between a real communication from God and a fake one won’t bat an eye.
I will agree with his chapter on leftist political and social indoctrination in education, it’s something I’ve criticized vehemently in the past and think that, for the most part, Peter has nailed it directly on the head. This is one reason why education is such a disaster in this country and why we’re turning out so many far-left leaning political and social crazies out of our university system. It’s one reason why this country is such a disaster, between the crazy far-right religious nutballs and the crazy far-left liberal nutballs.
To be honest, while Peter says “The Four Horseman identified the problems and raised our awareness, but they offered few solutions,” I think that Peter has offered a solution that I’m just not convinced actually works, except in a relatively few situations that I’m not convinced actually make much of a difference. He’s made the unwarranted assumption that religious people are at all interested in reaching objectively verifiable facts. Most are not. For most theists, facts and truth are entirely antithetical to their beliefs. It’s not about being right, it’s about feeling good and I think Peter completely misunderstands this. After I had read the book, I went looking at other people’s reviews and I found that, among Christians, they reacted very much like I predicted they would, that their faith does not rely on evidence or reason and they reject any and all suggestions that evidence, reason or logic are even important when you have faith. I suspect Peter would consider them “damaged” in some way, but he fails to recognize that his street epistomological methods only work on people who actually agree with him, who are willing to accept his premise that logic and reason are important and that’s just not the case with the majority of strong theists. You can’t have a discussion with someone when you don’t speak the same language and in this case, theists and atheists don’t even speak the same family of languages. There just isn’t a common frame of reference in which to have the discussions that Peter describes in his book, except for those theists who fall into my middle group above, the people who don’t have that much emotional attachment to their beliefs and whose entire self-identity isn’t wrapped up tight in their faith.
It’s a good effort, perhaps valid for people who target those “social Christians”, but not so much for those who really fight the fights in the trenches, going after the complete fanatics and the people who do the most demonstrable harm to people and to society as a whole. It’s a good book, it’s got some good ideas, but honestly, I don’t know that it has much application for any of us atheists who aren’t out hunting for the lowest of the low-hanging fruit.