A Manual for Creating Atheists

A Manual for Creating Atheists

Peter Boghossian is what every fundamentalist Christian parent fears: a university professor who is talking students out of their faith. Using his own process of intervention carefully devised from rational, empirical, and psychological tools, he engages the faithful as a therapist engages patients, guiding them through contemplative and reflective questions intended to “free” them from delusion. Students are not the only group of people he confronts, however. For years, Dr. Boghossian has been hard at work trying to convince those around him to abandon their religious beliefs, and his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists (2013), is his latest strike in the battle, teaching others about his process and how to take it to the streets, to the gym, to family get-togethers, even to churches – anywhere religious faith can be found. Make no mistake about it, this book lives up to its title in that it unapologetically aims to help readers separate the religious from their faith.

I. Fostering a Mindset

The first three chapters of the manual can be seen as a lesson in fostering the right mindset for what Boghossian calls Street Epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically what knowledge is, how we obtain it, and what ideas can be reliable methods for obtaining it. Dr. Boghossian explains that his goal is to train Street Epistemologists (obviously contrasted against street preachers) to go out and question beliefs, challenge claims to knowledge, and ultimately help people “abandon their faith and embrace reason”. Despite how it sounds, the intent is allegedly not to put atheist evangelists or atheist missionaries into the field. Elsewhere, Peter notes that, “God is the conclusion that one arrives at as a result of a faulty reasoning process… faith.”1 The goal of the Street Epistemologist is to tear down flawed epistemologies, one of which happens to be faith.

Since this project is meant as a step beyond the work started by the Four Horsemen – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens – it does not purport to offer any arguments for atheism or against theism. The manual operates on the assumption that its readers already know and accept that faith is a harmful and unreliable means to knowledge, and thus understand why it should be opposed. The principle focus of the book is on how to persuade others into that view.

In the second chapter, Boghossian defines faith as “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”. When I first read these definitions, I admit I cringed. I would never have recognized either statement as describing the faith that I knew when I was a Christian, and even now I consider them to be little more than quick ways to reach an impasse in conversations with the faithful. Tom Gilson, at the Thinking Christian website, voices a quite similar opinion, and points out that the way Jesus treats faith in the gospels could perhaps paradoxically construe him as a destroyer of faith, appearing before his followers as if to provide them evidence for their beliefs, in defiance of Boghossian’s definition of faith.2

However, after reflecting on this and re-reading the chapter, I think Gilson and I both missed something important. The first definition of faith, as belief without evidence, is coupled with a quote from John Loftus:

My definition of faith is that it’s a leap over the probabilities. It fills in the gap between what is improbable to make something more probable than not without faith. As such, faith is an irrational leap over the probabilities.3

This suggests that what Boghossian means by belief without evidence is rather belief without sufficient evidence. In fact, the sentence that follows Loftus’ quote in the book 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.” I find this comports well with the religious usages of faith that Peter also cites, such as Hebrews 11:1, a passage from the Book of Mormon, and a statement by theologian Paul Tillich, despite Gilson’s careless dismissal of them as “straw-man usages”. I think it even puts the lie to Gilson’s own example with Jesus’ postmortem appearances. The question is no longer one of the presence or absence of evidence, but what constitutes sufficient evidence for the specific claim: god raised Jesus from the dead. Though that is an issue well beyond the scope of this review, I think it at least shows that Christians can’t too hastily dismiss Boghossian’s first definition of faith, properly explained.

As for the second definition, I still see it as unhelpful, aside from its possible use in serving to foster that certain mindset. By telling herself to think of faith as pretending to know what one doesn’t know, the Street Epistemologist may have an easier time centering in on epistemic claims, as well as remembering to ask that fun and fruitful question, “how do you know?” Boghossian does go on to distinguish faith from other concepts like hope, trust, and confidence, but surprisingly does not distinguish between belief and knowledge when he defines atheism and agnosticism.

For the third chapter, the author discusses the value in wanting to know, the importance of curiosity and wonder, and argues that people can be reasoned out of unreasonable beliefs. Some of the reasons Boghossian gives for why people embrace absurd claims are: (i) they have a history of not forming beliefs apportioned to evidence; (ii) they don’t recognize what constitutes sufficient evidence; (iii) they are unaware of competing views/beliefs; (iv) they may yield to social pressures; (v) they are relativists, or otherwise devalue truth. On the other hand, he astoundingly suggests that the only two reasons why people might seem to remain close-minded in conversation is they’re either brain damaged or you’re actually succeeding! Peter mentions how therapy patients show strong resistance while improvement is slowly happening beneath the surface, but what about the other options, that you may not be making points as effectively as you think, or that the other person isn’t making the right connections? This extreme confidence strikes me as a little bizarre, given that Dr. Boghossian elsewhere notes that he has revised his own approaches with people before, after finding some techniques were not effective.

II. Intervening on Faith

At the end of several chapters, Professor Boghossian provides example interviews, or “interventions”, he has conducted with the devout. Included in these conversations are friends, family, strangers, students, religious believers, acupuncturists, colleagues, and more. Does this approach of seeing such interactions as interventions not show some arrogance on the part of the epistemologist, as well as disrespect toward those being intervened upon? Boghossian doesn’t seem to think so, and provides a few reasons why:

  • It will help you to step back and exhibit more objectivity.
  • Viewing someone as being in need of help will make you less likely to pass judgment, making the treatment more effective as well.
  • You are less likely to be perceived as the angry atheist stereotype.
  • Viewing conversations as interventions will also help you listen closely and learn from each intervention.
  • Witnesses to the intervention may learn from it and go on to help others.
  • On a personal level, you’ll find deeper satisfaction in helping people than in trying to win a debate.
  • These points all seem quite valid to me, but one or two of them also suggest downsides to this tactic. While one may be less likely to be seen as an angry atheist by using an interventionist strategy, some people may be more likely to see you as an arrogant atheist. The problem with teaching yourself to view someone as needing help, which you just so happen to be qualified to give, is that it sometimes results in feelings of superiority and privilege that impact how we talk to and treat others, even unbeknownst to us. Boghossian offers a few reminders throughout the book that seem intended to counter this problem, urging readers to “Keep in mind the possibility the faithful know something you don’t.” However, the general tone frequently assumes such possibilities are significantly low.

    When it comes to the intervention itself, though, I am hard pressed to find anything to disagree with in Peter’s strategy. One of the first instructions he gives is to avoid facts. “Remember,” he says, “the core of the intervention is not changing beliefs, but changing the way people form beliefs“. Discussing confirmation bias and providing a handful of examples of it from young earth creationism to Gary Habermas’ belief in a historical resurrection, Boghossian observes that people who reason backwards from a belief to evidence typically close their beliefs because of pressures that are independent of facts, evidence, and data points. From my own personal experience, I can attest that it wasn’t until I began to appreciate why the evidence I clung to was not sufficient evidence to justify holding my beliefs that my beliefs began to become more flexible, and eventually eroded.

    Other sage instruction in the fourth chapter is to target faith instead of religion or belief in god. Religion is more connected to the social support structure that people enjoy, and Boghossian doesn’t wish to rob anyone of that support. Belief in god he sees as sort of a symptom of the wider problem of the failed epistemology of faith. The manual also instructs readers to divorce faith from morality by showing that faith is not a virtue. Forming beliefs on sufficient evidence does not make one a better person, neither does not forming beliefs on evidence make one a bad person. All that having a reliable epistemology means is that you are more likely to have true beliefs than false beliefs. If one needs evidence of this, there are innumerable examples of people of faith who have caused great harm, as well as upstanding atheists like Pat Tillman, who gave up a promising football career to die in service to his country.

    Through the remainder of chapters four through six, Boghossian covers Motivational Interviewing techniques, the Transtheoretical Model of Change, the Socratic method, how to frame questions in positive ways, such as using passive instead of active voice, and then makes some suggestions for helping others after they’ve abandoned faith. Amidst all of this are plenty of interviews detailing successes and failures that are meant to help budding Street Epistemologists get a firm grasp on the dos and don’ts of the process. I won’t dive any further into these parts of the book here, since they are both complicated and easy enough to research online, but I can say that whether or not you agree with Boghossian’s conclusions, it certainly isn’t difficult to see why his interventionist process has worked for him and why it may be an effective means for leading people out of faith – or why, at any rate, it seems better than what has been tried before.

    III. Faith is Not Created Equal

    In the last three chapters of A Manual for Creating Atheists, Dr. Boghossian recommends ways of addressing several common apologetic defenses of faith, challenges the epistemic relativism voiced by many left-wing academics, and sets out a plan for re-conceptualizing faith in a way that will help with the treatment of it.

    If you’re an atheist who has ever attempted to dialogue or debate with theists, you’ve probably heard a number of objections raised repeatedly by believers. Some are undoubtedly thought-provoking questions, but are they cause for distress? Below are select challenges and my paraphrasing of Peter’s responses to them.

    Why is there something rather than nothing?
    Why should we assume nothingness is the default position? As philosopher Adolf Grunbaum puts it, “Why be astonished at being at all? To marvel at existence is to assume that nothingness is somehow more natural, more restful. But why? The ancients started with matter, not the void; perhaps nothingness is stranger than being.”4 Why pretend to know something instead of just admitting you don’t know?

    I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.
    How much faith does it really take to be an atheist with respect to Thor? Why assume that belief in god is the starting point?

    My faith is true for me.
    “If your faith tradition includes no empirical statements, then it’s unclear what your faith tradition entails.” What could it mean for it to be true for you that Jesus rose from the dead, but not true for other people?

    You have faith in science.
    Science has its own inbuilt checks and balances, multiple corrective features, and the ability to test and falsify hypotheses. Faith has none of these. Science is a method believed on inference, but which should be discarded if a more explanatory, more predictive, more parsimonious method comes along.

    Some left-wing academics even use statements in defense of faith like those above. In chapter eight, Boghossian criticizes multiculturalism, subjectivism, cultural relativism, and other leftist values that teach that faith claims are just as legitimate as any other claims to knowledge. He even scolds feminism for being silent on the Taliban, the gross domestic violence problems in Papa New Guinea, and other current examples of harm against women perpetrated outside the West. The author views this extreme relativism as a betrayal of “the core ideas of classical and social liberalism”, established by thinkers like John Locke and Thomas Hill Green. The problem, he believes, comes from confusing the dignity of persons with dignity of ideas. People are not their ideas, however, and while people living in different cultures are deserving of the same dignity we demand for ourselves, ideas do not possess implicit dignity. I could not agree with this more.

    Here some Christians may start to appreciate Boghossian, for he not only rails against relativism, but proposes a line of questioning aimed at undermining it (which he also conveniently adds as an appendix in the book). To briefly summarize, the interaction goes as follows:

  • Is it possible some of us misconstrue reality?
    No? If one person says 2 + 2 = 18, and another says 2 + 2 = 41, has someone misconstrued reality?
    Yes? Then in that case…

  • Do some people misconstrue reality?
    No? By disagreeing, is it not implied that some things are knowable? Have I not, in your view, misconstrued what is known?
    Yes? Then in that case…

  • Are some processes of knowing better than others? Are some worse?
    No? Would you consider flipping a coin to be a reliable way of making major life decisions? If that process can be seen as unreliable, does it not mean there are more reliable, or better, processes?
    Yes? Then in that case…

  • Is there a way of determining what processes are good or bad?
    No? Then why not flip a coin to make life decisions? What makes that process of knowing unreliable?
    Yes? Then you are not an epistemic relativist.
  • If some ways of knowing are more reliable than others, we are faced with the question the manual wants all Street Epistemologists to take to the field: how do you know your faith reliably leads to the truth?

    IV. Faith as a Virus

    One thing that bothers me most about the Four Horsemen is their frequent portrayal of faith as a virus or disease. Faith spreads across cultures and continents, changing the ways people think and altering their behavior. It is capable of instilling strong resistance to outside ideas in some people, and has even moved many believers to go against their genes to suffer and die for their beliefs. The virus metaphor can be useful in understanding the power and propagation of religion, but it doesn’t just apply to religion. Practically any ideology can be conceived of as a virus at one level or another. The metaphor itself also owes its influence to the theory of memetics, which rests on a whole host of assumptions.

    A meme is defined as a “unit of cultural information” that is self-replicating. It can be a song, a story, a habit, a skill, or anything that spreads from person to person and culture to culture. There may be reason to appreciate memetics for what it might contribute to theories on cultural evolution, but it seems to be unfalsifiable and premised on something which is not rooted in anything analogous to the DNA of genes. This brings up the question of what fundamentally separates memes from concepts. Concepts persist for long periods of time, spread from person to person and culture to culture, may encourage strong resistance to outside ideas, and do much of what memes are suggested to do.

    My distaste for the faith as a virus metaphor comes from the fact that, as they are described, memes are all viruses of the mind. Yet we find little to no language in the New Atheists speaking of the ‘skepticism virus’, or the ‘virus of freethought’. Skepticism, freethought, humanism, and secularism are all highly esteemed by the New Atheists, and are all ideologies emphasizing particular values. If religious ideology can be compared to a virus, then non-religious ideology can be, too. There are beneficial viruses like bacteriophages, which are used during manufacturing to kill bacteria on some of the foods that we eat. But the Four Horsemen don’t seem to be using the virus metaphor in this open-ended sense, as I think is obvious from the contexts they do use it in.

    Boghossian falls into this habit himself, calling faith “an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue.” Some of the societal improvements he recommends in chapter nine also raise eyebrows: “Stigmatize faith-based claims like racist claims”; “Treat faith as a public health crisis”. In one of the notes at the end of the chapter, Peter even mentions his idea for children’s comics and TV shows, starring Epistemology Knights and Faith Monsters. It’s really not possible to whitewash the heavy-handed negative connotations in all of this. It’s one thing to question people’s beliefs that you think are ill-founded and potentially harmful, it’s quite another thing to relentlessly demonize any expression of those beliefs. I don’t consider the latter to be helpful in framing any kind of positive interaction, and I really don’t think we need an atheist alternative to Veggie Tales!

    On the other hand, some of the suggested societal improvements Boghossian provides are noteworthy causes. He encourages readers to stop using faith as a synonym for different words like trust, hope, and belief. I have been practicing this myself for years, to the point where I won’t even use it in colloquial expressions much anymore, such as making a ‘leap of faith’. Other encouragements are to stay informed, speak truth in the face of danger, contribute in whatever ways one can, raise skeptical children, work to financially cripple faith-based institutions (i.e. removing the tax exemptions given to churches and religious groups in the United States), and work to remove the religious exemption for delusion from the DSM.

    I think many of these ideas are great ways to combat the ill effects of faith, and they do not need to be accompanied by any arbitrary depiction of faith as a metaphorical virus. Concepts, ideologies, and epistemologies – especially faulty ones – have plenty of power to do damage to our thought processes, to the thought processes of others we share them with, and, by extension, to society and the world at large.

    V. A Manual for Damning Souls?

    A few months prior to the release of this book, I stumbled across a promotional interview with Dr. Boghossian, discussing its intent and focus. From that time until I began this review, I wrestled with mixed feelings on the manual’s central purpose. Is it wrong to “disabuse” people of their faith? We almost seem to see it as a good thing when people intervene to free someone from the grip of a cult, or to free them from a religion like Scientology. What is so different when Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, is involved instead? Perhaps the relativistic values issuing forth from many academic institutions in the West are more pervasive than we sometimes realize.

    The day I heard of this book, I predicted there would be some believers who would call the author a demon, insinuate that he’s doing the devil’s work, and regard its mere existence as evidence of Satanic conspiracy. Sure enough, on a recent episode of The Humanist Hour, Dr. Boghossian revealed that believers have already fulfilled my prediction.5 Very similar things happened after the publication of The God Delusion, god is Not Great, and the other books by the New Atheists. What’s different and admittedly exciting is that there is now a tool that seems to stand the best chance yet of helping us learn how to engage more effectively with such people, and perhaps even guide them out of delusional beliefs by modeling better ways of thinking.

    A Manual for Creating Atheists is not a surefire path to deconverting people, of course. It has its strengths and weaknesses,6 and many Christians will undoubtedly study it in order to resist its techniques. What makes it important is that it’s the first step in a new direction, one previously dominated by evangelist Christians. For all the scores and scores of books and courses available that teach believers how to convert others, there is finally material teaching non-believers how to free the devout from faith, and its tactics can be easily discerned and implemented by anyone. But even if you have no desire to go out and actively tear down anyone’s worldview, this manual is full of good advice that may help you better communicate your own position to others, and that in itself can also change minds.

     

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    Sources
    1. Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone, 2013), p. 76-77.
    2. Tom Gilson, Review: Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, ThinkingChristian.net (Oct. 23, 2013). Retrieved Jan. 27, 2014.
    3. John Loftus, Victor Reppert Now Says He Doesn’t Have Faith!, Debunking Christianity (Oct. 30, 2012). Retrieved Jan. 27, 2014.
    4. Adolf Grunbaum, cited in Boghossian (2013), p. 149.
    5. The Humanist Hour #90: Dr. Peter Boghossian, The Humanist (Dec. 30, 2013). Retrieved Jan 28, 2014.
    6. Boghossian spends very little time covering the epistemology he endorses, aside from stating that it’s foundationalist. Other remarks imply that it holds a high regard for reason and evidence. While this may seem problematic, remember the focus of the book is not on articulating a robust atheistic epistemology. One could also see this weakness as a strength in that it keeps the manual accessible to laypersons. Too much philosophical talk can over-complicate and obscure things, and it’s clear Boghossian is not addressing an academic circle.