What do I think of Peter Boghossian’s book on creating atheists? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
Boghossian’s book in the past month or so has been the subject of great conversation on the internet. Why is this the case? Is it because there’s a new argument in here? No. There’s nothing new. Is it because there’s a really powerful demonstration of atheism in here? No. That’s not here also. It’s because now, Boghossian claims to have a way to apply principles of critical thinking and train others in them so that they can become “street epistemologists” with the goal of deconverting others.
Unfortunately, what I’ve seen is that these epistemologists are thoroughly unequipped for the job, and it’s no surprise because the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
And yet at the same time, I found great confirmation for so much of what I’ve been saying for years. I have for years been correcting Christians on their definition of faith. I have been telling them that their testimonies will not be persuasive to many skeptics out there and to avoid emphasizing their feelings, and in fact I’d prefer they not discuss feelings altogether. I’ve also been encouraging them to study, and not just the Bible, but good history and philosophy and any other field they have a passion for.
Well now those proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.
In fact, Boghossian wants to start a show called “The Reason Whisperer” where he will show conversations with the faithful seeking to deconvert them. If this show takes off, I have high hopes that he will come to my church. I really want to see that.
So to get to the meat of the matter, how is a street epistemologist supposed to do his job? He starts with faith and it all goes downhill from there. Boghossian defines faith as “belief without evidence” or “Pretending to know things that you do not know.”
In this section, he also talks about deepities. These are statements that sound profound, but are really meaningless. An example that he gives of this is Hebrews 11:1, a passage that Boghossian does not understand, probably because he didn’t really look into any major commentaries on the work. (You know, what we call, looking for evidence)
Therefore, Boghossian has the deck stacked in advance. Want to make a statement about faith? The street epistemologist is to read it as saying one of the two things Boghossian says it is. There is no concept that perhaps the other person might have a different definition. Perhaps the other person has done proper exegesis and study of the Greek word pistis to show that it more accurately refers to loyalty in the face of evidence that has been provided.
Boghossian regularly sees faith as a way of knowing. It is not. No one should know anything by faith. Faith is rather a response to what has been shown. The medievals would hold, for instance, that you could know that God exists on the basis of argumentation that was deductive, such as the five ways of Aquinas. They held that you believed that God was a Trinity, since this could not be known by reason alone but required trust in revelation. You can know historically that Jesus died on the cross. You believe that He died for your sins on that cross.
Unfortunately, Boghossian does not have any understanding of this and this straw man runs throughout the whole book. As soon as any street epistemologist comes across anyone who knows better, then they are caught in a bind. It is a shame also that Boghossian insists that these are the definitions of the word, since he is the one who encourages practicing “doxastic openness” which we shall get to later.
Boghossian gives a brief look at the resurrection which starts off with saying that it is assumed that a historical Jesus existed. For atheists who always want to talk about evidence, it amazes me that so many of them buy into this Christ-myth idea. To go to studies of ancient history and the NT and say Jesus never existed is on par to going to a geologist convention and telling them that the Earth is flat.
Boghossian says even if you grant the burial and the empty tomb, there are all number of ways to explain it, including the theory of space aliens. All of them require faith because of insufficient evidence. Any interaction with a Habermas, Licona, or Wright in this? Nope. We should ask Boghossian what methodology he took to arrive at this conclusion. By what methodology should street epistemologists accept it? Will it be a faith claim?
On page 28, Boghossian says that not a single argument for God’s existence has withstood scrutiny. He lists the five ways of Aquinas, Pascal’s Wager, the ontological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the Kalam. He is emphatic that these are all failures and has an end note for that.
So when you go there, what will you find? Will you find a listing of works where these arguments were refuted? No. Will you find descriptions saying why these arguments are problematic? No. What will you find? A long statement on epistemologies?
On what grounds am I to believe these arguments have all been refuted? Boghossian’s say so? Is that the way a critical thinker should work?
Boghossian also says believers are told that ignorance is a mark of virtue and closeness to God. Sadly, I’m sure this is the case for several. In reality, if this is the Christianity Boghossian wishes to take down, more power to him there. I’ve been trying to take down this kind of Christianity for years. It has nothing to do with what Jesus taught and what the church has defended intellectually. Several decades ago in fact, the church was repeatedly warned the greatest threat to the church was anti-intellectualism.
It is at the end of the third chapter that we start seeing interventions, these are dialogues that Boghossian tells us about. The only one worth mentioning is a professor at an evangelical university who goes unnamed. Unfortunately, we have no idea what he teaches so I don’t know why we should take his opinion seriously. Most of these interventions consist of talking to people who I have no reason to believe are informed on their faith. It’s a reminder of what Bill Maher did in Religulous. It is like saying to tune in when a bodybuilder takes down a little old lady in a street fight.
Also in this chapter, he talks about doxastic openness. Closure is when someone is impervious to a reasoned argument and will not change their beliefs. The sad reality is this is a good description of street epistemologists and as we will see later on, Boghossian himself.
I fully think we should all be open to seeing if our beliefs are wrong. It is why I, as a Christian, have changed my stance on numerous issues over the years. This is something quite simple to do when your positions are based on evidence and argumentation.
One could think Boghossian has this view since in chapter 4, he does say to be willing to reconsider and be open to the idea that the faithful know something you don’t. (Such as the proper definition of faith in its proper social and historical context. Those who study the language might know this better than someone like Boghossian who does not.)
Interestingly, one of his strategies in this chapter is to avoid facts.
I’m not kidding. p. 71 and part II. The heading is “Avoid Facts.”
This strikes me as odd. If I am supposed to change my worldview, aren’t the facts relevant to that? Boghossian says that if people believed on the basis of evidence, they wouldn’t be where they are today. Isn’t this part of the doxastic closeness that he earlier condemns? Could it be the evidence just might be on the side of the Christian. Maybe I’m wrong on that of course, but should we not be open?
Boghossian says it is how we arrive at our conclusions that matter. Now I do agree this is important to discuss. Yet I tell people I am an empiricist. Knowledge begins with sense experience. I use that to reason to God. (Say the ways of Aquinas for instance.) Then with history, I try to read the best scholarship on both sides of the issue in forming an opinion on what happened to Jesus. I am also actively reading what I disagree with, such as Boghossian’s book, to see if I might have missed anything.
Does Boghossian fault that procedure?
Now Boghossian could say my conclusion is reached in advance and I have confirmation bias, but that needs to be shown rather than just asserted. The best way to show it if my methodology is sound is to show how I am not following it properly and that is done by looking at the evidence.
It is amusing to see him say Gary Habermas reached his position by starting with the divinity of Christ and the truth of Scripture and reasoning backwards. Anyone who has heard Habermas speak on doubt before knows that this is not the case. Knowing him personally, I have heard far more than most readers I am sure and know about the hours he spent agonizing over questions and not being wiling to commit to Christianity. He was quite close to being a Buddhist in fact.
It is a wonder where Boghossian gets his information then. Did he just assume it? Has he taken a faith position?
In actuality, what this can allow Boghossian to do is to discount any opinion that disagrees with him by claiming “confirmation bias.” The problem is anyone else could do the same with Boghossian’s position. A Christian could say “Well of course he’s not going to let the evidence lead him to God. He doesn’t want that.”
For example, let’s suppose there was an atheist who held to his atheism for known emotional reasons. Let’s suppose these were reasons such as he grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home and hated his parents and everything to do with Christianity. Let’s also suppose he wants to sleep with any girl he meets and knows that Christianity would require him to give that up. This man has reasons to want to be an atheist that can cloud how he views the evidence. I don’t think anyone would doubt this.
Does that mean that he’s wrong?
No. The only way you know if he’s right or wrong is by looking at the evidence.
This is also shown with Boghossian in, like I said, he does not practice doxastic openness. For instance, he has been asked what it would take to make him believe, he uses a line from Lawrence Krauss. If he walked out at night and saw all the stars in the sky aligned to say “I am God communicating with you, believe in Me!” and every human being worldwide saw this in their native language, this would be suggestive. (He adds it would be far from conclusive. It could be a delusion.)
Yes. This is from the one who says we should practice doxastic openness.
What does this mean? It means formulating an argument for God’s existence will not work with Boghossian. What he requires for himself is a personal experience, and even then a grand personal experience is only suggestive. Why should anyone attempt to reason with someone like Boghossian who says the arguments won’t convince him but that it will require a personal experience?
Shouldn’t we go with the arguments instead of personal experience?
The sixth chapter spends much on interventions, including arguments over a topic such as if the universe had a beginning. Boghossian has this idea that an eternal universe would mean no God. I, meanwhile, say I’m willing to grant an eternal multiverse. What is needed is to explain not just its existence but its act of existing.
Seeing as I plan to focus more later, I’m going to move on to chapter 8, because in many ways I found this an excellent chapter. I really appreciated Boghossian’s viewpoints on relativism and the modern definition of tolerance being bogus and the problem with adding “o-phobia” to something.
Boghossian is certainly right that ideas need to be open to criticism and if he says “faith ideas” need to be open, I fully agree! In fact, I am one who goes out in public really hoping someone will see me reading a book by an atheist and think I’m one and try to talk me out of it, or see me reading a book about the resurrection of Jesus and try to talk to me out of that. I have always said that I want us to just come together and discuss the evidence and let Christianity work in the marketplace of ideas. Which case should we go with? Whoever brings forward the best arguments and evidences.
I also agree with what is said about faith-based claims. Those students who stand up in class and have nothing else to say except “The Bible says” are a sign of a problem that we have. It is not a problem with the Bible, but with a claim on how Christian education is done. It has too long been made that Christians are just told what the Bible says. Say anything about why you should trust the Bible? Nope. Say anything about worldviews that oppose the Bible? Nope. It’s part of what I’ve called the escapist mentality.
In fact, that’s what’s so ironic about Boghossian’s book. There is much in there that I could agree with generally on reasoning, and ironically, much of the attitudes that he sees in the faithful are the same attitudes that I see in the faithless. The atheists I meet more often than not have a hubris built into them where they think they are rational and right by virtue of being an atheist. I will also not deny many Christians have that same mindset to them as well.
As I plan to write on this further, I will conclude at this point by saying that Boghossian is someone to take seriously, not because he has new information, but because he is an evangelist for atheism that is seeking to make other evangelists. Boghossian would say someone like me is upset about a show like “The Reason Whisperer.” On the contrary, I am thrilled about it. I adore it whenever something like this happens. The Da Vinci Code, The New Atheists, and now this. Hopefully more and more soon the church will wake up and realize it needs to get up and do something and actually start learning what we believe. I think a show like this could be the shot in the arm the church needs. Of course, if the church does not wake up soon, I think it will only be around for about another generation or so in America.
The reality is the arguments are still simple to deal with and the street epistemologists are thoroughly unequipped in their quest. The problem on the side of the church is not lack of information. The problem is desire to have that information and awareness of the problem a lack of information causes. When someone abandons the life of the mind, it is sad. When a Christian does it, it is a travesty.
For more information see the following:
My look at Hebrews 11:1
The Escapist Mentality