I have commented before about the “atheist-christian wars“, and how courtesy and common sense sometimes seem to be the victims. I think it is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Peter Boghossian is an “Instructor of Philosophy” and educator at Portland State University, and he has recently published A Manual for Creating Atheists. I’ve only read the first two chapters (available on Amazon), so I won’t be reviewing the book, but I want to focus on what some sympathetic readers get from it.
Many prominent atheists are quoted as endorsing the book, and ex-christian John Loftus recently completed a series of reviews of Boghossian’s book with a summary of his take-home messages.
Faith is the target
John begins with the idea that “religious faith is a mind virus” and “a public health crisis”. This builds on Boghossian’s chapter 2 on “Faith”, which uses the ‘definitions’: “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”, and then claims that faith is dangerous.
A dangerous delusion to be eradicated
And so, they both argue, atheists should plan to “contain” and “eradicate” faith. John suggests “interventions need to be designed that counter the spread” of the virus” and Our “containment strategy should promote the ‘value’ of believing on the basis of evidence”. They encourages a new brave army of street epistemologists to “Speak truth in the place of danger”.
Other atheists who are quoted in support of the book want to “dispel” religion, which they describe as “magical thinking”, “madness” and “poisonous”, and having an “odious grasp on the world” and so doing “profound damage”.
So this is a manual to encourage atheist evangelism. Boghossian says:
A Manual for Creating Atheists details, explains, and teaches you how to be a street clinician and how to apply the tools I’ve developed as an educator and philosopher.
Is this the way to deal with a delusion?
They say that “the exemption that prohibits classifying religious delusions as mental illness” should be removed. But are they serious? Delusions and their treatment have a number of characteristics that don’t and shouldn’t apply to christian belief, for example:
- “People with delusional disorder experience non-bizarre delusions, which involve situations that could occur in real life, such as being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against, or loved from a distance. “ (WebMD). That doesn’t describe christian belief at all.
- “delusions commonly represent an underlying organic illness that warrants specific treatment.” (Psychology Today). What underlying organic illness is he hypothesising all christians have?
- If christianity was truly a delusion, then the treatment suggested is completely wrong – ” Avoiding direct confrontation of the delusional symptoms enhances the possibility of treatment compliance and response.” (Psychology Today).
It appears that atheists either don’t really believe christianity is a delusion (they are exaggerating wildly to motivate the masses) or they are wilfully treating the ‘sickness’ in an irresponsible manner.
Assumptions – true or false?
Boghossian states several assumptions, perhaps presumptions, without much supporting argument:
Faith as the opposite of evidence
Faith is defined by Boghossian as “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Believers are said to use faith to believe in “fairytales, comforting delusions and imagined entities”, “a make-believe picture of life – one that is false and misleading” and “positively daft”. This definition of faith is one commonly in use by atheists these days.
Trouble is, it only applies to a small number of christians, at least in my experience. Most christians believe there is plenty of evidence for christian belief, even if they don’t express it philosophical terms – things like:
- personal experience of God at work in their life, including sometimes miraculous healings for them or people they have read about;
- belief that only a creator God can explain the universe we live in; and
- belief in the historical evidence for Jesus, which can only be adequately explained by his being divine.
Sceptics will say these are not “evidence”, or else insufficient evidence on which to base belief, but this is a different point. The atheist rhetoric doesn’t match reality. Even philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argues that faith is a legitimate way of knowing, alternative to evidence, nevertheless offers reasoned argument in support of christian belief.
These atheists also ignore the statement of CS Lewis, perhaps the most influential and widely-read English speaking christian of the last century, who said: ” I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it. That is not the point at which Faith comes in.” I, and many other christians, believe the same.
Reason and knowledge
It seems to me that John Loftus, Boghossian and the rest assume or believe that we should only believe and act on beliefs that can be established with scientific-like rigour. Everywhere they praise “freethought”, “reason”, “logic and understanding”, “evidence and thought-out positions”, and what is “rational”.
This seems to be a re-appearance of the old and discredited philosophy of logical positivism, that scientific or empirically verified knowledge is the only kind of factual knowledge. But this view does not allow many beliefs which almost all of us, including atheists, hold without question – in the external world, or trusting relationships, or the definition of logical positivism itself – because they too cannot be verified scientifically.
It seems to me that many of the statements by Boghossian and John Loftus fail in this way – what empirical support is there for their atheism (see below for more on this), their definition of faith (as above), their view that faith is harmful (when studies show that religious belief is more often personally helpful), and the passion with which they oppose religious belief?
No argument left?
Boghossian makes the amazing and unsupported claim that “not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. [He then lists a few] All refuted. All failures.”
This is such an untruth that I am amazed that a philosopher would say it. None of the theistic arguments can be considered to have proven God’s existence, but neither have the good arguments been “refuted”. For example, atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel says: “whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove”.
The plain truth of the matter is that there is no philosophical consensus on these arguments – some think they show God’s existence is more likely than not, others vice versa.
When somebody makes such a misleading ambit claim, it makes it difficult to take anything else they say seriously. I can understand that he is trying to rally the troops, but where is his evidence-based rationality? I think he would have been more honest just to say that these arguments are not persuasive to him.
How might all this work out?
Surprising it didn’t happen sooner?
It’s generally true that, if you want to achieve something, you need a strategy, not just a good idea. With so many intelligent and committed atheists out there, you might expect that they’d think of how they should make the social change needed to achieve their goals. But I suppose atheism is not a cohesive movement and so getting organised doesn’t come so easily. Perhaps coalition around the goal of eliminating faith is a more coherent objective?
Anyway, this manual to train up anti-faith activists is here now, and it will be interesting to see if it makes an impact. My guess is that thoughtful atheists will have mostly worked out this stuff, but some of the less thoughtful will be repeating these arguments without really considering if they are true.
Will it eliminate faith?
Secularists have been predicting for more than a century that the age of faith was over and now is the age of science and rationality. So far they have been largely disappointed, as religious belief continues as strong as ever worldwide – perhaps this is why atheists are now sounding angrier and more purposeful?
I suppose some atheists will be emboldened by this book to be more aggressive in their ‘evangelism’. And undoubtedly some christians, or adherents to christianity, will stop believing in future years, some as a result of Boghossian’s ‘street epistemologists’. To that extent, it will have some success.
But what if (as I would expect) God belief survives the onslaught of the street epistemologists just as well as it survived the ‘Four Horsemen’?
Will it change believers’ behaviour?
I wonder if this book will do more good than harm to christian belief?
There is some truth in their caricature of christian belief as without evidence and harmful, at least in some people and some churches. Western christianity needs a shake up, especially (I believe) in the USA, and the atheist challenge will help achieve this. Churches would benefit by considering how they present christian belief, how they appeal for new converts and how they train them up.
How long will it be before counter manuals appear to instruct christians on how to deal with street epistemologists? Some of them will undoubtedly be silly, but some will be good. The status quo – where the arguments on each side balance each other out, convincing some one way, convincing others the other way – will remain much the same. And christians will be much better equipped in philosophy and apologetics than they are now, which won’t be a bad thing.
Will it generate light or heat?
I can only see relations between christians and atheists, especially on the web, becoming more polarised. Neither side tends to deal well with opponents who refuse to agree – I think atheists play the ‘delusion’ card because they cannot bring themselves to believe that a sensible person could resist their logic. (I must admit that, as a christian, I have sometimes struggled with that myself! 🙁 )
When it comes to converting the neutral, most christians know that evangelism is a tough gig. Most people don’t want to be talked to about religion unless they initiate it – they’d rather control the agenda themselves. Evangelistic atheists will likely face the same reaction.
The battle for the heart and mind of western culture will be won by style as well as substance. Granted all the above, the aggressive and overstated ‘new atheist’ approach will tend to scare off the large uncommitted middle ground, and make atheism and scientism even less popular than now. People tend to mistrust extremists, and the immoderate language of Boghossian and his supporters will (I believe) harm the atheist cause.