You may not have heard of Peter Boghossian. But one thoughtful christian blogger (Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian) thinks he’s a “dangerous man” and wonders whether his 2013 book (A Manual for Creating Atheists) might be seen as “a turning point in the decline of Christianity in the West”.
Perhaps Tom has been a bit spooked, but surely something’s going on to provoke this response.
Peter is trained in education and works in the philosophy department of a university. So you know straightaway that he should know something about atheism vs theism, and he should know how to communicate it.
He’s also an atheist, And not just any old atheist, but what you may call an ‘atheist evangelist’. Like many modern atheists, he thinks christians are delusional and he calls faith a dangerous belief, a virus and a contagious pathology.
But Peter has gone further than just critiquing theistic belief. Being an educator, he has written a manual to help atheists convert theists.
The manual was published about a year ago and is apparently selling well. The contents show that it is really a polemic against faith, against the idea that faith can be a basis for knowledge. But like I said, it isn’t just your bog standard atheist diatribe against religion like the writings of other “new atheist” authors.
This is a manual, a “how to” book. It doesn’t just attempt to inform but to train. You know this when the first chapter is titled “Street Epistemology” and offers “conversational tools to talk people out of their faith and help them to embrace reason”.
I wrote about the initial reaction of some atheists to the Manual almost a year ago, in Religion is a mind virus and our society needs healing from this faith pandemic?. So how have things been going for Peter and his crusade since?
On the road
Peter went on the road in the first part of the year, speaking mainly to fellow atheists, as his blog shows. But since July, the blog has been quiet, and his Twitter feed (echoed on his Facebook page) seems to have become more random and political (anti-leftist), and I’m not sure if he’s as active in promoting the ideas in the manual.
Reaction to the Manual
There were mixed response to the manual.
- Boghossian’s definitions of faith were “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know”. Thus he argued that “People who make faith claims are making knowledge claims” and faith is an unreliable method of knowing.
Christians objected to this idiosyncratic definition, preferring the Oxford Dictionary definition that faith = trust. Although I think Boghossian is badly mistaken here, I think we can learn from him, and I’ll discuss this in my next post.
- He claims that religious people are mentally ill (“When I speak to speak to somebody of faith, I view them as a person who really is mentally ill.”), and sets out an approach to expose their faulty faith-dependent thinking.
Critics pointed out that these views are contrary to evidence – christian belief has been shown to be associated with good mental and physical health, and confrontation is not the best way to address people with a mental illness.
- On this basis, he suggests ways in which people with faith should be excluded from adult discussion and public policy, and actively treated for their mental illness. (“We must reconceptualize faith as a virus of the mind … and treat faith like other epidemiological crises: contain and eradicate.”) Children raised in a faith-based household should receive “interventions designed to rid subjects of the faith affliction”.
Critics were aghast at what they saw as bigotry and the threat of anti-religious social engineering and persecution.
Nevertheless, some christians recognised that the book was well-written and likely to be effective because it recommended:
- a friendly approach to christians,
- aiming at developing more logical thinking processes rather than winning arguments, and
- asking thoughtful questions (“How do you know that?”) which guide the christian to a conclusion that they should doubt faith.
Some of his fellow atheists applauded his ideas and defended his radical ideas against the critics.
- John Loftus: “Since religious faith is a mind virus that can infect others in our society, then in order to help get rid of it we must get serious about containing it as we try to eradicate it.”
- Jerry Coyne: “This book is essential for nonbelievers who want to do more than just carp about religion, but want to weaken its odious grasp on the world.”
But other atheists were somewhat wary of its tone and message.
- Council for Secular Humanism: “Despite being enthusiastically endorsed by the secular community, The Manual for Creating Atheists contains extremely problematic language.”
- Taylor Carr (referencing his earlier review): “I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching.”
Debate with Timothy McGrew
In May Boghossian debated christian philosopher Tim McGrew on the content of the Manual. Boghossian’s performance received mixed reviews.
- Several christians who I would normally regard as measured and reasonable (e.g. Randall Rauser and Wintery Knight) judged Boghossian to have totally failed to support his case.
- Some atheist supporters (e.g. James Lindsay and John Loftus judged Boghossian to have performed well, in the main).
- There was at least one, and apparently more, dissenting atheist voice. Taylor Carr (in a comment) said of Boghossian: “I know I’m not the only atheist who thinks he lost that debate badly.”
The discussion mostly centred on the definition of faith. McGrew used the Oxford Dictionary definition, but Boghossian argued we should use the meaning used by most christians. He had a point there, but lost it again when he admitted he had no evidence to support his definitions.
Now the dust has settled
I’m thinking that maybe there are three take-home messages (so far):
1. Boghossian and his supporters haven’t been consistent on their definition and use of “faith”
- He says faith is believing something without evidence, but then sometimes they seem to say that this means with insufficient evidence. But these are very different things – “without evidence” is claiming an irrational basis, but “insufficient evidence” simply means a different judgment about what is adequate. Boghossian’s case seems to require the former, but he can only support the latter.
- He claims that he is using “faith” in the way most christians use the word (though Taylor Carr says: “I would never have recognized either statement as describing the faith that I knew when I was a Christian”). But elsewhere he says that he is trying to change the meaning or at least “disambiguate” (= “clarify”) the meaning of the word.
It seems to me that these inconsistencies weaken his case because they suggest he is not as dependent on evidence and rational, truthful thinking as he wants to portray. On his Twitter feed recently were these two statements: “New Rule: Criticize an idea I actually hold as opposed to one you think I hold” and “It’s all too easy to slightly mischaracterize someone’s position in order to justify to yourself that you’re correct and they’re stupid.” It seems he needs to listen to himself – as we could all learn!
In my next post I’ll look in more detail at the definition of faith and its role in christian belief.
2. His method of question-based ‘evangelism’ seems very effective
Most people like to express their opinion, and you can find many books urging and teaching us all to listen more. Many christian apologetics books recommend asking more questions rather than arguing. Boghossian is taking a similar approach, and has perhaps developed it better than most.
All of us, christian as well as atheist, can learn from this. I can certainly learn from this, though applying it on the internet may be a little more of a challenge than applying it in face-to-face conversation.
3. His suggestions for societal change are dangerously off-putting
Had he limited himself to the art of conversational evangelism for reason and atheism, I think this would have been a more effective and therefore dangerous (for christians) book. But the polemic based on religion being a mind virus, and his advocacy of “public health policies designed to contain and ultimately eradicate faith” have led many, including some fellow atheists, to recoil from what they see as dangerous bigotry.
In the end, such statements reveal Boghossian and those who support him in a different light.