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A Manual for Creating Atheists
By Peter Boghossian
Pitchstone Publishing Copyright © 2013 Peter Boghossian
All rights reserved.
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Noun: A public thoroughfare.
Noun: The study of knowledge.
This book will teach you how to talk people out of their faith. You'll learn how to engage the faithful in conversations that help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their beliefs, and mistrust their faith. I call this activist approach to helping people overcome their faith, "Street Epistemology." The goal of this book is to create a generation of Street Epistemologists: people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community — into any and every place the faithful reside — and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.
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 and used as an educator and philosopher. The lessons, strategies, and techniques I share come from my experience teaching prisoners, from educating tens of thousands of students in overcrowded public universities, from engaging the faithful every day for more than a quarter century, from over two decades of rigorous scholarship, and from the streets.
Street Epistemology harkens back to the values of the ancient philosophers — individuals who were tough-minded, plain -speaking, known for self-defense, committed to truth, unyielding in the face of danger, and fearless in calling out falsehoods, contradictions, inconsistencies, and nonsense. Plato was a wrestler and a soldier with broad shoulders. He was decorated for bravery in battle (Christian, 2011, p. 51). Socrates was a seasoned soldier. At his trial, when facing the death penalty, he was unapologetic. When asked to suggest a punishment for his "crimes," he instead proposed to be rewarded (Plato, Apology).
Hellenistic philosophers fought against the superstitions of their time. Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and others combated the religious authorities of their period, including early versions of Christianity (Clarke, 1968; Nussbaum, 1994). They thought the most important step was to liberate people from fear of tortures of the damned and from fear that preachers of their epoch were spouting. Hellenistic philosophers were trying to encourage stoic self-sufficiency, a sense of self-responsibility, and a tough-minded humanism.
Street Epistemology is a vision and a strategy for the next generation of atheists, skeptics, humanists, philosophers, and activists. Left behind is the idealized vision of wimpy, effete philosophers: older men in jackets with elbow patches, smoking pipes, stroking their white, unkempt beards. Gone is cowering to ideology, orthodoxy, and the modern threat of political correctness.
Enter the Street Epistemologist: an articulate, clear, helpful voice with an unremitting desire to help people overcome their faith and to create a better world — a world that uses intelligence, reason, rationality, thoughtfulness, ingenuity, sincerity, science, and kindness to build the future; not a world built on faith, delusion, pretending, religion, fear, pseudoscience, superstition, or a certainty achieved by keeping people in a stupor that makes them pawns of unseen forces because they're terrified.
The Street Epistemologist is a philosopher and a fighter. She has savvy and street smarts that come from the school of hard knocks. She relentlessly helps others by tearing down falsehoods about whatever enshrined "truths" enslave us.
But the Street Epistemologist doesn't just tear down fairytales, comforting delusions, and imagined entities. She offers a humanistic vision. Let's be blunt, direct, and honest with ourselves and with others. Let's help people develop a trustfulness of reason and a willingness to reconsider, and let's place rationality in the service of humanity. Street Epistemology offers a humanism that's taken some hits and gained from experience. This isn't Pollyanna humanism, but a humanism that's been slapped around and won't fall apart. Reason and rationality have endurance. They don't evaporate the moment you get slugged. And you will get slugged.
The immediate forerunners to Street Epistemologists were "the Four Horsemen," each of whom contributed to identifying a part of the problem with faith and religion. American neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated the problems and consequences of faith. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explained the God delusion and taught us how ideas spread from person to person within a culture. American philosopher Daniel Dennett analyzed religion and its effects as natural phenomena. British-American author Christopher Hitchens divorced religion from morality and addressed the historical role of religion. The Four Horsemen called out the problem of faith and religion and started a turn in our thinking and in our culture — they demeaned society's view of religion, faith, and superstition, while elevating attitudes about reason, rationality, Enlightenment, and humanistic values.
The Four Horsemen identified the problems and raised our awareness, but they offered few solutions. No roadmap. Not even guideposts. Now the onus is upon the next generation of thinkers and activists to take direct and immediate action to fix the problems Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens identified.
A Manual for Creating Atheists is a step beyond Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. A Manual for Creating Atheists offers practical solutions to the problems of faith and religion through the creation of Street Epistemologists — legions of people who view interactions with the faithful as clinical interventions designed to disabuse them of their faith.
Hitchens may be gone, but no single individual will take his place. Instead of a replacement Horseman, there are millions of Horsemen ushering in a new Enlightenment and an Age of Reason. You, the reader, will be one of these Horsemen. You will become a Street Epistemologist. You will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought-out positions. This is work that needs to be done and work that will pay off by potentially helping millions — even billions — of people to live in a better world.
For the reader eager to get started talking others out of their faith, the tendency will be to skip to chapter 4. This is a mistake. The early chapters are designed to give you an understanding of the mechanism of belief. Effective interventions depend upon understanding core ideas and definitions covered in chapters 2 and 3.CHAPTER 2
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This chapter has two parts. The first part clears up the terms "faith," "atheist," and "agnostic." It does so by offering two definitions of faith: "belief without evidence" and "pretending to know things you don't know." It then disambiguates "faith" from "hope." Once the meanings of these terms have been clarified, the second part of the chapter articulates faith as an epistemology, underscores the fact that faith claims are knowledge claims, and then briefly articulates the problems and dangers of faith.
THE MEANING OF WORDS: FAITH, ATHEIST, AND AGNOSTIC
As a Street Epistemologist, you'll find subjects will attempt to evade your help by asserting that every definition of faith offered is incorrect and that you "just don't understand" what faith really is.
When pressed, the faithful will offer vague definitions that are merely transparent attempts to evade criticism, or simplistic definitions that intentionally muddy the meaning of "faith." More common still are what Horseman Daniel Dennett terms "deepities."
A deepity is a statement that looks profound but is not. Deepities appear true at one level, but on all other levels are meaningless. Here are some examples of deepities:
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)
"Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true." (Alma 32:21)
"Faith is the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself." (Tillich, 1957, p. 87)
"Faith is faith in the living God, and God is and remains a mystery beyond human comprehension. Although the 'object' of our faith, God never ceases to be 'subject.'" (Migliore, 1991, p. 3)
"Making faith-sense tries to wed meaning and facts. You can start with either one, but it is important to include the claims of both." (Kinast, 1999, p. 7)
"Having faith is really about seeking something beyond faith itself." (McLaren, 1999, p. 3)
... and additionally, virtually every statement made by Indian-American physician Deepak Chopra. For example, Chopra's tweets on February 7, 2013, read:
"The universe exists in awareness alone."
"God is the ground of awareness in which the universe arises & subsides"
"All material objects are forms of awareness within awareness, sensations, images, feelings, thoughts"
One could easily fill an entire book with faith deepities — many, many authors have. Christians in particular have created a tradition to employ deepities, used slippery definitions of faith, and hidden behind unclear language since at least the time of Augustine (354–430).
The word "faith" is a very slippery pig. We need to get our hands on it, pin it to the ground, and wrap a blanket around it so we can have something to latch onto before we finally and permanently subdue it. Malleable definitions allow faith to slip away from critique.
Two Definitions of Faith
The words we use are important. They can help us see clearly, or they can confuse, cloud, or obscure issues. I'll now offer my two preferred definitions of faith, and then disambiguate faith from hope.
1. Belief without evidence.
"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."
— John W. Loftus, "Victor Reppert Now Says He Doesn't Have Faith!" (Loftus, 2012)
If one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn't believe the claim on the basis of faith. "Faith" is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.
Another way to think about "belief without evidence" is to think of an irrational leap over probabilities. For example, assume that an historical Jesus existed and was crucified, and that his corpse was placed in a tomb. Assume also that eyewitness accounts were accurate, and days later the tomb was empty.
One can believe the corpse was missing for any number of reasons. For example, one can believe the body arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, one can believe aliens brought the body back to life, or one can believe an ancient spirit trapped in the tomb merged with the corpse and animated it. Belief in any of these claims would require faith because there's insufficient evidence to justify any one of these particular options. Belief in any of these claims would also disregard other, far more likely possibilities — for example, that the corpse was stolen, hidden, or moved.
If one claims knowledge either in the absence of evidence, or when a claim is contradicted by evidence, then this is when the word "faith" is used. "Believing something anyway" is an accurate definition of the term "faith."
2. Pretending to know things you don't know.
Not everything that's a case of pretending to know things you don't know is a case of faith, but cases of faith are instances of pretending to know something you don't know. For example, someone who knows nothing about baking a cake can pretend to know how to bake a cake, and this is not an instance of faith. But if someone claims to know something on the basis of faith, they are pretending to know something they don't know. For example, using faith would be like someone giving advice about baking cookies who has never been in a kitchen.
As a Street Epistemologist, whenever you hear the word "faith," just translate this in your head as, "pretending to know things you don't know." While swapping these words may make the sentence clunky, "pretending to know things you don't know" will make the meaning of the sentence clearer.
To start thinking in these terms, the following table contains commonly heard expressions using the word "faith" in column one, and the same expressions substituted with the words "pretending to know things you don't know" in column two.
Disambiguation: Faith Is Not Hope
Faith and hope are not synonyms. Sentences with these words also do not share the same linguistic structure and are semantically different — for example, one can say, "I hope it's so," and not, "I faith it's so."
The term "faith," as the faithful use it in religious contexts, needs to be disambiguated from words such as "promise," "confidence," "trust," and, especially, "hope." "Promise," "confidence," "trust," and "hope" are not knowledge claims. One can hope for anything or place one's trust in anyone or anything. This is not the same as claiming to know something. To hope for something admits there's a possibility that what you want may not be realized. For example, if you hope your stock will rise tomorrow, you are not claiming to know your stock will rise; you want your stock to rise, but you recognize there's a possibility it may not. Desire is not certainty but the wish for an outcome.
Hope is not the same as faith. Hoping is not the same as knowing. If you hope something happened you're not claiming it did happen. When the faithful say, "Jesus walked on water," they are not saying they hope Jesus walked on water, but rather are claiming Jesus actually did walk on water.
"I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer God than you do."
— Stephen F. Roberts
Of all the terms used in this book, none is more problematic, more contentious, more divisive, or more confusing than the term "atheist."
This confusion is understandable given that the word "theist" is contained in the word "atheist." It is thus natural to assume a type of parallelism between the two words. Many of the faithful imagine that just as a theist firmly believes in God, an a-theist firmly disbelieves in God. This definitional and conceptual confusion needs to be clarified.
"Atheist," as I use the term, means, "There's insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a divine, supernatural creator of the universe. However, if I were shown sufficient evidence to warrant belief in such an entity, then I would believe." I recommend we start to conceptualize "atheist" in this way so we can move the conversation forward.
The atheist does not claim, "No matter how solid the evidence for a supernatural creator, I refuse to believe." In The God Delusion, for example, Horseman Dawkins provides a 1–7 scale, with 1 being absolute belief and 7 being absolute disbelief in a divine entity (Dawkins, 2006a, pp. 50–51). Dawkins, whom many consider to be among the most hawkish of atheists, only places himself at a 6. In other words, even Dawkins does not definitively claim there is no God. He simply thinks the existence of God is highly unlikely. A difference between an atheist and a person of faith is that an atheist is willing to revise their belief (if provided sufficient evidence); the faithful permit no such revision.
Agnostics profess to not know whether or not there's an undetectable, metaphysical entity that created the universe. Agnostics think there's not enough evidence to warrant belief in God, but because it's logically possible they remain unsure of God's existence. Again, an agnostic is willing to revise her belief if provided sufficient evidence.
Excerpted from A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. Copyright © 2013 Peter Boghossian. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
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