A Manual for Creating Atheists (2013) is a book meant as a training guidebook for activists who seek to “cure” believers who are supposedly “contaminated” with what Boghossian calls the “faith virus”. It provides approaches, strategies, and examples for the “curing interventions”.
- Exec Summary
- FULL SUMMARY
- MORE WISDOM
- Faith is a virus that we should all fight
- A world without faith is a better world
- Street epistemology is the way to help people get rid of the “virus of faith”
- Street epistemology uses “Socratic questioning” to stir doubt in the believer’s mind
About the Author:
Peter Boghossian is an American philosopher, pedagogist, and non-tenure track assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University.
His areas of academic focus include atheism, critical thinking, pedagogy, scientific skepticism, and the Socratic method.
He later joined the “street epistemology” movement to become one of its most popular practitioners sharing content on YouTube and other channels.
Why Religion Is A Sham
extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Is there extraordinary evidence for the claim that accepting Jesus of Nazareth bestows upon the believer eternity? No. Is there even any ordinary evidence for this extraordinary claim? No. There is no evidence whatsoever, as to date not one person who has died has returned to report a celestial realm where a first—century carpenter resides with his father—God.
Personally, I believe that if we go through most “holy books” line by line, then it’s pretty obvious that many things do not add up.
Religion in the sense of “believing in a creator” or “something bigger than life as we experience on earth” is much different.
And those textbooks, no matter how potentially flawed, may still be a valid conduit for people to live their faith.
What Is Street Epistemology
Street epistemology is a dialectic approach to engage with believers and help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their beliefs, and mistrust their faith.
The goal of epistemology, reminds us the author several times, is not necessarily to change beliefs, but the goal is to change the way people form beliefs.
Why We Need To Get Rid of Faith
Boghossian claims that a world “free of religion” is a better world.
He says that street epistemology should 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 author says that “wonder, curiosity, honest self-reflection, sincerity, and the desire to know are a solid basis for a life worth living” and that, supposedly, stands in opposition to faith (something we’re not fully convinced of, here).
How to Deliver Good “Interventions”
Some tips and approaches for effective street epistemology:
- Help people form new opinions via more logical thinking, instead of telling them their current beliefs are false
- Ask the subject what conditions would have to be in place for her belief to be false
- If the subject asks you to tell them what it would take for you to believe, turn it back to them.
Example: “That’s a great question. I’d like to hear what you think first, before I tell you”
- Elicit contradictions and inconsistencies in one’s reasoning to cast doubt
- Avoid the word “you” when calling inconsistencies to avoid raising their defensive and turning it confrontational
- You got an opening when they say “I don’t know”
- Reply with “I don’t know either” back to show it’s OK not to have all the answers and that you can abandon the original faith even when you don’t yet have a new strong belief (the “value of uncertainty”)
- Match your target’s power
Says the Boghossian:
Give the faithful the same dialectical and conversational reciprocity they give you. Be honest. Be direct. Be blunt. Be unapologetic. Don’t complain, apologize, or mumble in the defense of reason. Don’t tone it down or talk baby talk. Never say, “I’m sorry but …” or “Forgive me for saying …” or “You’ll excuse me for mentioning …” Instead, tell people exactly what you think and why you think it. Take a punch and give a punch. Speak truth in the face of danger
Example: Calling Out an Acupuncturist
An example of street epistemology with an acupuncturist:
PB: Really? How do you know it works?
RC: Because I’ve cured people of illnesses. I’ve seen it work.
PB: Do you think selection bias has anything to do with that?
PB: What illnesses have you cured?
RC: Everything. You name it, I’ve cured it.
PB: Parkinson’s, Ebola, autism?
RC: I’ve never treated anyone with those.
PB: But if someone came in with one of those illnesses, could you cure them?
RC: I don’t know. I could try.
PB: Let’s take something more pedestrian, like my hearing loss. Could you cure it?
RC: If I did, would you believe me?
(I was at the cashier and RC stood off to the side.)
PB: Yes. And once you did, I’d personally fly you out to every children’s hospital in the world. Frankly, if you could cure these illnesses it’s monstrously immoral not to and should be a criminal offense. My feeling is that you’re a decent and kind person. I don’t think you’d withhold inexpensive treatment from people who needed it. If you really believe acupuncture works, why don’t you volunteer your services?
Something in this exchange could have been tweaked to make it even more persuasive, in my opinion.
But this last part in bold was the genius checkmate in my opinion.
Abandon Leftist Relativism, Feel Free To Criticize Ideas
The author criticizes what cultural relativism has become in our culture.
What is going on in higher education today is the paradigmatic example of well-educated leftists withholding judgment, teaching others to do the same, and even somehow feeling sanctimonious as a result—as opposed to, just making well-reasoned matter-of-fact judgments.
He also says that relativism has become a moral value and making judgments has become immoral.
We agree with him.
Another leftist academic tenet has become that ideas have dignity. So criticizing an idea becomes akin to criticizing an individual.
- Reject the “I’m offended” power move with power
Replies the author to a man who pulled today’s common “I’m offended” power move:
Your offense means nothing to me. If you have arguments or evidence I’d like to hear what you have to say. You saying that you’re offended carries no weight. Nor should it.
That was solid.
Not meaning to say that it’s the best approach in any situation, but it’s a very high-power approach that many readers could probably do more of in their lives.
My main doubts about the book concern its main mission and the drive behind it:
Is it really “helping” people?
First off, I’d have to wonder:
What’s the difference between helping others and harassing others in the street with what you think is best for them?
Second, even assuming the author is right, and even assuming it’s a goal worth pursuing, are people really better off cured from the “virus of faith”?
I’m not sure about either of them and will let the readers answer for themselves.
Ultimately though, the author indirectly concedes that a life without faith is not necessarily better when he says:
It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.
That’s the author’s personal philosophy though (and a power move).
And a believer may as well reply that they think the street epistemologist is a fool, plus dissatisfied.
Strawmans Religion To Be Worse Than It May Actually Be
The author frames religion as overly negative, forgetting about the possible positives it may also bring.
Also, some of those negatives seem to be overblown or to be rather poor analyses of the actual causes of certain world ills.
For example, he blames religion on the oppressive Taliban system.
But it’s simplistic to cast blame on religion only. In truth, religion is more of an excuse some men rely on to do what they wished to do anyway (and may have done even without religion, but that’s difficult to say).
Also, from a wholly amoral point of view, the Taliban system isn’t necessarily “worse for all”.
And it may as well be “better” for a lot of men
Some Scientific Posturing
The author refers to “intervention” as:
an attempt to help people or “subjects” as they’re referred to in a clinical context, change their beliefs and/or behavior”.
Street epistemology is not a clinical context.
To call it as such feels like an unwarranted power move to come across as more authoritative by borrowing terms from the psychology and psychiatry professions.
Bellicose Approach to “Mission” and “Believers”
Albeit Boghossian rightfully says you ought to refrain from aggressive approaches when delivering “interventions” with people.
I did find sometimes he was being too aggressive though and making people defensive.
The book does seem at times a bit aggressive and derisive towards believers as well.
- Calls out various “gurus” that propose semi-religious movements for personal gains. Such as, Deepak Chopra
- Calls out unscientific methods outside of religion as well, and I liked some persuasive moves with the acupuncturist above
- Many examples to learn from
- Great criticism of cultural relativism with which we wholeheartedly agree
- Good call on teaching how to think like scientists, more than scientific facts: we agree with Boghossian that rational and logical thinking may be one of the most undervalued and under-developed skills in today’s society
A Manual for Creating Atheists is a good book to learn some good persuasion approaches and techniques to potentially change someone’s mind.
I also appreciated the many examples.
In our opinion, some could be tweaked and improved, but there were also lots of golden nuggets for influence and persuasion.