Ever wonder who might be more successful at opening closed minds—social extroverts or socially reserved introverts? I admire the former, but I’m not one of them. Online, I feel free to share my beliefs or lack thereof. In person, however, that sort of frankness becomes much harder.
I hadn’t thought much about this until I read A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publishing), by Peter Boghossian (with a foreword by Michael Shermer). Boghossian, who is a philosophy instructor, author, and speaker, wrote this original and creative guide to show how to get people—any people you happen to bump up against in your daily life—to mistrust faith.
Boghossian calls such activities street epistemology [the study of knowledge]. He hopes his book will produce activists with the tools to get people to embrace reason.
It’s time for atheists to stop being cowering wimps, insists Boghossian, who learned his strategies from teaching prisoners and university students, as well as decades of research and of confronting individuals in every walk of life. He describes the Street Epistemologist this way:
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.
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.
HOPE, FAITH, AND KNOWING
Boghossian clarifies the difference between hope and faith. Faith, he says,
has to do with belief without evidence, an irrational leap over probabilities, or faith can be pretending to know something you don’t know (like telling someone how to bake cookies when you haven’t been in a kitchen.
Hope, on the other hand, doesn’t claim to know something it can’t know.
He doesn’t like the term agnostic, he writes, as there’s never been an argument throughout history that has withstood scrutiny. I don’t like the term either, and thus included a conversation between two characters in my novel Kylie’s Heel in which an atheist and an agnostic end up frustrated with one another’s arguments—something Boghossian says not to allow to happen. Writes Boghossian,
The only way to figure out which claims about the world are likely true, and which are likely false, is through reason and evidence. There is no other way.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Boghossian fills a large part of the book with dialogues he’s had, such as an intervention at a grocery store with an acupuncturist who claimed to be able to cure “everything.” He shows his devotion to the self-appointed task:
Airplanes offer a fantastic opportunity to practice Street Epistemology—particularly if you fly Southwest Airlines, or any other airline that doesn’t have assigned seats. I usually get on the plane a little later and try to sit next to someone reading a religious text. Middle seats are good, as they increase your chance of sitting next to someone of faith.
For example, don’t focus on facts:
The introduction of facts may also prove unproductive because this usually leads to a discussion about what constitutes reliable evidence.. . . Nearly all of the faithful suffer from an acute form of confirmation bias: they start with a core belief first and work their way backward to specific beliefs. For example, if one starts with a belief in Christ as divine, any discussion of evidence—tombs, witnesses, etc.—will almost always be futile. ... Instead... direct the discussion to how one knows that these alleged entities exist.
I’ll ask, “How would you differentiate your belief from a delusion? We have unshakable testimony of countless people who feel in their heart that the Emperor of Japan is divine, or that Muhammad’s revelations in the Koran are true. How do you know you’re not delusional?”
I’ve found this quick question to be more effective with specific religious claims, and in particular if people tell me that they feel something in their hearts. Simply causing one to consider that their core beliefs could be delusions may help them recognize the delusions.
Don’t expect miracles (i.e., speedy results, a quick conversion away from faith, and gratitude to you for showing them the light). Have patience, suggests Boghossian.
Countless people have either not responded—or responded negatively to—my initial intervention, only to e-mail me, or bump into me on the streets years later and thank me.
Recommended for its clarity, intelligence, credibility, and creative approach to changing minds, whether or not you have the courage to start conversations with strangers.