Breaking Down Street Epistemology
You can watch street epistemologists at work in hundreds of videos on the Internet. While each atheist has his or her personal style, the techniques are basically the same. Knowing what they are doing and how they are doing it is one key to preparing Christian young people to talk with them in public and private venues.
Street epistemologists use the basic technique of ‘presenting unreasonable arguments reasonably.’ They sound reasonable while asking questions, but the questions they ask are often unreasonable.
As one street epistemologist says about himself on his YouTube channel – “I ask random people how they arrived at their God belief, and if they are using a possibly unreliable method to arrive there, try to help them discover that.” That sounds reasonable. He wants to know how people arrive at their belief in God and if in his judgment they used a ‘possibly unreliable method’ to arrive at that belief, he will ‘try to help them discover that.’
Think about that for a moment.
The atheist is looking for possibly unreliable methods to determine belief in God, which means he or she is claiming to know the reliable method to determine belief in God. But, wait a minute! Do atheists believe there is a reliable method to determine belief in God? Of course they don’t. If atheists believed there is a reliable method to believe in God, they would believe in God because they know the method upon which they can rely. The fact is that atheists don’t believe in God and don’t believe there is a reliable method to know God exists. It’s obvious that the statement about helping people discover that they’re using an unreliable method to arrive at belief in God is a ruse, a clever trick.
Street epistemologists present themselves as people who can help other people ‘have more reliable ways to come to knowledge’ (motto of StreetEpistemology.com). That gives anyone who is interested in discerning the truth behind the methodology of street epistemology a measuring stick. We can look for both reliability of methodology and gaining of true knowledge.
Tactics for the Street
One of the tactics atheists are using in street epistemology is asking believers questions. That should sound familiar to Christians involved in apologetics and evangelism. Christians ask questions to understand what people are thinking and to guide them to supply ‘evidence’ that will help answer people’s questions about God and the Christian worldview. So, we ask, are street epistemologists (atheists) asking questions to understand what people are thinking so they can supply them with ‘evidence’ to help answer people’s question about the atheist worldview?
One of the questions atheist street epistemologists use at the beginning of their conversations with believers is about the ‘scale’ of the believer’s belief in God. They offer a range of belief in God from ‘0 to 100 percent’ with 0 percent meaning the person doesn’t believe in a god or gods and 100 percent that they absolutely believe in a god or gods. As the people answer (or try to answer) the question the atheist throws out more and more numbers: 20%? 50%? 80%? The point seems to be to get believers to pick a number, some number, that demonstrates their level of faith in God.
Think about that question for a moment. Is it reasonable to ask someone to select a percentage of their belief about God? Does that mean anything? Where is the logic in a belief percentage? From an apologetics perspective, what is the atheist’s argument? What is their evidence? There is no argument! There is no evidence. It’s just a trick thrown into the conversation to muddle and confuse the person being questioned.
The tactic is similar to what Judoka use on the mat in the dojo. The Judo player hides the technique inside a series of off-balancing movements. Once the opponent is off balance, the technique is revealed – often too late for the opponent to counter. Asking unreasonable questions in what appears to be a reasonable manner is an off-balancing technique. The atheist reveals the technique after off-balancing the believer, usually too late for the believer to counter with evidence or logic.
Another tactic you’ll see in the videos of street epistemologists is the ‘what if’ questions. ‘What if that hadn’t happened to you? Would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if your grandmother didn’t get better after you prayed, would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if the feelings you have after a church service are bad instead of good, does that mean you would feel differently about God?’ And so on. ‘What if’ questions are not based in evidence. They are not reasonable, rational arguments. They are not logical. They are just ‘what if’ questions used as a tactic to confuse and mislead.
We could ask the same question of atheists. ‘What if Christians you knew growing up in your church had been nicer to you? Might you have grown up believing in God?’ ‘What if your grandmother had lived instead of died after you prayed for her? Is it possible that you would have believed in God if she was healed?’ And so on. There is no way for the atheist to know what would have happened in their life if something else had happened and there is no way for a Christian to know what would have happened in their life if something else had happened. That is not a reasonable discussion, it’s a tactic.
Atheists say they want to help people think critically and clearly, but that is obviously not true just by listening to some of these street epistemologists talk with believers. However, and this is the danger to believers who have not learned why they believe what they believe, unreasonable questions asked in a reasonable fashion often have the appearance of being reasonable and thereby can mislead without being obviously misleading. If there is no ‘argument,’ then why are we arguing? If the question is unreasonable and illogical, then why are they claiming to use reason and logic?
Christians of all ages, but especially the young, must be equipped to ‘recognize’ atheist arguments for what they are, including when there is no argument. As we see in the conversation between Jesus and the father of a child with an evil spirit, even people who believe still deal with the challenges of ‘unbelief.’ (Mark 9:24) A so-called ‘crisis of faith’ does not necessarily mean that someone is in danger of ‘losing their faith.’ The word ‘faith’ means “trust, confidence,’ so a crisis of faith means a believer is struggling with trust and confidence issues.
All believers, if they’re honest with themselves, have times in their walk with God when they struggle with trust and confidence, but that doesn’t mean they are going to ‘lose’ their faith. We need to help Christians understand that and work through their issues. We have to do more than tell Christians to ‘be strong.’ We need to help them become strong by listening, asking, answering, and providing the evidence that will help them overcome obstacles to trust.
Street epistemologists also use a basic ‘swarm attack’ method of asking so many unreasonable questions in such a short period of time that the ‘victim’ has a difficult time finding anything reasonable to respond to during the supposed conversation. ‘Swarming’ someone with questions is not a conversation. If that happens to you, politely ask the atheist to stop for a minute and listen to you. Once they are listening to you, ask them if they want to have a conversation with you. If they say yes, then ask them to ask one question at a time and allow you to answer the question before commenting or asking another question. Tell them that you also have some questions to ask them. If they say that is not what a conversation is, ask them to define the word conversation.
A conversation is defined as ‘an informal exchange of ideas by spoken words.’ It comes from a Middle English word which meant ‘familiarity, intimacy.’ It does not mean ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ or ‘trickery.’ It is an ‘exchange’ of ideas. The word exchange means ‘an act of giving one thing and receiving another (especially of the same type or value) in return.’ A true conversation is two-sided. What atheists are looking for is a one-sided event where they ask questions for the purpose of pushing their agenda on an unsuspecting victim.
From what I’ve seen in videos and read in articles and books by street epistemologists, they are not interested in an exchange of ideas. Atheists are not trying to help anyone discover a reliable method for believing in God. They have one primary motive – to lead believers to ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’ That’s a term atheists use as the goal of talking people out of their ‘faith tradition, irrationality, and superstition,’ and ‘into reason.’ Atheists believe that once they can lead people ‘into reason,’ the former believers will ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’
[Note on July 23, 2017:
I looked through several recent videos and there is a “softening” of approach by SE’s since I began writing about it a few years ago. An example is this one – https://youtu.be/DZMzR2z6ENM – where an experienced SE teaches another atheist how to use a softer approach.
That “softening” doesn’t change the fact that the tactical approach has not changed. The SE agenda remains the same. Here is how one SE manual explains the importance:
“What success looks like:
- The IL feels that the exchange was enjoyable, positive, valuable, etc.
- You successfully induced at least one instance of aporia in the interlocutor.
- Both parties express a desire to talk again.
- A reduction in your interlocutor’s self reported level of certainty.
What failure looks like:
- Arguing and raised voices
- Either party feeling frustration
- Either party feeling unheard or misunderstood.
- Either party regretting having had the conversation.” https://streetepistemology.com/publications/street_epistemology_the_basics
While this “softening” of approach by SE’s may make for a less stressful event for both the SE and the Christian, it may be even more dangerous than a more confrontational style. It hides the true intent of the SE, which is to talk Christians out of their belief in God. We see that in how the atheist in the video above described his tutorial about softening his approach –
“I am often criticized even by other atheists for being too harsh, confrontational or rude when talking to believers: as if I am so firebrand, they don’t think I can also be diplomatic when appropriate. So just to prove them wrong, (which is what I live for) I met with Anthony Magnabosco in the University of Texas at San Antonio. His channel is dedicated to Street Epistemology: a more conversational approach to challenging beliefs, and one where the subject typically comes away appreciating the discussion and passively reconsidering their deeply held beliefs rather than feeling agitated or attacked and emboldened by their imagined persecution. The idea of Street Epistemology is based on the book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, by Dr Peter Boghossian, Professor of Philosophy.”
Christian, be vigilant – 1 Peter 5:8 ]
Because I’ve been on both sides (atheist and theist) I have some background in what each side is doing and why they’re doing it. The current methodology known as ‘street epistemology’ does not live up to its claims of trying to help people find a reliable method to arrive at belief in God. They are trying to talk people out of their faith. When a street epistemologist talks with a person who believes in God they see them as being irrational, superstitious, unreasonable and illogical. Many atheists involved in street epistemology think that people who believe in God are mentally ill and need serious and immediate treatment for their illness.
Tell your young people that today. They need to know that the atheist world is coming for them and will use any trick they can find to deceive them to the point of questioning what they believe. Teach your children what to believe ‘and’ why they can be confident that what they believe is the Truth based on truth and reason.