Street Epistemologists – On Guard 1
These attempts to discourage people from being honest, less dogmatic, & more humble, will fail. http://
What followed that tweet by Dr. Boghossian was hundreds and hundreds of atheists clicking on the link to our article about Street Epistemology and many of them leaving comments and asking questions. Some of the people who commented described themselves as ‘street epistemologists,’ so it was a great opportunity to dialog with them about ‘faith’ and ‘reason.’
The purpose of this article is to both follow up on our previous post, ‘Breaking Down Street Epistemology,’ and share insights from our recent discussions with street epistemologists. As the post title suggests, be on guard.
The Purpose of Street Epistemology
Peter Boghossian is author of ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ and chief promoter of what he calls ‘Street Epistemology.’
“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, 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, Peter Boghossian, Chapter I, Pitchstone Publishing, 2013)
Boghossian gives credit to both ‘ancient philosophers’ and the more recent ‘Four Horsemen’ of atheism: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. However, Boghossian says he is taking what they started to the next level.
“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, Peter Boghossian, Chapter I, Pitchstone Publishing, 2013
Dr. Boghossian’s determination to create a generation of street epistemologists has gained national and international response. The website, street epistemology.com, is intent on building an initial group of ten-thousand people ‘who will be active and engage others and teach others better ways to come to knowledge.’ The names and locations of some of the street epistemologists ‘who have committed to educating the world’ are listed on the website’s ‘Join’ page.
Boghossian invites street epistemologists to ‘be one of these Horsemen.’ He goes on to write, ‘you will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought-out positions.’ Boghossian tells street epistemologists that their work will pay off ‘by potentially helping millions–even billions–of people to live in a better world.’ (Chapter 1)
How Street Epistemology ‘Works’
Street epistemology is, according to Peter Boghossian, ‘talking people out of their faith.’ Notice the keys terms: ‘talking’ .. ‘people’ .. ‘out of’ .. ‘their faith.’ The following definitions and directives concerning those terms are taken from streetepistemology.com and A Manual for Creating Atheists.
‘Talking’ for a street epistemologist begins by asking questions, listening actively, manifesting empathy, and establishing a rapport. That includes meeting the person at their window, speaking softly, in a non-threatening fashion, and making them talk about the reasons why they believe ‘faith is the pathway to truth.’ Once street epistemologists have ‘earned the right to proceed with the next steps,’ they are encouraged to preach by example, mirror the speech of the person they’re talking to, and use the socratic method.
‘People’ for a street epistemologist are those persons with ‘closed minds.’ People with the ‘closed minds’ are people ‘of faith.’ Street epistemologists believe that faith as a method to derive conclusions is ‘unreliable.’ Peter Boghossian believes that people who believe in the existence of God are either ‘pretending to know something they don’t know,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘delusional’ or ‘victims of a wholesale lack of exposure to alternative ideas and different epistemologies.’ (Chapters 2 & 3) One other reason Boghossian lists is ‘damage to the brain.’ His advice to street epistemologists: ‘if someone is suffering from a brain-based faith delusion your work will be futile.’ (Chapter 3)
‘Out of’ for a street epistemologist means arguing people ‘away from religion,’ ‘separating them from their faith,’ change their beliefs and/or behavior.’ Boghossian speaks about leading believers to ‘doxastic openness,’ which is described as ‘a willingness and ability to revise beliefs.’ (**I’ll share examples of street epistemologists proposing that very thing to me and others in the next part of this series of articles.) Boghossian calls that doxastic openness the ‘awareness of ignorance.’ He says that by helping believers become aware of their ‘ignorance,’ it becomes possible for them to ‘look at different alternatives, arguments, ways of viewing the world, and ideas, precisely because one understands that one does not know what one thought one previously knew.’ (Chapter 3)
As Peter Boghossian says, ‘Change minds and hearts will follow.’ Boghossian believes the job of the street epistemologist is ‘to help others reclaim their curiosity and their sense of wonder–both of which were robbed by faith’ … ‘You’ll help people destroy foundational beliefs, flimsy assumptions, faulty epistemologies, and ultimately faith’ … ‘Helping rid people of illusion is a core part of the Street Epistemologist’s project and an ancient and honorable goal. Disabusing others of warrantless certainty, and reinstalling their sense of wonder and their desire to know, is a profound contribution to a life worth living.’ (Chapter 3)
Peter Boghossian, who is a primary mentor to street epistemologists through his book, videos and personal appearances, speaks of talking people out of their faith as ‘interventions.’ He presents street epistemologists with what he calls – ‘Your new role: interventionist, liberator’ – along with strategies for conducting those interventions. In fact, Boghossian says he views almost every interaction with a believer as ‘an intervention.’
Boghossian tells street epistemologists that their ‘target is faith’ and their ‘pro bono clients are individuals who’ve been infected by faith.’ (**We’ll look at some of the strategies street epistemologists employ in future parts of this series.) He wrote that when street epistemologists view their interactions as interventions as opposed to confrontations or debates, they gain the following:
- More objectivity
- View believers as people who need help
- Less likely to be perceived as an ‘angry atheist’
- Learn from each intervention
- People who observe the intervention will see ‘the proper treatment modality in action’
- Find deeper satisfaction in helping people than in winning a debate
‘Their faith’ for a street epistemologist is what people believe ‘without sufficient evidence.’ Boghossian calls it ‘believing the preposterous.’ In chapter 3 of A Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian wrote, ‘in matter relating to religion, God, and faith, believers are often told ignorance is a mark of closeness to God, spiritual enlightenment, and true faith.’ (**I’ve been a Christian for 44 years and personally met thousands of other Christians and never once heard any Christian say that ignorance is a mark of closeness to God. In fact, I’ve heard and said just the opposite. More on that later.) In chapter 4 of his book, Boghossian views faith as ‘a virus’ that needs to be treated.
The perspective of street epistemology is that ‘we are mistaken about something all the time.’ In the training process, street epistemologists are told that they and others ‘believe in a lot of different things concurrently, all of them being potentially false.’ The idea of ‘being mistaken’ is an important part of a street epistemologist’s ‘intervention’ as they ‘help’ believers become aware of their ‘ignorance.’
“The tools and allies of faith–certainty, prejudice, pretending, confirmation bias, irrationality, and superstition–all come into question through the self-awareness of ignorance.” (A Manual for Creating Atheists, Chapter 3)
Boghossian wrote that street epistemologists would meet people who would attempt to evade their help by asserting that ‘every definition faith offered is incorrect’ and that they (the street epistemologist) didn’t understand what faith really is. Boghossian said that 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.” (Chapter 2)
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at some of the intervention strategies of street epistemologists and see some of those strategies in action. Until then, here are some resources you will find helpful, including articles by Tom Gilson and a respectful and insightful debate between Dr. Peter Boghossian and Dr. Timothy McGrew.