Street EpistemologyStreet epistemologists are trained to ‘talk people out of their faith.’ That can mean many things and go in many different directions depending on what theists know about their beliefs and why they believe what they believe.

We started this series about Street Epistemologists – On Guard several weeks ago because the author of A Manual For Creating Atheists tweeted this to his followers:

. Peter Boghossian @peterboghossian

These attempts to discourage people from being honest, less dogmatic, & more humble, will fail. http://

That tweet brought hundreds of atheists and street epistemologists to and many of them began to engage me in what I recognized as an ‘intervention’ to talk me out of my faith.

Recognizing when a ‘discussion’ is really an ‘intervention’ is very helpful in Faith Defense, but that’s the beginning of being ‘on guard.’ In addition to knowing ‘why’ street epistemologists want to talk with Christians (to talk them out of their faith), we also need to know ‘what’ they will do and say and ‘how’ they will do it.

How Street Epistemologists Plan to Talk Young People Out of Faith

We know that street epistemologists are targeting young people on college campuses because many of the street epistemology videos are shot on college campuses and they are trying to talk college students out of their faith. Here’s a quick review of how they do it.

  • Active listening
  • Manifest empathy
  • Establish a rapport
  • Preach by example
  • Mirror his speech
  • Use the Socratic method

The examples of street epistemology shared above are based on an atheist responding to a theistic blog post. The theist presents a case for God and the atheist responds using some of the basic methods of street epistemology. Things change when atheists start the conversation (aka ‘intervention’) on a college campus. They will often ask questions similar to – ‘Tell me about your ‘god’ belief.’ That’s the beginning of the attack on a younger person’s ‘faith’ in God. The street epistemologist won’t voluntarily reveal their atheism and may not answer the question if asked. It’s important to their method to hide their identity from the theist.

Some of the techniques street epistemologists use to talk young Christians ‘out of their faith’ are: (from

Conceptual Clarification Questions — Why are you saying that? What does this mean? How does this relate to what we’ve been talking about? Can you give me an example?

Probing Assumptions — What else could we assume? How did you choose those assumptions? How can you verify or disprove that assumption? What would happen if … ?

Probing Rationale, Reasons and Evidence — Why is that happening? How do you know this? Can you give me an example of that? Are these reasons good enough? How might it be refuted? How can I be sure of what you’re saying? On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning Viewpoints and Perspectives — Another way of looking at this is …, does this seem reasonable? What alternative ways of looking at this are there? Who benefits from this? Why is it better than … ? What if you compared … and … ? How could you look another way at this?

Probe Implications and Consequences — Then what would happen? What are the  consequences of that assumption? What are the implications of … ? Why is … important? How does … affect … ?

Questions About the Question — What was the point of asking that question? Why do you think I asked this question? Am I making sense? Why not? What does that mean?

Street Epistemologists Are Not Trying to Become Your Friend

It’s important to remember that street epistemologists are not trying to become your friend. They are trying to ‘talk you out of your faith.’  Here’s how street epistemologists explain their purpose in talking with young Christians on college campuses:

“If you remain focused on faith and never succumb to the temptation of hurrying the process by trying to win the argument in an adversarial fashion, you will see him suddenly struck by doubt. The window will be wide open for a microsecond. Say nothing. Allow his brain take in a breath of fresh air. Your job is (almost) done. The seed of doubt and reason has been sown in his brain.

Now, it is up to him to decide how he wants to react to the embarrassment of being wrong. If he asks for help, help him. Otherwise, share an anecdote where you surmounted the awkward feeling of realizing a mistake.

Whatever happens, successful or not, always end the intervention on a positive note. Thank him for allowing you to revise your belief system and/or learn something new.”


Divorce Belief From Reality

The training manual for street epistemology includes trying to ‘uncouple the idea that the act of belief, the tenacity with which one holds a belief, and the epistemological system with which one holds a belief, and the epistemological system to which one subscribes, are moral virtues.’ (A Manual for Creating Atheists, Chapter 4)

Street epistemologists are taught that ‘faith is bundled with a moral foundation.’ They believe that many people ‘buy into the mistaken notion that faith is a virtue.’ As Peter Boghossian has stated many times – ‘the perceived association between faith and morality must be terminated.’

The ‘discussions’ that street epistemologists have with Christians and other theists are in reality ‘interventions,’ and as such have a goal in mind. The goal of street epistemology is not just to ‘talk people out of their faith,’ they want to replace faith with something else. It’s part of the ‘treatment.’

‘As a Street Epistemologist, one of your treatment goals is to change the perception from faith being a moral virtue (similarly, the idea that belief in a proposition makes one a good person) to faith being an unreliable process of reasoning–that is, from faith being something to which one should morally aspire, to faith being a failed epistemology.’ (Chapter 4)

Street epistemologists are taught a couple of basic methods of beginning the disassociation between faith and virtue:

  • Redefine faith as ‘pretending to know things you don’t know’
  • Stating explicitly that having faith doesn’t make one moral, and lacking faith doesn’t make one immoral

Motivational Interviewing

Street epistemologists use an interview technique known as ‘motivational interviewing.’ This is a technique that is also practiced by medical and psychological professionals and has been shown to be successful in dealing with alcoholics, substance abusers, and people with both health and psychological challenges.

Some of the methods of ‘motivational interviewing’ that street epistemologists are trained to use during ‘interventions’ with theists include: (from Chapter 4)

  • Develop non adversarial relationships
  • Help people think differently and understand what could be gained through change
  • Meet people where they are and don’t force a change
  • Express empathy
  • Go with resistance
  • Tap into internal change behavior

We’ve already seen from these recommendations for ‘motivational interviewing’ during an ‘intervention.’

  • Listen actively
  • Manifest empathy
  • Establish a rapport
  • Preach by example
  • Mirror their speech
  • Use the Socratic method
  • Clarify conceptual questions
  • Probe assumptions
  • Probe rationale, reasons and evidence
  • Question viewpoints and perspectives
  • Probe implications and consequences
  • Question them about the question

Diagnosing Christianity

Street epistemologists are taught how to ‘make a diagnosis’ to determine which ‘change stage’ a Christian or other theist fits. Here are the stages according to Peter Boghossian:

  • Not ready to change
  • Getting ready to change
  • Ready to change
  • Changing
  • Sustaining Change
  • Change completed

Street epistemologists are taught to ‘meet the patient where they are’ and that with experience they’ll be able to make ‘more accurate diagnoses’ and then tailor their ‘treatments to the subject’s stage of change.’ Interestingly, Boghossian calls the ‘Change completed’ stage as ‘Termination.’ He also says that ‘fundamentalists’ have given considerable thought to their beliefs, so this change model ‘does not directly apply to them. He goes to say that they (fundamentalists) are ‘often suffering from an as yet unclassified cognitive disorder.’ (Chapter 5)

Street epistemologists look at ‘apologists’ as the most troubled of theists. Boghossian wrote – ‘The more intelligent and articulate the apologist, the more conspicuous and epistemologically enfeebling the confirmation bias.’ He goes on to write that everyone suffers from some form of confirmation bias (Bogossian includes himself) and admits that when he reads the work of apologists he finds himself ‘incredulous and in a state of perpetual marvel that intelligent, thoughtful people could seriously entertain such hokum.’

It’s important when talking with a ‘street epistemologist’ to remember that they view belief in God as a ‘virus’ and theists as ‘hosts’ for the virus. The goal of street epistemology is to ‘separate the virus from the host.’ In other words, ‘talk people out of their faith.’

Think about how you might respond to a street epistemologist who attempted to talk you or a friend or family member ‘out of faith.’

In our next edition we will share how Christian parents and grandparents can prepare children to be On Guard for Street Epistemologists.