In our previous reports about street epistemology we’ve looked at their purpose, goals and strategy – that’s the WHY issue.
We move now to their tactics – HOW they do what they do.
Peter Boghossian is the founding father of street epistemology. In the first chapter of his book, A Manual For Creating Atheists (2013), he wrote that the purpose of street epistemology and his book is to “teach you how to talk people of 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, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, 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, Chapter 1)
I’ve written about Boghossian and street epistemology for about five years, so I will try not to repeat what I’ve already written. You can read more about Boghossian and street epistemology in our free Ebook, Street Epistemologists ‘On Guard’. What I’ll attempt to do in this report is focus on the tactics atheists are using to talk you, your children and friends ‘out of their faith.’
If you look up the words ‘street epistemology’ on Google, you will find almost 35,000 listings under the Video category (total of 261,000 results for All). Click on several of the videos and you’ll see some of the tactics street epistemologists use to ‘talk people out of their faith’ in action. As you watch the instructional videos (teaching people how to do street epistemology), you’ll see that they call what they do ‘a conversational technique.’
One thing I might mention as we begin looking at the tactics of street epistemologists is that some of them have redefined Boghossian’s definition for street epistemology. Instead of continuing with Boghossians’ “how to talk people of their faith,” some atheists say that “SE is a fun and effective way to talk to people about what’s really true.”
Did you notice that tactic? It’s one atheists use often – redefining terms and meanings. Some of the street epistemologists I’ve spoken with during the past couple of years said they were moving away from Boghossian’s definition of street epistemology. I asked them why since he created it. They said street epistemology was ‘evolving.’ Interesting.
Here are some of the basic tactics for these “conversations’ from three primary sources:
- Complete Street Epistemology Guide: How to Talk About Beliefs
- Street Epistemology videos
I’ll give you the short version first, then add details as we go into more depth in future articles.
Tactic 1: Build rapport with your interlocutor
Street epistemologists view themselves as modern-day followers of Socrates using the Socratic method. They use the term interlocutor to mean their ‘dialogue partner.’ That would be you, your child, friend, etc. who happens to come up to them on the street, campus, road, park, trail, etc. and agree to let them interview you.
Here’s how they teach the process of building rapport –
“Build rapport with your interlocutor before getting deep into dialogue. Try to find something that you have in common. Taking the time to do this cuts through much of our natural, instinctive, anxiety about immediately engaging with a stranger.”
At this point in my talking with street epistemologists about what they do and why they do it, they often ask if I have something against being nice to other people. Not at all. However, I would add that it’s nice to be honest with people about why you’re being nice to them. If you are a nice person and want to be nice to others, that’s great – please continue. However, if you are trying to talk someone out of their beliefs and are not up front with them about the real reason you’re acting nice – that’s not nice.
Tactic 2: Identify the claim
Let’s continue. Here’s the next tactical step street epistemologists are taught to take with their interlocutor –
“You may already know what your interlocutor’s claim is. For example, you may have initiated the discussion because you overheard them say that they believe in UFOs. Or, if you are actively looking to practice SE on anyone and any subject, this step may involve idle chit-chat with the hope of chancing upon a worthwhile claim. Most people who practice SE are focused on religious claims, so a common claim is something like, ‘God is real and the Bible is true”.
Every street epistemologist I know is an atheist. I ask them why that is and many have replied – “atheism is the default position.” Okay. So they’re going to use the Socratic Method to get people to the ‘default position.’ Good to know.
Tactic 3: Confirm the claim
The third tactical step for a street epistemologist is to ‘confirm’ the claim. What do they mean by that?
“Confirm that you have understood your interlocutor correctly by summarizing and repeating their claim back to them. Don’t continue until you are both sure that you understand it clearly. If necessary, write down the claim so that you can both refer to it if the conversation goes off track.
For example, you might ask, ‘Do I understand correctly that you believe God is a real entity and that the things written in the Bible are truly the word of God?”
Street epistemologists who video record their conversations with interlocutors (often wearing a body camera and using a second camera on a tripod) often use a whiteboard for writing down words, claims, etc. Here’s how street epistemologists explain the use of whiteboards and other resources –
“Bring writing materials such as a whiteboard and marker, or clipboard and pad of paper. Dialogues wander, and writing down the interlocutor’s key points helps bring structure and focus, helps to avoid talking in circles, and enables you to illustrate epistemology with diagrams. Being prepared also shows that you are not a random passer-by but someone who is approaching people for a reason: namely to hold dialogues with the public about how they form beliefs.”
Tactic 4: Clarify definitions
Atheists often define words differently than Christians do. Here’s how they teach this tactic to atheists who want to do street epistemology –
“If there are any words that are ambiguous (or potentially so) this would be a good time to nail them down with your interlocutor. For example, sort out what you will both mean when you use the word ‘God’ or the word ‘true’.
Clarifying definitions is something that you may have to do multiple times as the talk progresses should it become apparent that you’re using words differently.”
That’s a good suggestion for Christians as well. Almost every conversation I’ve had with atheist street epistemologists has included many discussions about the definition of words. Don’t allow a conversation to move on until you are certain that you and the street epistemologist are agreeing on the definition of terms. My experience has been that discussions often end early when Christians won’t agree to the way atheists define certain words. I have pulled out multiple dictionaries to help atheists see they were defining words incorrectly, but they insisted they were right. That usually doesn’t bode well for a lengthy, engaged discussion.
Tactic 5: Identify a confidence level
This is a favorite tactic of street epistemologists.
Ask your interlocutor how confident they are that their claim or belief is true. If possible, have them put a number on it. If they are not willing or able to quantify it, accept whatever they give you and note that as their ‘initial confidence level’. For example, ‘How confident are you that this God is real on a scale of 0 to 100?’
Note: The confidence scale is just a way of judging for yourself how much effect your efforts are having. It is optional and not an integral part of SE. Don’t persist, as doing so may annoy your interlocutor and be counterproductive.
Talking with street epistemologists reminds me a little of some basics of Judo. The question about identifying a confidence level is similar to Kuzushi – breaking balance or off-balancing. That’s when someone who wants to throw you in one direction first pushes or pulls you in the opposite direction. When you resist the push or pull, the Judo player uses the strength of your resistance to throw you in the direction they intended in the first place.
When an atheist asks you to identify your ‘confidence level’ in your beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, etc., based on a numerical scale (e.g. 0 to 100) they are using a tactic similar to Kuzushi. They will use the number you give them against you as the conversation continues. They will often write the number you give them on their whiteboard or paper and show it to you from time to time to demonstrate how easily they can off-balance your faith in God, the Bible, Jesus, etc. That can lead to doubt, which is the atheist’s purpose. They have learned that doubt can lead to denial (e.g. walking away from their belief in God).
I have used several responses to this tactic. I usually refuse to give them a number and insist on using words. For example:
Atheist: On a scale of 0 to 100 how confident are you that God exists.
Me: I am confident that God exists.
Atheist: Okay, but on a scale of 0 to 100 how confident are you that God exists.
Me: I am confident that God exists.
Atheist: Why won’t you answer my question?
Me: I did answer your question.
Atheist: No you didn’t. You said you are confident but you didn’t say where you are on the scale of confidence.
Me: I’m confident. According to several dictionaries, the word ‘confident’ means “
Atheist: (Pause) Alright, let’s move to the next question.
Another way I respond is to ask them a question about their own confidence that God does not exist. They often give me a number of somewhere between 98 and 99.9%. That’s strong confidence, which I tell them is the same as my confidence. Numbers are for math and statistics and can be played with up and down. Words that are declarative – like the word confident – should suffice in a conversation about ideas and beliefs.
Here’s another tactic.
Many street epistemologists have asked me not to ask them questions until they are finished asking me questions. I respond that I thought we were having a conversation. Their response is usually something like this – “We are having a conversation and I’ll let you know when I’m finished and you can ask me any question you want.”
That’s a ‘reveal’ about their tactic. Street epistemologists call what they do a “conversational technique,” but there’s nothing ‘conversational’ about it. I bring that up.
Atheist: “I’d rather not answer your questions until I’m finished asking mine.”
Me: “I thought we were having a conversation.”
Atheist: “We are having a conversation and I’ll let you know when I’m finished and you can ask me any question you want.”
Me: “A conversation is defined as ‘oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas,
Atheist: “We are exchanging ideas through the Socratic method.”
Me: “It seems more like an ‘intervention’ than a conversation.”
Atheist: “This is not an intervention.”
Me: “That’s interesting since the creator of street epistemology, Peter Boghossian, called what you’re doing ‘an intervention.’ He details the intervention process in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists.”
Atheist: (Pause) “I’m not doing that. We’re having a conversation – a Socratic conversation.”
Me: “Great! So, here’s my question for you ….”
In Judo, there is a training exercise where two Judo players try to move each other around until one of them is able to complete a throw, pin or choke-out. It’s called Randori. If one of the Judo players was not allowed to respond to the movements of their partner, they would lose quickly and continually. What makes Judo fun and safe is that both partners in Randori are allowed to “play.” What makes conversations with atheists fun and safe is when you are allowed to participate in the conversation.
Street epistemologists don’t want Christians to “play.” They want us to dutifully answer their questions while they move the supposed conversation in any direction they want. I recommend you don’t play according to their rules. Let’s talk, but let’s have a real conversation about evidence and truth.
Tactic 6: Identify the method used to arrive at confidence level
If you do choose to play according to their rules, the next tactic street epistemologists are taught to use is identifying the method you used to arrive at your confidence level.
“Ask your interlocutor how they have determined that their belief is true, or how they’ve arrived at their stated confidence level. They may provide multiple reasons. Try to focus on just one or two, ideally those that contribute the most to their confidence. Once you’ve settled on a primary reason or method, stay focused on that through the rest of the talk.
For example, you may settle on ‘a powerful personal experience’ as their primary reason for believing that God is real.”
Some atheists will continue talking with me even when I won’t play their ‘confidence’ game. If we get that far, it sometimes goes like this –
Atheist: Okay. How did you arrive at being confident about the existence of God?
Atheist: What evidence?
Me: The evidence for the existence of God.
Atheist: There is no evidence for the existence of God!
Me: Really? No evidence at all?
Me: What evidence led you to become an atheist?
Atheist: (Pause) Why do you think I’m an atheist?
Me: Are you a theist?
Atheist: That’s not pertinent to our conversation.
Me: I think it is. In fact, Peter Boghossian wrote in the first chapter of his book about creating atheists that what street epistemologists do is transform culture ‘into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought-out positions.’ Sounds like evidence plays an important role in what you’re doing. Do you agree?
Atheist: (Pause) Well …
It’s at that point we find out if the street epistemologist wants a real conversation about evidence or if he/she just wants to run through their atheist agenda.
Remember, we want a conversation. Just like Judo. Give and take. Both people engaged, moving and involved. If the street epistemologist is willing to talk about the evidence pro and con for the existence of God, or whatever the topic is, that’s great. We can talk. If they don’t want to talk about evidence, then we can ask them if we could meet at a future time when they would be open to discussing the evidence. Hopefully, you will have that opportunity at a future time.
Tactic 7: Ask questions that reveal the reliability of the method
The next step in the tactical book of street epistemology is for atheists to ask questions about the reliability of the method you used to be confident in your belief (e.g. God exists, the Bible is reliable, Jesus is real, died for sins, rose from the dead, etc)
Your main tools here are the Socratic method, the outsider test of faith (OTF), and questions that revolve around the falsifiability of their claims. Ask questions that, when answered, lead to a contradiction of your interlocutor’s assumptions or hypotheses.
For example, you might ask, ‘If a Hindu woman had a similarly powerful personal experience that convinced her that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were real, would that be good evidence that she was correct?’
In order for a street epistemologist to ask me that question, they need to do one of two things:
- talk with me about the evidence for and against Christianity .. or ..
- jump past the conversation about evidence for Christianity and go straight to the example listed above
If an atheist jumps past the conversation about evidence for Christianity and asks me the question about the Hindu woman, I sometimes respond like this –
Atheist: ‘If a Hindu woman had a similarly powerful personal experience that convinced her that Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva were real, would that be good evidence that she was correct?’
Me: Personal experience is subjective, but it could have some value “if” it’s based on a strong foundation of objective evidence. Do you think Hinduism is based on good evidence?
Me: Neither do I. Do you know why I don’t believe in Hinduism?
Me: Because it lacks objective evidence. However, Christianity is based on objective evidence .. evidence you can see.
Atheist: Like what?
Me: Let’s start with the universe.
What happens next could finally open the door into presenting objective evidence for the existence of God, reliability of the Bible, reality of Jesus Christ, etc. Remember, winning arguments with people is not what Jesus called us to do. Our calling is to “make disciples.” Making disciples of Christ begins with some people by presenting the Gospel. Their hearts and minds are ready to hear what God did for them through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. However, with other people we begin by presenting the evidence for God’s existence, the reliability of the Bible, and the reality of Jesus Christ.
Tactic 8: Listen, summarize, question, watch, repeat
If you talk with someone trained in street epistemology, you will probably notice this tactic after a short time of talking with them –
Listen to your interlocutor closely. Look at them directly and try to understand what they are attempting to convey without getting hung up on their exact word choices.
Repeat what you think your interlocutor is trying to communicate and verify with them that you’ve understood them correctly. It’s important that they feel like they’ve been heard. It proves that you are being attentive and taking their beliefs seriously.
For example, “It sounds like what you are saying is [……..]; Do I have that right?”
Construct more socratic questions that directly apply to the epistemology they are using.
Watch for those special moments where your interlocutor stops to “think”. This is often betrayed by the act of looking up at the ceiling, clearly trying to sort through things in their head. It’s important to detect these “aporias” and allow the silence to continue uninterrupted until the interlocutor speaks.
Aporias are signs that you are doing SE right! They may even mark the best time to end your talk as your interlocutor may be left with those thoughts and questions echoing in their mind as they continue their day.
This is a direct quote from the street epistemology handbook. If you think it looks like they’re trying to manipulate you – they are. It’s a tactic, a technique, for talking you out of your beilef in Christ.
Tactic 9: Wrap up the conversation
Remember that confidence level from Tactic 5? This is where it plays out in the atheist’s favor “if” you let them pull you into their ‘numbers trap.’
“If your interlocutor previously offered their confidence level, ask them again as you wrap up. This can help you judge whether your dialogue had an immediate effect.
For example, ‘Given the things we’ve talked about, do you think your confidence level has changed? Do you still feel that 100% is accurate?”
The atheist’s goal is to get you to look at a confidence number that is lower than the number you gave them at the beginning of the conversation (intervention). This is the street epistemologist’s way of leaving you with doubts. In street epistemology that’s a win.
Tactic 10: Part company
Whether you spend five minutes with a street epistemologist (which is often the amount of time they ask for at the beginning of your conversation/intervention) or longer, the time will come when one of you will bring it to an end. Here’s how street epistemologists are taught to look at their time with you –
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.
And finally, here are some ‘rules of thumb’ atheists believe are important for street epistemologists to know –
Rules of Thumb
Pay close attention to your own demeanor. If your words, body language, or tone of voice betray even a small amount of condescension, your interlocutor will recognize this and be justified in reacting negatively to it. If your goal is only to “win”, and you don’t genuinely respect your interlocutor (even if you don’t respect their beliefs), then SE might not be right for you.
Don’t get pulled into the weeds. Most people new to SE struggle to avoid being sidetracked when they hear clearly false, or unsupportable claims. They reflexively react to them by presenting opposing evidence or arguments. When you do this, you’ve gone off the rails. It’s not a disaster as you can just drop the point and get back on track, but it’s normal to struggle with this through many talks before you feel comfortable ignoring these things and staying focused on epistemology.
Don’t allow frustration to overwhelm you. Everyone is different. For some people this may be a big challenge but SE requires that you maintain your composure or it’s really not SE.
In the next part of our report about the Tactics of street epistemology, we’ll go into more depth about how atheists will approach you, family members or friends on the street or campus.