We are continuing to report about HOW atheist street epistemologists do what they do.
If this is the first time you’ve read anything in this series, we invite you to read these articles when you have time. You may find the background helpful –
You may also find it helpful to read about the history of atheist street epistemology in our free eBook, Street Epistemologists ‘On Guard’.
I’m using four primary sources for this part of our report –
- A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian
- Complete Street Epistemology Guide: How to Talk About Beliefs (Last Update: 10 May 2016)
- Street Epistemology videos
We have been looking at Section 2.4 from the Complete Street Epistemology Guide (CSEG). That’s the section titled When to use it –
“You can use Street Epistemology whenever a truth claim is being made. However it is most useful for extraordinary claims, such as miracles and supernatural phenomena, including:
● Existence of one or more gods or immaterial persons (theism).
● Phenomena that violate or suspend the operation of natural laws (supernaturalism,paranormal and psychic phenomena, miracles, karma).
● Biological death does not end one’s existence as a conscious being (afterlife,reincarnation, resurrection).
● The effectiveness of healing modalities that science based medicine rejects asunproven or ineffective (quackery).
● The scientific validity of an idea or system which has never been adequatelyresearched or fails under scientific testing (pseudosciences).
● A covert but powerful force/group is responsible for certain events or situations,where evidence of that force/group is lacking (conspiracy theories). In such cases, we often encounter the following justifications, and the Street Epistemologistasks whether they are sufficiently reliable to warrant belief in the claim.
Faith – Experience – Testimony
Three other areas that are part of the “When To Use It” section of the Complete Street Epistemology Guide include:
Faith : When given as a reason for belief, it can be understood as firm confidence in the claim in excess of what is warranted by evidence. [ SEP: Faith ]
Numinous, revelatory, or mystical experiences [ SEP: Religious Experience ] Personal experiences : answered prayers, “worked for me” therapies.
Testimony (e.g., anecdotes, tradition, authorities): Testimony may be helpful in describing the evidence for a claim or how to obtain the evidence, but perceptions and memories are not generally reliable evidence on their own. Testimony is particularly vulnerable to errors and omissions by the reporter, intentional or not. [ IEP: Testimony ],[ SEP: Epistemological Problems of Testimony]
Let’s look at each one and see how atheists and Christians view them through different lenses.
Atheist definition of faith from Professor Peter Boghossian –
“The word ‘faith’ is a very slippery pig. We need to get our hands on it, pin it to the ground, and wrap a blanket around it so we can have something to latch onto before we finally and permanently subdue it. Malleable definitions allow faith to slip away from critique.
The words we use are important. They can help us see clearly, or they can confuse, cloud, or obscure issues. I’ll now offer my two preferred definitions of faith, and then disambiguate faith from hope.
- Belief without evidence.
- Pretending to know things you don’t know.”
A Manual for Creating Atheists pp 32-34
Christian definition of faith –
Belief with evidence
Knowing things you can know
Atheists and Christians view the idea of ‘faith’ from polar opposites. I understand having been on both sides of this discussion, but the Christian viewpoint seems to have more going for it based on the definitions of terms.
Hebrew – אֱמוּנָה (emunah) – The root word, aman, means “firm, secure, supported.” An example is Isaiah 22:23 – “I will fasten him as a peg in a secure place, And he will become a glorious throne to his father’s house.” The word “secure” is a translation of aman.
Greek – πίστιν (pistin) – The root word, pistis, means “be persuaded” and carried the idea of belief and trust based on evidence.
Latin – fides – The root word word means “confidence, trust.”
English – feith (Middle English) – “to trust, have confidence”
So, how did the definition of the word ‘faith’ go from being persuaded by evidence to belief without evidence?
It seems to have been a slow change as people began to view religious faith as something that couldn’t be trusted. Even though the evidence for Christianity hasn’t changed in the past two-thousand years, the perception of Christianity has changed.
Professor Boghossian quoted James Randi as saying this –
“No amount of belief makes something a fact.” (ibid, p 46)
I agree. Believing something doesn’t make that something true. What makes that something true is if that something is true. That goes back to the old idea of “faith” being confidence based on evidence.
Boghossian continued –
“The pretending-to-know-you-don’t-know pandemic hurts us all. Believing things on the basis of something other than evidence and reason causes people to misconstrue what’s good for them and what’s good for their communities.” (ibid, p 46)
I agree. No one should believe something that is not based on evidence and reason. Christianity is based on evidence and reason, so believing it makes sense.
Atheist definition of experience from Professor Peter Boghossian –
“Religion is a social experience … Religious structures (churches, mosques, synagogues, temples) are places where people come together in friendship, love, trust, and community to do things that are fun, meaningful, and satisfying, that are perceived to be productive, or that grant solace … This is how the vast majority of believers experience their religious life–as a communal and social event that adds meaning, purpose and joy to their lives.” (ibid, p 124)
I agree that many people view their religious belief system as primarily a social experience. However, that’s not what we see in early Christianity. Being a Christian in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries was dangerous to your health. Tens of thousands of people died horrible deaths because of their trust in Christ. It was definitely not a “social experience.”
Millions of Christians around the world today are severely persecuted for their trust in Christ. Many are killed, others imprisoned and driven from their homes. That’s not a “social experience.” The ‘faith’ of persecuted Christians is based on evidence and reason.
It’s interesting to note that Christianity is growing rapidly in countries where Christians are persecuted and shrinking rapidly in countries where Christians are not persecuted. Why is that?
Christianity is at its best when tested. People who are faced with imprisonment or death have good reason to stop trusting the reasons for their persecution if what they trust is not true. However, people who trust in what is true have good reason to withstand opposition even to imprisonment and death.
The apostles (e.g. Peter, James, John) are a good example of that kind of trust based on evidence. Their “experience” with Jesus Christ was physical, material. They knew Him personally, followed Him, ate with Him, watched Him work miracles and heal thousands of people of every type of disease and cast out demons; they saw Him die (John), saw Him alive after death and watched as He ascended into the sky until they could no longer see Him. They “experienced” the power of the Holy Spirit in and on their lives. They saw how God gave them power to speak in a way that everyone understood them no matter what language they spoke. They watched God use them to heal sick people and cast out demons. Their experiences were many, varied and real.
The Complete Street Epistemology Guide claims that “perceptions and memories are not generally reliable evidence on their own.” That’s a ‘truth claim’ on their part, so is it true? They give no evidence for their claim. They just make the statement as if it’s true.
People’s perceptions and memories can be both reliable and unreliable, depending on the people and circumstances. However, to say perceptions and memories “are not generally reliable evidence on their own” raises many questions and objections.
I’m assuming that the atheists who wrote the street epistemology guide include themselves as generally unreliable witnesses if they are correct that perceptions and memories “are not generally reliable evidence on their own.” Can I believe what they’re saying since they’re relying on their own perceptions and memories?
An ancient rule for eyewitness testimony for both Christians and Jews was to have at least two or three people testify about what they saw. One witness was not enough.
The Apostle Paul quoted that rule in one of his letters to the Christians at Corinth –
“By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” 2 Corinthians 13:1
Jesus Christ spoke several years before Paul and said –
“But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’” Matthew 18:16
Moses spoke to that centuries before Jesus spoke and Paul wrote –
“Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” Deuteronomy 17:6
Listening to the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses was an ancient rule in both Christianity and Judaism. That’s important to note as we consider the reliability of eyewitness testimony recorded in the Bible.
Christians through the centuries have trusted the words and experiences of the apostles based on the “testimony” of their lives. This is not unusual in modern, past or even distant past testimonials. People who work in journalism and law enforcement depend on peoples testimonies every day. Testimony, oral and written, is viewed as evidence. Journalists and law enforcement officers compare testimonial evidence with other types of evidence (e.g. physical, written, recorded) to determine what to write for a story or who to charge with a crime. Lawyers, judges and juries hear oral testimony and read written testimony as part of the judicial process. Testimonial evidence has been an accepted part of determining truth for thousands of years.
I had the opportunity to work as a journalist for more than 40 years and am familiar with using oral and written testimony when writing news stories. We followed an evidential process to determine whether someone’s testimonial evidence was true, even as a police detective or an investigator would do.
Distant past and ancient testimonial evidence requires careful scrutiny since the witnesses are no longer alive to be questioned about their testimony. However, that doesn’t mean what they claimed cannot be trusted to be true. If ancient testimonies can’t be trusted, then very little in history can be trusted because so much of history is based on written testimony. So, how can we know what testimonies are trustworthy and which ones are not?
- Multiple Eyewitnesses – As we’ve seen in both Christian and Jewish writings, multiple witnesses (e.g. two or three) were required in making accusations against another person. We had a rule in journalism many years ago called “triangulation.” We used that rule when the primary source of information was either unknown or would not allow us to identify them in the story. Journalists had to have at least two other independent sources who were not connected to the primary source. Journalists and investigators would do well to use that rule for their stories and investigations.
- Eyewitness location – The first test I used as an investigative reporter was to see if eyewitnesses were where they said they were when they said they saw what they said they saw. For example, if someone said they saw who started a fire at a particular location but no one at that location remembered seeing them there – that’s a clue the information they shared may not be true. If someone told me they were at one location but other people said they saw that same person at another location blocks or miles away at the same time they claimed to be at the scene of an event in question, then the basic rule of a person can’t be in two distant locations at the same time kicks in. It’s even easier today to check out whether a person is at a particular location at a certain time because of all of the cameras operating at any given location – including stationary cameras (e.g. security cameras) and hand-held cameras (e.g. news crews cameras, personal cameras).
- Non-identical testimony – Another test is to check out the stories of different witnesses who said they were at a location at the same time. I rarely found witnesses with identical stories, which is a good thing. If everyone who claimed to be a witness said they saw everything exactly the same, that was a clue they may have agreed together to lie about what they saw. Every witness’ recollection of an event will be a little different because of where they were standing or sitting, when they began watching, when they stopped watching, and how they changed positions as they were watching. Investigators expect slight variations in witness accounts because that’s how humans behave.
- Witness consistency – Did witnesses change their stories from one interview to another? If a witness tells one story to one investigator and a different story to another investigator, or from one news reporter to another, something’s wrong. Witnesses will sometimes remember more details of an event as they’re recalling what they saw, but changing major details that conflict with earlier versions of their story can be a problem.
- Supportive testimony – Did other witness accounts support or oppose primary witness accounts? If all of the witnesses to a murder said they saw what looked like a murder, then eyewitness testimony would be supportive. However, if some witnesses said there was a murder and dead body and other witnesses said there was no murder and no dead body, that conflicting testimony would be a problem. Does eyewitness testimony corroborate or conflict?
- Suspicious testimony – Are there reasons to suspect witnesses may not be telling the truth? A witness who is found to have a personal grudge against someone they accused of a crime should be questioned further about their grudge. Their testimony could be tainted.
The only way we can know about eyewitness testimonies to ancient events is from “source materials.” That can include written documents (e.g. letters, administrative records) and archaeological finds (e.g. artifacts, monuments), etc. Are the documents and finds reliable? Can we trust that the information they present is trustworthy?
Here are some basic rules for ancient source materials.
- Timeliness – Do source materials date to the time period of events presented? If a 6th century AD document purports to contain first-person eyewitness testimony of something that happened in the 1st century AD, that’s a problem. How could someone living in the 6th century be an eyewitness of an event in the 1st century? They couldn’t. I wouldn’t look at that as trustworthy source material.
- Author – Does the writer identify himself or herself or on whose behalf they wrote? Can their identity be corroborated by other sources? What about the author’s credibility? Purpose in writing?
- Audience – Who was the intended audience? Why would the author write to that particular audience? Does the writing fit the audience of that time period? How would the audience have understood what was written?
- Location – Were source materials found in the same area where the events they record occurred? If an ancient source material is found in Canada that describes ancient events in Egypt, that would need further investigation. If someone from Egypt brought the source material to Canada and there was evidence to support that transportation of the material, then it might be accepted as a good source. However, most ancient source materials are found in the same general area as the ancient events they describe.
- Comparisons – How does testimony in source material compare with testimony in other source material? If one source document includes information about interaction between nations, do source materials from other nations from the same time period include information that would support or conflict with the primary source material?
Finally, The Complete Street Epistemology Guide claims – “Testimony is particularly vulnerable to errors and omissions by the reporter, intentional or not.” Again, they offer no evidence for their truth claim. They just make the claim. Is their testimony particularly vulnerable to errors and omissions, intentional or not? Or is it just the people with whom they disagree? If so, we would ask if that is logical?
Peter Boghossian and his army of street epistemologists emphasize the use of logic and reason in their discussions with people of religious faith. That sounds good until we look at their methodology for having those discussions. Making sweeping generalities without providing evidence supporting their position doesn’t bode well with people who think critically (logically).
In the next part of our series we’ll look at how atheist street epistemologists view success in their mission to “talk people out of their faith.”
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.