Peter Boghossian’s recent book A Manual for Creating Atheists has caused a bit of a stir. This new atheist-type has proposed combination of arguments and strategies for motivating people to leave religious belief behind. He does not care of it is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other system. What he seeks is a naturalist world view, a materialistic life, for all.
Mr. Boghossian has a strategy. It is to recruit thousands of militants to go to individuals and even into churches (and presumably mosques and synagogues) to challenge people. The challenge is to dismiss religious “faith” and in return adopt a non-theistic and materialistic worldview.
He has, with reference to Christianity, identified two weak points in church life. The first problem is how the Christian life is defined. He identifies “faith” as the starting point for religious belief and practice. This is not true, though very often the concept of “faith” is left vague and then misunderstood. It is even misunderstood by Boghossian. The second is the influence of irrational postmodern ideas in our theology. This mindset may lead people to take moral positions in their heads but live in another manner. Though he does not attack the church concerns there are times where he builds on it.
He deals with the postmodern problem in modern leftist educational circles. The ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism are to him an escape from the real truth. Though he is not specific I suspect based on his language that he would return to something stricter. His stated affinity is toward an older “liberal” movement but not to the liberals of the Revolutionary era. Though he does appeal to Locke he makes no appeal to the conservative movement of the era – no appeal to Burke or others as a source for truth. Coupling this with his concerns about the character of modern liberal ideals lends to the idea that he would like to express more orthodox Marxist ideals.
My plan is to deal with Boghossian’s structural errors. They are many and they are not minor. By “structural” I mean that the character of his argument, the things he depends upon to make his points, are either weak or entirely fallacious.
His arguments may be persuasive but they are not sound. Those who read the book I suspect would be the idealistic undergraduate student who is easily motivated to action. Alternatively, I anticipate that no one who is well-read in history and philosophy will take his material seriously.
Persuasion is the problem. Bad arguments are often very persuasive. Marx did it. It is the nature of propaganda. When a strong or charismatic personality uses the right language then people listen, follow, and obey. Here we will confront the errors in a suitable fashion. There will also be an “intervention” response geared toward his atheist followers programme, a way of instilling doubt in the arguments for atheism. There will also be intervention disruptors designed to nullify the arguments brought by his “street epistemologists.”
Boghossian’s presentation and especially his tone take me back. There is a parallel in history from about 40 years ago. I was in high school and college during the “Jesus movement” when “Christian rock” got its legs. The music was exciting back then. I remember former drug users and young Christians, enjoying the sound of their music but rejecting the drug culture. They discovered God’s grace. So they would sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” While that’s not something we might do in most churches today it reflects something. There was a discovery of grace. People took their faith to the street.
Boghossian is doing the same with his young atheists. He has energy. Even the cover of his book reflects this parallel. I trust you can identify the similarities between his book cover and the album cover on the right. Given that he calls his evangelists “street epistemologists” the similarity seems uncanny.
What is Christianity?
Boghossian begins with an error. He treats “faith” as the beginning of religious belief. He could not be further from the truth, at least theologically. But the problem is that he is also quite close to the truth in some instances. This is not merely an error of fact. This definition comprises the framework for all that he does throughout the book.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are founded on revealed (or perceived revealed) truth. That is, with theology as the explanatory model for history, God’s providence over time is identified through the events as the best explanation. It is an abductive conclusion, the inference to the best explanation. Theology is not an internalist epistemology. It is highly externalist and recognizes truths outside of ourselves.
One unfortunate characteristic of the American church over the last two centuries has been a dependence upon our faith response as the source for truth. This has become especially notable in the word-faith movement where our thoughts and ideas are the beginning of wealth, of health, of managing our relationship with God. No longer does anything begin with God, at least in some circles. It is in these fellowships (I have a difficult time calling them “church”) where he will probably find some success.
There are also some churches where education is minimal or nearly absent. People are taught the Bible but are rarely if ever introduced to sound theology and the core concepts of the faith. No matter the theological distinctive of the church there is enough to learn but not enough pastors willing to teach. These can include the nature of salvation, the nature of the church, the nature of God (the Trinity), the nature of man, etc.
More practical matters such as the nature of interpretation would be important. This represents a serious structural error driving one of his major concerns. Boghossian commits this error in his book on page 12 where he interprets Exodus 20:4-6. The passage says
You shall not make for yourself [c]an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments
To which he responds:
Yikes! The sins of the fathers are to be born by their children’s children’s children? What sort of justice is that? This goes against half a millennium’s worth of Western jurisprudence.
Part of interpretation is that the Bible is to be interpreted systematically. That includes employing historical considerations in the process. He might also open his eyes to his own words for he has proposed something similar himself.
Actions have consequences. That seems too obvious. Boghossian suggests that the effect of a wrong should only affect the person who commits the wrong. But reality tells us different. Lives are always affected, often for generations, after a wrong is committed. For that to be a declaration of law is nothing unjust. Property, sometimes acquired legally, may be removed for both civil and legal cause. Today’s system of Western jurisprudence does just that.
Boghossian’s radical approach includes a set of vicious attack methods. In his “Containment Protocols” chapter he has the goal of doing fiscal damage to us.
9. Financially cripple purveyors of fault epistemologies.
A key containment protocol is to financially cripple any institution that propagates a faulty epistemology, starting with the most egregious perpetrators: religious institutions. Ultimately, the tax-exempt status of religious organizations must be removed, particularly those exemptions that are not granted to other nonprofits.
Once these organizations are financially compromised, their reach and power will be greatly diminished.[ii]
And his goal is stated clearly with regard to altering two specific tax laws
Both of these measures would deal a serious financial blow to religious institutions, and also restrict their ability to proselytize.[iii]
Boghossian would also like all people of any religious faith declared a mentally illness.[iv] He sees faith as a delusion. This is not a reach on my part in interpreting his material. His containment protocols state “11. Remove religious exemption for delusion from the DSM.” That’s the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”
Both of these proposals would eliminate people from jobs. From acquiring health care. From participating in the whole of society. Boghossian’s complaint of God’s supposed injustice is matched by his own militancy, his willingness to do damage to people and their children for years to come. He may speak in altruistic terms but the strategy remains clearly stated and in print. One need not misinterpret or misrepresent his content while he reads injustice into a passage with which he concurs in practical measure.
Models of Faith
The red herring we hear frequently is the division of faith and reason. The issue has survived for about 600 years. It came about when the rationalist movement brought us this false distinction between church and state and between faith and reason. To most the division seems obvious and makes sense. It does until one starts to ask some probing questions to define faith and reason. To this end William Cavanaugh has produced a scholarly and thorough examination of this situation in his book The Myth of Religious Violence where the deals with both the idea of “religion” and some of the false assignments of blame done by the rationalists. Following this, John Fletcher Hurst in 1865 published his History of Rationalism Embracing a Survey of the Present State of Protestant Theology which provides a map of the inroads taken by the rationalists as they sought to and did affect theology.
Boghossian has bought into this false history as a driving principle. In no fashion does he assign any rationality to the concept of “faith.” As noted previously he observes faith as an irrational venture. What he missed is some of the questions of ways of knowing. This is important to deal with one of his core features.
He repeats the term “reason” throughout the book as though some form of logic is what he desires. But there is an alternative here, a parallel in his demand. The term “evidence” is bandied about as though the world is filled with only those things which can be verified. Certain scientific approaches make this demand. Fortunately the level heads prevail and science is about much more than the empirical.
Empiricism is the old demand of science. From Hume and well into the 20th century the assumption was that only the measurable was real. Then along came Einstein and the new breed of theoretical scientists. Oh, they often produced fruit from their theories. But little or nothing was measurable. And some of the theory structures do not produce fruit. Science has changed.
The scientific method used to be Theory, Test, Measure, Report, Repeat (or something akin). But these days the language is often more vague. One will hear scientists speak of Measuring but not mentioning the rest of the process. One must ask “Why?” The reason is that the old scientific method is not in play most of the time. We now have models.
One of the most popular models is the weather forecasting model. This model predicts. The accuracy of the model depends upon the data being fed in and upon the structures employed to process the data. It is not uncommon to see weather forecasters use both the European and U.S. models to predict the course of major storms. But a predictive model is not repeatable. The conditions that fed into the model are no longer available. One may not go back, barring the invention of a time machine, and insert new data previously unmeasured in to the formula in order to generate more accuracy.
The same goes for explanatory models. These occur in the court room every day. The goal is to provide an inference to the best explanation. Theology is also an historical, explanatory model. It is an explanation of God’s work though time. This is the historic substance of “faith” (which Hebrews 11 encompasses) rather than the entirely internalistic definition supplied by Boghossian.
His empirical approach is stated specifically, that “if our faith tradition includes no empirical statements, then it’s unclear what your faith tradition entails.”[v] This represents a striking lack of scholarship. He ignores history as a suitable model, not even mentioning it. Oh, he does mention “faith traditions” but not as anything beyond his internalistic provision.
Let’s compare the subject of evolution. What is it? Well, it is a way of explaining biological history. It is an explanatory model. There are empirical and other testable components that are employed to support the theory, but those are not the theory itself. The term “evolutionary model” has meaning. That meaning is about history and abductive or inductive reasoning. If science today rejects empiricism as the sole answer to questions then science would likewise reject Boghossian’s demand that all be evaluated following an empirical standard.
Science often demands fruit to legitimate a theory. A predictive theory would produce the fruit of accuracy, as when the weather man gets it right. But does Christian theology produce a fruit?
The fruit of Christianity is seen in its ethic. It is Christianity which works to keep the world from butchering itself. (That’s not to say that Christians have not done wrong in the name of Christ. Cavanaugh covers this thoroughly. The principle is that Christianity does not propose these evils.) Alternatively it is the Hegelian and the Marxist who, in the 20th century, caused the death of at least 1 of every 100 people who even lived on earth during that time. It is the Marxist who stands behind abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and even stands aside while human slavery is re-established. It is only the Christian voice which today shouts loudly against these wrongs.
The character of his proposed interventions is to instill doubt. They are not intended to lead to a solution. It does not answer a question. As he says, immediate converts are quite rare. They are intended to undermine religious faith and that is all. So going through them can help us both prepare and counter these attacks. Presenting a counter would be the best strategy. It sets the attacker on his heels. The best defense is a good offense. It would be good if you have the book handy to go through these and evaluate their character. (That may mean purchasing the book. If you have an ethical concern about that, consider borrowing one or checking one out of the library.)
Intervention 2 on pages 69 and following is an example of his demand for empirical data used to cast doubt. At the center of this is a doubt question – would you abandon your faith if the bones of Christ were found? This question is not raised to suggest that the bones of Christ might someday be found. It is raised to suggest that if there were any possibility then your faith today is less than certain and ought be abandoned.
PB: I don’t say this lightly, but I don’t think you’re being sincere. You know that there’s absolutely no evidence one could present that would make you change your mind.
PB: Here’s what I don’t get. Why don’t you just say that you’re not open to evidence and that you’re going to believe anyway? Isn’t that a more honest and sincere way to live your live?
Statements like this put the believer on the defensive. That’s the goal whether done offensive or politely. That’s because skepticism is not about reason, despite his assertion. Skepticism is about doubt and in our culture it is about doubting Christianity.
Notice that he never presents evidence. His argument is that an epistemic value less than 1.0 is insufficient. Earlier we noted that the “evolutionary model” is also not a deductive matter. It is an inference and also has an epistemic value < 1.0. One suitable response to a “street epistemologist” (SE hereafter) is to ask about evolution (or anything else which is presumed “true” but which is understood through abductive or inductive reasoning) and whether or not it has a 1.0 level of confidence. The answer from any intelligent SE would be No and you have set him on the defensive. Turnabout is fair play.
Intervention 2 on pages 88 and following pursues a straw man argument. What if God asked you to kill all left-handed people, would you do it? It is, after all, the duty of the faithful to obey the will of God. Going to heaven is treated as a result of obedience to God’s directives. That’s his argument.
A response here would be to ask the SE if he/she understand what Christianity is? At this point I am going to be a bit of a pessimist. Given the inadequate education in many churches I think the minority of Christians would have a substantive answer to such a challenge. Likewise anyone asking this type of question evidences that the conversation has begun from ignorance rather than knowledge or evidence.
Intervention 3 on pages 92 and following is a parallel to the previous. It is a works challenge. Why do this and not that? Is God not pleased with that? Does God care where people go to church? Included in his argument is internalistic definition of faith.
PB: So if you’re already saved, why go to church at all?
Chapter 5 introduces his Socratic approach to dialogue. The argumentation is a dialectical approach which can prove very effective. It is a good method with which people do well to familiarize themselves. His goal is to pursue “doxastic openness” which is really a euphemism for doubt. People are to be led to be open to new ideas and thus reject their current persuasion.
Intervention 1 on pages 112 and following relates to a subjective approach. The interventionist is to attack the subjective character of a claim followed by a comparative religion approach to diminish a persuasion (114). “They can’t all be correct” is the assertion.
Again, this hints at a church education failure. But for those who are prepared can be effective by adding substance to the discussion. Here are some questions to pursue in response to similar remarks:
Why do you think faith is just a feeling?
Do you have any personal history that you trust as reliable?
Have you built any relationships that would give you reason to trust another individual even with your life?
Why is feeling good the end-all of your argument? Have you no higher values?
Intervention on pages 138 and following gives us a sampling of “reason” in his approach. It seems to me, and I suspect most, that persuasion is best done with truth rather than deception. Boghossian regularly employs a false dilemma in the process of deception. This one struck me:
PB: Really? A lot of people believe in Jesus but they’re not good. Or do you think they’re just pretending?
GF: I don’t know. Maybe they’re just pretending.
PB: Yeah, I’m sympathetic to that view. There’s way too much pretending going on. So I’m curious, if you could choose only one, FS being good or FS believing in Jesus, which would you choose?
PB: Would you be good if you didn’t believe in Jesus?
The demand here is that the Christian must be perfect or the claimed Christian is pretending. And the person questioned was not prepared for the follow-up. This is the question of morality and the necessity of religion to produce moral values.
This is where Boghossian like Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) went wrong. Western society, even the supposedly secular mind, demands a certain civility that is traced to Christianity. Ours is the source for private property. Ours is the source for the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment (so we do not cut off the hands of thieves). There is much more and it comes from Christianity. Our moral and even social sensibilities have been shaped by Christianity.
In that light some suitable follow-up questions might be:
How do you account for good in Western society? Would you not be outraged if I took your wallet?
Is faithfulness a virtue? Does your bank view your loan contract any other way?
If you declare your love for a person and then change your mind and love another, is that consistent?
You may choose words less-direct than those I have chosen for these examples. That is probably best. But should any of his minions ever take on this role it would be the go-getter. It would first be those completely sold on this revolutionary agenda. It is these with whom a careful tone is the best antidote. These are the ones who often respond to a real, caring heart instead of to the sound of an academic diatribe or a return shout. Shouting accomplishes nothing and academic discussions may have their place with certain individuals. But a caring heart and tone will do the most.
Let’s try another. This time let’s see how the framework approach might be used. Let’s jump into Intervention 2: Kill All Left-Handed People (p. 88) and turn the dialogue around a bit. Here the prepare Christian Apologist takes advantage of an opportunity.
SE: Yup, no doubt about it. You feel it in your heart. You know it in your mind. It infuses …
CA: Wait. Why is your test for truth internalistic?
SE: Because that’s what faith is.
CA: There is more to Christianity that faith. This is about history and revealed truth.
SE: You mean like the Bible with its contradictions and genocide?
CA: Then you’ve read it?
SE: Some, but not all of it. I read enough.
CA: Fair enough. We can’t read everything. You seem to be a philosopher. If you’ve read Kant you know that Kant is interpreted through the different phases of his writing.
SE: Of course. That’s basic.
CA: The Bible is also interpreted systematically.
SE: How’s that?
CA: Well, the law was given to Israel. It was not given to the church. And revealed truth is not given randomly and inconsistently. What you are suggesting about killing is random. That doesn’t fit.
At this point the SE may get frustrated. Or he/she may become a learner. I had a similar conversation with a department head from a major university. He seemed surprised at the idea of interpreting the Bible systematically. But education can to a long way. Knowledge often takes time to sink in and gain a context for application.
People argue against the Bible and other concerns because they are apart from Christ. There is no argument that can bring a person to Christ. But exposing these assumptions can open the mind as we do our part in evangelism. In this case the SE’s mind was educated in error. Though hypothetical these represent common responses. The new atheist view of God as evil and the internalistic view of faith are pervasive. People who have been educated in skepticism act out of a skeptical mindset.
We begin our responses with the sensitive heart of a relationship with God through Christ. Second we bring an unwillingness to submit to the questioner’s control. There is nothing insensitive about challenging false assumptions and absurdity especially when the goal is less then honorable – hidden from view. Holding a hidden agenda is what cults do.
Evangelism is not an intervention. The goal is to win people to Christ. Sometimes that requires some pre-evangelism since not all understand the demands of Christ. That means planting the seeds necessary for the mind to consider as the Spirit works in the heart.
What Boghossian failed to do was provide any foundation for his tactic. What would he do – what would his street people do – were they to confront the questions of ethics and history? I suspect that there is little that untrained and ill-prepared SE apologists might be able to do. For that matter, I would hope that the evangelical apologist might fare better, though not always. Let’s build an example of how we might interact with one of their street epistemologists and see how things might work out. Let’s begin in the middle his Intervention 3: Two Churches scenario (p. 92ff). (“CA” will be the prepared Christian apologist.)
SE: I mean if having one church is good, maybe having two churches is better …
CA: Why would you say that?
SE: Doesn’t the church teach you how to fulfill the commandments of God? Don’t you want to learn more?
CA: What do you think church is?
SE: It seems to be where you get teaching and training. And if yours doesn’t have all that you need maybe you can find more in another one.
CA: That sounds like a self-centered approach to church.
SE: Maybe. But what if your church doesn’t have all the rules right?
CA: So what? The defining doctrine of Christianity is grace. It is not law and rules.
SE: Ok, so you go to get more grace. Isn’t more better?
CA: I go to serve. To build up others. That’s the example of Christ.
SE: You go to serve. But you don’t get anything out of it?
CA: Didn’t say that.
At this point the conversation could easily go any direction. But what you have accomplished is two-fold. First you have kept control of the conversation. Second, you have educated the one attempting to educate you. That’s important. Just as the SE seeks to draw away your faith over time so you, too, may create the appropriate doubt in the mind of the SE about the character of all his/her assumptions and motivations.
As an experiment you might consider how this might work out in discussions of ethics. It’s not that you want to bring up these issues as a starting point but as direction-setters. Should you be challenged on the meaninglessness of something unverifiable then ethics becomes the verifiable fruit of your theology. As a return volley you might point out that atheism can produce no transcendent ethical fruit and the 20th century Marxists stand as empirical proof of this position.
If you want to get people’s attention begin with an argument that seems clear to all. It is not important whether or not the argument is false. All it must accomplish is to rally people around a cause. Start with the declaration that all of your opponents are mentally ill. Then find ways to isolate them from society as a whole. Close their institutions. Keep them from getting jobs. Does all this sound familiar? It should. It is also all in Boghossian’s book. Does that sound like an outrageous assessment? All you need to do is to read his book. Subtract his “Rah! Rah!” and you have a man who wants all his opponents eliminated.
If you want to take the Christian approach the strategy is different. Entering academia with a sound discussion of the issues can go far. Challenge (appropriately) empiricism and verificationism. Challenge bad science and bad philosophical structures. Challenge abuse and immorality. Call people to repentance and real faith. And build the relationships that go with it.