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Emboldened Atheist Philosopher Publishes 'Manual for Creating Atheists'
by Kimberly Winston
Got faith? Peter Boghossian says get rid of it.
Boghossian is a philosophy instructor and author of a wildly popular new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, that seeks to equip nonbelievers like him with the skills to convince believers to abandon their faith.
And while the book is sure to upset many religious people and even some atheists, it may signal a change in the way atheists engage believers. Unlike previous best-selling atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, Boghossian wants his readers to refrain from high-decible attacks against God and, instead, home in on faith.
“Faith is an unreliable reasoning process,” Boghossian, 47, said in an interview from Portland, Ore., where he teaches at Portland State University. “It will not take you to reality. So we need to help people value processes of reasoning that will lead them to the truth.”
He compares reasoning people out of it to administering treatment to drug addicts. “Faith,” he writes, “is a virus.”
To fight that virus, Boghossian’s book details techniques for creating “street epistemologists”—atheists trained to attempt to get believers to think more critically. He writes that he has used these techniques on friends, students, strangers and prison inmates. They include:
- Avoid facts: Facts seldom persuade, but getting someone to question why they believe can cause them to re-evaluate.
- Avoid showing frustration: “De-conversion” takes longer than conversion, he writes, and requires patience for those who would make nonbelievers.
- Avoid politics: They sidetrack the discussion, which should be about faith.
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In what is perhaps the biggest difference between his methods and those of other, better-known atheist authors, Boghossian insists that his street epistemologists be, above all, kind, considerate, empathetic and respectful of people of faith.
“The ideal street epistemologist models the behavior she would like to see in others,” he said. “They should be gentle and open to ideas. They should be compassionate and seek no reward for disabusing people of specious ways of reasoning. Nobody owes you for helping them to reason better. You do it because you care about people and want to help them.”
A Manual for Creating Atheists is Boghossian’s first book. He is known within atheist circles for a 2012 lecture he gave entitled “Jesus, the Easter Bunny and Other Delusions: Just Say No!” that became popular on YouTube. In it, he says he does not assume believers are wrong, and advises his street epistemologists to do the same.
“If somebody knows something I don’t know, I want to know it” as long as it is based on evidence, he said. “So if there is enough evidence to warrant belief in the Quran or the works of L. Ron Hubbard or that Moses parted the Red Sea we ought to believe those things. There isn’t sufficient evidence and that’s why people invoke faith. You would not need to invoke faith if you have sufficient evidence.”
And despite the title, Boghossian claims he is not proselytizing—a loaded word for atheists because of its association with religion—but “educating.”
“Proselytizing, by definition, means converting people and having them value being closed off to alternative beliefs and ways of thinking,” Boghossian said. “I’m advocating that we help people value belief revision and enable them to develop a mechanism that lets them differentiate reality from make-believeland. This is almost the opposite of proselytizing or converting people.”
Kurt Volkan, founder of Pitchstone Publishing, the book’s publisher, said atheism’s discomfort with proselytizing may be changing…