Review: Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists

by Tom Gilson

The atheist Twitter-sphere has been abuzz over Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, and regular readers here know that I’ve been eagerly anticipating its publication. It came out almost two weeks ahead of its announced Nov. 1 release. I’d like to say I was happy about that, but I’m not.

A Few Words of Appreciation—But Only a Few

It’s not that I’m completely dissatisfied with this book. Dr. Boghossian does three thing that I consider quite helpful. He takes a serious swipe at postmodern-ish relativism with respect to whether there is such a thing as truth, he makes a strong plea for rational thinking, and he recommends a Socratic approach to learning about religious beliefs.

All of this is excellent; in fact I’ve written previously on his similarity to several top Christian apologists in his Socratic methodology. The thing is, properly applied, these approaches have little to do with creating atheists. The other thing is how terribly improper Boghossian’s application is—not because it’s anti-Christian, but because of his irresponsible disregard for evidence and good reasoning.

I’ve already made that case in my many previous posts in this series. No one has seen fit to argue that I’ve gotten it wrong. Let’s see what happens when we look further into the book.

Boghossian’s Values, Continued

Throughout the book, Dr. Boghossian emphasizes rationality, willingness to revise one’s beliefs if new evidence or reasoning calls for it, and the epistemological deficiencies of faith. Elsewhere I have questioned his willingness actually to proportion his beliefs to evidence. Here I will zero in on his definition of faith, and ask whether that definition reflects rationality and attention to evidence on his part.

This is crucial, for if he gets faith wrong, then the entire argument of his book collapses. For this is not, in spite of its title, a manual for creating atheists. He really doesn’t recommend arguing people out of belief in God. On pages 76-77:

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Trying to disabuse people of a belief in God … may be an interesting, fun, feel-good pastime, but ultimately it’s unlikely to be as productive as disabusing people of their faith. Attempting to disabuse people of a belief in their God(s) is the wrong way to conceptualize the problem. God is the conclusion that one arrives at as a result of a faulty reasoning process (and also social and cultural pressures). The faulty reasoning process—the problem—is faith.

Why Faith is “The Problem”

Faith is a faulty reasoning process because, as he defines it on pages 23 and 24, it is “belief without evidence,” and it is “pretending to know things you don’t know.” It’s not clear to me where these definitions came from, except that they are derived from and deeply colored by atheistic conceptions of reality and, of course, faith. Dr. Boghossian provides no citations, no references, no reason to believe that these definitions are correct; he expects us to take it on his authority alone.

Well, I overstated that a bit. He presents a list of straw-man usages of “faith” yanked utterly out of context, from mostly liberal theologians, New Age authors, and his personal interpretation of the difficult passage in Hebrews 11:1. (Had he looked at the way faith is used elsewhere in the same chapter of Hebrews he might not have made the mistakes he made there.)

And not only that: he also quotes John Loftus, born in 1950, a leading crusader against Christianity: certainly the one authority we would all rely on as proof that Dr. Boghossian got his understanding of faith right for all times, all people, all places.

And Why It Is Not

Both Loftus and Boghossian are, quite simply, wrong. Faith simply is not belief without evidence. If it were, then Jesus would be one of history’s greatest crusaders against faith. When he rose from the dead, he presented himself alive as a demonstration of his resurrection. If the disciples were expected to believe in his resurrection on “faith,” as Dr. Boghossian understands the term, then by showing himself alive, Jesus would have been destroying any opportunity for them to have “faith” in his resurrection…

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