‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 2: Street Epistemology


This follows on from Part 1.

The title of chapter 1 is ‘Street Epistemology’ and it outlines the main aims of the book. Boghossian says his aim is to create a generation of ‘Street Epistemologists’ who have the tools to go to the streets, pubs, prisons, churches, schools and community in general – anywhere there are theists (I assume that’s what he means by “the faithful”? although it could include non-theistic religions such as Buddhism too) in a mission to get them to “abandon faith and embrace reason” [Loc.181]. Boghossian says that these tools come directly from him having over two decades of experience of doing exactly this.

He notes that philosophical discourse in the public arena can be traced back to at least the ancient Greeks and that this is the method which is preferred by contrast to the stereotype of a philosopher who is old, bearded and pipe-smoking (although I take it he’s not suggesting his ‘Street Epistemologists’ need to invest in a toga?). This is what Boghossian is calling for:

“Enter the Street Epistemologist: an articulate, clear, helpful voice with an unremitting desire to help people overcome their faith and to create a better world – a world that uses intelligence, reason, rationality, thoughtfulness, ingenuity, sincerity, science, and kindness to guild the future; not a world built on faith, delusion, pretending, religion, fear, pseudoscience, superstition, or a certainty achieved by keeping people in a stupor that makes them pawns of unseen forces because they’re terrified.”

[Loc. 190/199]


The ‘Street Epistemologist’ is also described as a “fighter”, “savvy” and “street smart”. “She” (the ‘Street Epistemologist’) is also described as one who has endured hardship and who:

“… relentlessly helps others by tearing down falsehoods about whatever enshrined ‘truths’ enslave us.”


At this stage of the book I confess I want to be one of these ‘Street Epistemologists’ myself! There’s not much on that list I don’t aspire to myself and even though I might not be able to be the perfect model of such a modern-day Socrates I would be willing to give it a jolly good try!

Even though Boghossian has not mentioned him by name yet, I am strongly reminded of the bold doubter at the beginning of Descartes’ Meditations. Those of you who have read it will recall the bold, courageous spirit of epistemological doubt at the beginning of the book. We encounter a philosopher who is so committed to truth and to eradicating deception from her opinions that she vows to doubt all that can possibly be doubted in order to construct certain knowledge based on strong foundations. Reading Boghossian reminded me of how it felt reading Descartes in my undergraduate years and why philosophy had such an alluring appeal.

For those who are worried of talk of questioning ‘faith’ and ‘religion’ it’s worth remembering that Descartes (himself a theist) also embraced this spirit and considered it worth questioning everything he possibly could even to the point of questioning whether God himself existed. In fact, the scepticism of Descartes has often been termed ‘hyperbolic scepticism’ because the extent of the scepticism is far beyond what most sceptics can manage to aspire to. It’s worth noting that this sceptical approach to knowledge comes from a philosopher within the Christian tradition.

However, on the very same page, Boghossian continues:

“But the Street Epistemologist doesn’t just tear down fairytales, comforting delusions, and imagined entities. She offers a humanistic vision… Street Epistemology offers a humanism that’s taken some hits and gained from experience. This isn’t Pollyanna humanism, but a humanism that’s been slapped around and won’t fall apart.”


I was with Boghossian up until this point. I have no problem with being asked to be rational, sceptical and courageous in the face of the evidence but suddenly I feel like I am being told by an authority where that Socratic journey should have taken me and I feel somewhat disappointed that I’m about to be excluded from what sounded like quite an exciting journey. I was ready to be sceptical and rational but have just been handed a set of answers (some might even possibly say a ‘worldview’) that I am to provide to my enquiring audience. That this journey is one into atheistic humanism becomes clearer as this chapter ends.

Boghossian begins to tell his brief history of the ‘Street Epistemologist’ movement and he identifies the founding fathers to be “the Four Horsemen” (not the ones in the Bible):


Boghossian is, of course, referring to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

I feel let down. After the promise of something new, culturally relevant, exciting and profoundly philosophical I am being offered four individuals who appear to be the antithesis of that spirit (and I say that having read at least one book by each of the four men). Indeed, Richard Dawkins has poured a fair degree of scourn on doing philosophy in any serious depth so I’m already concerned about how well the example of some of these founding fathers fits with Boghossian’s metanarrative. However, interestingly enough, Boghossian suggests these founding fathers were good at identifying problems but that they,

“…offered few solutions. No roadmap. Not even guideposts.”


This may come as something of a surprise to many and I was surprised to hear Boghossian say this myself . Sam Harris, for example, clearly believes he has done much more than merely identify a problem. He has, in recent years, been offering possible solutions to the toughest metaphysical questions philosophy has ever asked (whether we are free and on what basis morality can be objective are two which especially spring to mind). He has even been offering small amounts of money to people who can refute his answers (in a Hovindesque way in that it must be done to his own satisfaction of course!). [1]

In fact, all four of the ‘horsemen’ have done more than identify problems – they have all invested a great deal of time suggesting what route should be taken instead. It is true that they have sometimes differed in their opinions on what the direction is but they have nonetheless been concerned to do so. Boghossian does not explain why it is he rejects their vision but he does finish the chapter by telling the reader that they are to become one of the next generation of horsemen. At least now I know I am not the only one being marginalized from the worldview Boghossian wishes to profess since I know I’m about to be cast aside with those who think the four horsemen have provided a good roadmap. It might even be the case that Boghossian is also casting aside all the positive recommendations made by the Four Horsemen. How much that is the case we cannot know since Boghossian is merely discounting them as offering anything of worth.

I finish the end of chapter one a little confused over the direction Boghossian is heading in but I still remain open to being challenged and interested to hear about the different direction he wishes to take his new group of sceptics.

See you when we encounter chapter 2!


[1] The Moral Landscape Challenge


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Street Epistemology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 2: Street Epistemology

  1. Pingback: ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.1 | aRemonstrant'sRamblings

  2. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

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