‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.5: Knowledge claims

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-AtheistsBetween my last Boghossian post and this one it appears Peter might have seen my blog and some of my series so far. I was hopeful this might lead to a minor exchange (after all I’m yet to have ‘Street Epistemology’ tried out on me as yet and who better than the master?). Unfortunately, this was all that came of it:

ScreenHunter_333 Feb. 07 00.21

Now I can tell you that I am quite open to reading Raymond Smullyan so long as Peter is going to read some Alister McGrath. Nothing but doxastic openness at this end!


Boghossian ends chapter 2 with a small section on epistemology and truth claims and that is what I will respond to in this post.

Boghossian begins by loading the dice. In the very first paragraph he states how, now his dubious definitions are out of the way, he can now meaningfully discuss how believing without evidence is an “unreliable way to navigate reality.”

Hang on just a moment. Who exactly is Boghossian addressing? Is he now turning his attention to fideists? If so perhaps I can skip this section. But I agree with Boghossian on this. He also says he is concerned about those who have “insufficient evidence” as well so I had better find out who these people are.

Next Boghossian enters into a brief introduction into the nature of epistemology which is uncontroversial, if somewhat overly simplistic (I’m sure he would agree), and then he states that:

“Faith is an epistemology. It’s a method and a process people use to understand reality.” [Loc.419]

Once again Boghossian appears to be telling religious people what they ought to think rather than what they do think. Was Descartes guilty of this? Do the Meditations begin with a leap of faith? What about John Locke? What about all the Christian evidentialists Boghossian is not telling his audience about at this time? Where are they in all of this? You can find all the main branches of epistemology within the main religions whether it be: internalist, externalist, foundationist, coherentist, rationalist, empiricist etc. Why does Boghossian think that all religious claims can be merely reduced to a ‘pretending to know what I don’t know’ epistemology? At this stage Boghossian writes a lengthy footnote, part of which is a postcard-length description of a few epistemologies such as rationalism, empiricism, Kantianism, pragmatism, and the like. He mentions a few key figures in the history of epistemology such as Descartes, Kant, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. He then mentions ‘faith’ as if that is a separate epistemology to all the others.

He says:

“Faith is an epistemology because it is used as an epistemology… Part of the confusion on the part of those who don’t use faith to navigate reality is that they understand that faith in an obviously unreliable process of reasoning. Consequently, they either don’t view faith as an epistemology, or they don’t think others really use it as an epistemology… But at its root, faith remains an epistemology. It is a process people use to understand, interpret, and know the world.” [Loc.659]

Now while I agree that religious claims to knowledge (‘faith claims’) can be seen as epistemological in nature I cannot agree that it is helpful to see religious claims to truth as being a separate and distinct epistemology in and of its own right. Locke and Berkeley were both empiricists but both were Christians. Descartes and Leibniz were rationalists epistemologically speaking. Both would have rejected that they are using some epistemology that was reliant upon knowing what one knows one doesn’t know. Descartes went out of his way to avoid this kind of approach. In his Rules for the Direction of the Mind Descartes set up twenty-one rules for critical thinking. That does not sound much like the approach of a person who wants to base his beliefs upon no good reason whatsoever (what Boghossian is calling ‘faith’). Descartes states that he sees faith more as a disposition (an act of the will) rather than an act of the understanding. (See rule 3.)

Elsewhere he says:

“Our principal concern here is thus to guard against our reason’s taking a holiday while we are investigating the truth about some issue; so we reject the forms of reasoning just described [in the context he is talking about types of thinking which lack any method and are no different than guessing as well as sophism] as being inimical to our project. Instead we search carefully for everything which may help our mind to stay alert…”

Rene Descartes Rules for the Direction of the Mind in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Volume 1 translated by Cottingham, Stoothoff and Murdoch p.36.

What Boghossian appears to be attempting to do, as far as I can see, is to segregate religious truth claims away from, what are seen as, more established and academically respectable epistemologies as an attempt to make religious claims appear less respectable but this cannot be done without seriously distorting the history of such religious thought. I just find this extremely odd for a person who tutors in philosophy at university level.

Boghossian has name-dropped some of the most important Christian philosophers of the modern era so why is he not engaging with their epistemologies?

Boghossian has a whole section on how pretending to know things you don’t know would make for a bad epistemology. I agree with Peter. But then again, so would most Christian philosophers. Do I need to point out that Gary Gutting’s quote [1], which he uses at this stage, is a genetic fallacy? I am a little concerned that Boghossian does not point this out to his readership. Hopefully there aren’t any budding Street Epistemologists thinking this quote will flaw their theistic interlocutors.


So I agree wholeheartedly with Boghossian that pretending to know things you don’t know would make for a bad epistemology. I’m confused that he refers to a whole body of “scholarship” (his name for it – not mine!) in support of this conclusion. I did not know that Barker, Loftus, Stenger, McCormick and Harris et. al. were all so threatened by fideism.

Boghossian then states that pretending to know what you don’t know won’t be a reliable way of discerning which religions might be the right one(s) and which might be wrong. Again, I agree. There is nothing else at the end of chapter 2 which causes me huge concern.

A major strategic problem at this point, as I perceive it, is that Boghossian is preparing Street Epistemologists to talk to religious people as a whole and not just fideists. Let us hope he gets to the others soon!


[1] “Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised…” ‘The Stone’, New York Times, September 14, 2011.

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, Epistemology, Faith, Philosophy, Street Epistemology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.5: Knowledge claims

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

  2. billy squibs says:

    I get the impression that you did well to get a response out of Boghossian. Doxastic openness my arse.

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