‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 4: Epistemology

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-AtheistsThis is the fourth part of my analysis of Peter Boghossian’s book. For previous parts see here. After giving the potential Street Epistemologists (SE) some really misleading information about Christianity in chapters 1 and 2, he now proposes to give his students a potted history of epistemology (not a bad idea given that these people are going to be referring to themselves as ‘epistemologists’!). He says:

“You’re almost ready to begin your work as a Street Epistemologist. However, before you start talking people out of their faith, you’ll need a primer on the following:

1) the reasoning away of unreasonable beliefs;

2) the forces that contribute to closed belief systems;

3) the factors that cause people to lend their beliefs to the preposterous; and

4) the likely reaction to treatment by individuals (they’ll be upset!.

You’ll also need a crash course in epistemology.” [Loc.695]

Notice that the aim is stated as attempting to talk people out of their faith. Peter makes this even more explicit in this Q&A:

At 2:13 Peter responds to the question from the floor “Why are you so concerned with poking holes in other people’s faith?” and he replies:

“I’m sorry if I gave that impression, I don’t want to poke holes in other people’s faith and I’m really sorry if I have communicated that: I want the complete and total eradication of the faith virus.”

Perhaps this is the time to ask Peter exactly what he means when he says that having faith is akin to having a virus? Since it’s obviously not a physical illness and faith is not a virus in any literal sense so that it could be seen and studied under a microscope, what exactly is Peter claiming? I have no other option than to think that what he means is that people who have faith have a mental illness. But the problem for Peter is obvious. The medical establishment doesn’t recognize any such mental illness and therefore his assertion is without evidence. [1] Yet again, Boghossian’s criticism appears to be based on an assertion made without any supporting evidence. But that would, according to his own teachings, make it a primarily candidate for being a faith claim itself. Is Peter guilty of believing things that aren’t true?

By the way, notice how curious that part of the Q&A is when compared with this discussion he is having with Stefan Molyneux where he says (2:25):

“I don’t ever promote atheism…” “Atheism is not part of my identity.” “It doesn’t align with my overall goal.”

How curious. Boghossian wants to completely eradicate faith and yet his goal is not atheism? Curious that the title of his book is A Manual for Creating Atheists. Can anyone else figure out how those two things go side by side because I’m having trouble.

I am not going to concern myself with Boghossian’s potted history of epistemology but it’s a very sketchy overview and you could get a much better overview of epistemology written by professional philosophers. It’s not even a short history of epistemology so much as a few Greek philosophers quoted on the virtue of philosophical investigation. What I will do is take issue with some more unfair comments which get made in relation to religion.

He begins talking about the philosophical virtue of wonder and the dangers of thinking you know the truth (this is ironic since Boghossian thinks he knows the truth about religion AND he thinks he has the cure!) but then he says:

“For example, if your unshakable starting condition is that the Ten Commandments are the final word on morality, or that the Koran is the perfect book that contains all the answers you’ll ever need… you stop looking. Certainty is an enemy of truth: examination and reexamination are allies of truth.”

Of course, Boghossian does not cite a single Christian or Islamic scholar to this effect. I’ve never met or read a Muslim who says that the Qur’an contains all the answers to life they will ever need. That’s why there’s the Hadith! Even then the Hadith is not considered to have covered every question there could possibly be. Similarly, it would be a rather odd Christian (not worthy of the name perhaps?) who discounted the teachings of Jesus on the basis that the moral law given at Sinai was the last word on such matters. This is annoying and frustrating because it is these constant little parodies of religion which are the foundations for Boghossian’s critique of religion. Boghossian is so sure religion has got it all wrong and yet he keeps demonstrating that he does not even understand the religions he keeps trying to criticize. Any interaction with what religions actually believe has been minimal and superficial consistently throughout the book so far.

A page later Boghossian asserts:

“Faith taints or at worst removes the curiosity about the world, what we should value, and what type of life we should lead. Faith replaces wonder with epistemological arrogance disguised as false humility.”

I think that statements like this tell us far more about Boghossian than they do about religion. It is because Boghossian has already decided that religion is both wrong and dangerous that he thinks everything about them contaminates. It’s rather obvious that what we value will influence our lives but that does not make any of these things bad per se. Martin Luther King Jr. believed, due to his religious faith, that all human beings were created equal and that led him to fight for the rights of African Americans. Is Boghossian suggesting Martin Luther King Jr. needed a treatment for this? And where is Boghossian’s evidence that religious faith replaces wonder with epistemological arrogance? Does Boghossian stop to interact with any of the great religious philosophers or theologians of the past or present to establish this point? Of course not. Nonetheless, since most of them were theists, he thinks they were all wrong and he’s right but he’s the humble one remember!

In the next section (‘Reasoning away the Unreasonable’) Boghossian claims that faith and reason “are often – and justly – treated as irreconcilable opposites…” [Loc.741] Ironically he notes there is evidence against this hypothesis in the form of Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio but he swiftly moves on not bothering to consider the evidence which contradicts his hypothesis. Amazingly, Boghossian thinks that a reference back to his skewed definition will suffice as evidence at this juncture. He says:

“After all, faith is by definition the belief in something regardless or even in spite of evidence…” [Loc.741]

I do not understand how Boghossian cannot see his superficiality at this point. He then immediately quotes David Hume to the effect that “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” So, following Hume, I’m forced to ask Boghossian the rather embarrassing question: Where is the evidence that faith and reason are at odds in religion and especially Christianity?

With even more irony, Boghossian goes on to note that religious people can, and indeed do, question their faith using reason and he points out that this has led to some of them abandoning their faith. Again, this is evidence against the hypothesis that religious people are infected with a virus which stops them from thinking rationally or critically about their beliefs. Remarkably, Boghossian appears unable to see how damaging this is to his overall thesis. To his credit Boghossian quotes the atheist biologist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci as saying:

“There is clearly a need for more systematic psychological and sociological studies of the relation between faith and reason, but the evidence so far is clear: people can and do change their mind in response to reasonable argument.” [Loc.757]

Boghossian gives examples of people who have done just this (Avalos, Barker, Daniels, DeWitt, Holman, Loftus, MacBain, Phelps, Price, and Singleton).

Boghossian starts talking about his analytic thinking can undermine religious beliefs and he cites one study done by Gervais and Norenzyan called Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief. [2] Boghossian claims that this study “showed, as the title states, that analytic thinking does in fact lead to religious disbelief.” Of course, it’s not surprising that when you read this study the authors of it are far less certain of their results than Boghossian is. They conclude their paper by saying that their results should be read with caution and not oversimplified. Ironically, they advise people do not conclude what Boghossian concludes from reading the study and, contrary to Boghossian’s contentions they state:

“Finally, we caution that the present studies are silent on long-standing debates about the intrinsic value or rationality of religious beliefs, or about the relative merits of analytic and intuitive thinking in promoting optimal decision making. Instead, these results illuminate, through empirical research, one cognitive stage on which such debates are played.”

Gervais and Norenzyan, Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief  p.496

Citing merely one study and drawing much firmer conclusions than the authors of the paper themselves make claim to is not exactly good argumentation.

Boghossian then notes the existence of “many apologists” [3] who are trying to get religious people to think that their faith is rational.

He then wraps this bit of the chapter up by saying that “the problem of faith is at least partially a problem of reasoning.” [Loc.781]

But the obvious problem is that Boghossian has not given any solid evidence for this conclusion. Certainly, he has defined faith as lacking in reason and he has asserted that faith is unreasonable but he has not provided any good evidence for thinking that even some (let alone all!) religious claims are unreasonable. He appears to want us to take it on blind faith.

In the next section, Believing the Preposterous, Boghossian begins by citing Tertullian as having said: “I believe because it is absurd.” I have already taken Boghossian to task on his quotations of the small number of Christians he does interact with but here we don’t get a citation at all – not even to a secondary source. So we’re left completely in the dark concerning where Boghossian got this quote from (Dawkins?). Suffice to say, it’s not a quote you can find in Tertullian. Boghossian has been misinformed by someone and has failed to check his sources. This is important because Boghossian is the one telling us that religion is something which, at the very least, inhibits our critical thinking faculties and yet mine appear to be working better than Peter’s at this point. For more on this read footnote [4].

Again I find myself wondering why he picks a misquotation of Tertullian and one tiny fragment from a piece by William Lane Craig (who is clearly quite evidentialist about his Christianity on the whole) and yet he does not engage critically with what they are saying. This is a really important gap in Boghossian’s case if he wants to be taken seriously as undermining the view that Christians have cherished reason and valued logic. He ought to be quoting from a wide range of people and honestly showing that there have been some divergent epistemological views in Christianity. But fideism is a very difficult thing to find in Christianity and even though to whom it is usually attributed (Tertullian and Kierkegaard) it’s disputed as to whether they should be read that way. [5] Where are the big hitters? What about Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Locke, Berkeley, Descartes, Leibniz? Christian epistemology is not uniform either. There have been Christian rationalists and Christian empiricists. There have been Christian foundationalists and non-foundationalists. There have been evidentialists and non-evidentialists (of various sorts). What it is hard to find is Christian fideism so no wonder Boghossian is confined to a misquote (Tertullian) and a misinterpretation (Craig).

How ironic, therefore, that Boghossian should proceed by exclaiming:

“Most people like to think that in their epistemic lives they accord beliefs to reason and evidence. That is, the less reason and evidence they have, the less confident they are about their conclusions and what they believe. But sometimes reason and evidence are not closely connected to belief.”


Boghossian then talks very generally about how people can be deluded into thinking they know things they do not know but none of it is specific in the sense of giving the examples he would need to be showing to support his contention that all religions are guilty of this. He does not bother. He thinks a general discussion of it is sufficient.

Boghossian goes on to talk about “doxastic closure” which he defines as any belief which is resistant to revision. He admits there are degrees of doxastic closure and that doxastic closure can apply to all different kinds of beliefs (moral, political, economic, metaphysical, relational, scientific, and faith-based). He also notes, citing sociologist Bill Bishop, that we tend to surround ourselves with people who are like-minded and how we can surround ourselves with information we are likely to be sympathetic to. Boghossian calls the active process of doing this “doxastic entrenchment.” By contrast, Boghossian calls “doxastic openness” a “willingness and ability to revise beliefs.” He says that being aware of one’s ignorance is important to being doxastically open.

Of course, I’m beginning to wonder myself exactly how doxastically open Boghossian is. I mean, he seems pretty darn sure that religious people suffer from a virus of sorts and that they need rescuing from it. He does not appear to assign this belief of his a probability value but it appears to be extremely high to the point where it seems clear he would say that he knows this. But he does not say how.

Boghossian then warns his SEs that they will encounter individuals who are “immune to reason.” He says the two main reasons for this are likely to be that 1) “an interlocuter’s brain is neurologically damaged” or 2) “you’re succeding.” Of course there are other possibilities. One could be that the SE is wrong and the theist is rationally defending their beliefs capably. Certainly, Boghossian has given no sufficient reason to think this could not be the case. How convenient it would be to disregard everyone I disagree with either on the basis that they have a neurological disorder or because I’m right and they’re wrong! It sounds like Boghossian would have to know any and every argument a religious person would bring up in order to make this judgement. But it has already become quite clear that Boghossian appears to be a mere beginner when it comes to understanding religion and so one ought to wonder how he can come to these discussions so doxastically closed.

Boghossian goes on to talk about the SE being like a “therapist” and the religious person being the “client”. Really? Given that Boghossian has been so completely unable to demonstrate, using reason and evidence, that the Christian faith is a delusion such talk is merely polemic.

Boghossian ends by quoting a couple of interventions he has performed on people (under the guise of just striking up a normal conversation it would appear).  One being an acupuncturist and the other a Christian professor. You will have to read these yourself as I cannot reconstruct them both here. Even as Boghossian retells the second conversation (which sounds very one-sided in his account) he really does like accusing the other person of not being honest. This is a most curious tactic to take with someone in a first conversation with them.

I conclude this part by saying that reading Boghossian is becoming extremely tedious now. His method appears to be nothing more than redefining words as he wants to (ignoring evidence to the contrary), making generalizations (without engaging directly with the groups he’s claiming to critique), citing an odd study out of context, misquoting the odd religious person here and there, and then making dubious assertions about how open he is as opposed to religious people. This is not convincing stuff in the slightest and it smacks of desperation.

No doubt I will get written off as being “doxastically closed” and yet, here I am, reading, thinking about, and interacting with atheist literature. I’m yet to get any indication that Boghossian has done any serious reading of any form of theism before coming to his almost unshakable position that he is right and they are all wrong.


[1] See: 5 reasons atheists shouldn’t call religion a mental illness.

[2] Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief

After writing this piece I also noticed that Tom Gilson has commented on this study as well. You can find his comments here.

[3] Here he cites William Lane Craig but wrongly identifies him as a “theologian” when he should have called him a “philosopher and a theologian” especially given Craig’s publishing history in leading philosophical journals.

[4] This quote has already been addressed by others so I would suggest starting with Glenn People’s treatment of this spurious quote over at his website here: “I believe because it is absurd” – Was Tertullian a fideist?

Or: this.

Note that Alister McGrath reprimanded Richard Dawkins who also misquoted Tertullian as supposedly having said: “It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd.” McGrath says:

“He’s stopped quoting this now, I am pleased to say, after I pointed out that Tertullian actually said no such thing. Dawkins had fallen into the trap of not checking his sources, and merely repeating what older atheist writers had said.”

Alister McGrath The Dawkins Delusion p.5,6

It’s interesting Boghossian is suffering the exact same problem as Dawkins on this one.

Also, here is Tim McGrew and David Marshall on this issue:

“No treatment of the subject of faith and reason in the church fathers would be complete without some discussion of the works of the polemicist Tertullian (c. 160—c. 225), whose statements on faith and reason have given some of the best ammunition to the opponents of Christianity. Tertullian is a brilliant writer, but he is hardly so central a figure in the developing Christian orthodoxy as one might suppose from noting how often his purported epistemic sins are discussed by hostile skeptics. It is not our purpose here to cite Tertullian as an example of the position we advocate; we grant the reasonableness of Etienne Gilson’s judgment that Tertullian might fairly be said to represent that strand in Christian thought that emphasizes “faith” over reason. But in the name of fairness we do want to clear away some of the misconceptions that have become attached to Tertullian.
We start with perhaps the most famous words attributed to him: credo quia absurdum, “I believe because it is absurd.” The first thing to note about this statement is that Tertullian never said it. But he did say something close:

“The Son [of God] was crucified: I am not ashamed—because it is shameful. The Son [of God] died: it is immediately credible—because it is silly. He was buried, and rose again: it is certain—because it is impossible.” (De Carne Christi 5.4)

At first glance, this does not look like a promising way to make an argument, because the context is missing. And writers who have not taken the time to look up the context have not hesitated to brand it as rank lunacy. Richard Dawkins, after quoting the last few words of this statement, dismisses it without further investigation: “That way madness lies.”

So what is the context? Tertullian is addressing the heretic Marcion, who denied that Jesus had a physical body because it would be shameful for God to take on human flesh. Tertullian’s rejoinder is that Marcion is partly right: it is a great condescension for God to be incarnated, to suffer, to die, and to rise again. But for just that reason, it is not the sort of thing that anyone would be likely to make up. Tertullian is not advocating believing the ridiculous qua ridiculous; he is arguing that the very strangeness of the Christian story of the incarnation and atonement is, viewed properly, a kind of evidence for its truth.
Whatever we might make of this line of reasoning, it is not original with Tertullian. The same form of argument is listed by Aristotle as one of the rhetorical tropes that may be used for persuasion. The point is important enough that it is worth quoting Aristotle at some length:

Another line of argument refers to things which are supposed to happen and yet seem incredible. We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true: even that they are the more likely to be true because they are incredible. For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable and even incredible, it must be true, since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible. An example is what Androcles of the deme Pitthus said in his well-known arraignment of the law. The audience tried to shout him down when he observed that the laws required a law to set them right. “Why,” he went on, “fish need salt, improbable and incredible as this might seem for creatures reared in salt water; and olive-cakes need oil, incredible as it is that what produces oil should need it.” (Rhetoric 2.23.21 (1400a))

So when he says, “It is certain—because it is impossible,” Tertullian is not staking out new territory for unreason. He is applying a rhetorical device known to the Greek rhetoricians and commended by Aristotle himself. The most he can be convicted of here is an overstatement of his case, and for that he was notorious; as Augustine notes wryly, Tertullian is sometimes too fond of a witty turn of phrase, speaking “with more spirit than strict veracity” (City of God 7.1). But he is not the raving apostle of unreason that some have made him out to be.”

Tim McGrew and David Marshall Faith and Reason in Historical Perspective in ‘True Reason’ p.160-162

Tertullian On the flesh of Christ

[5] On reading Kierkegaard this way one should read C. Stephen Evans’ book Faith beyond Reason.


As for Stefan Molyneux see here for why he cannot be taken too seriously:

FDR Liberated


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, New Atheism, Street Epistemology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 4: Epistemology

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

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