‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.1: Interventions and Strategies

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-AtheistsThis is a response to the first few pages of chapter 4 of Boghossian’s book entitled ‘Interventions and Strategies’. This chapter covers a wide range of matters to I am going to split my responses to this chapter into smaller chunks so I can give part the attention it deserves.

Boghossian claims that in the United States alone there are more than 500,000 “potential Street Epistemologists’. Boghossian goes on to say:

“Five percent of the U.S population does not believe in God (CBS News, 2012). If only five percent of these 15.6 million nonbelievers become Street Epistemologists and actively try to rid the faithful of their faith affliction, then 780,000 Street Epistemologists can be informally deployed to deliver millions of micro-inoculations (of reason) to the populace on a daily basis.”

It appears Boghossian decided to begin with a more frugal target to begin with so he’s aiming at getting 10,000 SEs to begin with according to the Street Epistemologist website:

ScreenHunter_355 Feb. 28 11.31The website lists a few names of people who have signed up but, as far as I can see, it has not said how many have signed up as yet. However, they do have a Facebook page link on the website and when you go there you find that 63 people have ‘liked’ it. (That means 63 people are following it – not necessarily that they like it.) There is also another page called ‘The Reason Whisperer’ and that has 48 ‘likes’. On the ‘about us’ they also say:

ScreenHunter_356 Feb. 28 11.47

Now I mention all this not to mock their intentions but to ask why ‘Street Epistemology’ has simply failed to catch the imagination of atheists worldwide in its first three months or so. Even if all these people are all different people (and that’s unlikely to be the case) that currently brings the figure to 401. Now the problem could be a marketing one but Boghossian has had glowing endorsements from both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins [1] and it’s hard to think of two more famous atheists on the planet than these two. They certainly get a huge following between them. Given all this exposure to the atheist community one has to wonder why ‘Street Epistemology’ is so lacking in followers. Why is the atheist community so unresponsive to this? I don’t know the answer but it would appear to be a big problem if it’s considered an important next step for the atheist community. It just isn’t catching on.

Boghossian explores how SEs should view themselves:

“Your new role is that of the interventionist. Liberator. Your target is faith. Your pro bono clients are individuals who’ve been infected by faith.”


When you listen to Boghossian being interviewed he often makes it sound as if the SE does not have the answers. They are just people who are skeptical about everything and they are inviting their interlocutor to merely be more skeptical themselves. But this is clearly not the case at all. The SE really knows (better than the religious person themselves it would appear) that the religious person is delusional. But how do they know the religious person is delusional? Because they believe something they don’t know. How does the SE know they believe something they don’t know? Because Boghossian defined ‘faith’ that way! So the SE knows the religious person is wrong in their worldview just on the basis that they might use the word ‘faith’ (let’s not quibble about equivocation here!). But this is the important thing to bring out. It is not that the SE is just a skeptic. They are a very specific type of skeptic. They are the kind of skeptic who has already concluded that all religious people are wrong and delusional and in need of immediate epistemological surgery (that’s my phrase). That’s a pretty big claim. Especially when the entire claim pretty much boils down to a faulty definition. [2]

It’s worth noting the entirely patronizing nature of the proposed dialogue:

“It’s more likely you’ll earn success if you view what you’re doing as an intervention and consider a person of faith as someone who needs your help – as opposed to passing judgment. A positive, accepting attitude will translate into an increased likelihood of treatment effectiveness.”

Personally I would much prefer it if an atheist came up to me and just told me they think I’m wrong. That’s okay. I can live with that. I think we could even have a decent discussion on that basis, after all, I think they are wrong too. But it takes a special genre of haughtiness to think you are so certainly right and the other person so certainly wrong that you are going to behave like the doctor and you are going to treat them like your patient. And here lies one of the deepest problems with Street Epistemology. It is duplicitous.

Latter Boghossian writes:

“Keep in mind the possibility the faithful know something you don’t, that they may have a reliable method of reasoning that you’ve overlooked…”

But this does not square up with the doctor / patient analogy Boghossian has been perpetuating. After all, what doctor would be encouraged to be open-minded to listening to his delusional patient in terms of what treatment he should be administering? This is why the next section on ‘doxastic openness’ all sound rather superficial.

Doxastic closure, according to Boghossian, is demonstrated by an unwillingness to listen, to not consider the arguments carefully, and leading with one’s conclusion rather than the evidence. Boghossian is so opposed to this approach that he says that someone using it is suffering a “doxastic pathology”. The obvious problem is that this is exactly the attitude he has advocated and exemplified in his book toward religion. For example, instead of seriously engaging with religions on what they think he used a pre-existing misconception of ‘faith’ (commonly found and ridiculed for the last 15 years in the New Atheist literature) and then he quote-mined a few religious people to substantiate the conclusions he had already made before reading them. Even worse than that, I have point out how has even taken quotes from one book when the immediate context was contrary to what Boghossian was trying to show. [3]

Boghossian’s analysis here reads as very shallow to me. He appears to be setting up a mere polarization. On one side you have the ‘doxastically open’ who are not certain of anything and who come to everything and everyone with open ears, completely able to dispense with their preconceptions and biases. On the other side you have the ‘doxastically closed’ who already know everything there is to know and with a great sense of certainty and who always fail to listen to others and who consider it virtuous to judge people and their ideas on their presuppositions rather than the evidence. I mean, seriously, when have you met either of these two people? Both are parodies of how some people can behave sometimes. The SE is doing themselves no favours if they think they are the doxastically open ones (which we’ve already shown they’re not) while their patients are the doxastically closed ones.

If it’s really true that, as Boghossian writes a little later, “The Street Epistemologist never pretends to know something she doesn’t know” then I would very much like to ask one why it is they know all religions are wrong. If they do not know all religions are wrong then why are they prejudiced in thinking religious people are deluded and that they are bearers of a cure?


PS. Nowhere has Boghossian yet called religious people “mentally ill” but he sure sounds like that is the kind of thing he has in mind. The strong overlap in the language he uses which can be heard in Sam Harris certainly makes it seem like he’s, at the very least, implying such a thing. On that issue a very good piece was written just a few days ago called 5 reasons atheists shouldn’t call religion mental illness which is well worth a read and is far more likely to encourage dialogue than the Harris/Boghossian approach.


[1] See Peter’s interview with Sam Harris here. See Peter’s interview with Richard Dawkins here. Boghossian also has a video on You Tube in discussion with Richard Dawkins which has had just less than 40,000 views as of the end of February and interviews with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason (cough).

[2] As I have shown to be the case especially in parts 3.1 and 3.2 of my series so far.

[3] See my discussion of how he treats Migliore in Part 3.1.


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

2 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 5.1: Interventions and Strategies

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

  2. labreuer says:

    “epistemological surgery”—excellent. Have you considered whether there might be any analogy between Boghossian v. religion and creationism v. evolution? Lately, I’ve been comparing ‘gratuitous evils’ to ‘irreducibly complex system’. I used to be a creationist, and I also used to be an ID advocate, so I know those mindsets pretty well. I get the sense that Boghossian et al have those mindsets—at least essences of them. Other than the ‘gratuitous evils’ precise detail, I haven’t yet been able to fully analyze this. I’m more in the early stages described by Aristotle and Russell, which Charles de Koninck quotes in his The Unity and Diversity of Natural Science—a PDF is available on Google.

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