Review: Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists

Ebook compilation available

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

BoghossianBook250.jpgIt’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:

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.

The same pattern presents itself throughout the Bible. From the Exodus to the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, to the great signs and wonders that Jesus performed, to his resurrection from the dead, and finally to the miracles done by and through the apostles, there was evidence  for the reality of God all along the way.

So by Dr. Boghossian’s way of looking at it, the Bible is one of history’s great manifestations of an anti-faith religious text. The Bible presents faith as being directly associated with and the result of experience with evidences. Christianity down through the centuries has also conceived of faith as being directly tied to evidences and to reasoning.

[Update Nov. 11: several people have thought they’ve identified a flaw in my reasoning here, in my reliance as a Bible for a source. In this case, though, my reasoning here stands regardless of one’s belief in the truth of the Bible.]

One of the more comical things Dr. Boghossian does in his book is to lift an excerpt out of William Lane Craig’s teaching, in which Dr. Craig explains that the Holy Spirit can provide assurance of the truth of God, and then to posture this quote as if Dr. Craig had no regard for evidences or reasoning. Of course, some people disagree with the way Dr. Craig uses evidences and reasoning, but to present him as one cares nothing for them is simply silly.

And again, down through the centuries Christians have viewed faith as being integrally associated with good thinking, based on good evidences. (The following examples are from a chapter by David Marshall and Timothy McGrew in the forthcoming second edition of True Reason.) Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165), for example, wrote, “reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.” Origen (ca. 184-254) writes,

in the Christian system also it will be found that there is, not to speak at all arrogantly, at least as much of investigation into articles of belief, and of explanations of dark sayings, occurring in the prophetical writings, and of the parables in the Gospels, and of countless other things, which either were narrated or enacted with the symbolical signification, (as is the case with other systems).

Other Christian thinkers emphasizing the importance of evidence and reasoning have included Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Pascal, Lock, Berkeley, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Ricci, Butler, Paley, Warfield, Greenleaf, and many, many more. Many more.

The point is that Boghossian’s definition of faith is idiosyncratic, tendentious, and formulated falsely yet conveniently for the purpose of undermining belief in God. It bears no relation to the evidences of actual Christian belief or practice. It entails that Jesus, the great promoter of faith, was at the same time the great destroyer of faith. It entails that no one noticed this massive self-contradiction in the teachings of Jesus until the age of the new atheists, or perhaps we could take it back as far as the life of Ambrose Bierce, perhaps the original “New Atheist,” who died (or disappeared, at any rate) just one hundred years ago. If it goes back further than Bierce I’m not aware of it, and Dr. Boghossian doesn’t care: his definition rules regardless of what anyone else has said concerning faith.

Thus in this we see him throwing to the winds his own stated value of proportioning one’s opinion to the available evidences. His hypocrisy stands revealed. And since his definition of faith is wrong, and since his whole book depends on that definition, his entire argument fails utterly.

Urging Extremism

This is not just about playing innocently with words. Dr. Boghossian recommends a set of “containment protocols” regarding faith, which include the following:

1. Use the word “faith” only in a religious context.
He recommends this on his own authority: it’s just wrong, he says on his own authority, to speak of having faith in one’s spouse. This is because “when the faithful are pressed on the definition of faith… they usually retreat to the words ‘hope,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘confidence,’ abandoning knowledge and certainty”—as if the importance of his recommendation follows from that observation.

2. Stigmatize faith-based claims like racist claims.
Specifically, he says, don’t let people of faith “sit at the Adult Table. Those at the Kid’s Table can talk about anything they’d like, but they have no adult responsibilities and no voice in public policy.” In other words he wants us muzzled; if we speak up we should be told, “You are pretending to know things you don’t know. Go to the Kid’s Table, this is a conversation for adults.”

8. Treat faith as a public health crisis.
“We must reconceptualize faith as a virus of the mind … and treat faith like other epidemiological crises: contain and eradicate.” Never mind that faith is positively associated with personal health in virtually every measure: Dr. Boghossian’s adoration of evidence has its limits, you see; and even though all the research shows that it tends to be good for physical and mental health, still it’s a “public health crisis because he says it is.

11. Remove religious exemption for delusion from the DSM.
This bears an extended quotation:

Once religious or delusions are integrated into the DSM, entirely new categories of research and treatment into the problem of faith can be created. These will include removal of existing ethical barriers, changing treatments covered by insurance, including faith-based to special education programs in the schools, helping children who have been indoctrinated into a faith tradition, and legitimizing interventions designed to rid subjects of the faith affliction.…

In the long term, once these treatments and this body of research is [sic] refined, results could then be used to inform public health policies designed to contain and ultimately eradicate faith.

At least he doesn’t suffer the flaw of being overly subtle. Now, if faith really were what he says it is, and if it really were a faulty epistemology, then there might be some reason to “contain” it. Still, to treat it as a “public health crisis” and to “stigmatize it” like racism, is dangerously extremist language. To call it a virus, to remove ethical barriers(!) regarding its treatment(!) is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as Soviet “psychological” approaches toward dissent.

This is the language of hatred toward the beliefs of not just millions but billions. And it would be so even if Dr. Boghossian’s view of faith were accurate; which it is not.

One Redeeming Virtue

If there is any good that could come out of a book like this, it would be this: it amounts to an excellent exercise for Christians who want to sharpen their thinking. In the hands of a skillful an well-trained Christian thinker, this could provide an outstanding case study in the irrationality of new atheism – that which claims supreme rationality, but (as my co-authors and I show in True Reason) rarely if ever succeeds in living up to it.

(The first edition of True Reason is available here (Kindle) or here (Nook), in e-book form only. The Kregel print edition’s release date has not yet been set, to my knowledge. The November 1 date on Amazon’s website is probably inaccurate.)