Street Epistemology: Deceit on the Street

“We are growing. There are people who are joining and evaluating their beliefs and abandoning them.”  — Atheist movement leader Anthony Magnabosco*

Three years ago, Peter Boghossian published A Manual for Creating Atheists. Today thousands of non-believers are rising up to study and use the methods he introduced, seeking to derail Christians from their beliefs. Earlier today I linked to a video showing the effect it had on a young campus Christian leader.

The first 4 1/2 minutes are all you need to watch.

 

Now I want to show you what’s really going on here.

Not Great Thinking

Manual for Creating Atheists author Peter Boghossian’s main expertise is in persuasion theory. That’s important to know. He knows how to change minds.

He also teaches “Critical Thinking” at Portland State University, but it’s hard to take him seriously in that. Try this one on for size: In his book he asks what he might do if the stars in the sky rearranged themselves suddenly, so that every person sees written out in their own language: “I am God communicating with you. Believe in me.” If that happened, he says, it would be “suggestive (but far from conclusive, as it’s a perception and could be a delusion.)” How’s that for being open to evidence and reasons? What more could he want?

Skillful Persuasion Instead

But he does know how to persuade. In his book he advises people to avoid confrontation, always maintain a friendly attitude, avoid discussing facts(!) — and keep questioning how people use faith to come to know things. Which is a deeply deceptive question — even though most Christians don’t see it — and it’s also the core of this method for “creating atheists.”

The technique is called “Street Epistemology” (SE). Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we can know what we know (or think we know). Anthony Magnabosco, the interviewer in this video and an earlier related one, asks over and over again, “Is faith a reliable way for you to know God is true?”**

Before I explain what’s wrong with the question, I need to put it in context of SE’s methods. Watching the video, do you see how the interviewer seems so interested in hearing what the other person thinks? It appears as if all he’s doing is asking innocent questions to draw out the person’s own thinking.

But when he asks so often, “Is faith a good way to know your religion is true?” the effect — and it’s intentional, based on their training — is to implant the idea that faith actually is a way to know that religion is true.***

That’s the heart of SE; the technique stands or falls with it. But it’s a false technique, for  that’s not what faith is! Faith isn’t about how we know, but whom and what we trust.

Defining and Re-defining “Faith”

Faith isn’t how we know, first of all. I could know that Sam’s Auto Shop does car repair without trusting they do it very well. But if I’ve heard friend after friend raving about how great and honest and fair Sam is, then I could trust him. That trust would be based on knowledge. And trust is what the Bible means when it uses the word “faith.” (Sometimes the word is talking about “the faith,” meaning the Christian way, but that’s a completely different usage.)

The early disciples believed Jesus rose from the dead. Why? Because they had faith in him? Hardly. Read the accounts and you’ll see they didn’t even expect his resurrection. But then “he presented himself alive to them with many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3). Based on that sound and reasonable knowledge, along with everything he’d taught them, they had faith in Jesus as their resurrected Lord and Savior.

So faith isn’t a way to know. It’s an attitude of trust in whom or what we know. But SE, pretending to ask a series of non-leading questions, slips in that misleading thought repeatedly. And when people get set up to realize that faith isn’t a good way to decide what we know, they think that’s a failure of faith. Some of them, like Daniel, lose their faith as a result. If only they knew it wasn’t a failure of faith, but a complete distortion of the very meaning of “faith.”

What If You Can’t Explain Your Reasons?

There’s one more trick SE people play. When the people they interview can’t state clearly and completely how they know their faith is true, they direct them toward the thought that they don’t have any reasons for belief. That’s deceitful trickery. There are plenty of things we know are true, and for good reason — even though right now we couldn’t explain how we know it.

Remember the Pythagorean Theorem? Could you prove it here on the spot? Most of us couldn’t. But if we remember our geometry classes, we’re perfectly justified in saying, “I’ve studied it enough to be satisfied there are good reasons to believe it. I just haven’t studied it enough to be able to teach you those reasons, right here, right now.”

Still we can’t overlook what might happen to people who haven’t even begun to learn why Christianity is true. They’re sitting ducks for Street Epistemology. It isn’t enough to know that SE isn’t honest or good. We need to know how we know that Christianity is.

Summary

Peter Boghossian isn’t a master of critical thinking or of honesty. He’s a master of persuasion theory. The same goes for his SE followers. And persuasion without honesty is deceitful manipulation. That’s what SE does, so very effectively.

*At 52:20 here.

**Magnabosco and other Street Epistemologists today say they’ve progressed beyond Boghossian; they’re not dependent on his teaching anymore. The intellectual lineage is undeniably apparent, though.

***Daniel contacted me via Facebook to remind me that Anthony didn’t implant this idea in his mind; that Daniel in fact brought it up first. That would be a true description of this conversation, and I’m noting this as a correction: Anthony didn’t implant the idea, but he did reinforce it. I still consider it manipulative, because I know through multiple other sources that it’s been explained to him more than once that this is a false view of what faith is. Some Christians like Daniel may think that’s what faith is, but not those who have given it careful thought along the lines I’ve written above. If Anthony had been honest he would have brought that into the discussion. He didn’t. It certainly underscores the importance of solid teaching on the nature of faith in our churches.

Comments

  1. Jeremy

    Thanks for this post. It is sad that many Christians are caught by this, but somewhat understandable given the slight of hand and that most people haven’t been trained in critical thinking. Also many seem to have been taught the “Boghossian” definition of faith.

    Love might be a good parallel to faith in that it’s not a way of knowing but an action / attitude.

  2. John B. Moore

    If your friends say Sam’s Auto Shop is great, and if you trust your friends on this point, that trust is not based on knowledge, as you say, but only on testimony.

    There’s an important difference between trusting what others say versus having your own direct experience.

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    Tom Gilson

    Steve, that’s very true. Taken out of context like this, though, many skeptics have misused this verse to suggest that faith actually is the evidence — all of it.

    It isn’t. Not even in the immediate context of the book of Hebrews.

  5. James

    While I consider Street Epistemology (SE) to often be somewhat dishonest (the person doing SE is often doing it not with the intention of seeking truth, but instead to deconvert). The fact is that many if not the majority of people in any religion have not thought about why they believe what they do. Getting people to ask themselves if they have good reasons to believe what they do is always good in my opinion.

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    Tom Gilson

    I just added this third footnote as a correction to the article. I don’t want it to disappear from view, so I’m duplicating it here:

    Daniel contacted me via Facebook to remind me that Anthony didn’t implant this idea in his mind; that Daniel in fact brought it up first. That would be a true description of this conversation, and I’m noting this as a correction: Anthony didn’t implant the idea, but he did reinforce it. I still consider it manipulative, because I know through multiple other sources that it’s been explained to him more than once that this is a false view of what faith is. Some Christians like Daniel may think that’s what faith is, but not those who have given it careful thought along the lines I’ve written above. If Anthony had been honest he would have brought that into the discussion. He didn’t. It certainly underscores the importance of solid teaching on the nature of faith in our churches.

  7. Miguel Angel Cedeño Llauger

    James
    “…Getting people to ask themselves if they have good reasons to believe what they do is always good in my opinion.”

    Not if in the meantime you tell them that believing is a negative trait in a human, as antitheists arguments usually go.

  8. James

    “Not if in the meantime you tell them that believing is a negative trait in a human, as antitheists arguments usually go.”

    Well I agree with this, however I don’t think that’s what Street Epidemiologists are doing. Believing things without evidence in general is a bad strategy for finding truth.

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  10. Jamie

    The time to BELIEVE something is after you have sufficient evidence; until then, it may be rational to hold onto it as a hypothesis, but your level of confidence in it should be appropriate to your knowledge of its accuracy. THAT is what SE attempts to help people understand. When done “right,” the conversation serves only as a mirror for the interviewee to examine their own reasons for believing in something (karma, Jesus, Allah, UFOs, etc). How can that POSSIBLY be a bad thing?

    But when he asks so often, “Is faith a good way to know your religion is true?” the effect — and it’s intentional, based on their training — is to implant the idea that faith actually is a way to know that religion is true.

    Anthony never brings up faith. He only asks that question if and when his interlocutor has cited faith as the reason they believe. And he asks that question about any reason that he’s given.

    Why is it that it’s considered perfectly acceptable (even “righteous”) to indoctrinate malleable children from birth to believe in a god, but SE is considered “deceitful” for simply asking a consenting adult to consider his/her reasons for belief?

  11. Benjamin Cain

    Tom Gilson, I think it’s a little strange that you suggest your readers stop watching the video at 4:30 minutes into it, since it’s just after that point that the Christian who lost his faith explains that his conversation with Boghossian was at best a catalyst, that he had actually lost his religious faith before that time, that he was holding on only because of peer pressure and he wanted to use that opportunity with Boghossian as a final test of the vestige of his Christian faith.

    So I think this street epistemology business is a red herring. The reason young Americans are leaving Christianity is because Christianity is an anachronism.

    Advanced industrial countries all over the world tend not to be fervently Christian. The United States was an exception until recently, but it’s finally joining the ranks of most of Europe (outside Vatican City, Romania, and Greece), Canada, and Australia, with its rise in numbers of those who check off “none” when answering a poll about their religious preference. Christian beliefs are most strongly held in poor, less educated places in Mexico, Russia, Central and South America and southern Africa. You see this split even within the United States, where Christianity has only recently begun to wane in popularity: the more educated parts of that country are less Christian than the rural, less educated parts. According to Pew Research, 43 percent of American Christians have high school education or less, and 36 percent make less than $30,000 a year. (See the links below.)

    So this emphasis on style over substance, on being able to defend the faith in a debate reminds me a little of politicians who pretend to reform their policies after their party has been soundly defeated at the polls, when all they really do is repackage the same dogmas.

    Again, the deeper problem is that Christianity has no obvious place in the modern world. The only reason Christianity has lasted so long in the United States, for example, is that most fervent American Christians have very, very badly distorted the plain message of the New Testament, to make Christianity consistent with Republican values, that is, with cutthroat capitalism, plutocracy, war-mongering, economic imperialism, consumerism, and this-worldly happiness with a 1950s-style family complete with a dog, a two-car garage, and a white picket fence. Christianity is only nominally the majority worldview in the US. If you look at behaviour as the indicator of people’s real values, Americans are overwhelmingly materialistic, just like the rest of the developed world.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_by_country

    http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/christians/christian/

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    Tom Gilson

    Try to stay on topic here, okay? As I wrote in another recent comment, please see the comment guidelines link below. You like using my site as a jumping-off point for your own editorializing. That’s not what it’s here for.

    I suggested listeners stop there because by then they had the context to know what I was talking about in this post. Street Epistemology is no red herring when the topic of the post is Street Epistemology. If you’re not interested in SE, you don’t have to be; but I wrote the post because I’m interested in it, and I think others might be, too.

    SE is style over substance, I can very solidly assure you. Being unable to defend the faith in debate is indeed a problem for many less well-educated Christians, but SE isn’t a debate, it’s an unnatural conversational style that depends for its strength (what little strength it has, that is) on most persons’ not knowing what to do when “why” questions are repeated incessantly. Everyone reaches a point where they don’t know an answer. Not everyone knows that this often means something other than “there is no answer.” And in actual debate, Christianity holds its own quite well.

    But I’m not going to debate any of the tangential topics you’ve tossed in here like it’s your trash can for anti-Christian scorn. Just not going to play that game.

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