“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.
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.