The Core Brilliant Argument in Boghossian's Book

I'm writing a few posts about Peter Boghossian's book, A Manual for Creating AtheistsTo see them click on the tag below this post. In this one I want to highlight his core brilliant argument.

The Proper Diagnosis.

Medical doctors prescribe a treatment to heal someone by first properly diagnosing the disease. So the good doctor Boghossian begins by doing just that. The disease is the faith virus.

He argues: "Faith is an epistemology. It's a method and a process people use to understand reality. Faith based conclusions are knowledge claims." To people who demur Boghossian says, "That faith is unreliable, or discredited, only makes faith unreliable of discredited, it does not entail that faith is not an epistemology...Faith claims may be endemically flawed, bizarre, or highly implausible, but they are still knowledge claims" (p. 40). However, he also says, "Faith is a failed epistemology" (pp. 29-30). "The greatest obstacle to engendering reason and rationality is faith" (p. 75)

The faith virus produces what Boghossian calls "doxastic closure," that is, belief closure. People of faith are less likely to have doxastic openness, that is, to be aware of one's own ignorance and open to the idea they are wrong. They are less likely to revise their faith-based conclusions. They feel certain about their conclusions because that's the nature of this virus. Faith, he argues, "taints or at worst removes our 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" (p. 43). He rightly argues: "When someone suffers from a doxastic pathology, they tend to not really listen to an argument, to not carefully think through alternatives, and to lead with their conclusions and work backward. The moment we're unshakably convinced we posses immutable truth, we become our own enemy...Few things are more dangerous than people who think they're in possession of absolute truth. Honest inquiry with sincere questions and an open mind rarely contribute to the misery of the world. Passionate, doxastically closed believers contribute to human suffering and inhibit human well-being" (p. 70).

So the triple problems of the faith virus are, 1) It is a failed epistemology, 2) it produces doxastic closure, and 3) it is dangerous.

The Treatment

In a word, deprogramming, by creating doxastic openness within the believer. "Among the goals of the Street Epistemologist are to instill a self-consciousness of ignorance, a determination to challenge foundational beliefs, a relentless hunger for truth, and a desire to know. Wonder, curiosity, honest self-reflection, sincerity, and the desire to know are a solid basis for a life worth living. The Street Epistemologist seeks to help others reclaim their curiosity and their sense of wonder--both of which are robbed by faith." "As a Street Epistemologist, one of your primary goals is to help people reclaim the desire to know--a sense of wonder. You'll help people destroy foundational beliefs, flimsy assumptions, faulty epistemologies, and ultimately faith" (pp. 43-45). For "The tools of faith--certainty, prejudice, pretending, confirmation bias, irrationality, and superstition--all come into question though self-awareness of ignorance" (p. 51).

The cure, Boghossian writes, produces a liberated mind: "Wonder, open-mindedness, the disposition of being comfortable with not knowing, uncertainty, a skeptical and scientific-minded attitude, and the genuine desire to know what's true--those are the attributes of a liberated mind" (p. 138).

To administer the proper vaccination to the faith virus the Street Epistemologist should not attempt to change the particular beliefs of the host, but rather change the way they form their beliefs. For the problem is the faith virus itself, "not the conclusions people hold" (p. 72). "To demolish a building," he says, "start with he base. Take out the support beam and the entire structure will fall. Faith is the base. Faith holds up the entire structure. Collapse faith and the entire edifice falls" (p. 75). So to be effective we should not target religion, God, morality, politics, or the hosts of the virus themselves. We should stick to asking Socratic dialectical questions about how they know what they know. "By undermining faith one is able to undermine almost all religions simultaneously, and it may be easier to help someone to abandon their faith than it is to separate them from their religion" (p. 75). "Belief in God(s) is not the problem. Belief without evidence is the problem. Warrantless, dogged confidence is the problem. Epistemological arrogance masquerading as humility is the problem. Faith is the problem" (p. 77).

To be clear, Boghossian doesn't say we should never argue with the conclusions of religionists. Sometimes they are impervious to all arguments against their faith foundation. So "the more closed the subject is about certain beliefs, the further up the belief chain--the higher in the house, to use our foundational metaphor, one must go." He says in cases like these "the way to loosen the foundational belief is through the ceiling boards in the attic. Once the attic is demolished, one can destroy the top floors of the house and work one's way down to the foundation" (p. 123). But the focus, our target, is, was and should always be their faith-based epistemology.

Boghossian also teaches us by example, by reproducing several verbatims of attempted interventions he has had with believers. So he lives what he preaches (imagine that!). He even seats himself on airplanes a little later than others so he can target believers by sitting next to them whenever he can (p. 96).

The Premise That Lies Behind the Proposed Treatment.

One of the premises of Boghossian's book is that believers can be reasoned out of their faith. Can they? For the record I think believers cannot usually be argued out of their faith because they were usually never argued into it the first place. Sometimes we say it as Jonathan Swift did, whom Boghossian quotes as saying, "You do not reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into." But Swift's way of saying this is a rhetorical exaggeration to make a point. The key word in the more accurate ways of expressing this sentiment is the word "usually." Usually we can't. But it does happen. I get several emails from former believers who have left their faith every year. Boghossian says he has "helped countless people abandon their faith" (p. 130).

Perhaps we haven't had that much success because we've been doing the wrong things. Perhaps it's because we're arguing strictly against the conclusions of religionists rather than their failed epistemology. Perhaps we're getting sidetracked into arguing over the beneficial aspects of religious faith, or morality or politics. When it comes to the beneficial aspects of religion Boghossian says, "I never allow people to steer these discussions from 'faith is true' to 'faith is beneficial' (comforting) unless they explicitly acknowledge that faith is not a reliable guide to reality" (p. 119).

I think that with the Socratic Method as an excellent tool in our toolkit (as he explains in chapter five), Boghossian has given the Street Epistemologist a better understanding of how to argue believers out of their faith, even if many of them still probably cannot be argued out of it. He writes, "In order to reason them out of their faith they'll have to be taught how to reason first, and then instructed in the application of this new tool to their epistemic condition." (p. 63)

This is the core brilliant part of Boghossian's book. I look forward to the results in the years to come.

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