A few weeks ago I interviewed Jesus Camp’s Becky Fischer. In order to share the love, I recently interviewed atheist Peter Boghossian. How’s that for diversity? (Or, not . . . you be the judge.)
Peter recently published a book called, A Manual For Creating Atheists where he takes up the lofty task of passing on valuable skills for how to talk people out of their religious delusions. Peter was kind enough to respond to my rather hostile/tongue-in-cheek/”I’m just trying to have some fun here, why doesn’t anyone ever get that?” questions (which is more than I can say for others who agree to do this segment, read the questions, and then choose not to do it), so I think you should be kind enough to respond.
And this definitely warrants a response.
1) First things first: your bio says you were ‘thrown out’ of the doctoral program at New Mexico. That must have hurt. I’m guessing your advisor was ridiculously burly (fortunately for me, my PhD advisor was all of 5’8”, so I wasn’t too worried). Why were you given the old heave-ho?
Yes, I was thrown out of the doctoral program at the University of New Mexico. This webpage contains all the contact information one needs to answer your question: http://philosophy.unm.edu/contact.html
2) I imagine a lot of protest surrounding your book will fall around your definition of faith (by the way, thanks for ripping on Chopra—that guy makes me want to slit my wrists). You define it as “belief without evidence.” Personally, I don’t know of a single historical or reputable theologian who ever defined faith in that manner, nor I do even know of any Christians (and I know lots of them—those bastards won’t leave me alone!) who would define faith in such a manner (Hebrews refers to faith as evidence, which is quite different—albeit rather enigmatic—from what you’re saying). In order to be fair, many Christians would suggest that there is much evidence for that which they believe. They may argue from anything ranging from the anthropic principle to revelation to our ability to experience awe and wonder—or, even a really good film by Malick (definitely not To The Wonder). I, for example, am far more inclined toward belief via the evidence as provided by the lives of folks like Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sojourner Truth—especially when juxtaposed with the living testimony of, say, an ever increasing amount of white privileged self-aggrandizing male atheists holding positions in the greatest outpost of indefensible corporate free market virility ever devised known as the modern university.
Then again, that’s probably why I’m an atheist.
We implicitly assign confidence values to our beliefs. “Faith” is the word one invokes when one’s confidence level is out of alignment with evidence one has to warrant belief in a particular proposition. One invokes faith when one doesn’t have sufficient evidence to justify one’s confidence but believes anyway. Historical analyses by sophisticated theologians are attempts to obscure this simple fact.
3) You argue, rightly I believe, that many people hold on to their faith for no other reason than comfort. It’s the proverbial crutch that everyone from Nietzsche to Feuerbach to George Carlin has charged religious people with for using in order to ‘mask their limp’ (You like that? ‘Mask their limp’? I just made that up. Make sure you cite me if you use it). Combatting this need for the weaker among us, you claim that the “human species is made stronger by the fact that in the end we’re all going to die.” (137) How so? And, more importantly, to what end is the human species made stronger?
There’s something primordially egalitarian about death. We’re all going to die. It’s the great equalizer.
Death and the acknowledgment that this is the only life we have make us stronger. We have one shot. Right now. This life. We can make of it what we will. The responsibility of grabbing hold and standing on our own two feet isn’t existentially burdensome, but radically emancipatory. The moment we cease our concern for an illusory, ultimate reward is the moment we can free ourselves and live by our own lights.
4) Your book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, is quite innovative in that it functions as a guide for how those who read it can spread the good word of reason with the result of emancipating the “infected” from the false claims of religion. Essentially, you consider yourself something of a therapist and that believers are in need of treatment (as well as post-treatment). If you could, explain to me how this does not come across as . . . ooooohhh, I don’t know . . . dickish.
I’m not sure why one would think helping people shed delusions and develop more reliable epistemologies is “dickish” (particularly given that I advocate creating non-adversarial relationships and treating interlocutors with kindness).
Many people are trapped in makebelieveland; tragically, they’ve constructed conditions external to themselves that reflect those delusions. Too often the manifestations of these fantasies are harmful to people and communities. In aggregate, the consequences of mass delusion have been and continue to be catastrophic, not only for people who are trapped in a false view of reality, but also for the rest of us.
5) We here at The Amish Jihadist are all about the truth. So be honest: when you’re ‘rolling’ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) do you ever find yourself holding on to a rear-naked choke just a bit longer if you know the person is a believer? It’s okay if you do. I find myself doing it if the person is a republican. Or, a democrat. Or, if they think The Big Bang Theory is funny.
6) The following is not so much a question, just a thought I had that perhaps you can address. You defend the notion of a return to classical forms of liberalism (as opposed to what you refer to as the social liberalism you equate with academic leftism that promotes multiculturalism, tolerance and respect for difference). As I was reading that, my mind quickly went to the most classical and liberal of the classical liberals, Immanuel Kant. In his notes between 1781/1782, Kant wrote a classification of the races based on what was clearly the most scientific, objective, and reason-based epistemology he had at his disposal, and this is what he said:
“The American people are uneducable . . . for they lack affect and passion. They are not amorous, and so are not fertile. They speak hardly at all . . . care for nothing and are lazy.
The race of the Negroes, one could say, is entirely the opposite . . . ; they are full of affect and passion, very lively, chatty and vain. It can be educated, but only to the education of servants, i.e., they can be trained. They have many motives, are sensitive, fear blows and do much out of concern for honor.”
It’s not that Kant was a racist as much as the fact that Kant was creating, via the best that science and reason had to offer during his time, the very discourse and foundations that rendered modern biological accounts of racism possible—all stemming from classical liberal accounts as to what constitutes reason. This is a stellar reminder that the very best as to what passes for science and reason, at any given time, are the products of that given time, and people are just as capable of saying and doing some horrible shit in the name of reason as they are in the name of religion (I’ve heard it’s not a contest, but nearly every war the U.S. engaged in during the 20th century was in the name of the very ideals that liberal politics espouses—not Christ, Buddha, or Shiva). Plus, one thing that worries me is the current rhetoric used against believers is strikingly similar to the rhetoric historically used against homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and people of other races in terms of how people of ‘reason’ have referred to these folks.
Nevertheless, I’m open to the possibility that I could be wrong. But, you should know, if you are correct, and if what you’re telling me is that our best hope lies in a return to classical liberalism, I’m going to go ahead and grab a gallon of my favorite bourbon, as well as a Deepak Chopra book, and do what needs to be done.
In chapter 8 of A Manual for Creating Atheists, I distinguish between classical liberalism and social liberalism. You’re correct that I castigate left-leaning, academic bullies for their sloppy postmodern excesses and desire to censure inquiry and squelch speech.
My approach is fundamentally democratic in that I am extending the call to the examined life to everyone, without distinction of religion, age, disability, etc. At its core, this idea is underscored by social liberalism.
I reject the notion that I go directly back to the classical liberal position and that my stance is dead set against social liberalism. My position is against doctrinaire thinking.
There is something to be found in virtually every school of philosophy, especially in the root sense of philosophy as logical and empirical questioning. It’s true that Kant makes some factually incorrect and repugnant statements about peoples and races. (He’s not alone in this—see Hegel’s Philosophy of History as just one more example.) Citing quotations from great thinkers like Kant or Hegel does not constitute a refutation of their body of work or of their schools of thought any more than citing quotations from Newton about alchemy repudiates his contributions. It shows their lack of perception—or perhaps their arrogance—as creatures of their day and time. It exposes their weaknesses. They still have much to teach us: Kant about how to ask transcendental questions and Hegel about how to think historically.
Acknowledging imperfections in the works of leading thinkers from the past does not translate into embracing epistemological or moral relativism, or giving us license to pretend to know things we don’t know, or nudging us to read the work of charlatans like Deepak Chopra. It means that even when we admire and learn from someone, we still have to think critically—Street Epistemology doesn’t fail us simply because we’ve walked into the library or into the halls of classical philosophy—we have to bring our game wherever we go.
7) I like the Socratic method. I really do. I was recently criticized for using it at a conference where the critic thought I was employing it as a strategy to make converts. I took offense because the Amish guy in me (now that sounds sexy) is not interested in any kind of proselytizing—from atheists or Christians, much less from myself. However, my critic may be right in that he thought the best manner to convert people to whatever it is that that person sees as ‘the good’ is to actually embody that manner of life. That is, a person should be a living witness to that which they think is good (or real or truthful), and people will either find that manner of life compelling or they won’t. Indeed, I think that can be used as a wonderful critique against Christianity (or any other religion and ideology). So, if a person has to talk others into their way of thinking/living/seeing the world, then it seems they may have failed to actually embody that which they claim to be true. Therefore, if the life of reason is truly a superior life, if it embodies the real and/or the good, then it follows that such a life has to be visible. If that is the case, do you find that many of the more popular atheists (many of those whom you mention in your book), could do something more interesting than write books that constantly refer to theists/believers as ‘sick’, ‘infected’, ‘ignorant’, ‘stupid’, and ‘delusional’? Not only is it juvenile (and sounds like the kind of scientific observations that our friend Kant would employ), but predictable and on par with the religious people who refer to atheists and agnostics with the same sort of base ad hominem descriptions. Plus, it’s just way too easy. After all, a person doesn’t need to live an interesting life worthy of emulation (as an argument for the reality they are embodying) if they can just rip on people.
And I should know. I enjoy ripping on people.
First, Street Epistemology isn’t about converting anyone. It’s about helping people shackled by dangerous epistemologies develop reliable mechanisms to discern truth from falsity. Street Epistemology is about helping people live lives free of delusion.
Second, pragmatically there’s something to be said for the types of lives people lead as a reflection of the values they embody. However, if adopting a delusion yields some benefit, this doesn’t mean that there’s a lawful correspondence between the delusion and external reality—only that the delusion is socially useful in certain contexts. Valuing consequences more than truth opens the floodgates to believing what we want to believe. The net effect of this is that we move further from reality and become less likely know if the external conditions we’ve authored actually contribute to human wellbeing.
Third, the lack of forthright speech has been partially responsible for the never-ending the torrent of irrationality inundating every aspect of our lives. Many ideas are dangerous and stupid, and we shouldn’t hesitate to label them as such. When we become more concerned with other’s feelings than with accurate descriptions, dangerous ideas multiply. We ought to be more concerned with the accuracy of our terms than with people’s sensitivities.
Finally, as to the enjoyment of ripping on people, by your own criteria isn’t that needlessly offensive, juvenile, and predictable? Try helping others—it’ll make you feel a lot better.
[Hey, I didn’t even know I was feeling bad!]