When I was a boy…all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
Last week, I reviewed Peter Boghossian’s new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. This week, I came across another review by Michael Schulson at the Daily Beast. Upon reading, it was obvious Schulson was less impressed by the book than I was. The point of this post, however, is not to rebut his article. I already wrote about the book at length and besides, it stands on its own merits. Instead, this is more of a critique of the article itself from a writing standpoint.
What really jumped out at me, and prompted this reply, was that Schulson tried to write a negative review while using supporting statements without any apparent sense of irony. For example he writes:
Street Epistemologists are to understand themselves as inquisitive teachers, not combative lecturers. “Avoid politics,” Boghossian advises. “Don’t rush.” Keep in mind that “a pregnant pause is a very useful, nonthreatening technique.” “Express empathy,” but expect resistance: “Street Epistemologists should prepare for anger, tears, and hostility.” Wisely, Boghossian advises missionary atheists against attacking God and, in particular, religion.
The presumed negative lesson escapes me here. On the contrary, it seems like sound advice. Nevertheless, he goes on:
Like other New Atheists, Boghossian’s efforts are directed toward convincing religious believers that there are more effective methods than faith for reaching factual absolutes—as if the goal of faith, for all believers, were empirical accuracy.
What’s wrong with convincing people to think critically and form beliefs based on evidence? In addition, Boghossian goes into great detail explaining that believers in fact do make empirical claims based on faith. But Schulson charges on before anticlimactically trotting out this tired trope:
As far as I can tell, there are only two groups of people who consistently evaluate religious postulates and scientific facts on the same terms: certain members of the fundamentalist fringe, and New Atheists.
First of all, the fact that 46% of Americans are young earth creationists, while 38% believe God has actually spoken to them, debunks the very notion of a “fringe.” That being said, this lazy (and inaccurate) comparison really shouldn’t require a response. But…
The irony I mentioned earlier is brilliantly captured in Schulson’s final paragraph:
We need strong, persuasive secular voices, who can explain the power and advantages of non-belief, and draw intelligent comparisons between their own ways of seeing the world and the ways of faith.
…for that is exactly what Boghossian has done.
Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, is a timely and cogent new book that provides practical tools for talking people out of faith. In spite of its title, the book is not nearly as aggressive as one might suppose. What sets it apart from the pile of atheism books that have been written in the past decade is that Boghossian, a philosophy professor, goes after the certainty and knowledge claims of faith-based beliefs from a position of logic and reason. Those looking for scientific refutation of religion need look elsewhere. Likewise, those already versed in those arguments will find this book a refreshing change of direction in the ongoing cultural battle for reason.
Make no mistake, A Manual for Creating Atheists is not intended for current believers or those in the process of outgrowing faith-based belief. Instead, its target audience is people who have already embraced a life based on reason and rationality with the intent of providing tools to talk others out of faith at any given opportunity. Boghossian calls this approach “Street Epistemology.” (Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge.”)
The unique aspect of Street Epistemology that really resonated with me was that it targets faith over everything else. Boghossian provides two definitions of faith that are difficult to argue with: (1) Belief without evidence, and (2) Pretending to know things you don’t know. Based on these definitions (that Boghossian expounds upon in detail), it is obvious that faith is an unreliable way to approach truth. And since faith is, after all, the foundation of all religious belief, if it crumbles religion will topple down with it.
The tricky part of this approach is that one cannot depend on facts to dissuade someone out of faith. This is because people do not depend on evidence or reason to embrace faith. Therefore, one cannot expect to reason somebody out of something they didn’t reason themselves into to begin with. Based on this premise, Boghossian explains that “the core of [faith] intervention is not to change beliefs, but change the way people form beliefs.”
This is where A Manual for Creating Atheists really distinguishes itself. Boghossian plainly states that interactions should be viewed as interventions, not debates. The objective is not to “win,” rather it is to help people “see through a delusion and reclaim a sense of wonder.” He makes it clear that instantaneous deconversion is not the goal, nor is it to be expected. The point of Street Epistemology is simply to seek out what Boghossian terms “doxastic openness,” which simply means that a belief is now subject to change. But in order to accomplish this, believers need to come to the conclusion that they don’t know what they thought they knew, themselves. To assist Street Epistemologists in facilitating this revelation, Boghossian provides a crash course in the Socratic method.
For those unfamiliar with the Socratic method (as was I), Boghossian breaks it down into five stages: (1) wonder; (2) hypothesis; (3) elenchus (i.e. Q&A); (4) accepting or revising the hypothesis; (5) acting accordingly. Essentially the process begins with wondering about an issue. Then a hypothesis is proposed to explain the issue at hand. Once a hypothesis is identified, the elenchus begins. The elenchus is merely a pointed series of questions and answers with the intent to provide counterexamples to disprove the hypothesis. From there the hypothesis is either accepted, refuted, or revised until (ideally) one acts upon the results of the inquiry. If this seems too brief, don’t worry, there is an entire chapter devoted to the Socratic method that really serves as the heart of the book, as far as practical application is concerned.
Boghossian provides numerous conversations he has had in order to show when this approach works and also a few occasions when it didn’t. But even with varying degrees of success the core objective of Street Epistemology remains the same: to ask honest, sincere, and pointed questions that force a person to examine their belief to the point that they realize they’re not as certain as they thought. It is not about judging, berating, or debating. It is about meeting people at their current stage of belief and challenging them to question it until they, at the very least, reach a point of “doxastic openness” where they can admit: “I don’t know.” It really is that simple. Because once someone admits they don’t know something, they begin to ask their own questions.
Street Epistemology isn’t about being right or wrong. It is about being honest about what one knows and doesn’t know and challenging others to do the same. Boghossian implores the reader to “enter into discussions with an open and genuine attitude from the start.” And “if someone knows something you don’t know, acknowledge that you don’t know.” But most importantly, never pretend to know something you don’t know. Because after all, that’s what faith is!
(You can buy the book on Amazon.)
The Wizard of Oz has long been one of my daughter’s favorite movies. It has outlasted every other phase, be it princesses or cartoons. I’ve always enjoyed the film as well but never picked up on its theme until I became an adult. My eight-year-old daughter, who thankfully seems more astute than I was at her age, has already identified the film’s premise which I will share and expound upon.
A few weeks ago, The Wizard of Oz was re-released for a limited time in IMAX 3-D to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its release. My wife and I took our daughter to what ended up being a more amazing show than I had anticipated. This viewing rekindled my daughter’s affection for the movie so we downloaded it from Amazon and have been watching repeatedly ever since. After one viewing earlier this week she rhetorically asked me, “You know what my favorite part is?” before answering herself, “I like at the end when they’re with the wizard behind the curtain and they realize they already had what they wished for.”
I was happy to hear her draw this conclusion on her own. I’ve long felt that The Wizard of Oz is an unsung atheist masterpiece. This position is firming up now that this message is dawning on my little girl. Please allow me to explain.
The plot centers around Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas who landed in Oz after her house was carried away in a tornado. She is trying to reach the Emerald City so that the “great and wonderful wizard” can help her return home. During her journey she is pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West who wants the ruby slippers Dorothy got from the witch’s sister, who was crushed by Dorothy’s house. Along the way, she meets up with three characters who become her traveling companions: The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion. They set out with Dorothy to petition the wizard for a brain, a heart, and courage respectively.
After some menacing by the Wicked Witch of the West, the party arrives at the Emerald City where the seeds of skepticism are immediately sewn. Before even entering the gates, they are asked by the guard to state their business. When they say they want to see the wizard, the guard tells them, “But nobody sees the Great Oz. Nobody’s ever seen the Great Oz. Even I’ve never seen him.” To which Dorothy quickly replies, “Well then, how do you know there is one?”
Once granted entry entry into the city, the quartet is given a quick spa visit to clean up before making their way to see the wizard himself. Once granted an audience, they are instantly berated, intimidated, and made to feel inferior and unworthy of the gifts they seek. Nonetheless, the wizard agrees to grant their requests — on one condition. They must fetch the broom of the Witch of the West, killing her in the process. This begs the question of why a great and powerful wizard, who can presumably grant any wish, cannot rid Oz of the witch himself. As it turns out, their mission was meant to be suicidal.
In fact they do defeat the witch and call on the wizard to collect their end of the bargain. The wizard tries to rebuff them, only this time the group is more emboldened and not so easily bullied. During the ensuing quarrel, Dorothy’s dog, Toto, notices a curtain moving and pulls it back, revealing the wizard to be nothing more than an insecure swindler who rules by, mystery, fear, intimidation, and authority. Faced with the realization that their wishes can’t, and won’t, be granted by the wizard, it dawns on them (and the audience) that they already possessed their desired traits throughout their entire ordeal.
The Scarecrow desired a brain. He was convinced he couldn’t think, but the very first thing he did upon meeting Dorothy was outsmart some angry trees in order to get apples. Later on in the movie he hatched the plan to breach the witch’s castle security and also used The Tin Man’s axe to cut down the chandelier when the group got cornered. Most importantly, he’s the one who first noticed the wizard behind the curtain.
The Tin Man wanted a heart. He said the tinsmith forgot to build him with one and wanted nothing more than to experience genuine emotion. However, after seeing Dorothy hectored by the Witch of the West, he selflessly vowed to see her safely to the Emerald City whether he got a heart or not. He also cried in the poppy field and outside the witch’s castle at the very thought of Dorothy being in distress.
The Cowardly Lion wished for nothing more than courage. It’s worth noting that the first time the group encountered the lion, he was already living in the most frightening part of Oz outside of the Haunted Forest. And while he was scared throughout the movie, he persevered reminding everyone that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acting in spite of it. For example, he led the group through the Haunted Forest and up the mountain to get to the witch’s castle. He (presumably) overpowered the guards who discovered the group. And perhaps most courageously, he kept the red ribbon bow he received at the Emerald City spa in his hair for the duration of the movie.
Dorothy’s revelation, on the other hand, is a little more obvious. After missing her chance to fly back home on the wizard’s balloon, Glinda, The Good Witch of the North, tells her point plank, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.”
That’s really the bottom line of this wonderful story. The emotionally vulnerable group was convinced early on (with no evidence) that they must petition a great and powerful being in order to get what they want. They were then told that even though the wizard could grant their wishes, they had to prove some arbitrary “worthiness” before he would. The wizard duped them into doing his dirty work before they ever knew they had been swindled. To be sure, real evil existed in Oz. But it took four accidental friends, using the complementary traits they already possessed, to defeat it. And they did it without any intervention from the “Great and Powerful” Wizard of Oz.
Now that’s a lesson everyone can learn from. But in the meantime, I’ll be content just knowing my daughter is.