Distorting, Manipulating, Avoiding Facts — And Creating Atheists

Peter Boghossian's campaign to create atheists would be laughable if he weren't so skilled at persuasion theory.

By Tom Gilson Published on September 16, 2017

Peter Boghossian, professor of philosophy at Portland State University, is dead set on creating atheists out of Christians and other believers. He’s got a strategy to do it; and in a strange, sad way it actually works. It leads some Christians to doubt their faith, others to abandon it completely. The reason it works is because Boghossian, an expert at persuasion theory, has discovered how to manipulate under-equipped believers into thinking there’s no reason to believe.

Thousands of atheists across the country are training to use his methods on you, on me and on our children — to try to create atheists out of us.

Creating Atheists

Boghossian makes no secret of his intentions: His book is even called A Manual For Creating Atheists. He holds religion in complete contempt. He devotes an entire chapter of his book to “containment strategies” for faith. “We must reconceptualize faith as a virus of the mind,” he says. We must “treat faith like other epidemiological crises: contain and eradicate.”

He recommends in all seriousness excluding believers from the “Adult Table” of discussion on public matters. We need to go to the “Kids Table” instead, he says, where our faith-infected conversations can do no harm. The public should stigmatize faith-based claims “just like racism.”

Hopelessly Wrong

This contempt of his is of course completely misplaced, for he is hopelessly wrong on almost everything that has to do with faith. He says the word never applies to anything but religious belief. Nothing else. It always means “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Nothing else.

So if you say you have faith in your spouse, stop it! Use a different word instead! Why? Because Boghossian says so. You won’t find any other reason in his book but that.

But of course he’s obviously wrong. The word “faith” has always meant trust, including trust that’s earned by way of solid evidence. Christian faith has always been closely linked to evidence. For one example among many, see Acts 1:3, where Jesus “showed himself alive by many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3).

Ridiculously Wrong

I’ve tried to trace the origin of this strange idea that faith is believing without evidence. As far as I can tell, it originated with either Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce in the 19th century, both of whom were humorists; in fact, both of them were saying it as a joke. (Twain might have meant it, but it was still a joke.)

So if you say you have faith in your spouse, stop it! Use a different word instead! Why? Because Boghossian says so.

And what does Boghossian really think of evidence related to faith? He’s told us quite clearly. Suppose the stars in the sky rearranged themselves suddenly, so that every person would see these words in their own language: “I am God communicating with you. Believe in me.” In his book, he said an event like that would be “suggestive (but far from conclusive, as it’s a perception and could be a delusion.)”

So much for basing your beliefs on evidence!

I could go on, and actually I have. His entire book is filled with this same irrational, even ridiculous hostility toward faith.  

Yet Not Harmless

Boghossian’s book came out four years ago. About six months after that he was roundly defeated in a radio debate with Dr. Timothy McGrew. You’d think everyone would have noticed his many faults and decided to quietly ignore him, hoping he wouldn’t embarrass anyone any more than he already has. That hasn’t happened. For he still has one thing going for him: he is an expert in persuasion theory. 

He’s developed a method for conducting “interventions” with believers, asking a series of questions lead toward a point where the believer can’t clearly state a reason for his belief, then leaving them to doubt whether there is any reason for belief. It’s all mere psychology, not rationality. In practice it looks innocent. But it’s manipulative as can be. 

Atheist groups nationwide are training in this technique, called “Street Epistemology” (or SE), using the term for the discipline that studies the theory of knowledge, or how we know what we know. That impressive-sounding term is just one more example of Boghossian’s persuasive savvy. 

Will it make an atheist of someone in your church, your family?

He should have called it Street Psychology. That’s all it really is. The technique uses impossible, made-up situations to take a person to a point of expressing doubt. For example, “Would your belief be as strong if there wasn’t a Bible to support it?” or, “What would you do if you thought God had told you to kill all the left-handed people in the world?” But a proper intervention will always “Avoid Facts.” I put that in quotes because it’s actually the first topic heading he lists under “Strategies” in his book.

SE In Action (or Inaction)

If it sounds silly, you haven’t heard the half of it. Admittedly I’m not trying to show it off in its best light. One of Boghossian’s better disciples demonstrates SE at its best here. Watch it, and you’ll see how it works. You’ll see doubts rise, and even atheists created, right before your eyes, through street psychology.

After you watch one or two of those, though, you’ll want to take a look at this ten-minute SE encounter with someone who actually knows his reasons for belief. Note his calm, non-confrontational answers. He knows there’s nothing there to worry about. (The SE part has a countdown timer on it, and begins just after 6 minutes into the video.)

How Atheists Are Created

SE’s founder makes a living off purveying serious falsehoods. His method is based on sophisticated manipulation tactics. For those two reasons alone, it shouldn’t work. Believers should be wise to such things. But too often it does.

And it’s growing. One atheist group, in Brevard County, Florida, has been working on training its 650-plus members in the technique. The Christians observing the SE movement most closely see high potential of it expanding rapidly.

It isn’t reasonable. It isn’t rational. It’s about sophisticated persuasion methods. But here’s the question: Will it make an atheist of someone in your church, your family? Only if they’re unprepared. And not all all, if they really know how to answer the question, “Why do you believe?”


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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