Training atheist missionaries: A Manual for Creating Atheists ….
Atheism is “truly Good News.” As such, it “should not be hidden under a bushel.” This is only one of the endorsements for Peter Boghossian’s guide to “talking people out of their faith,” A Manual for Creating Atheists.
The Forward, entitled “The Born Again Atheist,” was written by former Christian Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic. Other endorsements were written by noted atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Richard Carrier (Sense and Goodness Without God), and former Christian minister and teacher John W. Loftus (Why I Became an Atheist).
Dr. Peter Boghossian, who teaches philosophy at Portland State University, comes right to the point on first the page of A Manual for Creating Atheists.
This book will teach you how to talk people out of their faith. You’ll learn how to engage the faithful in conversations that help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their beliefs, and mistrust their faith. I call this activist approach to helping people overcome their faith, “Street Epistemology.” The goal of this book is to create a generation of Street Epistemologists: people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community—into any and every place the faithful reside—and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.
A Manual for Creating Atheists details, explains, and teaches you how to be a street clinician and how to apply the tools I’ve developed and used as an educator and philosopher. The lessons, strategies, and techniques I share come from my experience teaching prisoners, from educating tens of thousands of students in overcrowded public universities, from engaging the faithful every day for more than a quarter century, from over two decades of rigorous scholarship, and from the streets.
Boghossian’s vision gives a nod to the Four Horsemen of the “New Atheism”—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—and moves quickly to a strategy for creating an army of street-smart missionaries for atheism.
Street Epistemology is a vision and a strategy for the next generation of atheists, skeptics, humanists, philosophers, and activists. Left behind is the idealized vision of wimpy, effete philosophers: older men in jackets with elbow patches, smoking pipes, stroking their white, unkempt beards. Gone is cowering to ideology, orthodoxy, and the modern threat of political correctness.
Enter the Street Epistemologist: an articulate, clear, helpful voice with an unremitting desire to help people overcome their faith and to create a better world—a world that uses intelligence, reason, rationality, thoughtfulness, ingenuity, sincerity, science, and kindness to build the future; not a world built on faith, delusion, pretending, religion, fear, pseudoscience, superstition, or a certainty achieved by keeping people in a stupor that makes them pawns of unseen forces because they’re terrified.
The Street Epistemologist is a philosopher and a fighter. She has savvy and street smarts that come from the school of hard knocks. She relentlessly helps others by tearing down falsehoods about whatever enshrined “truths” enslave us.
But the Street Epistemologist doesn’t just tear down fairytales, comforting delusions, and imagined entities. She offers a humanistic vision. Let’s be blunt, direct, and honest with ourselves and with others. Let’s help people develop a trustfulness of reason and a willingness to reconsider, and let’s place rationality in the service of humanity. Street Epistemology offers a humanism that’s taken some hits and gained from experience. This isn’t Pollyanna humanism, but a humanism that’s been slapped around and won’t fall apart. Reason and rationality have endurance. They don’t evaporate the moment you get slugged. And you will get slugged.
The immediate forerunners to Street Epistemologists were “the Four Horsemen,” each of whom contributed to identifying a part of the problem with faith and religion. American neuroscientist Sam Harris articulated the problems and consequences of faith. British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explained the God delusion and taught us how ideas spread from person to person within a culture. American philosopher Daniel Dennett analyzed religion and its effects as natural phenomena. British-American author Christopher Hitchens divorced religion from morality and addressed the historical role of religion.
The Four Horsemen called out the problem of faith and religion and started a turn in our thinking and in our culture—they demeaned society’s view of religion, faith, and superstition, while elevating attitudes about reason, rationality, Enlightenment, and humanistic values. The Four Horsemen identified the problems and raised our awareness, but they offered few solutions. No roadmap. Not even guideposts. Now the onus is upon the next generation of thinkers and activists to take direct and immediate action to fix the problems Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens identified.
A Manual for Creating Atheists is a step beyond Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett. A Manual for Creating Atheists offers practical solutions to the problems of faith and religion through the creation of Street Epistemologists —legions of people who view interactions with the faithful as clinical interventions designed to disabuse them of their faith.
Hitchens may be gone, but no single individual will take his place. Instead of a replacement Horseman, there are millions of Horsemen ushering in a new Enlightenment and an Age of Reason. You, the reader, will be one of these Horsemen. You will become a Street Epistemologist. You will transform a broken world long ruled by unquestioned faith into a society built on reason, evidence, and thought out positions. This is work that needs to be done and work that will pay off by potentially helping millions—even billions—of people to live in a better world.
According to a Washington Post article, A Manual for Creating Atheists sold out the first printing before the release date. A second printing sold out in just two weeks. The book also jointed the Amazon top 100 best seller list, “a milestone usually reserved for better-known atheist authors from much larger publishers.”
There have been several substantial responses to Dr. Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, but probably the most extensive is from Tom Gilson, currently Vice President for Strategic Services at Ratio Christi, an international campus ministry devoted to Christian apologetics. Formerly, Gilson served as ministry strategist and writer for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, also known as BreakPoint.
Tom Gilson attributes much of Peter Boghossian’s success to the failure of the church.
Boghossian’s methods wouldn’t work if he didn’t have some people behind the scenes helping him. And those people, I am sad to say, are Christians. In the unforgettable words of the classic Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This is how we’ve helped create atheists: we haven’t asked ourselves the kinds of questions that Boghossian (or Josh McDowell) is asking. We haven’t searched out the answers for ourselves. We haven’t trained the next generations to do it either. We’ve left ourselves wide open to doubt, just because we haven’t asked, “Why do you believe?” And we haven’t practiced answering that question.
Boghossian knows this. His strategy is brilliant. He’s poking at the soft underbelly of Christian belief: our careless teaching, our taking belief for granted, our emphasis on what to believe apart from why we should believe, and all the time we spend on how to behave without also teaching why the whole thing makes sense in the first place.
The church is complicit in the creation of atheists. By what we’re not teaching, we’re contributing to Boghossian’s success. We’ve opened the door of opportunity, and he’s walking through it. Why wouldn’t he?
Sources and resources:
Peter Boghossian, Atheist Tactician: What He Gets Right, (Some of) What He Gets Wrong, and How Christians Must Respond by Tom Gilson is available for free to those who subscribe to his blog, Thinking Christian.
A pdf of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists is available online.
Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig responds to questions about A Manual for Creating Atheists at his Reasonable Faith website.