Thursday, November 14, 2013

Critical Review: Peter Boghossian's "A Manual for Creating Atheists," Part 1

There’s a new craze in fundy atheist town, a book titled A Manual for Creating Atheists (hererafter MCA) by Peter Boghossian. The main theme of it is no big deal: Boghossian just suggests that maybe atheists can win more converts by being polite rather than obnoxious, and by being Socratic rather than dictatorial. I feel sorry for any atheist who needed to spend $14.95 to get that as news, though it is contrary to the opinions of other atheists like Sam “ridicule is a potent weapon” Harris.

More to the point, though: I really don’t care if atheists are naughty or nice, or whether they wear elevator shoes or clown noses. Either way, MCA boils down to the usual tragic farce when it comes to presented arguments, and over several entries we’ll see some examples. As is often the case with such books, not all is within our purview, and we will be addressing only those points that are. (I’ll be rotating between material on Boghossian, the Zeitgeist Companion, Raphael Lataster, and the  E-Block archives for the next few weeks – which one I do will depend on how masochistic I’m feeling, and how much time I have.)

The arguments begin in Chapter 2 on “Faith.” Sit down for the big shocker: MCA misdefines “faith” because Boghossian is too ignorant to consult real scholarship and find out what pistis meant in a Greco-Roman patronage context. He complains about “faith” being a “slippery pig” when it comes to being defined, and to be fair, that’s because many Christians are as out of touch with the proper contexts as he is. But as usual, critics don’t make up for that lack by making the same mistake and worse.

MCA prefers to define faith as “belief without evidence” and “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Neither of those, of course, has any bearing on pistis, as we explain the link below. But Boghossian wouldn’t know this; his “Dig Deeper” bibliography at the end includes Sam Harris, John Loftus, Victor Stenger, Thuderf00t, and other fundy atheist luminaries, but not one Biblical scholar, much less anyone who has any idea how to contextualize pistis to a patronage context.

The rather delicious irony in this is that in one of his notes for the chapter, #2, Boghossian analyzes the Greek word elenchus (evidence), which is used in Hebrews 11:1 (“faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”),  and realizes that it was used in a court of law to refer to things like “convincing proofs.”  But rather than take this as a clue that he doesn’t have any idea what pistis actually meant, he takes this as a sign that in the apostolic age, elenchus “expands in an important new context” and was used in a “new way.”  Which leaves us to wonder just how clueless Boghossian will get in the pages to follow. 

Chapter 3 is mostly outside our purview, but it is worth note that Boghossian misuses the Tertullian quote, “I believe because it is absurd.”  See link 2 for the real story on that quote, which Boghossian apparently lifted uncritically from somewhere without checking it out.

One other amusing point is where Boghossian offers sample conversations he calls “interventions” which amount to “stump the chump” routines. They come off as partly believable; though only to the extent that persons named may not have had certain expertise offhand. He notes, for example, a conversation with a professor at an evangelical university, though he does not say who this professor is, nor what he is a professor of. He figures to pin the guy by getting him to acknowledge (rightly – 1 Cor. 15) that the bones of Jesus, if found, would disprove Christianity. He asks the man how he would know any bones found were the bones of Christ, and records that the man replied with a “Long pause” and by “Looking at me as if he didn’t understand” and by “silence.”

As if this proved, what? That no such answer was possible? Just because this particular man may not have had knowledge of Jewish burial procedures? We have the ossuary of Caiaphas the Jewish high priest. If bones are inside, that seems sufficient to say, “Must be Joe’s bones.” This is simply another example of how fundy atheists wield their own ignorance to victimize those who are also ignorant.

In that light as well, it is sadly ironic that one of Boghossian’s lead bits of advice is Chapter 4, where he discusses strategies, is to “avoid facts,” under the premise that Christians don’t believe based on evidence. While that may be true for many, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof, it speaks much more than he realizes to the inability and unwillingness of Boghossian to come to grips with the facts himself. I won’t say much more about Chapter 4 in terms of the strategies suggested, save that Boghossian makes the standard tired appeal to “confirmation bias” (link below) that has no place in any serious discussion.

Chapter 4 also features more intervention dialogues; we’ll comment on some of that relevant to our concerns, which isn’t much. The second dialogue, for example, has the standard goofy “thought experiment” in which we are asked what we’d do if the voice of God told us to kill all left-handed people. 

Boghossian no doubt wishes to set this up as some sort of exercise in critical thinking in which Christians end up looking both uncritical and unconscionably cruel, but he gives away the store when he doesn’t give any objective method to decide if God is speaking; the only criteria he gives is that the person “feels in their heart” that God has spoken to them, and has other subjective perceptions. So let’s ask Boghossian a better question: What if you had objective and indisputable proof that God was indeed telling you to kill left-handed people? 

Let’s get ridiculous here, since Boghossian is being ridiculous: What if God showed you, or you had indisputable supporting evidence, that the genetic information which makes people left-handed was about to mutate so that all left-handed people became flesh-eating zombies, and would end up devouring the rest of mankind if you didn’t kill them all? That pretty much takes care of Boghossian’s winsome, “does it bother you that you’d do that” routine. All he’s established is that many Christians have an inadequate epistemology when it comes to knowing when God is communicating. Now we can ask Boghossian: Wouldn’t it disturb you at all that you let your sentimentality keep you from saving mankind from a horrible fate? Two can play at that game, of absurdity is the name of it.

The third dialogue in the chapter engages a rather silly matter of whether or not two girls ought to visit a second church. Boghossian tries to query whether the girls know their church has everything they need; but of course, it’s not like Boghossian has any ears on correct doctrine. Indeed, he thinks the reason people go to church is that they “want to be saved.” Heaven forbid Boghossian should have any insight into the origins of churchgoing as an expression of community solidarity and a basis for communal  action.

That’s enough of Boghossian’s foolishness for this round.


  1. I haven't read the whole book. I read what was available on Amazon preview and decided that it was poor enough not to bother further. My thoughts on the first 2 chapters here: A casuistry in equivocation and imprecision

  2. Just going to put in the corrected link for your essay on Faith here.