How Not to Create an Atheist

atheistsPeter Boghossian is a philosophy professor at Portland State University. His A Manual for Creating Atheists is different than almost any book you’ve ever read on atheism. It’s not primarily an attempt to rebut the various arguments for theism that have been given over the years, or even to present straight ahead arguments for atheism (e.g., the problem of evil). Rather, it engages in what he calls “Street Epistemology”:

Street Epistemology is a vision and a strategy for the next generation of atheists, skeptics, humanists, philosophers, and activists (16).

It is the antidote to a world awash in all manner of religious belief and practice.

The Street Epistemologists

Old-Guard (New) Atheism

As an atheist, Boghossian is naturally grateful for the work of his immediate predecessors—the so-called Four Horsemen, the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. They charted the right course. They

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 (17).

Unfortunately, the Horsemen merely flagged the problem; they didn’t solve it: “they offered few solutions. No roadmap. Not even guideposts” (17). What we need going forward, says Boghossian, is something more radical—what he calls ‘Street Epistemologists’:

articulate, clear, helpful voice[s] 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 (16).

So the choice is plain. People can either have faith or they can have a “better world” of reason and science. They can’t have both. Naturally, an exclusive disjunction of this sort assumes a particular understanding of the concepts of faith and reason. For Boghossian, these are incompatible notions. A world that uses reason is

not a world built on faith, delusion, pretending, religion, fear, pseduoscience, superstition, or a certainty achieved by keeping people in a stupor that makes them pawns of unseen forces because they’re terrified (16).

In other words, “faith” means “without reason.” And thus we are led to Boghossian’s two definitions of faith:

BOG-F1:  Faith is when “one just goes ahead and believes…when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief” (23).

BOG-F2:  “Cases of faith are instances of pretending to know something you don’t know” (24).

Recipe for Atheism

Now what does all of this have to do with creating atheists? The idea seems to be this. All religious traditions—essentially and at their core—are faith traditions. That is to say, the cognitive status of their faith-based conclusions depends on BOG-F1 or BOG-F2. Sadly, however, “Faith is a failed epistemology” (30) for this simple reason:

If a belief is based on insufficient evidence, then any further conclusions drawn from the belief will at best be of questionable value. Believing on the basis of insufficient evidence cannot point one toward the truth (30).

So the job of the Street Epistemologist is to expose the failed epistemology underlying any and all faith traditions, thereby undermining the entire faith edifice and ushering in a glorious atheistic future. This is the good news atheist evangelists need to take to the ends of the earth. The rest of Boghossian’s  Manual consists of winsome, wise, and strategic examples of how this can be done.

The Simple Evaluation

The fact is: we don’t have to dig very deep to see that Boghossian’s case against faith veers off course.

First, BOG-F1 doesn’t imply BOG-F2. These two “definitions” (as Boghossian calls them) are not equivalent. For suppose I do believe without sufficient evidence. In that case, since I don’t have an adequate justifying reason for my belief, I won’t know. It doesn’t follow (does it?) that I’ll thereby pretend to know. Not having evidence sufficient for knowledge is one thing; pretending to know (when one doesn’t have the evidence) is something else entirely. So maybe I just “go ahead” and believe even when I’m not justified. That doesn’t mean I’ll later pretend to know. That’s a further step—one that doesn’t automatically follow from my believing without evidence.

Accordingly, we can safely restrict our attention to BOG-F1 alone, since none of Boghossian’s reasons for thinking faith is a “failed epistemology” have to do with “pretending” to know, but are instead inextricably interwoven with believing in an evidence vacuum.

Second, BOG-F1 is improperly established. Boghossian uses a kind of “Look Around Town” approach. He cites from a variety of sources (e.g., Paul Tillich, Brian McLaren, and even Deepak Chopra) in an attempt to show that religious believers are committed to BOG-F1 by virtue of what has been written about ‘faith’. In his radio debate with Tim McGrew (see here), Boghossian makes a further (sociological) point. If you listen to how Christians actually use the term ‘faith’, he says, you’ll see that BOG-F1 is always what they have in mind. Hence they’re constantly building on that “failed epistemology.”

But here, I think, there is confusion. Nothing Boghossian says so much as hints that Christianity is in trouble. At best, what his approach shows is that some Christians have improperly grounded their religious beliefs. They believe in the absence of evidence when they shouldn’t. No doubt that’s true; indeed, the burden of much contemporary apologetics–books like Love Your God with All Your Mind–is designed to address this problem. It’s also helpful to remember that “believing without sufficient evidence” doesn’t only afflict the Christian believer. It applies quite properly to many atheists as well. The point is difficulty to deny. After all, it’s not as though the statement no atheist believes in atheism on anything but sufficient evidence is an analytic truth. That’s certainly not part of the definition of being an atheist—not unless we’re just loading up our definitions.

So I agree: BOG-faith is a “failed epistemology.” But what follows for Christianity taken as a system? As far as I can see, nothing of any real substance. What we have is only that some people have failed epistemologies. But we already knew that. Noting that BOG-F1 is defective and a “failed epistemology” is a valuable insight. But what Boghossian must prove is that Christianity is committed to BOG-F1. The mere observation that Christians have employed BOG-F1 in their thinking takes us no distance at all towards that conclusion. You’re welcome to deny this of course. But then you might as well argue that the bad behavior of atheists disproves atheism. Good luck with that.

Third, BOG-F1 doesn’t follow from the sole biblical passage Boghossian cites on faith: Hebrews 11:1 –

(11:1)   Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

That’s how the KJV puts it. But the word for substance means ‘confident assurance’ [link]; and the word for ‘evidence’ means ‘certainty’ or ‘conviction’ [link]. Thus the ESV more accurately renders (11:1) as:

(11:1*)   Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Stated this way, we can see that what’s in view is a certain propositional attitude—of certainty or conviction—taken towards unseen things, things also hoped for. So far so good. The question is: how does (11:1*) entail or otherwise lend support to BOG-F1? How does the argument go? Well, Boghossian doesn’t tell us. And it’s hard to see how it would go. I’ve argued elsewhere (see here) that the ‘is’ in (11:1*) is not that of identity. What this passage teaches, therefore, is not that faith is identical with being in a state of conviction or certainty, but only that being in this epistemic state is implied by one’s having faith. If you have faith—that is to say, if you are acting upon it (as did Abraham, Moses, and all the others listed in Hebrews 11)—you will also possess a certainty and conviction about unseen things.

But notice: this doesn’t tell us how that conviction arises. It would be utterly question begging to simply presuppose it arises when “one just goes ahead and believes”—say, by a sheer act of will apart from any evidence. You might object that two verses later in Hebrews 11, the writer basically says as much. For consider verse 3: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” This certainly makes it seem as though

(a)   The universe was formed at God’s command

is something to be believed, but for which there is no evidence. In other words, it has to be taken solely by faith (as the familiar expression goes).

But this simply ignores the implications of (11:1*). To take (11:1*) “by faith” implies that I’m confident or certain that (a) is true—or more exactly,

(b)   I am certain that an unseen thing (God) caused a seen thing (the universe) to exist.

This satisfies the (11:1*) faith-principle because it implies that I am certain about an unseen thing.

The important thing to see is that Boghossian overlooks how the bible accounts for this certainty. It’s not in the way he supposes. If we turn to Paul’s discussion in Romans 1, it becomes clear that it’s not a matter of brute believing; it’s based on a rational inference from an observed effect to an adequate cause:

For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Romans 1:20).

So Paul asks us to consider “the things that have been made”—visible things known by the five senses. He’s not talking here about houses, furniture, iPhones, and laptops. Sure these have been made; but they haven’t been around “since the creation of the world.”  What Paul is thinking of, rather, are things that have been around since the beginning: the heavens, the earth, the innumerable planets and stars (in short, the collection of dependent things Carl Sagan used to refer to as ‘the cosmos’). In some way, these things, taken together, “declare” or “proclaim” that they have been made. Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” But how so? Everyone sees these things of course; we’re even better at seeing them now than ever before. But how does everyone know that they have been made?

Here I strongly suspect Paul is thinking along the following lines. We can all see that neither the cosmos (nor anything in it) explains why it exists rather than (say) nothing at all. The universe doesn’t have to exist. So why does it? If it doesn’t exist because of a necessity of its own nature, it seems reasonable to infer that it must have an external cause. If so, then both the cosmos and its contents are made things.

Now Paul also says we can perceive the attribute of “eternal power” (an invisible thing) “in” these made things. This seems like an odd thing to say given that God’s attributes couldn’t possibly be perceived through the five senses. You might have 20/20 vision, but you’re not going to see God’s omnipresence, or his eternity, or his wisdom. These aren’t the sorts of things that could be seen. So what is Paul getting at? Well, the idea (I take it) is that these are inferred as causes adequate and appropriate to explain the observed effects. We posit an invisible attribute of “eternal power” because nothing less will do.

  • eternal: because whatever caused the cosmos (the collection of dependent things) to exist would be outside it, and therefore not a dependent thing; it would be self-existent and thus eternal.
  • powerful: because this Cause made the cosmos and everything in it.

You don’t have to agree with the reasoning. But you should recognize that it’s the official position. The reason (b) is true is that there is rational evidence for (a). We’re not dealing with anything like an evidence-free, BOG-faith here.

The upshot is that the one biblical passage cited by Boghossian to show that faith is a “failed epistemology” utterly backfires. It proves precisely the opposite conclusion, namely, that true, biblical faith operates squarely within a context of evidence. I’m afraid there is little fodder here to fuel the likes of Boghossian’s atheism creation program.


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4 comments on “How Not to Create an Atheist

  1. Rick Wade says:

    Two comments. First, an obvious problem with Boghossian’s position was made plain decades ago when positivism came under attack. What kind of evidence would he deem sufficient? I suspect it is empirical evidence, that which is amenable to scientific inquiry. If so, how would he justify that? Of course, he could be a rationalist, but that is doubtful. He would, in that case, know that there are good philosophical arguments for even a minimalistic theism. He should state and defend his own epistemology. We needn’t be bound by it unless he does. It can be fun to debate an atheist in his own ballpark, but philosophers and apologists sometimes seem to think we have to. Boghossian’s “street epistemology” should be shown to not be obviously the only reasonable option.

    Second, although this wasn’t said in the article, it might be implied that our knowledge of God from the things He has made is rationally inferred *consciously*, that people think about the world around them and them logically infer God’s existence. How many people do that? Paul indicates that *everyone* knows God exists, not just those who have reasoned through the matter, or, at least, have reasoned along the lines of the usual theistic arguments. Theistic arguments can be helpful, but they, even in a rudimentary form, aren’t necessary. It’s much more likely that people’s beliefs about God grow from intuition (the things God has made) coupled with social and cultural influences. And if I’m right that our knowledge of God is intuitive, then we must be prepared for it. And what prepares us is the sense of the divine implanted in us as created by God.

  2. MikeB (@g1antfan): love the comment about the Scriptures actually being a collection of evidences. Very good insight!

  3. aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

    Welcome to the Boghossian correction lobby! Better late than never. 😉

  4. Great post. May have to give this book a read to better understand the types of arguments we will be seeing in the future.

    It is really hard to understand how anyone can define faith as lack of evidence when the Scriptures are essentially a collection of stories that give evidences or reasons to believe. It is fair (as you note) to debate whether the reasons and evidences given are good ones that can survive scrutiny but not to claim faith is based on a lack of evidence.

    Another line of argument against faith being defined as believing despite a lack of evidence would be to look at Jesus’ ministry and what the Gospel writers wrote. Jesus comes to prove that He is the Messiah by fulfilling prophecies and showing that He is God’s anointed through His teaching with authority, casting out demons, and healings. When people questioned who Jesus was He pointed them to these signs as proofs, evidences, and reasons to consider Him as the Messiah and thus believe in Him and His message (Matt 11:2-6; John 7:31). And of course Jesus rose so that we might have evidence that He conquered death, His sacrifice was accepted by God, and that we too might have eternal life (1 Cor 15).

    John goes on to write that Jesus did many signs, (ie proofs, evidences) and I wrote these down so that you the reader would have reasons to believe (John 20:30-31).

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