Sunday, June 15, 2014

Peter Boghossian: The Deepak Chopra of Atheism?

Peter Boghossian is an interesting figure. Back in January I wrote a review of his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, which intends to teach non-believers how to lead the faithful out of their faith. I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching. The methodology is well-researched, but the substance underlying it leaves much to be desired. Portraying faith as "pretending to know what you don't know" is not likely to help in deconverting most theists, but even worse are tactics like spreading unbelief through comic books and TV shows starring "Epistemology Knights" and "Faith Monsters".

I feel like I achieved a nice compromise in my review by being generally charitable, yet directing criticisms where necessary. After all, Boghossian's wilder remarks are not the overall tone of the book, and perhaps playing into the propaganda game is what will be the most effective against the actual disinformation campaigns, like those commandeered by Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. I was prepared to give Dr. Boghossian the benefit of a doubt - that is, until I came across his Twitter feed.

Agnosticism is arrogant. It asserts there's enough evidence to conclude that god's existence is possible.

This comment is something I wouldn't be surprised to hear from Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss, or anyone who isn't well versed in philosophy. Peter is a philosophy professor, though, which obviously means philosophy is, you know, his job. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, he specifically draws attention to the philosophical field of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, as an important part of understanding religious beliefs and leading people out of them. It seems like Dr. Boghossian should be quite aware that the evidentialism he endorses throughout his work is just one epistemological theory among several. It seems like he should also be aware of the difference between belief and knowledge, how that plays into probability and possibility, and how those all relate to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.

For a long time now, philosophers have commonly understood knowledge as justified true belief. In the 20th century, this definition was called into question by famous experiments establishing what has become known as the Gettier problem. Some have attempted to move forward by switching focus from justification to warrant, but the main point here is that knowledge is seen as a subset of belief. To know something is to have a certain belief that is true and justified, or true and warranted. On evidentialism, the more and better evidence one has for a belief, the more justified they are in holding that belief. However, if someone has no evidence for a belief, it does not mean what they believe is impossible, it merely means they are unjustified in holding that belief.

Agnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, for knowledge, and the prefix a-, meaning without. An agnostic is someone who doesn't claim to know something. This is different from an atheist in that an atheist is someone without theism, where theism is belief in god. Thus, while an agnostic says she doesn't 'know' whether or not god exists, an atheist says she doesn't 'believe' god exists. One view is about knowledge, the other is about belief, and so while they are separate in meaning, they aren't mutually exclusive. I often call myself an agnostic atheist because I don't claim to be certain that there is no god, but I think the probabilities swing far enough that I am justified in doubting the existence of god.

Evidence does not establish possibility or impossibility, especially not when we're talking about logical possibility. Scientific studies even do not rule out sheer possibilities, they either support or don't support a hypothesis. Likewise, the reasons one may have for being an agnostic may not have to do with the quantity or quality of the evidence at all. You might see the god concept as so confused and incoherent that you simply can't pronounce to have knowledge on it either way. If, like me, you accept that evidence can't ever give us absolute certainty, or such strong claims about possibilities and impossibilities, you might be an agnostic because you think there are other considerations we don't or can't have access to.

It seems like a professional philosopher should know better than to make such an incendiary and naive remark. However, just the other day, Dr. Boghossian again posted something at least as absurd to his Twitter feed:

Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table.

Many of the most devastating critiques of religion have come from philosophers of religion. The field may have a majority of religious believers in it, but there have been quite a few notable atheists published in philosophy of religion journals, too, such as J.L. Mackie, Paul Draper, Ted Drange, Graham Oppy, Erik Wielenberg, Stephen Maitzen, and William Rowe. Theistic philosophers have also done their share of worthwhile criticism of theistic arguments, among which would be Tim and Lydia McGrew for their attack on fine-tuning, as well as Wes Morriston for his work against the cosmological argument.

These philosophers who Boghossian would exclude from "the adult table" are far more deserving of those seats than Peter and (many of) his New Atheist buds. I say this not just because of Boghossian's childish behavior, but also because each of them writes on an academic level that just is miles above the others. Many of the arguments against god proliferated in atheist circles today are owed to these philosophers of religion. Dr. Boghossian frankly doesn't know what he's talking about, and his principal objection seems to stem solely from the fact that "religion" is part of the philosophy of religion name.

I've seen a few comments on Facebook calling Boghossian "our version" of young earth creationists, saying that he almost seems like a viral marketing gimmick for the God's Not Dead film. To this I'll add that he's like the Deepak Chopra of atheism. Chopra is a new age 'guru' who spouts wisdom that's eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish. In similar fashion, Boghossian plays to an audience that he knows, one that disdains anything and everything remotely connected to religion. These "cultured despisers" of religion, as Schleiermacher once called them, are quite happy to agree with whatever fits the us vs. them narrative they've constructed, along with its clear emphasis on the inherent and unavoidable evils of religion, while little things like arguments, facts, and honest dialogue take a backseat.

The annoying thing is that men like Boghossian thrive off of the criticisms sent their way. In their minds, it validates what they have to say, it exposes 'anger' in their critics (a frequent theme in Peter's Twitter feed), and it serves as an opportunity to circle the wagons yet again. As they say, bad press is better than no press, and Mr. Atheist Manual is doing all he can to elicit controversy and stir the pot. One can only imagine where he will go next. Maybe he'll found his own atheist scholarly journal where only his favorite kinds of atheists will be allowed to publish, then sweepingly declare anyone not publishing there must sit at the kids' table.

Just as we denounce Chopra for his juvenile nonsense, we should denounce even fellow atheists for theirs. In the past, non-theists have done well in taking Alain de Botton, S.E. Cupp, and others to task for some of their overly-generous statements regarding religion. We should be equally willing to critically examine statements that are so poisonous in their characterization of belief and faith. I don't think Boghossian is helping anyone but himself in his simplistic treatments of complex philosophical issues.

[Edit: read the follow-up and the latest fiasco in the ongoing 'debate'.]


  1. Taylor said of Boghossian’s book, “I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching.” Excuse me if I disagree. I think we need people who preach to the choir. Unless you can give me a good reason why no one should preach to the choir your criticism is unfounded.

    I agree that Boghossian’s two twitter feeds as discussed here are bad. But the conclusion that he isn’t “helping anyone but himself in his simplistic treatments of complex philosophical issues” is a non-sequitur. I think he views himself as a provocateur and as such, in those two feeds, he lost focus by going way overboard with it. It happens to us all sometimes. I doubt he has the acumen of the atheist philosophers you noted, but does that mean he should not do what he can do? People can only do what they can do. But he is doing something significant. I try very hard to embrace people who are on my side of this great divide, to the degree they contribute to it. Some of these people are on the front-lines in this battle for ideas. I don't take pot shots at them from behind even when I think they are wrong. I am not the hall monitor, you see. I don't waste much of my time nitpicking at the heels of a man who slips up and says something I disagree with very much. I let others do that, like you. My aim, my goal, my target is Christianity, not other atheists.

    In his book Boghossian is not writing to Christians. He's writing to atheists. Christians are reading and critiquing his book of course, but the atheists who implement his strategies are taught by him to be respectful of believers as persons, using the Socratic Method. So what's going on here? He uses some rhetoric to get atheists motivated but in actual practice when speaking to Christians, as his own "interventions" demonstrate in the book itself, he advocates being respectful to them and their beliefs. He first motivates then he educates. Boghossian's book is not meant to change the minds of believers but rather the approach he lays out in it should.

    And he is only writing to some atheists, not all of them. He's addressing atheists who are 1) convinced that religion has no epistemic warrant, 2) who think the world world be a better place without religion in it, 3) who want to change people's minds, 4) who are not necessarily intellectuals. You probably fancy yourself as an intellectual. So as far as I can tell he is not addressing you on any of the counts above. I do however, even as an intellectual, appreciate what he's doing.


    1. John, I don't recall ever stating that I think no one should ever preach to the choir. I actually think it can be very useful, especially in terms of activism. In the essay, I even entertain the thought that a propagandistic approach may be justified in dealing with certain theists, like Comfort or Hovind.

      That said, I don't see Boghossian's tactics as particularly helpful in what he claims is his intended goal. He wants to deconvert people and foster better epistemologies. The way he tries to do that hinges on a definition of faith that 9 out of 10 religious believers will not recognize, and will probably outright dismiss. He also provides the most minimal discussion of epistemology I've seen in a book that emphasizes it so much. If he were just writing a book trashing religion, I might be more sympathetic, but he's arming non-believers with a case against faith that is, in my view, nearly as shoddy as the case for faith proposed in countless apologetic manuals.

      I don't doubt that Boghossian does see himself as a provocateur, but I actually think this is the real non sequitur. His stated aim is not just to provoke discussion, or to provoke atheists into action, or anything of the sort. It is to equip non-believers with tools to lead people of faith out of their faith. Dawkins, Hitchens, and the other New Atheists are provocateurs, and Boghossian says in his book that he wants to move a step beyond them. Regardless of how he sees himself, he's put his purpose out there, and it's open to criticism. It's not about "pot shots" or anything that childish. It's about being accountable for what you say, especially as someone not only trying to be a prominent voice in the atheist movement, but as someone who has expressed a goal of leading and directing others in how to deal with people of faith, how to deal with relativists, with agnostics, and so on.

      Boghossian is contributing, and he's wanting to contribute a substantial amount - something atheists have never had before - so why shouldn't we critically evaluate that contribution and hold it to a higher standard?

  2. I will say that it was unfortunate and disheartening to see Boghossian's two twitter tweets. You are right about them. (Only publish this comment if you publish my previous one).

  3. You hit the nail on the head. Boghossian gives atheists a bad name. When I first came across him I was shocked his background was in philosophy.

  4. I will point out a couple of things:

    (1) Boghossian is not an epistemologist. That's not where his training is, it's in education. His dissertation was on socratic pedagogy and how that can be used in inmate reform/rehabilitation. In that sense, his book is right up his ally, whereas analytic epistemology of the type you're referencing is not. It should be quite clear that he is not actually using epistemology in the traditional sense of the word in his book. He appears to use it in the following way: a way/process/method of knowing about the world. As opposed to an analytic study of the nature of knowledge. From what I've gathered he has very little interest in being a philosopher in the traditional sense, and more interest in being an applied philosopher/philosophy educator. Using the tools of the trade to get people to think critically.

    (2) Agnosticism, in the sense you explicate, is a technical understanding and not the colloquial understanding. As stated in (1), Boghossian appears very little interested in the technical and the academic, but instead interested in interacting with those outside of academia. The nonacademic/colloquial usage (remember, use determines meaning) of 'agnostic' is to suspend judgment on a position, to neither claim to be theistic or atheistic. Now, I doubt Boghossian would appeal to this, but there is analytic philosophy that talks about suspension of judgment in much the way Boghossian is alluding to here (see Jane Friedman's piece "Suspended Judgment" in Philosophical Studies, 2013). That is, a decision cannot be made on either side. Perhaps another comparison would be underdetermination of theory by data. Whether or not a self proclaimed agnostic of the colloquial type actually recognize this as the position they hold (I'm skeptical of whether or not they recognize what it takes to be a "fence sitter"), claiming to suspend judgment does actually mean that the evidence is split in such a manner that one cannot make a claim on either side. In which case, whether or not you find it fair to call such a person "arrogant" is one matter, but it definitely does seem that the (colloquial) agnostic is validating a proposition without any evidence.

    I have my own thoughts on Boghossian's use of the term 'faith'. I do not want to digress into them, but here's a skeletal look at what I think is going on: He presents two definitions in his book: a traditional belief-without-evidence definition and the pretending definition. I think that Boghossian believes that religious/pseudoscience practitioners/what have you, fall into two categories: those who fit the no evidence category and those who fit the pretending category. Going further into speculation: Boghossian thinks most people are pretending or tricking themselves, and not making the choice to believe on the basis of no evidence.

    1. (1) is one of the reasons I can't have much sympathy for Boghossian. He wants to use words in whatever way he likes, without any concern for what the literature says, or what his opponents he's claiming to represent say. It's not just that he has very little interest in being "a philosopher in the traditional sense", it seems like he has very little interest in anything aside from perpetuating his own dogmas. A way/process/method of knowing is still part of the analytic study of epistemology too, whether Boghossian cares or not.

      I'm finding it hard to care about (2), honestly. I haven't disputed that there are some agnostics who hold to the colloquial definition, but why the solution should be to blast all agnostics for misjudging the evidence, making the audacious connection of evidence with possibility, instead of admitting that distinction and directing criticism appropriately is beyond me.

      "Boghossian thinks most people are pretending or tricking themselves, and not making the choice to believe on the basis of no evidence."

      I guess that's his prerogative. Like I've already said, he's preaching to the converted. And I don't doubt that there are plenty of atheists out there willing to eat up his message. I just don't see it as likely to do anything but backfire in conversations with religious believers.

  5. Thank you Taylor.

    I wrote something similar the very same day myself. Luckily for atheism it has some far superior philosophers of note out there. One thing I would query is whether Boghossian is a "philosophy professor" strictly speaking. Evidence of that is lacking. According to his page on PSU that is not his title (he is simply called a 'philosophy instructor'). As someone else said his primary degree is in education. This is pretty awkward since he has been flirting with the title of "philosophy professor" when he's not.

    My piece is here if you're interested:


  6. As a Christian also, I find Boghossian just ridiculous. I despise pop atheism as much as I do pop Christianity. Boghossian does not even really interact with counter arguments. In his book, for instance, he says all theistic arguments are failures. There's an end note there and the end note has no links, no books, no sources, nothing to back the statement. He just wants us to believe it on his authority.

    It also would have been nice of him to interact with Lexicons and such on the meaning of faith.

    Did you hear his debate with Tim McGrew on Unbelievable?

    1. "I despise pop atheism as much as I do pop Christianity."

      I couldn't agree more. I don't expect anyone, theist or atheist, to be ultra-philosophical or rigorously scientific, but guys like Boghossian are a whole different headache.

      I did hear his debate with Tim, and I know I'm not the only atheist who thinks he lost that debate badly. Someone else in the comments noted that his experience is with inmate reform, and that was very much like the impression I got from the book and the debate. He is out to change minds, but only by the heaviest-handed sort of indoctrination techniques.


  8. Taylor: "These philosophers who Boghossian would exclude from "the adult table" are far more deserving of those seats than Peter and (many of) his New Atheist buds. I say this not just because of Boghossian's childish behavior, but also because each of them writes on an academic level that just is miles above the others."

    Level of academic writing is hardly a criterion I hold in very high regard.

    Taylor: "Many of the arguments against god proliferated in atheist circles today are owed to these philosophers of religion."

    Arguments appear to have very little effect i n changing one's belief or non-belief. It seems that critical thinking skills, teaching of history and comparative religion, and evidence are what lead to the vast majority of deconversions. I would suggest that for every Christian who deconverted from reading a philosophy of religion article there are thousands who deconverted because, while, they learned to recognize that religion is stories told by men, and that god doesn't show up in real life. (I don't have a study to point to on this, but this seems so anectdotally prevalent to me that I would be surprised if you disagree.)

    Stanley: "Dr. Boghossian frankly doesn't know what he's talking about, and his principal objection seems to stem solely from the fact that "religion" is part of the philosophy of religion name."

    Or, he could be pointing out that philosophy of religion really doesn't matter because it is based on a premise (god) that lacks any objective, reliable, and verifiable evidence, and that is endlessly unproductive (produces something).

    I agree that Boghossian's book is worth about a B in its intellectual content, but it's a A+ in terms of both drawing attention to a societal problem (religion's pervasive ability to avoid criticism normally assigned to all faulty epistemologies) and emphasis it places on practical tactics for helping people apply critical thinking to these obviously false beliefs.