Saturday, April 4, 2015

Has Peter Boghossian Disqualified Himself from the Adult Table?

Richard Carrier has written a brilliant article addressing yet another astoundingly ignorant statement made by Peter Boghossian, this time on the issue of gay pride. Last year on Twitter, Boghossian expressed his inability to understand how one can be proud of "something one didn’t work for." As if this weren't evidence enough of the man's right-wing politics, he followed up in response to a wave of criticism directed at his tweet by saying: "Questioning that one can be proud to be gay is a leftist blasphemy."

Boghossian is quite fond of telling others how to think and feel, and denouncing them as not even worthy of being taken seriously when they don't meet his standards. He says in two other recent tweets:

Feminists will be taken seriously when they spend at least as much time criticizing abuses of women in the 3rd world as they do in the 1st. 7/30/14

As long as philosophers like Derrida and Zizek are taken seriously, the discipline of philosophy won't be taken seriously. 3/10/15

Carrier points out in his post that Boghossian has a bad habit of not listening to his critics. As the examples above indicate, he speaks in radically divisive tones, and then either goes silent in the face of objections, or reiterates his views with yet more party-line rhetoric. This is quite unbecoming for a philosopher, especially one who emphasizes critical thinking and doxastic openness, as Carrier seems to agree:

Good naturalism, good philosophy, and thus in fact good atheism, means finding out how reality works first, before declaring notions that reinforce the attitudes and ignorance that perpetuate social injustices like homophobia and anti-gay bigotry. Which means if this kind of failure on Boghossian’s part is typical, then it means professor Boghossian is a really bad philosopher.

This appears to suggest that Boghossian does a lot of opening his mouth before he thinks. He tends to draw the lines and point the finger prior to the actual conversation, certainly before things have been anywhere near as resolved as he takes them to be. Let's look at three other prominent examples of this:

1) In his Manual for Creating Atheists, Boghossian recommends that we, "Stigmatize faith-based claims like racist claims," and, "Treat faith as a public health crisis." He suggests a line of children's comics and TV shows starring Epistemology Knights and Faith Monsters. Notably, his book is devoid of any talk of actual philosophical epistemology, so his advocacy of demonizing religious belief at the outset is problematic for its close resemblance to sheer, uncritical propaganda.

2) In his debate on Unbelievable with Tim McGrew (a distinguished Christian philosopher), Boghossian upheld his definition of faith as "pretending to know what you don't know," against the understanding of Christians familiar with the literature, like McGrew, and against an overwhelming consensus poll taken by the show. Of course, Unbelievable is a Christian podcast, but the poll included atheists as well, and more bothersome is that Boghossian really didn't try to defend his definition at all on the show, aside from broad sweeping generalizations about its use - which the poll quickly put to rest. Interestingly, Peter also shied away from endorsing on the podcast his own characterization of faith as "an unclassified cognitive illness disguised as a moral virtue."

3) Last year, Boghossian came under fire for tweeting the following: "Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table." The fallout from this was fairly significant, as multiple voices (including my own) spoke up to disagree with Peter, who almost entirely neglected to respond to criticisms, save for sharing his general thoughts with his pal and self-professed 'bulldog' John Loftus (one may wonder how eager Loftus will be to defend his friend on these recent remarks).

It's been over a year now since I wrote my review of Boghossian's book, and I've had plenty of time to mull over its aims and arguments. I feel that many of the reservations I had while reading through it have been not only confirmed by Boghossian's subsequent behavior, but have been trumpeted loudly in a manner I wouldn't really have anticipated. The whole project frankly seems to be that of a person who is not interested in dialogue, who cares nothing for critical thinking except where it will bolster his own side, and who clings to his own doxastic closure with pride (which he did not work for) as a means of ridiculing and manipulating others into agreeing with him. Don't get me wrong, Boghossian will say he favors the objective route, but his actions and comments increasingly seem to conflict with his verbal assurances.

This is not the sort of model we should be encouraging in the atheist community. Just as there can be "wolves in sheep's clothing" among the religious - people who talk the talk without walking the walk - there can also be those among the non-religious who speak in a way that sounds appealing to us, yet behave in inconsistent ways that may reveal a lot about a person's character. I do not intend to imply that Boghossian is willfully dishonest or anything of the like, but there is a danger in embracing people as role models based primarily on how they sound to us, the familiar language they use, and so on, especially when atheists are already not the most beloved figures among society. Again, that's not to say we should be striving to win some popularity contest, but there is truth to what Boghossian, Dawkins, and others have said about the need to speak up against problematic voices within one's own community.

John Loftus once said to me, in discussion of Boghossian's controversial tweet over philosophy of religion, that he hates to see division among atheists. In fact, I do too. I hate to see atheists attacking each other for political differences. I hate to see atheists not utilizing the tool sets they've developed in thinking about religion to also think about other things, like sex and gender, race and sexual orientation, culture and history, and much more. I wish we could talk about the variety of diverging ideas among us with civility and respect. But Boghossian is not just polarizing the religious and the non-religious, he is divisive to atheists, and his rhetoric often dispenses with civility and respect. Who is he helping with all his language about "the adult table" and being taken seriously? It certainly isn't causing many believers to take him seriously, and even many atheists are finding it hard to do so.

As Carrier says at the conclusion of his article, "Ending religion will do us no good whatever, if all we do is replace it with an atheism that’s just as bad." Our goal shouldn't be to win at any cost. In retrospect, perhaps the title and intent of Boghossian's book should have given it away that this is his aim. He wants to convert the irrational and make them rational. We have a serious problem, though, when the "irrational" are simply defined as those who Boghossian says are not to be taken seriously. As it turns out, that group includes a lot of people, and is growing more and more to look like it consists merely of all those who disagree with Peter about things that are important to him. A Manual for Creating Atheists is starting to look a lot like A Manual for Creating Egotists.

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