Monday, December 9, 2013

A book review of Peter Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists

Though it took me about a month longer than expected to get a chance to read philosopher Peter Boghossian's new best-selling book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, with foreword by noted skeptic Michael Shermer, I did get time this weekend to check it out. I think you should do so too, and I'm going to take a moment to tell you why.


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It's not a trivial problem, and I'm not by any means the first to notice, that the highly influential and important work done by the famous New Atheists, most notably Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens, and those less famous, has led to a situation in which huge numbers of people have left their faith traditions, embraced reason and informed skepticism, and became motivated to help others to do so as well--and yet one in which many of these people want for a clear way to do it. Peter Boghossian's book spells out one such method that promises to be very effective, likely to be more potent than legions of people following in the footsteps of the so-called New Atheists, myself among them. In that regard, reading Boghossian's Manual is like finding a critical, but lost, piece of a challenging jigsaw puzzle and placing it right where it has been needed.

Boghossian turns the focus of the conversation about religious belief directly at its support mechanism: faith. Indeed, the book would be more accurately, though more poorly, titled "A Manual for Creating People who Reject Faith Because They Have a Better Epistemology." That is to say that Boghossian is striking not at the religious believer's specific beliefs or the harms thereof, but instead he's trying to pave a road that leads them to see that they don't know those things that they only "pretend to know."

Turning the focus of the conversation in this way raises the bar and lifts discussions between believers and skeptics out of the ubiquitous quagmire that is squabbling about particular faith-based claims, the societal benefits versus harms of religions, debates about evidence and what constitutes it, and other red herrings. Discussions based upon Boghossian's methods, instead, are ideally open-ended dialogues in which seeds of reasonable doubt are sown in soil that is being made fertile, a state that Boghossian describes as one of "doxastic openness."

Contrary to what many may expect, the brilliance of Boghossian's approach is that it does not rely upon trying to change anyone's mind or even on getting them to think in this way or that. "It's not about what I think; it's about what you think," is a frequent refrain from Boghossian that has totally changed how I think about talking with people of faith. It's both humbling and exciting to find out that it's very likely that I've been doing much of it wrong.

Instead of arguing or trying to convince, Boghossian's method is Socratic, and he does a fantastic job presenting it, both in theory and in practice. A shining gem, in fact, of this book is the fairly extensive collection of actual dialogues, which Boghossian calls "interventions," that the author has had with people, exemplifying the very methods he's attempting to teach. Reading his presentation of the Socratic method "as a conversational intervention to liberate people of their faith" (p. 107) has already changed how I talk with people and has fundamentally reorganized how I want to proceed in future conversations on these sorts of topics.

Boghossian, however, doesn't shy away from controversy or the refreshing kind of firmness that the New Atheists popularized. In fact, the entire book carries the thesis that faith is a kind of cognitive virus, a sickness, that needs to be cured so that we can live in a healthier society. Much of his language and the structure of his method is borrowed from epidemiology and addiction counseling--sure to be insulting to those afflicted. He also reserves a chapter to thrust directly at far-left accommodationists, obscurantists, and relavitists that is not only sure to be unpopular in certain circles but also is sorely needed. He does these things expertly, exerting a clear confidence that lacks arrogance, backing his case substantively.

This book is an important one. Its lessons are excellent for changing the manner in which we engage in discourse over charged topics that rely upon faith, religious, political, or otherwise, and they're likely to be a key element in a new Enlightenment. It's been far too long that our discussions about faith, and really then about how we come to claim to know things, are messy arguments instead of productive dialogues, and it's far past the time when we should accept faith-based statements as a viable method for claiming knowledge about the world.

Boghossian is offering us powerful medicine, and we owe it to ourselves to take it. Reading this book is the first step.

Highly recommended without reservation.

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Get A Manual for Creating Atheists here, and start helping to change people's faulty reasoning methods to better ones!

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