What is “Street Epistemology”? (Part 1)

Street Epistemology is a method for creating atheists. It’s atheistic evangelism. It was invented by atheist Peter Boghossian. Having recently read his book A Manual for Creating Atheists, I want to lay out what the basic method is, and how Boghossian intends it to work against Christians. He seems convinced that this is a legitimate method for reasoning people out of belief in God.

In part 1 of this series, I will introduce Street Epistemology (SE) and make some important clarifications. In Part 2 we’ll take a closer look at the method, certain questions he suggests skeptics ask Christians, and so on. All responses to Street Epistemology will be saved for Part 3.

Street Epistemology

The usage of the word “street” is straightforward enough, but what about “epistemology”? Epistemology is the study of knowledge, or how we come to know things. SE is thus about making people on the street less confident about what they think they know (particularly with respect to religious belief). Boghossian is hopeful that once people do this, once they are open to their beliefs about God being wrong, they will eventually reject His existence. This is how atheists are born.

Boghossian encourages use of the Socratic Method (a way of challenging assumptions through questions). I’ll note here that he has an idiosyncratic view of the Socratic Method especially when it comes to elenchus (more on this in Part 2). However, before we introduce Socrates’ method in depth, we should note a few things.

Street Interventionists

The first thing to note is that Boghossian views himself (and SE’s) as interventionists.

“Street Epistemologists view every conversation with the faithful as an intervention. An intervention is an attempt to help people, or “subjects” as they’re referred to in a clinical context, change their beliefs and/or behavior. Subjects start with a faith-based belief or a faith-based epistemology. You administer a dialectical treatment with the goal of helping them become less certain and less confident in their faith commitment (or perhaps even cured of faith entirely).”

He goes on to say that,

“I view nearly every interaction as an intervention. I am intervening in my interlocutor’s thought process to help him think more clearly and reason more effectively . . . Street Epistemologists should set the realistic goal of helping the faithful become more doxastically open. Sow the seeds of doubt. Help people to become less confident in what they claim to know.”

The goal of Street Epistemology is not to create atheists on the spot, but rather to start the process of doubt and uncertainty. According to Boghossian, viewing interactions as interventions help the SE step back and exhibit objectivity, it instills the idea that Christians need help instead of judgement, it tears down the “angry atheist” stereotype, and is more deeply satisfying than simply winning a debate.

Theres a lot to be gained in Boghossian’s eyes by treating interactions not as debates but as interventions.

Boghossian Faith

Faith is described in chapter 2 as either (i) Belief without evidence or (ii) Pretending to know things you don’t know. Christian thinkers are going to want to rebut these definitions immediately, but let me suggest that doing so is actually counter-productive and unnecessary (more on that in Part 3). For the time being, let’s call this kind of faith, Boghossian Faith (or BF).

The entire book is centered on challenging and rebutting the existence of BF. Building on the previous section, he says:

“Your new role is that of interventionist. Liberator. Your target is [Boghossian] faith. Your pro bono clients are individuals who’ve been infected by [Boghossian] faith.”

Now, I don’t think Street Epistemologists actually do this. I don’t think they’re attacking the existence of BF. They are instead trying to undermine religious beliefs more generally. This is perhaps one area where Boghossian’s suggestions have gone completely unheeded (in fact, as one observes in his reported “interventions,” he often doesn’t take his own advice).

Doxastic Doubt

The last thing to note–or really reinforce–is the idea that Street Epistemologists are basically just trying to instill doubt in people. They aren’t actually in the business of creating atheists. He goes through great lengths in the book describing what he calls “Doxastic Closure.” He uses the term to mean “that either a specific belief one holds, or that one’s entire belief system, is resistant to revision.” The SE’s goal is to move a person from doxastic closure to doxastic openness, or a willingness to revise one’s beliefs.

As others have noted, these terms and definitions are quite odd. This will become more obvious in Part 2, but the point here is that SE is principally about instilling doubt. They want Christians to doubt their belief in Christianity.

In the next installment, we’ll look closely at the method Boghossian proposes successfully moves religious people from doxastic closure to doxastic openness (and eventually all the way to atheism).

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6 comments

  1. When you keep calling Boghossian’s methods or theories “Boghosian’s Faith” or “BF”, you missed the point. When people use the word faith they may mean a person they have faith in or they may mean it spiritually. When asked to define faith when people are talking about something in a spiritual way they will often say, “Belief in things unseen.” They will say after looking at evidence, I have faith that’s true or that’s not true. Not because they are taking facts into making up their mind. It’s just faith. That’s what Peter is targeting. It’s not Boghosian Faith. It’s how they (Christian or other believer) defines their own use of the word Faith. No one is twisting the believers definition of what they mean when they use the word.
    I don’t know why Christians are all bent out of shape at Peter writing how others have defined faith.

    1. Maybe you missed the part where I mentioned that Christians shouldn’t target that definition of faith in responding to SE. In fact, I named it “Boghossian Faith” to avoid that problem altogether. If anything, I’m helping move the conversation along.

      My recommendation is that you slow down and do your best to charitably interpret what is being said.

    2. Yes they are, because they are trained to make someone question their faith. If I spend long enough time with a child, I can get them to believe anything.

  2. I would be interested in the motives behind this type of secular evangelism. I understand the motives behind theistic evangelism, as they believe that there is a distinct and imperative good in someone becoming a believer. (Heaven, paradise, enlightenment, hell, etc…)

    From an atheistic and purely naturalistic point of view, there is no real end goal for converting people from religious beliefs. The author seems to make the point that this method intends to remove the ‘angry atheist’ stereotype but I don’t feel it does.

    Unless the author can prove the argument that a non-theist is a natural or societal benefit over a theist, it’s simply an angry atheist kindly telling people ‘you’re wrong’. Seeing how this author targets Christianity, while pretending to target all religions, it looks like more of the same.

    Christians are followers of Jesus Christ, who taught self-sacrifice, compassion, love, altruism and gentleness. Even a tertiary look at the top charitable organizations in our world would show that they were founded based on the tenets of Jesus Christ and His teachings in the Scripture. Given this, any ‘atheist evangelist’ that approaches me would have a very steep hill to climb indeed.

    1. Here’s what Boghossian says: “Helping rid people of illusion is a core part of the Street Epistemologist’s project and an ancient and honorable goal. Disabusing others of warrantless certainty, and reinstilling their sense of wonder and their desire to know, is a profound contribution to a life worth living.” He also cites the various atrocities committed by the Taliban as reason to disabuse people of “faith.”

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