What if I told you that anyone can navigate a real-life discussion with a Street Epistemologist? It’s true. In this post, I lay out 5 ways to respond to Street Epistemology. Not every interaction will be the same, so some of these tips will need to be modified or even abandoned. At the end of this post, I’ll explain what to do in such a situation.
According to Peter Boghossian, the founder of Street Epistemology, creating atheists is as easy as attacking faith. He details this method in his book “A Manual for Creating Atheists.” Since being published, Street Epistemologists (a term coined by Boghossian) have adapted his message in various ways to fit their own personality and agenda. But the core of his method hasn’t changed. It centers on faith (even if the word faith isn’t explicitly mentioned). Step 1: identify a belief that is held on the basis of faith; Step 2: introduce doubt by asking how they know that belief is true. That’s the method.
These responses fall into two main categories: (i) Define Your Terms and (ii) Slow Down and Think.
(i) Define Your Terms
People use words differently. The first two responses are meant to show how important it is that you define your terms. If you don’t, you’re in danger of talking past one another and having a fruitless dialogue. I assume that’s not what you want. But more than that, clarifying what you mean can work in your favor. 1 and 2 are prime examples. I encourage you to think and locate other terms that need defining.
#1: Define your level of confidence.
Early on in the interview, the Street Epistemologist will ask how confident you are in Christianity. For example, they’ll ask, “On a scale of 0-100, where 0 is all doubts and no confidence, and 100 is all confidence and no doubts, how confident are you that Christianity is true?” A lot of believers have been taught, quite wrongly in my opinion, that we shouldn’t profess doubt. So you might be tempted to blurt out, “100!” Don’t take the bait. Instead, define your terms by asking to calibrate the scale.
There are two ways of doing this. First, you can ask to define the numbers. Instead of 100 being defined as “all confidence, no doubts,” tell them that 100 ought to mean, “my level of confidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.” Historians aren’t certain that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but they believe it given the evidence. (You don’t have to use Caesar, btw.) If the Street Epistemologist is willing to define the numbers that way, then respond with 100 or whatever number you’re actually at. The second option is to leave the numbers alone and ask where they think ‘Caesar crossing the Rubicon’ (or some other well-attested historical event) sits on the scale. If they refuse to do so, ask why. You might consider refusing yourself.
Why is this important? Claims about ancient history are never certain. We can have very good reasons to think they actually happened, but it’s unreasonable to expect certainty. (This shouldn’t worry believers since knowledge that Christianity is true doesn’t require being certain that Christianity is true. Moreover, as any first year philosophy student will tell you, we are absolutely certain of very little.) As an analogy, we may never know with certainty that Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Forum, but we can claim to know it on the basis of the historical evidence left behind. The same goes for belief in Christianity. There are very good reasons to think it’s true given the evidence we have.
#2: Define faith as “trust.”
Defining what you mean by faith is paramount. The Street Epistemologist’s goal is to find beliefs you hold on the basis of “faith.” Really what they’re after are beliefs you hold without any evidence. The problem is that the word “faith” in the Bible does not mean “believing something without any evidence.” Faith is not blind.
Shlemon explains that faith, according to the Bible, is not blind. It’s more like trust. He goes on to point out how this definition of faith (as trust) fits well with the rest of the biblical narrative:
He goes on:
There’s more to say, but you get the idea. The biblical definition of faith is not against reason, it’s not against evidence, it actually works with both. In the words of William Lane Craig, “Faith is trusting in what you have good reason to think is true.” Granted, people use faith in all sorts of ways, but this is how the Bible defines it. In other words, this is the definition we ought to be using as Christians.
So when the Street Epistemologist asks you what you mean by faith, you ought to give this definition. Notice, however, that using this definition comes with a price. If you claim to have faith in God, in the sense of trusting in what you have good reason to think is true, you must be prepared to answer the inevitable follow-up: “Well, what are your reasons?”
If you don’t know what reasons count in favor of Christianity, or what constitutes a good reason, then you need to stop what you’re doing and dig into apologetics (which, btw, is commanded in the Bible, see 1 Peter 3:15). If you’re wondering where to start, I suggest purchasing and reading the top 3 books recommended in this post. By the time you finish those, you’ll have plenty of ideas where to go next.
(ii) Slow Down and Think
The remaining responses remind you to slow down and really think about the conversation. Engage your rational faculties. Think with your brain, not your emotions.
#3: Seek the truth.
Seeking the truth means, well, seeking the truth, but it also means being honest–honest with yourself, and honest with other people. If you believe that Christianity is true simply because you read about Jesus in the Bible and believed what it said, then tell that to the Street Epistemologist. Don’t lie to escape embarrassment (though to be clear: basing your beliefs on the testimony of the biblical authors is not something to be ashamed of).
Seeking truth requires honesty. But it also requires setting aside your emotions and engaging your rational faculties. I’m convinced that Street Epistemology is so effective because it engages on a precognitive level. Here’s an example of a typical SE exchange:
Rando: I believe in X.
SE: How confident are you that X is real?
SE: What’s the number one reason you’re convinced that X is true?
Rando: I’ve experienced Y [or insert some other personal experience].
SE: Have you considered that your experience could just be something going on in your brain?
Rando: …..Ummmm, good question…. I’m not really sure how to answer that……
This is more or less the average SE exchange posted on YouTube (only much shorter). Even though the Street Epistemologist doesn’t really tell you what to conclude based on your answers, they’re hoping you see it on your own. In other words, they want you to leap over all the necessary steps in what would be an argument and just go straight to accepting their conclusion. Take a look at the reasoning:
Step 2: I haven’t considered the possibility that my personal experience is just something going on in my brain.
Conclusion: Therefore, I should doubt that Christianity is true.
No one can rationally infer the conclusion from steps one and two,  but that’s kind of the point. According to Street Epistemology, the best way to instill doubt in people isn’t to argue with them. In fact, Street Epistemologists are warned against giving arguments (there’s a section in Boghossian’s book entitled “Avoid Facts”).
So how does this work? Why do so many Christians in these discussions jump to irrational conclusions? Street Epistemology is a bit like advertising. You aren’t being sold on a rational argument, you’re being sold on your own feelings. Let me give a quick example. Toward the beginning of a recently posted Street Epistemology video,  the Christian says she is wondering where the conversation might go if she accepts. Eager to proceed, the Street Epistemologist responds,
How interesting. The conversation goes where she takes him. He is a “mirror” for her own beliefs. But is that really what he’s doing? Of course not. Street Epistemology is atheistic evangelism. He’s selling her doubt–just not in the form of a logical argument. Notice: he isn’t using facts and evidence to build a well-reasoned case against Christianity and presenting that to her; he’s using her, in other words, her own feelings. This short clip from Madmen demonstrates how crafty advertisers use the same kind of strategy:
Don says, “You are the product. You, feeling something.” Isn’t that remarkable? In advertising, feelings are what really move people. It’s not the product. It’s not a sound argument with true premises. Logic isn’t even involved. Street Epistemology, like advertising, bypasses your rational faculties and engages you on a nonrational level.
So what should you do? Here’s what I suggest: put your thoughts into a deductive argument and then analyze its soundness (these words I’m using are technical, so if you don’t know what they mean, visit the hyperlinks). Do your conclusions actually follow from your steps or do they sort of pop into being out of nothing? This process a great way of exposing hidden assumptions.
Seek the truth by submitting your feelings to logic.
#4: Faith is not a method.
The ultimate goal for the Street Epistemologist is to point out, through carefully crafted questions, that faith is not a reliable method for knowing what’s true. That’s because, in their minds, the process of faith leads to all sorts of different beliefs (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, etc. all claim to know their religion is true by faith). So clearly, faith is not a reliable process. Reliable methods get us to true beliefs most of the time (and this is true by definition).
The problem is that, as we’ve just seen in response #2, faith is not a method or a process for knowing what’s true. Faith is trusting in what you have good reason to think is true. Faith is not a method. The only option left at this point is for Street Epistemologist to attack your reasons. And if you aren’t equipped to defend your faith, there’s still a possibility you’ll be made to look like you believe in Christianity without any. The way to avoid this is by becoming a student of apologetics. I never could have imagined the wealth of knowledge that exists in defense of Christianity (e.g., see The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology). The only thing keeping you from intellectually engaging your faith is you.
As Christians, we are called to love God with all of our minds. Maybe what looked like doubt is actually the beginning of a radical new you: a person that is confident to share their faith because they know, not only that it can change lives, but that there are good reasons to think it’s justified, rational, warranted, and true!
“This all sounds great,” you might be thinking, “but I just don’t have enough time to read all those books.” Here’s a shocking statistic: in the time you spend on social media each year, you could read 200 books. It’s not a matter of having no time; it’s a matter of not using your time well. (For a handful of time management tips, check out this post.)
#5: Don’t take it too seriously.
Don’t take your conversation with a Street Epistemologist too seriously. Why? As I’ve noted above, Street Epistemology works on a precognitive level. You aren’t reasoned into doubting Christianity. If the method works, you’ve skipped directly to that conclusion.
Ask yourself: do I know when a belief is justified? This is actually a huge debate in epistemology. What criteria must our beliefs meet in order to be justified? Does every justified belief have to be supported by empirical evidence? If the answer is yes, then what empirical evidence supports the claim that every justified belief has to be supported by empirical evidence? Until you’ve thought through these kinds of questions, you’re not really in a position to know whether testimony, for example, is a bad reason to believe that Christianity is true (hint: it’s not).
BONUS TIP: Stop the interview after 5 minutes.
This tip actually qualifies as a little dirty. Some Street Epistemologists lure you into a conversation by saying that the interview will last 5 minutes. This is done for at least two reasons. The first reason is bait. You’re more likely to buy an interview if you know that it won’t cost a lot of time. Secondly, they are establishing roles. The Street Epistemologist is interviewing and you are being interviewed. This means that any questions you have about them or their beliefs can be shelved until after the interview. In most cases, however, the interview lasts much longer than 5 minutes. Questions that pop up in your mind usually go unasked. And this is all by design.
Here’s what I suggest. If they ask for 5 minutes, accept on the condition that the interview stops at 5 minutes. From then on you want to have a regular, unscripted conversation. If they don’t mention a time limit, suggest one. Say you’re happy to participate in an interview, but only for 5 minutes. After that point, you want to have a normal, unrehearsed exchange where either side can ask questions.
Keep in mind that Street Epistemology works best when the atheist is in the driver seat. Taking away the interviewer/interviewee dynamic is the equivalent of forcing a scripted actor to perform improv. They might still do well, but the dynamic has changed completely. The reason I mention this is that, if they’re good, they will have ways of making the interview longer. They might insist they just have one more question. If they’re feeling desperate, they might even shame you for not answering (e.g., they might say that good Christians ought to know how to answer this). Set a timer. If they don’t have one, set one on your phone and end the interview at the buzzer.
Note: I’m not suggesting that you do Street Epistemology on them. I’m suggesting that you end Street Epistemology. Stop the interview dynamic and have a normal, unscripted conversation where both parties are asking and answering questions. That’s what I’m suggesting.
What is Your Goal?
As the saying goes, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” You probably won’t remember half of the tips in this blog post in a real interaction. Here’s what I suggest: set an overall goal that allows for improvisation. For example, if your goal is “Define my terms and slow down and think,” you can use these responses methodically or completely abandon them. This makes success attainable.
To learn more about responding to Street Epistemology, check out these free resources:
- How to Respond to Street Epistemology
- My Conversation with a Street Epistemologist
- Tim McGrew and I Critique Street Epistemology
- Posts tagged ‘Street Epistemology’