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.
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.
The first thing to note is that Boghossian views himself (and SE’s) as interventionists.
He goes on to say that,
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.
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:
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).
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).