Notes on Peter Boghossian

Peter Boghossian’s book has an aggressive title, A Manual for Creating Atheists, though it is in no way as ‘angry’ as Greta Christina’s book, discussed last time. Boghossian is a faculty member in Portland State University’s philosophy department, and his modus operandi is Socratic dialogue in the service of what he calls “street epistemology”. This means that every chance he has, he engages in a conversation with people he meets on the street, in the supermarket, in prisons (he does this outreach thing), and so on, about what they believe and why.

He doesn’t challenge people about “evidence” for what they believe; in fact, his first rule of engagement is: avoid facts. Don’t discuss evidence. The people you engage are not used to thinking based on evidence. It’s not about changing beliefs, but about changing how people form beliefs.

And he distinguishes between faith and religion. Religion is a social institution with many admirable qualities – the social community of churches, the recognition of life milestones. He wants to focus on faith, which he defines as “pretending to know things you don’t know”.

He gives numerous examples of what he calls “interventions” – those conversations he strikes up with people about what they believe and why. My takeaway from these is that most people acquire faith and religion without thinking about it in any deep way – they accept whatever the conventional wisdom of their local community is, or the parameters of particular beliefs, without any awareness of their religion’s past, or why their traditions may be historically suspect. Over and over again, his “interventions” do (or sometimes do not) simply instill a shadow of a doubt. A young lady is sorry the author won’t be “saved” by Jesus. He asks, if you had some reason to think Jesus was a myth, does that mean you are a bad person? Pause.

Boghossian, like many of the writers of these books, has a chapter devoted to “anti-apologetics” – supplying reasonable responses to the typical challenges from believers about the need for faith and the supposed illegitimacy of science.

There is one chapter, chapter 8, on a topic that I’ve not seen in any similar books and makes this book worth reading. He examines the culture of “academic leftism”, and traces the history of liberalism, from John Locke in the 17th century, though the 19th century’s social liberalism, to the academic liberalism of the 20th century. Multiculturalism, the acceptance of other cultures and cultural practices, has spilled over into rote acceptance of all points of view about systems of knowing the world, as if faith in the Koran and the scientific method are just two equally valid ways of knowing the world. This has translated into an academic taboo from criticizing any cultural process or practice; such criticism is tantamount to hate speech.

But this means that faith becomes immune to criticism; that academics are robbed of the opportunity to make moral and epistemic judgments. The result is that students are left without a capacity for critical rationality – and, ironically, believing they’re better people as a result for suspending judgment on irrational ways of thinking about the world.

The author, obviously, thinks this is a tragic situation that needs correcting. Academics should support what works, and point out to their students the ways of thinking that don’t.

I agree obviously; and on his terms, I am a classical/social liberal, but not a leftist.

Coincidentally, David Brin just a few days ago posted on his blog A Thumbnail Political Bestiary, which distinguishes between liberal, libertarian, leftist, and rightist, which I’ll have to read more closely before commenting.

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