I would like to say a few words about Street Epistemology.[i] If you are not familiar with Street Epistemology, it’s an approach to having conversations with believers. Street Epistemology is based on the notion that polite one-on-one dialog between atheists and believers is the most effective way to lead believers to question the soundness of their faith-based beliefs.
This “polite dialog” approach traces back to the Socratic dialogs that appear in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (c. 424 – c. 348 BCE). The idea is that by asking the right questions, a believer can be coaxed to recognize inconsistencies in their current web of beliefs.
The term “Street Epistemology” was coined by Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, whose self-professed goal is to eliminate faith.[ii] To learn more about Street Epistemology, click here or here. To watch videos of the best known Street Epistemologist, Anthony Magnabosco, in action, click here.
There is a lot about Street Epistemology that I really like, and a few things that concern me. Let me focus first on what I like. Street Epistemology offers a viable solution to the two primary problems that atheists face, namely that (1) atheists are discriminated against and that (2) our society relies too much on faith and indoctrination rather than reason.
Street Epistemology helps to eliminate discrimination against atheists simply by making atheists more visible. It is instructive to remember how harshly homosexuals were discriminated against only a few decades ago. They combatted this discrimination first and foremost by coming out of the closet. The same strategy will work for atheists. This is a message we often hear from atheists such as David Silverman.[iii] Likewise, Richard Dawkins, who is affiliated with Street Epistemology (via the Atheos app, which I will discuss shortly), has long advocated for the power of atheists coming out of the closet. Despite my own activism and support of the atheist community, I continue to believe that the most impactful action I have ever taken is simply to begin to publicly identify myself as an atheist. Those Street Epistemologists who openly identify as atheists are helping to pave the way to a future when atheists will enjoy equal rights with believers.
Street Epistemology is also highly effective in countering the reliance of believers on faith and indoctrination rather than reason. One need only watch Anthony Magnabosco’s videos (linked above) to see how believers can be gently coaxed into using reason. Part of the explanation as to why Street Epistemology works is that it takes into consideration particular psychological aspects of how beliefs are held.
It turns out that simply arguing against a person’s beliefs and presenting facts to prompt them to question their beliefs often fails to work. Indeed, this direct approach can be counterproductive. A series of studies conducted in 2005 and 2006 revealed what is known as the “backfire” effect.[iv] When people who are misinformed on a topic are provided with countervailing facts, these people will often become even more confident in their misinformed views. According to Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on one of these studies, this phenomenon of entrenchment may be a defense mechanism to avoid cognitive dissonance.
The backfire effect might be a collateral consequence of our natural propensity to recognize patterns in our environment, in which non-conforming noise is filtered out. Believers, focusing intensely on their existing beliefs, ignore what they perceive as increasing “noise” obstructing the truth. This initial reaction against new information does not make education futile, but it does confirm the old dictum that a little learning is a dangerous thing.
The proper response to inadequate education is more education. But how do we get people to be receptive to education? According to Nyhan, people are more receptive to new information if they feel secure. They must be in a nonthreatening situation before they will be emotionally able to shift their minds toward potentially unsettling information.
This suggests that Street Epistemology is an especially vital tool in opening the minds of our society’s most insecure and information-deprived citizens.[v] Educated and thoughtful people suffer backfire effect, too, but they can nonetheless be fed information in higher doses. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims must be made to feel emotionally secure before they will be receptive to even small doses of facts contrary to their worldviews. Even among educated and thoughtful people, patience and courtesy seem to be very helpful if not absolutely necessary ingredients. As my grandma used to say, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” (It turns out that Grandma was wrong about flies, who are drawn to the smell of vinegar because it correlates with the decomposing vegetation that many flies eagerly consume, but her advice holds true with respect to humans.)
In my opinion, Street Epistemology—or something like it—is not simply one additional or alternative approach to making society more rational. Its promotion of civility and its emphasis on how we think rather than what we think are two essential traits in any enlightened culture.
Now let me describe potential pitfalls in Street Epistemology. I do not mention these pitfalls in order to cast doubt on the merits of Street Epistemology. I point them out precisely because I do not want them to threaten the success of the general approach advocated by Street Epistemology.
One mistake that Street Epistemologists are apt to fall into is supposing that their way of countering faith is so effective that other ways can be neglected without catastrophic consequences. Boghossian and Magnabosco both concede that there are other more-or-less effective ways to instill religious doubt. Yet Boghossian insists that atheists invest too much effort in responding to rational apologetic arguments offered in defense of religion by the theologian William Lane Craig. Boghossian waves his hand dismissively and says that most believers have never even heard of Craig. According to Boghossian, Craig is “irrelevant.”
I readily concede Boghossian’s point that most believers have never heard of Craig. Most believers acquired their belief, not from sophisticated apologists such as Craig, but from their parents or their local preacher. Although they did not reason their way into faith, they must reason their way out of faith. Believers, whenever they begin to feel uncomfortable pangs of doubt, will likely turn for relief to people like William Lane Craig. These believers will fail to make a full recovery from faith without the assistance of counter-apologists. We cannot afford to let Craig and his ilk have the final word.
As author of the book Religion Refuted, which rebuts arguments by Craig and other apologists, I have devoted many years to researching apologetics. I understand how alluring some of the apologetic arguments can be. I also understand that a good way for someone to fine tune their rational faculties is to exercise them by examining the best arguments all parties in the Great Debate can offer. If we wish to encourage people to think critically about religion, we need to present them with the most thoughtful perspectives on the topic.
I agree with Boghossian on the importance of getting people to make decisions based on reason rather than faith. That is why the original manuscript of Religion Refuted started with the chapters that discuss faith. I subsequently moved the faith chapters closer to the end of the book, however, when I became convinced that the rational arguments should be addressed first. After talking to many believers, it became clear to me that very few of them cite faith as the sole basis for belief. Almost without exception, believers tell me that there are good (though not conclusive) arguments for belief, and that faith fills the remaining gap. Invariably, once people recognize that the arguments for belief are unsound, they cease to see merit in faith. They abandon faith as they learn to reason.
That said, I would agree that Boghossian’s emphasis on faith rather than apologetics is more effective in brief one-on-one conversations with believers. A brief conversation simply doesn’t afford time to delve into all the nuances of the apologetic arguments, especially if the believer is a novice at apologetics. A book like Religion Refuted is the proper venue for that kind of in-depth examination. If you’re aiming to awaken the minds of everyday believers through brief conversations, Street Epistemology is the way to go.
The most common complaint raised by atheists is that Street Epistemologists seem to be following a script, routinely asking the same questions. One such question is, “On a scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is ‘I am full of doubt’ and 100 is ‘I have absolute confidence in my religious beliefs’, where would you rank yourself?” Another frequently asked question is, “Consider the reason you just gave for believing in Christianity. Would you accept that as a good reason if it were given by a Muslim to justify embracing the Islamic faith?”
Operating from a script is an unsavory practice in the view of many atheists. It is reminiscent of the scripts used by charlatans like Ray Comfort.[vi] It seems unoriginal and perhaps even manipulative.
As someone who happily identifies as a “free thinker,” I enjoy free-flowing and spontaneous exchanges of ideas. A conversation is more interesting if there’s a potential for genuine surprises. I share the commonly-expressed discomfort in following a premeditated procedure or script.
Then again, as an author, I also appreciate the importance of figuring out the point you want to make and deliberately arranging your words in the most effective and concise way possible. That’s a service to your audience. It’s not some cheap gimmick.
The reason we expect books to be carefully edited, whereas we recoil from the use of scripts in conversation, largely boils down to the difference between the customary role of a book and the customary role of a face-to-face conversation. A book is written for a mass audience. A conversation, in contrast, is meant to be personal. Indeed, Boghossian and Magnabosco continually stress the importance of establishing a personal rapport with the believer prior to broaching the topic of religion. Yet, what could be less personal than a script? The believer is expecting an authentic personal exchange, but is instead treated as a customer to be surreptitiously sold a product they don’t want.
Scripted, or at least seemingly scripted, conversations carry a moral stench. I don’t know of any kind of air freshener that we can spray on these conversations to completely remove the stench. But perhaps the stench can be mitigated by openly admitting that we are Street Epistemologists, that we have a clearly-stated agenda and a publicly-accessible method, and that we have no desire to deceive anyone. Keep no secrets. Don’t be coy. Be a straight-shooter.
Part of being a straight-shooter is telling the unvarnished truth about why Street Epistemology seems scripted. Given that believers fail to think rationally in some very predictable ways, the skeptic’s response is apt to be equally predictable. It should hardly be surprising that a systematic failure to think rationally is met with a systematic solution. The purpose of medicine is not to offer a novel and unique treatment every time a particular disease is encountered. If a doctor prescribed a totally spontaneous and unprecedented treatment each time a particular disease was diagnosed, we would not consider that a knowledgeable doctor. We’d call him a quack. To the extent that Street Epistemology is regimented, it is because it expresses a medicinal formulation that works. It cures the patient. To deny the patient the treatment he or she needs because you have a craving for novelty is simply irresponsible. It is malpractice. It reflects a lack of compassion and, dare I say it, a lack of willingness to follow the real-world evidence of what works.
By the way, my use of a medical analogy should not be misconstrued as implying that religious faith is a mental disease. I do not believe that faith is a disease or disorder. Calling believers crazy, delusional, or stupid, as some atheists do, is needlessly offensive and it hampers any effort to engage in a fruitful discussion. Besides that, it is inaccurate. Religious people may be mistaken about some things they believe, but the first thing the Street Epistemologist should recognize is that all humans are fallible.
Another reason atheists resist Street Epistemology is that they have a distaste for evangelizing. Believe me, I get this. I’m an introvert. I rarely initiate conversations. I have never in my life initiated a conversation on the topic of religion with any stranger or any casual acquaintance. For people like me, Street Epistemology happens only when someone else broaches the topic of religion, which actually happens fairly regularly here in the South.
One reason atheists don’t want to evangelize is that they don’t want to be the kind of jerk who rudely challenges every believer they meet to a debate. Incidentally, I looked up “evangelical atheist” in the Urban Dictionary and the entry said, “See asshole.” Most atheists probably get their fill of debating believers on the Internet. It is nice to not have to also engage with believers’ ignorance and belligerency in the real world.
Street Epistemologists respond that their face-to-face conversations are not debates. Strictly speaking, that is correct. But let us be frank. These are not merely conversations. They’re not just friendly chats. The Street Epistemologists have an agenda and a strategy to make the believer become a doubter. Their conversations represent a contest of ideas as surely as do the most structured of debates. And if the Street Epistemologists deny or conceal their agenda or their strategy, they are being dishonest with the believer and will suffer a consequent loss of trust—and deservedly so.
A contest of ideas is a good thing. There are many ways to participate in this contest of ideas. Street Epistemology recognizes that the most effective way to engage in this contest of ideas is to be polite. In face-to-face discussions, it is unproductive to launch an ill-spirited assault on your interlocutor’s character, IQ, or matrilineal ancestors. We must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Street Epistemology has already embraced the notion that we should be courteous and that we should have genuine compassion and concern for our interlocutors. The next step is to embrace full disclosure of our own perspective and our didactic methods. Yes, we are participating in the Great Debate. There’s no shame in that.
To help those who want to engage in Street Epistemology, or who just want to learn more about it, Boghossian coordinated a team effort to develop an application that runs on a smart phone. The app is named Atheos. This application presents the user with a series of statements that a believer might make and then offers the user the challenge of selecting the best response from four possible responses. To learn more about the Atheos app, click this link: http://www.atheos-app.com/.
For full disclosure, I am a contributor to the Atheos app, along with many others within the atheist community, including David Silverman, Aron Ra, Robert M. Price, John R. Shook, David Smalley, Susan Blackmore, Guy P. Harrison, Andrew Seidel, John W. Loftus, Ryan Bell, David Fitzgerald, Dave Rubin, and James A. Lindsay. I, and presumably the other contributors, believe that the Atheos app has the potential to be a useful tool if used properly.
That is not to say that there aren’t problems in the concept behind Atheos. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the Atheos app is not well suited for implementing the Socratic method that lies at the heart of Street Epistemology. Let me explain why I say that.
Someone applying the Socratic method typically uses a series of questions to prompt the interlocutor to recognize some dubious proposition to which his (the interlocutor’s) existing beliefs implicitly commit him. The questioner does not merely assert the logical connection to the proposition, but rather relies on carefully crafted questions to lead the interlocutor himself to recognize the logical connection.
This strategy, the principle strategy of the Socratic method, is predicated on two facts. First, the person being questioned does not see the connection until it is traced out during the conversation. Second, the questioner already recognizes the connection. Indeed, it is the questioner’s comprehension of the connection that explains why the questioner has crafted the particular sequence of questions that draw out the connection. In other words, the questioner must know the end-game.
And this is where the design of the Atheos app is inherently flawed. The user of the Atheos app may not know—and there’s no reason to presume the user would know—the end-game of the sequence of questions. In the most effective Socratic dialogs, the questioner understands in advance where the questions are leading. In contrast, the user of the Atheos app cannot be expected to know this. The result is that the user will not understand what makes an answer correct until later in the dialog, once the logical connection has been revealed.
Although the Atheos app is not well suited for simulating a Socratic dialog[vii], it is very well suited for presenting the user with the kind of multiple choice questions found throughout much of the application. The spirit of charity and the focus on rational belief formation are exemplified throughout the Atheos app. I think every atheist—whether a fan of Street Epistemology or not—should get Atheos and take it for a spin. It’s actually very fun. And it is thought-provoking. I have learned a lot from using the app. It also comes with a handy glossary and some essays that are worth reading. The Atheos app is beneficial quite apart from its utility in honing one’s Street Epistemology skills.
I have tried in this blog post to present an unbiased perspective on the merits and the potential pitfalls of Street Epistemology. I welcome feedback or comments from others.
[i] In philosophy, the word epistemology denotes the study of how we form and justify our beliefs.
[ii] There are numerous definitions of faith, at least three of which I accept. Boghossian himself provides two definitions, one of which I accept.
[iii] Silverman lays this out most plainly in his book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World
[v] The evolutionist Jerry Coyne gave a lecture in which he explains that the best way to get rid of evolution-denial is to get rid of religion and the best way to get rid of religion is to get rid of the kind of insecurity that people feel when living within a dysfunctional society. You can watch this fascinating lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW9G2YVtBYc
[vi] Ray Comfort is a conservative Christian who is notorious for asking a scripted sequence of questions that strive to guide his interlocutor to the conclusion that Christianity is a reasonable worldview. Most critics, myself included, consider his shtick to be intellectually vapid and morally dubious.
[vii] Actually, the Atheos app would be suited for Socratic dialogs if the user were playing the role of the believer rather than the Street Epistemologist. As a retired computer programmer, however, I recognize that this would require some fairly significant changes in the application’s algorithm.