A Manual for Creating Atheists
Forward by Michael Shermer
Pitchstone Publishing (Durham, NC, 2013)
ISBN: 978 1 939578 09 9
278 pages, paperback
Review by Joe Szimhart (Nov, 2013; Sept 2015)
Peter Boghossian ends his acknowledgments by stating, “Finally, thanks in advance to those who’ve agreed to let me sleep on their couch when I go into hiding after publication of this book” (236). I am not certain whom he might be hiding from after reading A Manual for Creating Atheists, unless he means those people of “faith” with a jihad in mind against the infidels. My hunch is that his book will sell mainly to the crowd to whom he preaches, that niche audience enamored by “The Four Horseman” of fundamental atheism: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. A less enthusiastic crowd (I am being facetiously understated here) of readers will most likely emerge from Fundamentalists among Evangelicals and Catholics that will invariably resort to the very arguments Boghossian says they will: I know God exists because…(you can fill in any number of unsustainable proofs from believers using everything from New Agey statements like I know it is true because of my experience to reasonably impressive arguments from Thomas Aquinas to the hedge bet of Pascal’s Wager).
This book is about faith as a disease or disorder of the mind, as a type of delusion that needs to be diminished and even eradicated if humanity is to evolve and flourish. Faith to Boghossian is not one of the three prime virtues of the Christian faith, (err, religion). At issue is a faith that “God” exists with no reasonable epistemological ground for evidence of that “God” except as a construct of language, myth, and cult. I place God in quotes because the God of this book falls somewhere in the realm of the fundamentalist’s God that fell from heaven into our world myths as a sky deity from “up there.” To Greeks it was Zeus or the Demiurge, to Jews, Elohim/Yahweh, to ancient Aryans, Indra, and to Muslims, Allah. God by definition is culturally bound, and within any culture a high god tends to have a variety of interpretations from concrete to abstract. The more sophisticated versions claim that the deity is unfathomable, infinite, non-dual, incomprehensible, and unlike anything we can imagine—you know the drill. Most world religions take on something like the Advaita school of Hinduism that states in the end we just cannot know, we have no certainty. Brahman is as incomprehensible as G-d or YHWH of the Yahwistic tradition of ancient Judaism. The name is so hallowed (Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name) that “G-d” or YHWH must not be spoken let alone illustrated—tell that to my religion of Roman Catholicism! (Yes, I am a kind of Catholic that might border on heresy).
Boghossian offers no clear definition of God, certainly no sophisticated one, but I gather from reading this book that his target is faith in the God of the fundamentalist, the God of certain faith as if faith is a track to ultimate reality, the I know I am right forever kind of faith. This was Nietzsche’s target in his 19th century God is dead motif and Nietzsche is a hero of the Four Horsemen and most western atheists.
Boghossian would take issue, had he mentioned it, with the anonymously penned Cloud of Unknowing whose author, a Christian mystic or monk, diminishes the self to make God the all and everything. The atheist Boghossian would diminish God and make the self in its scientifically observable and testable environment the all and everything or, possibly, Nietzsche’s Ǖbermensch. There is one caveat, however, among all proper atheists and skeptics and that is: If you have an extraordinary claim, then you provide the extraordinary evidence. Without evidence that is testable, you have nothing but an imaginary being in God, that is if God is a being. Thus far, the human race has produced no testable God or gods, Ouija boards and spirit mediums notwithstanding. You have a right to imagine and channel any deity you want, just do not claim that your channeled god is anything more than what is in your head or tradition.
Boghossian wants to create atheists that are not vigilantes aiming to deprive anyone of their rights. That is not what this book is about despite some strident language here and there: “This book will teach you how to talk people out of their faith” (15 and reiterated on 42). What he means is “friendly persuasion” according to one back-cover endorsement by Horseman Richard Dawkins (who prefers the bulldozer approach to faith delusion).
Boghossian seems serious: He intends his book to spark a movement of “Street Epistemologists” who will chip away through purposeful intervention at religious faith delusion and who are willing to learn to “deprogram” devotees from fideism.
This book was brought to my attention by readers that noted references in it (pp 66, 84, 115, and 267) to my position paper on defining cult and what deprogramming a cult member is about. A Razor's Edge Indeed (2009) offers a flexible model of cult formation from open and democratic to closed and authoritarian—not all cults are “bad.” The paper also offers some hints regarding the intervention process. Now, my position comes from interventions I have conducted since 1980, most of which were mini-interventions with chance encounters (in the thousands) but more than five hundred formally arranged and paid for by concerned relatives or friends. The latter on average lasted several days each whether they succeeded in convincing the person to emerge from the cult or not. More than half of the latter were “successful.”
Cult-related intervention based on non-coercive models (the person in the cult can call it off any time before and during intervention) is a very difficult business. Imagine trying to convince a true blue Democrat that smokes pot to reconsider Rush Limbaugh as an upright thinker, or a Limbaugh ditto-head to extend the New Deal and accept Obamacare and you will begin to grasp what it means to conduct a formal cult intervention. I say begin, because there are basic parameters required before taking on a cult intervention. First, there must be evidence of undue influence by a group or leader with a transcendent message. Second, a concerned party must invite me to intervene and pay my fee if I require any. Boghossian is not recommending formal, arranged intervention here. He is encouraging skeptics and atheists as street epistemologists to hone their techniques to help people surmount the limitations of certainty in matters of faith. Faith is not the boogey man; certainty that faith trumps science and reason is.
The best chapter for my taste is Chapter 8, “Faith and the Academy” in which Boghossian takes issue with the practically paranoid relativism of “contemporary academic leftism.” I agree with him that leftism in the academy has infected modern thinkers with the meme that it is immoral to apply a rigorous epistemological critique to religious beliefs in the name of being “tolerant.” In plain terms, the leftist in the academy cannot view the holy book of the Muslim as a foundation myth lest he offend a radicalized Muslim. This is the dangerous reaction that Boghossian warns about and that concerns him—the reaction from both the left in the academy and the radical in a religion that will cause him to seek a place to hide.
Okay, so I will give this book a four-star rating not because I think it is great philosophy or a great “guide” for street epistemologists, but I do appreciate the author’s intent: Wake up people; Modernism is here to stay. Your religion or faith has to deal with it. Stop making dumb faith claims like humans once walked with Tyrannosaurus Rex and Noah really packed two of all known land species on that mythical ark he built. The miracles of Jesus must be interpreted metaphorically or they lose all applicable sacred meaning. No amount of novenas by Catholic nuns could have prevented Hitler's final solution or stopped Mt. St. Helens from erupting. In my view, that kind of Fundamentalism is basically blasphemy. G-d by any name or concept cannot be that stupid. But that is just me, a nobody in this discussion among published heavyweights and authorized theologians.
Maybe this makes me a critical thinker, but there are a few things I do not like about this book. Boghossian seems to ignore a basic principle of social influence, that of social attraction to certainty. Street epistemologists are human and being human they will fall sway to an irrational self-reinforcement in the intervention process. Look at it this way: The true purpose of sending Mormon youth on a two-year mission is not to bring in more recruits; it is to cement their Mormon faith or positions. Take any topic, one that two debaters know nothing about—say, the wisdom of mining magnesium from a 5,000 ft. deep ocean trench—and invariably, whatever side a debater takes he will adopt as his own, more or less. It is a matter of investment of self that wants to eblieve the investment is good. If you are studying to be a deacon in the Catholic Church, Vatican policy will matter more to you than if you are immersed in books by Richard Dawkins. The deacon you and the Dawkins you might agree on most things in life—evolutionary theory and that the Gospel is a foundation myth, for example—but you will be worlds apart on how all that relates to belief in a God. Smart and dumb human beings do not like to admit that they can get “frozen” or settle in a tight orbit around an idea, person, or cult object but they do and can.
That is the point of my paper, A Razor’s Edge Indeed that Boghossian references. We can get caught in these precise orbits merely by adopting or adapting to a strategy that surrounds a central theme. What we call a cult member tends to stay in that orbit 24/7 as an elite and exclusive orientation fearful of contamination from the outside. Once we are in orbit, we get very uncomfortable moving out of it for any reason, good or bad. All I am saying here is that the street epistemologist must be careful not to stereotype words like faith and God. Cult people tend to load their working language with what amounts to lazy jargon. Have you ever heard a typical Christian evangelist preach?
I was among the initial members of the New Mexicans for Science and Reason (1986) and gave one of their first talks in 1987—it was about cults—so I am familiar with the jargon among skeptics after all these years of reading Skeptical Inquirer and similar publications like Shermer’s Skeptic Magazine. There is a tongue- in-cheek approach among skeptics to all those crazy believers in the paranormal and religion. IN keeping with the us verses them attitude among opponents, too many skepics harbor a simmering disdain for believers. If a sensitive faithist detects your underlying disdain, you will find yourself talking to yourself in short order during a street intervention.
There are ten endorsements—all male—on the first two pages of the book. On the top of the second page is one from Stefan Molyneux, the “host of Freedomain Radio, the largest and most popular philosophy show on the Web.” (Boghossian's website hi-lites Molyneux's endorsement of his book to this writing in 2015). Molyneux is not one I would choose to endorse any book I wrote. Many of my clients during the past seven years are family members who have been “defooed” by Molyneux devotees. Molyneux uses slick podcasts effectively to influence mostly young, smart if naïve wannabe philosophers to reject the influence of church, parents, and anything to do with “the state” and statism. My clients, the parents and siblings, find themselves at a loss to explain why a seemingly normal child at age 20 or so would totally cut off all contact. To DEFOO means defect from family of origin. This Internet Wizard of Oz is exactly what you do not want to become as a street epistemologist, in my opinion. It is a classic example of the chronic rigidity that Boghossian sees among those of strict and certain faith.