Recently, I read Peter Boghossian’s A Manual For Creating Atheists. I had been putting it off, assuming from the title that it would be a smug anthology of arguments against the existence of God, which I neither needed nor found appealing.
I was pleasantly surprised when I realised that Boghossian is the least smug atheist writer I’ve seen. His position is a genuinely open one that invites challenge and resists the temptation to mock others. The further I read, the more I understood why: his enemy is not religion, God, or believers. It’s faith — defined as belief without evidence or pretending to know things you don’t know. This applies not just to religious faith, but any unwarranted confidence in a belief.
Why focus on faith? The main reason is that it’s a faulty epistemology, that is, a bad way of arriving at the truth. Apart from relativists, most people want to believe things that are true. But too often this noble desire is dwarfed by the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance and uncertainty. Boghossian recognises that faith panders to the latter, and it therefore prioritises psychological satisfaction over truth. With such a faulty epistemology in place, a person is left vulnerable to lies, manipulation, poor life choices, conspiracy theories, woo medicine, and other dangers. To allow for a more reliable option, he wants to eradicate faith — not by coercion, which never works and is a pointless violation of rights, but by gently persuading others to see why faith isn’t a reliable path to knowledge.
I very much get the impression that Boghossian is doing this simply because he cares about other people. This is evident not only from his desire to help them develop a more reliable epistemology, but in his approach. The so-called New Atheists have been caricatured by opponents as self-satisfied misanthropes who condescend to inform us of how stupid we are. It is very difficult to make such a claim against Boghossian. He is not interested in winning arguments or debating. He is interested in understanding what is true, and helping others do so. Not “helping,” but actually helping.
This makes him different from an evangeliser, whose unalterable goal is to convince another person that one particular set of conclusions is correct, and thus “help” them. Boghossian knows that filling people’s heads with poorly-reasoned conclusions, religious or political, is not a way to help someone. Challenging them to improve their reasoning skills and sharing with them a tool that more reliably lets them find truth, regardless of what that may turn out to be, does help. It is the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.
When the desire to win trumps the desire to understand, you've lost.— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) November 19, 2014
Around the time I encountered Peter Boghossian, I started reading Plato’s Republic for the first time and rekindled an interest in Stoicism by re-reading Marcus Aurelius. Socrates, the star of The Republic, sought truth relentlessly; Marcus Aurelius, virtue. The more I considered this set of ideas, the more I noticed how well Boghossian’s approach reflects them.
A person who truly cares about truth doesn’t care if they win an argument. Their goal is to walk away from every discussion closer to the truth than they were when it began. This means that they begin by seeking to understand, not to explain. “If what you’re saying is true, then I sincerely want to know. Could you explain to me how you know that it’s true? If your method is reliable, I’ll get on board.” As Socrates is famous for, and as Anthony Magnabosco demonstrates through his application of Boghossian’s Street Epistemology techniques, an approach centred on seeking truth together often leads to the realisation that one doesn’t know as much as one thought, that one’s confidence was unwarranted. This is, to me, one of the most important moments in a person’s intellectual life, and a person who is willing to allow it to happen, regardless of which side they’re on, deserves to be commended.
I'm incredibly grateful to have people in my life who mercilessly challenge my beliefs. Thank you. #truefriendship— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) November 19, 2014
A person who truly cares about virtue doesn’t care if they win an argument, either. Winning feels good, but it’s irrelevant to whether you are virtuous. Virtue involves treating your interlocutor with respect, goodwill and patience. There is no need for ad hominem attacks, questioning of motives, mockery, derision or blame. There is no need to take offence or indulge in righteous indignation, both of which are emotionally gratifying but useless in getting closer to virtue or truth. If your goal really is truth and not a desire to win, you must seriously consider the possibility that you’re wrong — and this openness entails a humility that can spread to your interlocutor.
If you're not genuinely willing to revise your beliefs, don't try to change anyone else's beliefs.— Peter Boghossian (@peterboghossian) November 22, 2014
At the end of a discussion, such a person measures themselves only by whether they have dispelled their own mistaken beliefs, gained better ones, and shown virtue along the way.
I have rarely lived up to these ideals in my own discussions, and I’m sure I’ll forget to many times in the future. But after coming across them, it is hard not to want to strive for them, and to imagine what philosophy and politics could be like if more of us did.