Book review: A manual for creating atheists

Recently, I finished the Kindle edition of Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” and was browsing my Amazon recommendations when the book “A manual for creating atheists” by Peter Boghossian caught my eye. I have to admit that the title seemed a bit far-flung to me but then again, I have seen Peter Boghossian speak in several Youtube videos and was impressed by the way he established his points. I decided to purchase the book and it turned out to be a real page-turner.

Boghossian explains that his book intends to create a generation of what he calls “Street Epistemologists”, people ho are equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools to help the religious abandon faith and embrace reason. He writes that Street Epistemology embraces the same values as the ancient philosophers:

tough-minded, plain-speaking, known for self-defence, committed to truth, unyielding in the face of danger and fearless in calling out falsehoods, contradictions, inconsistencies and nonsense.

The job of the Street Epistemologist will be to pick up where the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse” left of.  Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens made clear how religion is harmful. Now, the Street Epistemologist will go further using the tools Boghossian gives in this book. He or she will actively go out and inoculate people who have been infected with the “faith virus”, faith being defined as “pretending to know things you don’t know”.
These are lofty ideals but Boghossian then begins to do just that: to equip the reader with a set of tools that helps in dissecting faith and its truth claims.

What is very helpful in this book, is that it not only has theory but it also has frequent examples from Boghossians’ own experience as an educator and philosopher. He includes both failed and successful interventions with notes, so it is possible to learn from his successes and failures. He also demonstrates how to successfully refute often heard arguments from believers, such as “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist” or “you have faith in science”. While these refutations probably aren’t new to people familiar with atheist arguments, these refutations could certainly help people who still have faith or are on the fence about their belief.

Boghossian includes plenty of sources to bolster his argument and includes a lot of references for further study to help deepen your understanding as a Street Epistemologist. The more familiar you are with apologetics and the better versed you are in philosophy, the more effective you become at exposing the falsehood of faith-based truth claims.

Much of the book is rooted in the Socratic method (elenchus), a way of examining what someone believes and to help people become aware of their own ignorance. Boghossian argues that this method is effective at exposing that faith is a failed epistemology, seeing as it not based on reason and logic. Through the Socratic method, believers are supposed to realise that they actually don’t know what they thought they knew, for instance “The Bible is the word of God”.

I particularly enjoyed chapter 8, where Boghossian argues against the validity of cultural relativism, especially in academic circles. I tend to agree with him that in the current climate, it is frowned upon to judge cultural practices and ideas as if somehow, all practices and ideas are equally valid. It should be obvious that this is not the case and that some ideas are worse than other ideas. It shouldn’t be frowned upon to say that but unfortunately many people these days seem unable to differentiate between criticism on an idea and an attack on a group of people.

So is there nothing I don’t like about this book? There is one thing. It’s not much but I do have some issue with the fact that Boghossian not only refers to faith as an actual virus but poses that we should treat it as such, containment protocols and all. Let me be clear here: I have no problems with suggesting ways to combat the influence of religion on the world and I agree that this is necessary. Boghossian borrows this quote from Sam Harris, which summarizes it nicely:

“People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies , not in our halls of power.” —Sam Harris, The End of Faith (2004)

However, a virus is an actual, physical agent, a pathogen which makes people (usually) physically ill. Calling faith a virus is, in my opinion, a statement that weakens our argument because it misrepresents what faith is: a set of ideas that is not based on reality, thus making it more akin to a delusion than to a disease of the body. If we are going to argue against faith and use reason and logic as our weapons, we should not use comparisons that misrepresent faith.
That being said, this is perhaps more a matter of taste than a real argument because faith does share some characteristics with viruses.

Overall, I think “A manual for creating atheists” is a well-written and very helpful book for anyone who is dedicated to reason and logic and is not afraid to follow them, wherever they lead. I haven’t tried any Street Epistemology yet per the instructions outlined by Boghossian but I am not unfamiliar with the Socratic method so I think they will prove helpful.
I also appreciate the way Peter Boghossian bolsters the morale of his Street Epistemologists to be, warning them that they will face adversity by exposing faith as a failed epistemology but encouraging them to speak plainly and boldly, just like the philosophers of old.

“A manual for creating atheists” is recommended reading, as far as I’m concerned!

This review is also on Amazon.