Sunday, November 17, 2013
Book Review: A Manual for Creating Atheists
You hear it all the time. “Faith is a virtue.” “You’ve just got to have faith.” “Without faith there is no meaning.” Peter Boghossian disagrees. He takes great pains to separate the term ‘faith’ from the term ‘hope.’ And to clarify what atheism is. Faith is the belief in something without evidence for that something, or ‘pretending to know things you don’t know.’ Whereas, like me, he sees atheist as meaning ‘there is insufficient evidence to belief in X deity.’ It isn’t a dogma or a belief system, just as a Buddhist doesn’t have a specific set of beliefs about there not being a Thor. With this book Boghossian provides some handy hints on how to deal with those who claim to know things they don’t have know. Unlike some before, he does not target religion, which he sees more as a social structure, but faith itself. The root cause, and not the symptom.
As he puts it, ‘faith claims are knowledge claims,’ statements about how things are (the world is 6000 years old, lightening was sent from Zeus, the Emperor of Japan is a god, Muhammad rode a flying horse, etc.), thus must be treated as such. And when they are baseless, they must be challenged. He also calls out relativists, who claim that other cultures either can’t or shouldn’t be subject to judgment or challenge. Like Sam Harris, he makes the case that relativism isn’t a path to success. Pluralism, the coming together and peaceful coexistence of many cultures is good, multiculturalism, having different rules for different peoples is bad. Many ‘academic leftists’ seem to be willing to accept absolutely anything in the name of tolerance. But both Boghossian and Harris have called them out on this sort of behavior. If you claim that throwing acid in a little girl’s face or shooting her in the back of the head because she tried to read a book is OK, then you’re either A) delusional or B) profoundly evil. And excusing this sort of thing because it is consistent with someone’s religion is immoral.
Like Sean Faircloth in his book Attack of the Theocrats, he also calls out religious exemptions from the normal rule of law that applies to everyone else. Be it taxes or bad behavior, too often faith based groups are given a free ride and legal protections they should not have. But we are constantly bombarded with the message that criticizing faith is tantamount to racism and other egregious behaviors. Because, as Boghossian says, ideas are now given a respect they shouldn’t have. Attacking a person should be wrong, but attacking an idea should be encouraged. Ideas deserve only as much respect as they can retain under assault.
Boghossian takes on many of the common arguments for faith and against atheism, from the Kalam Cosmological Argument to Pascal’s Wager. He gives categories for where people are on their journey away from faith, from those who have never been exposed to alternate ideas to those who are questioning, and beyond. He doesn’t suggest that with one or two questions, one can make someone abandon years of indoctrination, nor necessarily should they. But by presenting Socratic questions, by making a person take a moment to examine why as much as what they believe, you may have done a lot to break the spell. As he brings up, while many people’s journey to faith is quick (a traumatic experience, for example), people’s journey away from it is often long and carefully thought out. I think of my own, and I know that the journey away from faith for me took a very, very long time. There were fitful leaps, but the whole process must have taken more than twenty years.
Boghossian also encourages us to read up on various schools of thought. He suggests reading the works of religious scholars like William Lane Craig and peddlers of what he terms ‘deepities’ like Deepak Chopra. Listen to what others say, question them, challenge them. Don’t insult the person, don’t try to make a person feel dumb or small. Just be that voice of descent. Ultimately the journey away from superstition and faith is a personal one, and should be encouraged and nurtured, but not forced. And of course, don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. Not knowing is perfectly OK. Knowing that one doesn’t know is the beginning of the journey. And in a life without faith, the journey is what it’s all about. At least, that’s what mine is about. I can’t speak for others.
A Manual for Creating Atheists
Author: Peter Boghossian
Publisher: Pitchstone Publishing
ISBN: 9781939578150 (I read this as an ebook)