"A manual for creating atheists": useful even if you aren't anti-theist.

Peter Boghossian's book A Manual for Creating Atheists is a crucial and original book, not just for atheists who want to propagate atheism, but also for nonbelievers in general. It gives nonbelievers a way to interact with religious people that is respectful and not antagonistic – yet confronts believers with something they often wish to avoid: the weirdness of believing without good evidence.

He applies the Socratic method to religious belief. It's a way of asking someone to critically examine their own position, and it tries to be nonthreatening by asking questions rather than telling people things.

He presents this as a way to propagate atheism – nonbelief in gods. Religions have ways to propagate themselves. The religions you see around you, are there because they were good at propagating themselves. So how about nonbelief propagating itself? The ways that atheists usually interact with believers aren't good at deconverting them, and often just antagonize them. I wrote about similar problems with skepticism in The dysfunctional relationship between skeptics and true believers.

Atheists often think in terms of evidence and facts. But Boghossian points out that most believers don't believe because of evidence, so they aren't likely to be deconverted because of evidence. They believe because they want to believe, because it makes them feel good, because of the support of other believers. They have a messed-up criterion for determining truth – what Boghossian calls a “failed epistemology”.

“It's true because I want it to be true” is THE main source of irrationality and muddled thinking in the world. This standard for truth causes huge problems and may result in the extinction of humanity. It may be a flaw that we are born with. It doesn't come naturally to people to question their assumptions, to understand their biases. Even when trained in critical thinking, people still have a tendency to wishful thinking.

So Boghossian's method seeks to get religious people to admit that they don't know if their religion is true. Many thinking religious people say anyways that they don't know if God exists, although they may suspend their nonbelief while they're in church or praying, similarly to how people suspend their disbelief while watching a movie. They avoid mentioning their nonbelief around other religious people. And many other people go along with the forms of religion without believing it at any time.

But getting a religious person to that point, seems like a success. It should take away the belief that there's a divine warrant for the proper role of women or the wrongness of being gay. Religious people who understand that they don't really know if God exists, are probably less likely to be oppressive.

Boghossian believes we'd be better off without religion. He feels that people do better using his strict standard for belief. This is a faith that he and many atheists have, but so far as I can see, it's only a faith. Religion evolved in humanity. When people live in a society that grants them security and safety, they are less likely to be religious. But religion may help people who are less fortunate, and it may have intangible benefits.

But, getting people to examine their standard for belief, and admit they don't really know if their religion is true, still seems like a good thing to me. It won't necessarily alienate people from their religious support group, and if their belief can't stand up to questioning, too bad!

His techniques might also work with people who have nonreligious irrational beliefs. He gives an example dialogue with someone in a health food store who tried to sell him her acupuncture services. I've often felt I didn't cope well with such conversations, and Boghossian's technique may work in such situations too. People who have nonreligious irrational beliefs are often also believing what they want to believe - “going with their feelings”, they may say.

People who bring up their beliefs are reaching out to others who may not believe the same thing. And when this happens, we can respond by helping them really examine what they believe and why – and be a real friend to religious friends, rather than participating in their silences.

Boghossian's method hasn't been rigorously tested. The review board for scientific studies doesn't approve studies on how to deconvert someone from a religion – it's considered abusive. But he has long practice in his method, from teaching an Atheism class, and he incorporates lessons from research on how to persuade people and how to get people out of cults. He also worked with prisoners, trying to make them less likely to commit a crime once they got out.

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Comment by Luara on December 9, 2013 at 10:52am

Peter Boghossian says that the closest he came to deconverting someone on the spot was one time when he was talking with a security guard. 

SG was going off to be a Mormon missionary.  Peter Boghossian said "give me your best argument for your religion".  SG said "how did the world start if there's no God?"  PB said "What if the universe has always been there?" 

PB said this put SG into a state of profound confusion, horror and fear.  He doesn't know if SG followed through with his Mormon missionary plans. 

Usually though, you hope just to create the conditions for doubt and thinking about it; and if the person ends up leaving the religion, you're likely to be just one of the many reasons for that.  Or maybe they don't leave the religion, but their attitude is liberalized somewhat by your intervention. 

Comment by Luara on December 8, 2013 at 5:49pm

It will be interesting to see if people show up on A/N who deconverted partly as a result of talking with a Street Epistemologist :)

Comment by Luara on December 8, 2013 at 3:12pm

why does one want to show respect and non-antagonism toward religionists ?

To give a more serious answer:  Boghossian says all the literature on persuasion agrees that you need to be friendly to persuade someone (advertising is honeyed seduction, salespeople are friendly, politicians are friendly). 

Unless you kidnap someone at gunpoint and put them in fear of their life.  That can also be persuasive (Stockholm syndrome).

But also, like I said, many of us know people who are religious and don't want either to talk negatively about their religion, or avoid talking about it at all.  The Socratic method is a third option, a way of putting one's own stance.out there. 

Comment by Luara on December 8, 2013 at 3:03pm

Boghossian's definition of faith as "pretending to know things you don't know" isn't very good, because "pretending" suggests conscious pretending. It's overly negative.
"Imagining you know things you don't know" seems better. It alludes to the importance of imagination in religion.
And everybody at some time has imagined we knew something we didn't.

Comment by Luara on December 8, 2013 at 2:59pm

It's a good book, but not really likely to be helpful in deconverting people from religion, since they are programmed to not trust logic or reason.

That's why he's using the Socratic method, it's a way of trying to teach people to think.
If people already are thinking rationally, you can debate and discuss with them. But if they aren't, using the Socratic questioning is better.
Peter Boghossian doesn't have any regard for religious arguments. I agree. I wondered a lot, watching Hitchens in debates on religion, how he could stand those inane discussions and why he would do it.

Comment by Anthony Jordan on December 7, 2013 at 1:09am

I have the book. I find it interesting, and I think it does give some helpful tips on the Socratic method of questioning. It's a good book, but not really likely to be helpful in deconverting people from religion, since they are programmed to not trust logic or reason.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 4, 2013 at 8:04pm

Thus are the dangers of thinking.Believe it or not, I learned of the Socratic Method attending Catholic School. I got a topflight education despite the efforts to combine theology with everything. Don't they teach this in college? 

Comment by Luara on December 4, 2013 at 4:49pm

ps Socrates did have to drink the hemlock though ... This could be dangerous.

Comment by Luara on December 4, 2013 at 4:43pm


This is the first time I've learned about the Socratic method.  Interesting that he came up with it thousands of years ago - yet it's still new to us.  It says something about our natural tendency NOT to interact in that way - to deal with differences between people in a combative way instead, and to approve of people who have their minds made up.  When in actuality, the thinking person frequently questions themselves. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on December 4, 2013 at 4:35pm

Very useful information. I saw the book on the "Friendly Atheist" site as one of the top 10 books about atheism. I've downloaded it, but haven't started it, but after reading this I am trying to hurry up with my other read. I am curious to see if I can use it in debate. I debate frequently and I can see some possibilities. Well done!



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