A Manual for Creating Atheists: A Critical Review

March 13, 2014 | 8 comments

Since it’s release last November, Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists has quickly become one of the most popular new books on atheism (as of now it has 200 reviews on amazon.com). As someone who has also recently written a book on atheism, though from a far different perspective, I was eager to see Boghossian’s method for “creating an atheist.” In this book review I’ll cover the good, the bad, and the ugly in A Manual for Creating Atheists.

The Good

Surprisingly, this book isn’t about creating atheists . . . per se. According to Boghossian,

“The goal of this book is to create a generation of Street Epistemologists: people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community – into any and every place the faithful reside – and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.”

Epistemology is a discipline within philosophy that focuses on defining knowledge and analyzing how we know what we know. Rather than blindly shout conclusions (which Boghossian no doubt thinks street preachers do), a “street epistemologist” helps others reliably acquire knowledge about the world. When it comes to that goal he’ll find no opposition from me.

Boghossian’s strength lies in his treatment of the Socratic method, or the artful use of questions in order to lead someone to a particular conclusion. This appears to be something he has a lot of first-hand experience in using. According to Portland State University’s website (where Boghossian teaches), he earned a doctorate in education while developing Socratic techniques to help prison inmates increase their reasoning abilities in order to see the error of their ways and to hopefully commit fewer crimes in the future. Boghossian’s ability to use the Socratic method is on display in most of the chapters through sample dialogues between himself and people who exhibit “poor reasoning abilities.”

Boghossian also gives his would-be street epistemologists advice that I would also give to anyone learning apologetics -- you don’t need an answer for every objection and you should humbly admit ignorance when it occurs. In Boghossian’s words, “You need to become comfortable in not knowing and not pretending to know . . . “

But Boghossian’s street epistemologists have a very specific mission beyond just helping people think more clearly -- “Your new role is that of an interventionist. Liberator. Your target is faith. Your pro bono clients are individuals who’ve been infected by faith.”

And that’s where the book starts to go downhill . . .

The Bad

Throughout the book Boghossian says that the quickest way to make someone an atheist is to attack not their religion or their idea of God, but their faith. This is because faith is ultimately what grounds all religious claims. So what is faith? According to Boghossian, faith is belief without sufficient evidence because if you had the proper amount of evidence then you wouldn’t need faith. I’d respond by saying that religious faith is a trust in God and generic “faith” is just a trust in someone or something. For example, we have “faith” that the laws of nature are uniform across time and space even though we don’t have nearly enough evidence to confirm that belief (see the problem of induction).

Now, Boghossian vehemently denies faith is a kind of trust and claims it is instead a kind of knowledge. I disagree and would simply say that faith is the way people justify their claims of religious knowledge. “How do you know Jesus lives?” The believer might say in response, “I have faith in what the Bible or the Church says” or “I have faith in what Jesus has revealed to me in my heart.” Clearly faith is just a trust in a certain kind of evidence that is used to justify religious claims, be it testimonial or experiential.

Boghossian also gives the issue a rather nasty spin when he says faith is, “pretending to know what you don’t know.” The use of the word “pretending” seems inaccurate because it assumes the religious person knows deep down that his beliefs are not justified and he is engaging in a kind of malicious charade. This stands in contrast to the person who "thinks he knows what he knows but is actually mistaken." When it comes to false religious beliefs, I think the overwhelming majority of those beliefs are a product of "thinks he knows, but is mistaken" instead of "pretends he knows, but is wrong."

So this is the main issue Boghossian must answer, “Is the faith religious people have justified? Do they have a rational basis for holding these beliefs?”

I’ll admit sometimes they might not, but you need a serious argument to say religious belief is never justified. Boghossian’s main argument for the claim they are never justified is that because knowledge acquired by faith arrives at contradictory conclusions, such as the Christian’s affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God and the Muslim’s denial of that claim, this means that faith leads many people into error and so it can’t be trusted. But by that logic, reason is unreliable because philosophers use it and arrive at very different conclusions about all sorts of things. All a lack of consensus proves is that some people make faulty inferences based on faith, no that we shouldn’t have faith in either religious testimony or religious experiences.

I also didn’t think that Boghossian interacted enough with Alvin Plantinga (who he refers to as a “Christian apologist” instead of as one of the world’s most famous philosophers of religion). Plantinga’s reformed epistemology claims that if God exists then religious belief in God is justified because God has the ability to make belief in him “properly basic,” or justified apart from inferences based on evidence. In response, Boghossian simply tosses out the “Great Pumpkin” objection to reformed epistemology (an objection Plantinga himself has addressed) and calls it a day. But because the justification of “faith-based” beliefs is the central topic of Boghossian’s book, I think his reply to this kind of epistemology should have been more extensive.

Refutations That Are Greatly Exaggerated

What if the street epistemologist encounters someone who has “given a reason for the hope that is within him” (1 Peter 3:15) and doesn’t just rely on a gut feeling?  According to Boghossian, the street epistemologist needn’t worry about those reasons because,

“in the last 2400 years of intellectual history, not a single argument for the existence of God has withstood scrutiny. Not one. Aquinas’s five proofs, fail. Pascal’s Wager, fail. Anselm’s ontological argument, fail. The fine-tuning argument, fail. The kalam cosmological argument, fail. All refuted. All failures.”

That’s quite a claim. I was excited to turn to the footnote and see the evidence for this claim, but when I got there I was dumbfounded. Aquinas’ arguments are simply described. Boghossian neither critiques the arguments nor even provides a reference to such a critique such as Anthony Kenny’s book on the subject or even the terrible critiques Dawkins offers in The God Delusion (although I believe critiques like these have been ably answered by scholars like Ed Feser).

According to Boghossian, Victor Stenger is said to have refuted the fine-tuning argument in his 2011 book The Fallacy of Fine-tuning, but other writers have posted their own rebuttals to his arguments. In addition, Stenger doesn’t refute the fine-tuning argument so much as he attacks its central premise that the universe is finely tuned for life. In doing so, he goes against other well-known non-theistic cosmologists (like Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees) who at least accept that the universe is fine-tuned for life (even though they don’t think God is the fine-tuner). This should give us caution about Stenger’s conclusions.

In regards to the kalam cosmological argument, Boghossian simply says, “The possibility that the universe always existed cannot be ruled out” and then calls this the “death-knell” of the argument. He makes this claim without bothering to critique the scientific and philosophical evidence for the finitude of the past or even reference someone who has done that (like Wes Morriston).

I was hoping that chapter 7, which is called “anti-apologetics 101,” would provide at least some solid answers to arguments in defense of the faith, but here too I was sorely disappointed.[i] In answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing,” Boghossian simply quotes Adolf Grunbaum and says there’s no reason to think a state of something has to be explained and pure nothingness does not. To me this just shows a woeful lack of understanding of both the principle of sufficient reason and the philosophers who have addressed the issue.  

While there are serious and thoughtful critiques of natural theology, Boghossian fails to make one and, distressingly, doesn’t seem to even be aware of such critiques.

The Ugly

Finally, the anti-religious rhetoric in the book is over-the-top. Boghossian says that if a street epistemologist doesn’t convince someone to give up his faith, then the person is either secretly giving up his faith while trying to “save face” or the person is literally brain damaged (chapter 3). In a chapter called “Containment Protocols,” Boghossian says we should stigmatize religious claims like racist claims, treat faith like a kind of contagious mental illness that should be recognized by medical professionals, read apologist’s books but buy them used so they don’t make a profit (“Enjoy a McDonald’s ice cream courtesy of the royalty from my purchase of your book, Pete!”), and promote children’s television shows where “Epistemic Knights” do battle against “Faith Monsters.”

The advice I would give atheists who are interested in this book would be to model the Socratic approach Boghossian teaches but don’t use his rhetoric when you’re talking to believers. For believers, I’d say that this is a good window into the attitude of popular “skeptic-based atheism.” Knowing what’s in this book can help you explain to the “street epistemologist” that you aren’t brain damaged. Instead, you have good reasons to think that what you believe is true and the street epistemologist should examine those reasons with an open mind and charitable attitude.

[i]The only other references Boghossian makes to critiques of arguments for the existence of God are Guy Harrison and John Paulos’ books on the subject, both of which are definitely for the layperson and are not very rigorous in their critiques. Though, to his credit, in his recommended reading sections Boghossian does mention some books that I think are at least decent critiques of theism, such as Victor Stenger's book God: The Failed Hypothesis.

After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Trent Horn earned a bachelor's degree in history from Arizona State University and a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College.

Trent is a...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Robert Wiscount - Mar Lin, Pennsylvania

One must ask why a person like Peter Boghossian feels the need to attack another person's belief so strongly. It is the problem I find with the "new atheism." The new atheists aren't content to simply not believe in God, they find my belief-or anyone else's belief-a threat to their existence. Why? I wish the atheist would have the conviction of their beliefs to simply leave it alone. You live this life absent of God, and then all of eternity longing for a closeness you chose to reject. But allow me to follow my path of faith in the hope that I can spend eternity worshipping God. Why is that notion a threat to them? If I am wrong, and they are right, what have they lost or gained? But if I'm right and they are wrong, maybe I've gained everything while they have lost it all. Gamble if you wish atheists, just gamble with your own soul...without demanding that I gamble with mine!

March 14, 2014 at 7:11 am PST
#2  Billy the Kid - Staunton, Virginia

" Aquinas’s five proofs, fail. Pascal’s Wager, fail. Anselm’s ontological argument, fail. The fine-tuning argument, fail. The kalam cosmological argument, fail. All refuted. All failures.”

I agree with you, Trent, that is quite a claim. If one is going to make such a claim, all the while saying anyone who disagrees with him is either doing "save face" or is "brain damaged", one would certainly expect backing up those claims to be a major point of his book. Even though one would expect that, I wasn't surprised me to keep reading your review and find that wasn't the case with this guy. One wonders if he is guilty of a little deep-down-denial of his own.

March 15, 2014 at 3:34 pm PST
#3  Billy the Kid - Staunton, Virginia

Also, Trent: I did not get a chance to watch or listen to your debate against Dan Barker, but I've been told that you did very well. Kee up your good work and reasoning! Maybe you should challenge this guy to a debate on the Kalam Cosmological argument.

March 15, 2014 at 3:37 pm PST
#4  Kevin Proudler - Scarborough, California

Religious folk and Atheists are basically the same.

They are just two different sides of a common coin. Both stick to either beliefs or disbeliefs. Now one may ask, when is it that people need practice these beliefs and disbeliefs?

Well, people only need do so if they are located at a distance from the truth, located in that zone known as the zone of less than truth. Even to this day, most people remain in that zone and thus still base many decisions upon beliefs and disbeliefs.

By sticking to their beliefs and disbeliefs, people are therefore insisting upon displacing themselves from the truth. They feel that it is not necessary to venture to an actual truth, thus they feel that it is not necessary to base a decision upon a truth. They are totally unaware of their blind ongoing powerful rejection of truth.

Therefore, any presentation concerning proof of the existence/non-existence of God, if false or incomplete, always draws eye opening global attention.

However, any presentation concerning proof of the existence of God, if true, is completely ignored by both Religious folk and Atheists.

You may recall some time ago that scholarly presentation of False Bible Codes. This drew attention, and did so as expected, since it did not deal with truths.

Later on other scholars studied the codes, and, via statistical analysis, they soon came to the conclusion that the codes were pure rubbish. According to them this meant that the entire "Bible Code" phenomena was also pure rubbish.

Via their flawed logic, they closely examined less than truth (False Codes), and then came to the conclusion that the entire "Bible Code" phenomena was truly bogus.

Thus in their minds, it is assumed that by avoiding the truth, one can surely see the truth, and nothing but the truth.

True codes that have been ignored by all, can be found. But don't forget, you must "Reject Before Inspect", otherwise you will be thinking independently, and this is not accepted in this day and age as normal behavior.


March 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm PST
#5  Federico Nazar - San Isidro - P. Buenos Aires - Argentina, Florida

How about a manual for creating Catholics? check this out:
Prof. Fred Nazar

March 17, 2014 at 11:11 am PST
#6  Peter N - Columbia, South Carolina

"Stenger doesn’t refute the fine-tuning argument so much as he attacks its central premise that the universe is finely tuned for life."

Some of Stenger's arguments are downright bizarre. In the somewhat misnamed book, Scientists Confront Intelligent Design and Creationism he writes in his essay, "Physics, Cosmology, and the New Creationism, he writes:

...current research in physics and cosmology suggests
that the "designed for life" argument may be exactly
backward, because any life that appeared in any of the
universes that are possible would have to be subject to
the laws and constants that govern those universes --
and not the other way around.

One hardly knows where to begin attacking this preposterous piece of sophism. "any life" begs the question of what fraction of universes would even have any kind of life, let alone intelligent life on the order of ours.

But that barely begins to scratch the surface. What is really staggering is the sleight of hand whereby Stenger tries to make it sound like the bland truism that follows the "because" has anything to do with what went before.

It almost goes without saying that he gives no hint whatsoever of what the alleged "current research" is supposed to be or what the connection is with the allegation that the "designed for life" argument may be "exactly backwards". One does not need to know any physics or cosmology, let alone recent research, to arrive at the bland truism that follows the "because".

Peter Nyikos
Professor, Department of Mathematics
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208

March 20, 2014 at 6:46 pm PST
#7  Peter N - Columbia, South Carolina

Ironically, on the page facing the one from which I quoted just now, Stenger actually opens a door for a possible designer of our universe. He writes:

"While the multiple-universe, or multiverse, concept is not required to deflate the fine-tuning argument... many [subuniverses] can be expected to contain complex systems capable of evolving into something resembling life (or indeed, perhaps something resembling nothing with which we are familiar and even far exceeding human life and mind in wondrous capabilities)."

Indeed, one might say to Stenger, perhaps one of those beings had such wondrous capabilities that it was able to reach into our little nascent universe from its far grander universe, and fine-tune its basic constants to produce a universe suitable for life, and then to go on to design life, even intelligent life on our planet and perhaps millions of other planetary systems.

March 20, 2014 at 6:59 pm PST
#8  Eric Shepard - taunton, Massachusetts

people of your ilk do not have a right to review a book because of your bias going into it and your bias coming out of it. I read one dolts question asking why we atheist are attacking Were following in the footsteps of you people.

January 2, 2015 at 1:29 pm PST

You are not logged in. Login or register to leave a comment.