Tactics for Atheists

Consider this scenario. An atheist engages two Christians on a sidewalk and begins to gently and genially engage them about their beliefs. Their initial, breezy assurance begins to fade, however, as they falter in the face of carefully-worded questions about the things they think they know “by faith.”

The atheist gives no evidence for atheism. He gives no evidence against Christianity. Instead, he only does one thing. He asks questions about “faith” as a way of knowing. He remains calm and friendly as the discussion closes, but by that time one of the Christians is visibly uncomfortable.

This scenario is not a piece of fiction, though. I watched the actual conversation’s sad saga unfold on YouTube.[1] The companion follow-up video documented the devastating consequences of the atheist’s approach. One of the Christians, now an atheist, thanks his challenger for helping him see the irrational errors of his religious ways.

Conversations like this are not isolated events. More and more atheists are taking tactical cues from atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian, who has written a book titled A Manual for Creating Atheists. It is, essentially, a tactics book for atheists, and the purpose of the book is to help other atheists make an atheist out of you.

Boghossian calls his approach “Street Epistemology.” His strategy is absolutely unique, though, since he has no interest in making the case in favor of atheism or against any particular religious claim. It’s not necessary. The Achilles’ heel of all religion, according to him, is “faith,” and that is his singular target. Christians have a “faith virus,”[2] and his goal is to kill it.


Mangling “Faith”

I keep putting scare quotes around the word “faith” for a reason. Quotes are often used by writers to signal to the reader that a word is being used in an odd, specialized, or unconventional way. That is what Boghossian has done with the word “faith.”

It’s a common rhetorical ruse to redefine words vital to a debate in a way that favors one’s own position. Mangling the definition of faith is a trick used almost universally by atheists recently to illicitly gain advantage in their assault against Christianity. This atheist, though, builds an entire attack plan around this ploy.

Here is Boghossian’s definition. A Christian’s faith is nothing more than “belief without evidence,” a habit of “pretending to know things you don’t know.”[3] After all, Boghossian asserts, “if one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith. ‘Faith’ is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief.”[4]

Of course, the second element of Boghossian’s definition (pretending to know things you don’t know) would be an uncontroversial consequence of the first element (belief without evidence) if the first were sound. But it is not. That definition may do for Mormonism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, but it will not do for biblical Christianity. The reason is simple: That is not the biblical view of faith.

I am painfully aware that the number of Christians who “just believe” is legion. For them, faith is indeed a leap, a “belief without evidence,” a kind of “pretending” at knowledge, as Boghossian puts it. What Christians do, though, and what Christianity teaches are often two different things. Sadly, many Christian people do not understand Christian teaching and fall prey to atheists like Boghossian looking for a quick kill with this maneuver.

If one wants to find fault with the Christian version of faith, he must go to the Christian source: the Bible. There we find an entirely different characterization of faith. In the biblical understanding, faith is not a leap without reason but a step of trust based on evidence. Here is a small sampling of what it says:

  • “Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know….” (Acts 2:22)
  • To these [apostles] He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days. (Acts 1:3)
  • “Though you do not believe Me, believe the works [i.e., miracles], so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me.” (Jn. 10:38)
  • Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. (Jn. 20:30–31)
  • And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead. (Acts 17:2­–3)

And this is just the tip of the iceberg from the record. Anyone is free, of course, to fault the evidence as unconvincing, but evidence and arguments are offered in abundance, nonetheless. The Bible knows nothing of blind-faith appeals.[5] Boghossian’s entire tactical project trades on a straw man—a misrepresentation of our view that, like a lifeless scarecrow, is easily beaten. He and his disciples are tilting at windmills.

Boghossian has anticipated this objection, of course. “When pressed,” he writes, “the faithful will offer vague definitions that are merely transparent attempts to evade criticism, or simplistic definitions that intentionally muddy the meaning of ‘faith.’”[6]

We are doing nothing of the sort, of course. This is Boghossian’s project—not the Christian’s—and he knows it, candidly admitting he is “redefining faith as ‘pretending,’” (emphasis mine).[7] Curiously, he writes, “Words…can help us see clearly, or they can confuse, cloud, or obscure issues.”[8] I agree. And that is precisely what he has done—confuse, cloud, and obscure—with his definition of “faith.”

This will not do. As I have pointed out elsewhere:

If you want to critique a view, you must critique the view itself and not your own private version of it. Anyone is free, of course, to define faith according to his own fancy, but he is not free to import his fanciful definition into another’s use of the word. If he does, he will be jousting with shadows and not the real thing.[9]

Mangling “faith” is foundational to Boghossian’s approach, a crafty wordplay that’s critical to his method. But it’s not the only thing he distorts in his system.


Mangling Epistemology

Boghossian has made another mistake you need to be alerted to. It’s a second bit of sleight of hand that serves his purposes. “Faith,” Boghossian claims, “is an epistemology.”[10]

This fancy philosophical word has a simple meaning. Epistemology is the discipline that describes how we know what we know. There are a variety of ways of knowing, of course. Empiricism is one epistemology we are all familiar with. We use our five senses to discover true things about the world. Reason is also a way of knowing. We use it to assess evidence and ideas in order to determine what is true and what is false. Both are examples of genuine epistemologies.

Boghossian claims that faith is in the same category. Faith is a way of knowing. This assumption was clear in the YouTube conversation and is central to the tactical approach outlined in Boghossian’s Manual. It’s a false move, though—and a surprising tack for a philosopher to take, since a person of such letters should know better.

Boghossian attempts to undermine a Christian’s confidence by showing that the epistemology a believer uses—“faith”—is an unreliable source of knowledge. But this gambit is just another effort to “confuse, cloud, and obscure.” Of course faith is not a reliable source of knowledge, for a good reason: Faith is not an epistemology to begin with.

Christians do not use faith in order to discover knowledge. Rather, faith is their response to knowledge they’ve already obtained by some other means. Christian faith is a way of acting (the act of trust) based on what a person knows for other reasons (his epistemology).

Look carefully at the statement I cited earlier at the end of John’s Gospel, and you will see this point precisely.

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.

Notice, John does not enjoin us to believe so that we will know (faith as epistemology). That would be silly. Quite the opposite. He enjoins us to believe because he’s given us good reasons—miracles, in this case—to know that Jesus’ claims are true (empirical evidence as epistemology).

Even when a Christian has no evidence at all that he can offer a critic to justify his faith, he still is not using his faith as an epistemology. For example, when he puts his faith in what Scripture says, he is using revelation as an epistemology—as his way of knowing—and he’s putting his active trust (faith) in that. [11]

Whether or not the Christian is justified in doing so is another issue. My point here is that in Christianity (or anyplace else I’m aware of), [12] faith is never considered an epistemology—a way of knowing—so the Street Epistemology strategy is based on a second straw man. Boghossian is leaning on yet another bent reed.


Strategy on the Street

Boghossian’s game plan has three elements. First, he instructs his disciples to avoid facts. “Do not bring particular pieces of evidence (facts, data points) into the discussion,” he counsels.[13] It’s a distraction since persuasion is not the immediate objective.

Second, “Target faith, not God…. Belief in God(s) is not the problem. Belief without evidence [Boghossian’s version of “faith”] is the problem.”[14]

Third, create doubt. Doubting “faith” is the goal. “Focus on undermining one’s confidence in how one claims to know what one knows…as opposed to what one believes exists,” Boghossian instructs.[15] In that way “you’ll sow seeds of doubt that will blossom into…moments of…openness.”[16]

There are different kinds of doubt, of course. When a person faces formidable evidence against his view, he’ll naturally feel a dissonance—a conflict in his mind causing him to question his beliefs. This hesitation is called rational doubt. It’s a natural part of the process of amending our convictions when appropriate.

Boghossian is not interested in that kind of doubt, though. Remember, facts are not relevant to his strategy since facts cannot be counted on to change minds.[17] Rather, Boghossian wants to arouse a different kind of misgiving in a Christian—psychological doubt. He wants her to feel unnerved not as a result of facts, evidence, or reason, but because of carefully-crafted questions that catch her off guard, cause her to hesitate, and create uncertainty in her mind about her spiritual convictions.

Boghossian gives a personal example of how he did this in a conversation with a Mormon security guard[18] who appealed to creation as evidence for God, making the argument that if the universe began to exist, then a creator God must exist:

PB: Well, if the universe always existed then it wasn’t created. If it wasn’t caused what would that mean?

(Pause)

SG: That there’s no God?

PB: Yup. That’s what it would mean.[19]

Of course, it would mean nothing of the sort, and Boghossian knows it since he’s a philosopher. The technical error in his argument is called denying the antecedent in a conditional syllogism, but you can readily see for yourself that even if the universe always existed—which almost no one believes anymore because of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary—it still wouldn’t rule out God. The universe, being contingent and not self-existent, could still depend on a self-existent God for its eternal existence. [20]

Using a clever hypothetical linked to a question, the philosopher had duped the security guard who, Boghossian admitted, “looked horrified and scared.” The atheist was elated, though: “I tried to hide my joy, show my approval, and acknowledge our success.”

Boghossian had taken advantage of a Mormon’s philosophic and scientific naiveté by feeding him a fallacy. He then patted himself on the back since, even though his own reasoning was awful, he’d accomplished what he’d set out to do—ravage the Mormon’s confidence, regardless of the truth.

The questions Boghossian teaches atheists to ask are not meant to clarify. They are meant to stupefy. [21] They are often hypotheticals—“What if…?” kinds of questions—that unsuspecting Christians answer without reflection, not realizing they’re being ambushed.


Street Smarts

Boghossian’s Street Epistemologists are dangerous not because they’re right, but because they’re very clever and they’re very nice. They are friendly and non-combative, and they ask lots and lots of questions, especially about “faith” since they’re convinced your beliefs have no basis in fact. When someone begins to make frequent, friendly probes about “faith,” be on guard. Here’s what I suggest.

First, as a general rule, stop using the word “faith” to describe your personal investment in what you believe. I have been saying this for years because that word has been so abused—both by accident (by untutored Christians) and on purpose (by atheists like Boghossian)—it’s no longer useful.

I’ve heard the atheist’s canard “If you have evidence for your belief, then where is room for faith?” plenty of times from believers, too. When a Christian says this, he’s red meat for a Street Epistemologist.

Second, in conversation with an atheist, do not let him redefine faith for you. If he succeeds, you’re finished. You’ll be conceding that your convictions have no basis in fact. Ask, “When you use the word ‘faith,’ what exactly do you mean?” Refuse the “faith” redefinition, and you’ll dodge one of Boghossian’s most lethal bullets.

Use the word “trust” instead. That’s what the Greek word in the New Testament translated “faith” means. Though Boghossian warns his disciples to be alert to this move, it is completely legitimate for you to insist that the atheist use your definition of faith and not his own distortion.[22]

In fact, do not let him carry on about “faith“ at all. If you do, you’ll be giving life to a straw man. Instead, shift the conversation to evidence and reasons. That’s what matters.

Third, if you’re not entirely sure where a question is leading, don’t answer it. Politely refuse to play the question game. The moment you feel like the questions might be designed to manipulate you, stop the conversation and ask for clarification before you go any further. Here’s how that might look, in brief, in Boghossian’s encounter with the Mormon (above):

PB: Well, if the universe always existed, then it wasn’t created. If it wasn’t caused, what would that mean?

SG: I’m not clear on what you’re getting at. What do you think it would mean?

PB: That there’s no God.

SG: Really? How does that follow?

Notice, your response here forces the questioner to make his point—and defend it—instead of him getting you to make his point for him.

Some of the basic questions you’ll encounter will not be difficult. If someone asks you what you believe, it’s okay to tell him. Keep it basic, though. If he asks, “What is your level of confidence in your belief?” feel free to tell him that, too—just avoid giving numbers (“I’m an 8 on a 10-point scale”). Instead, keep it general. Say your confidence is strong, but it’s open to revision. If he asks, “If you had good reasons to change your belief, would you?” answer, “Of course.” If he asks you, “Is faith a reliable way of knowing?” answer, “Of course not. Faith is trusting what I have reason to believe based on the evidence.”

Then ask him to explain where he’s going with his questions. Make him lay his project out precisely. This is something the Street Epistemologist does not want to do (“Oh, I’m just curious”), but don’t let him off easily. Have him come clean as a condition for further conversation.

Generally speaking, when an atheist presses you with questions you’re not sure how to answer, always ask for clarification. Here are some examples:

  • “Help me out here. What, specifically, are you are getting at with your question?”
  • “There are probably a number of ways to answer that, depending. What do you have in mind?”
  • “Of course, any person can be mistaken about what he believes. So could I. I’d have to consider conflicting evidence, though. Where are you headed with these questions?”
  • “Sure, I’d change my mind if I had no good reasons to believe what I do and good reasons to believe something else. What do you suggest?”
  • “What evidence would cause me to change my mind? I’m not sure I can tell you in advance. I’d have to consider particular objections. What were you thinking?”
  • “You asked how I would know if I were delusional. I have no reason to think I’m experiencing delusions. Why would you think I am? And why would you label an inaccurate belief a ‘delusion’? You’ve had inaccurate beliefs, haven’t you? Does that make you delusional, too?”

When the atheist offers a response, listen carefully, assess thoughtfully, and answer slowly, if at all. Don’t worry if you can’t answer all the questions he asks about your faith. As I said, Street Epistemologists are clever. They’re prepared with particular questions you may not be able to respond to in a clear way at the moment. No worries. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’ll have to give that some thought.”

Finally, Street Epistemologists prey upon the weak. If you don’t have any reasons for your convictions, you’re going to be vulnerable. Don’t be a spiritual weakling. Since all of Boghossian’s questions trade on his conviction that belief in Christianity lacks good reasons, your best defense is to have those reasons handy. They’re out there. You need to get them.[23]

When you learn how to think well and respond with care, you won’t be a sitting duck, easy prey to Boghossian’s disciples. Instead, you’ll be a strong, courageous, and confident disciple of Christ.

______________________

[1] You’ll find lots of examples on YouTube under “Street Epistemology.” This one is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Fe1vep7NDU.

[2] Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2013), 68.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 23.

[5] Find an extensive list of passages and citations from moderns to the ancients in Tom Gilson’s Peter Boghossian: Atheist Tactician, available at Amazon.com.

[6] Boghossian, 21.

[7] Ibid., 80.

[8]Ibid., 23.

[9] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 133–134.

[10] Boghossian, 29.

[11] Incidentally, I think conviction by the Holy Spirit is also a legitimate grounding for faith, even without other evidence, though your own conviction may not be persuasive to others. There’s a difference between knowing and showing, to use William Lane Craig’s terminology.

[12] From my own MA studies in philosophy, it appears that Boghossian’s claim that faith is an epistemology is philosophically novel.

[13] Boghossian, 72.

[14] Ibid., 76–77.

[15] Ibid., 79.

[16] Ibid., 51.

[17] Ibid., 72.

[18] Just to be clear, Mormons are not Christians, though they are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Theirs is a religion that is completely distinct from historic Christianity—same vocabulary, different definitions. These distinctions don’t matter to an atheist, but they should matter to you.

[19] Boghossian, 126. STR’s Amy Hall alerted me to this passage and helped me develop some of these ideas.

[20] For more detail, see Gottfried Leibniz’s version of the cosmological argument.

[21] Causing people to doubt, not clarifying ideas, is one of the biggest differences between Boghossian’s approach and my own teaching in Tactics.

[22] The best single source I suggest for a short, concise tutorial on faith is chapter 21, “Trust,” in The Story of Reality.

[23] For more thorough critiques of Boghossian’s Street Epistemology, see Gilson’s Peter Boghossian: Atheist Tactician and Cameron Bertuzzi’s “How to Respond to Street Epistemology” at CapturingChristianity.com.

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Greg Koukl

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