There clearly is big money in self-help books and pick-up artistry, though


I think I first heard about Peter Boghossian years ago when that “street epistemology” fad swept over atheism, and I thought that sounded like a good idea — being able to communicate about key concepts in atheism and skepticism in a casual, informal way? Sign me up. Then I witnessed some of it at meetings and on YouTube and was quickly de-impressed. It mainly seemed to be a game of leading questions calculated to trap uninformed people into contradictions, not into thinking, and to leverage their discomfort into considering alternatives. Proponents hate me when I say it, but Ray Comfort figured this out before they did, and he’s not exactly a brilliant philosopher.

My disenchantment only grew as I learned more about this Boghossian fellow. He’s an obnoxious ass! Are you telling me he’s a master of the gentle art of persuasion? If so, he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Now he’s come out with this book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, which is just nuts. What next? Trump writing a book on modern physics, Deepak Chopra writing about mathematical rigor, PZ Myers becoming an Instagram model, Uwe Boll producing a movie classic? Boghossian and his coauthor, James Lindsay, are temperamentally and intellectually incapable of writing a guide to handling challenging conversations. They’ve always relied on simply pandering to the biases of their right-wing friends.

I’m never going to buy their book and have no interest in reading it. Oliver Traldi has written a review…a charitable review, even, although it does reject their approach, and notes that a lot of it is rehashed pablum from the self-help genre.

All in all, How to Have Impossible Conversations was better than I expected. If you do as Boghossian and Lindsay say and not as they do, you’ll probably be more successful in persuading people during contentious conversations — as long as you have enough common sense to exclude the weird shit as well.

That “not as they do” is important. Boghossian and Lindsay are just the worst.

Traldi also brings up another criticism that I’d felt worming around in my guts in all my encounters with this “street epistemology” stuff, but he expresses it well for me.

If, as Boghossian and Lindsay seem to indicate, the readers’ own beliefs are as brittle as anyone else’s and rest on as shaky a foundation, why should they be in the business of trying to persuade anyone of anything? If we are really masters of doubting everything we believe, why would persuasion techniques be a rational thing to try to engage in? What would we be trying to persuade people of… stuff we ourselves don’t think is true? Who in the world would that help?

That’s a fundamental question. What, exactly, are we atheists trying to do? Answer that first, before you try to tell others how they’re supposed to be like you.

Comments

  1. says

    If we are really masters of doubting everything we believe, why would persuasion techniques be a rational thing to try to engage in? What would we be trying to persuade people of… stuff we ourselves don’t think is true?

    “Question everything” and “be convinced about some things” aren’t mutually exclusive. After you are done with the questioning part, it is possible to form some opinion. For example, I’m convinced that racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are wrong. I’m convinced that Biblical creationism is wrong. Theoretically, I might also be interested in convincing other people about these ideas.

  2. aramad says

    “Then I witnessed some of it at meetings and on YouTube and was quickly de-impressed. It mainly seemed to be a game of leading questions calculated to trap uninformed people into contradictions, not into thinking, and to leverage their discomfort into considering alternatives.”
    Anthony Magnabosco is the best of the street epistemology bunch, in my experience, whose questioning very often leads to new thinking. Some discomfort too, but he makes a point of backing off when that happens.

  3. robro says

    Proponents hate me when I say it, but Ray Comfort figured this out before they did…

    Not familiar with the ”street epistemology” method but since you bring up Comfort, I was getting step-by-step lessons on how to win souls in the mid-60s. This was a series of canned questions that were a sure fire way to win that soul for Jesus which would be called something like “the road to redemption”. The line of questions was very predictable, of course, so that when I would get in a conversation with someone that started down that road I would simply disengage.

  4. PaulBC says

    The whole idea is misguided that you can persuade anyone away from religion with an intellectual argument. Some people are going to doubt their religion but maintain the practice to fit into their family and community. I suspect that such closeted agnostics and atheists have been with us in large numbers for thousands of years. Other people may find some solace in a belief that outweighs their inability to justify it rationally. Others experience fear or pressure, or have just not even considered an alternative.

    Societies can become less religious over time. It has happened in Western Europe and it is happening in the US, though we’re behind the curve in the US. In the coastal liberal community where I live, bringing up religion at all requires circumspection, though I can do it. If I were actually trying to promote a religion among non-believers, I would be unwelcome for the most part. If I casually acknowledge I’m agnostic or atheist (I waffle on which), this is just normal. I have no direct experience with how it works in the rest of the US, but it appears to be different in some places.

    If the goal is to decrease the number of religious people and increase the number of atheists, this can be done by improving lives and providing alternatives to a religious life. Not all needs are material, and I think, for instance some people are going to value a church wedding that their parents approve of. No “street epistemology” is likely to sway them. The only viable process is steady cultural change.

    The whole idea of persuasion just seems alien to me. People hold beliefs for many reasons, and having worked through some empirical or logical justification is one of the least common ones.

  5. says

    Apart from the quality of content in the book, I’m skeptical of the value of a book in teaching practical conversation tips. Learn by doing, and all that.

    Altercasting sounds like an awful strategy, even if you ignore that it’s manipulative. Telling someone who they are is real bad because people often have idiosyncratic views of themselves, which are unlikely to match your superficial impressions. If someone told me “you seem like a rational person” I would roll my eyes super hard.

  6. blf says

    PZ Myers becoming an Instagram model

    Spiders need all the help they can get ! So, please, don’t do it…

  7. Peter Bollwerk says

    I’m not a fan of Boghossian, but Street Epistemology is largely a good thing, I think.
    I think it’s useful in challenging beliefs in a non-threatening way, particularly if you concentrate on HOW they determine what is true or likely true.

    But it’s not a new concept. It’s just Socratic dialog.

  8. John Morales says

    Sad part is how some people imagine reading a book like that will turn them into knowledgeable rational thinkers, epistemological experts, and strong debaters.

    (Master debaters!)

    To extend what others have already written, it’s rather futile to attempt to epistemologise someone who is a conscious fideist, for example.

  9. gruebleen says

    PaulBC @6

    “People hold beliefs for many reasons, and having worked through some empirical or logical justification is one of the least common ones.”

    Hmmm. Now personally I contemplate the enormous amount of “belief” in both science and mathematics and contemplate that most of that “belief” is, in fact, justified – logically and/or empirically.

    But humans are nothing if not master compartmentalisers, so it is quite possible for us to hold ‘rational’ views/beliefs about many things simultaneously with being entirely irrational – or fideist if you prefer – about a great many others.

  10. aramad says

    @PaulBC 6
    Yes, expecting to convert or deconvert someone in a single conversation is misguided, since religion is not a simple switch that can be flipped on or off. It is a thought process, but it is a long running one which takes years to play out. But whilte epistemological questions will not deconvert someone on the spot, they definitely can change the trajectory of that person’s …journey (I hate that phrasing, but had nothing better to go with) by giving then a new line of thought to follow.

  11. DanDare says

    It is a healthy thing to explore why you beleive something.
    Its a good thing to have tools to help examine beleifs, and to scan for new ways to see things.
    Its social to exchange tools with other people.
    It can be deeply bonding to have someone walk with you on an examination of your own beleifs.
    Its horrible and manipulative to infiltrate an adgenda of changing someone’s beleifs to a pre determined alternate.

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