“Faith is not a virtue”: a Q-and-A with Peter Boghossian

Philosophy Professor Peter Boghossian, in celebration of his upcoming book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, sat down with the Vanguard for an exclusive Q-and-A in one of our most-viewed pieces ever. Boghossian seeks to create a legion of reason leaders, aka “street epistemologists,” to help cure people of what he calls “the faith virus.”

He of little faith: Professor Peter Boghossian seeks to create a legion of reason leaders to help cure people of what he calls “the faith virus.” Photo Jann Messer.
He of little faith: Professor Peter Boghossian seeks to create a legion of reason leaders to help cure people of what he calls “the faith virus.” Photo Jann Messer.

This Mother’s Day, Portland State philosophy professor Peter Boghossian will present a talk about his forthcoming book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, and answer audience questions.

The Humanists of Greater Portland will host the talk at the Friendly House at Northwest 26th Avenue and Thurman Street on Sunday from 10–11:30 a.m. Tickets are free and seating is up for grabs.

Faith and religion are typically sensitive topics in our society. It is easy to offend someone when they identify strongly with a belief, counting it as a part of who they are.But Boghossian does not shy away from sensitive subjects.

Boghossian got into philosophy via a natural curiosity and desire to ask larger questions about knowledge, reality, existence and more. This led to his desire to teach and make philosophy more accessible and practical for students.

Not only has Boghossian taught in academia, he has spent extensive time helping to rehabilitate prisoners by talking with them about their way of thinking and helping them change the flaws in their thought processes that led them into a life of crime.

All of this relates to faith as Boghossian defines it: an epistemology (or system of knowledge) that is inherently flawed because it is unreliable, and it is unreliable because it does not rely on evidence to support its claims.

The Vanguard sat down with Boghossian to discuss his upcoming book and how he hopes to give readers the tools necessary for intervening with the faithful. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanguard: You are giving a talk on Mother’s Day, May 12, on your upcoming book, titled A Manual for Creating Atheists. Can you tell me what it is you’ll be speaking about?

Peter Boghossian: A Manual for Creating Atheists is the title of my book that’s coming out [from] Pitchstone Publishing. As for your question, there are entire organizations, a massive corpus of literature, about how to talk someone into a faith tradition. Catholics, Mormons, you name it. There’s nothing about how to talk someone out of a faith tradition and into reason and rationality. And that’s what the book is about. It’s about how to turn these engagements from pester into opportunity. The book gives people specific tools to talk people out of their faith and into reason.

VG: What is an atheist?

PB: Here’s how I define an atheist: An atheist is a person who says, “There is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in God, but if I were given sufficient evidence I would believe in God.” That is the definition that I use, and that is what I would propose so we can move the conversation forward. Once you look at it that way, the atheist isn’t claiming to know anything.

VG: What is important about creating an atheist?

PB: There is nothing important about creating an atheist. What’s important is that we create people who lead thoughtful and examined lives. What’s important is that we create people that have reliable methods to discern make-believe land from reality.

VG: Are there benefits to being an atheist?

PB: Are there any benefits to being an atheist? I’ve never actually thought about it that way. There are an infinite number of benefits from having a way to discern truth from falsity, a reliable epistemology. Atheism is just a consequence of having that epistemology. But are there any specific benefits that come from not pretending to know things you don’t know about how the universe was created? Well, let me think; I guess it’s a type of honesty with yourself, in a sense. I guess I just don’t conceptualize it that way.

VG: What are some of the steps in “creating an atheist?”

PB: Well, if you come to the talk, then you’ll know. (Laughs.) So you need to understand what faith means, what does God mean, what does atheism mean, and once we’re on the same field then we can actually have a conversation about these things. The book draws from diverse peer-reviewed literature in drug addiction and pedagogy and psychology and psychiatry and exiting cults, and it looks at what works in those interventions. It’s a roadmap, in a sense, to teach people how to reason; it’s a roadmap to help you help people to reason. Then you can start on these inoculations, these dialectical, these verbal inoculations.

VG: What gives you the authority to write a manual like this?

PB: I hope at some point it’s not an authority. Nothing would make me happier than if the next generation of atheists picks up the torch and develops more reliable ways to talk people out of faith and into reason. That would be fantastic. So, basically, I took what I knew plus 25 years of classroom teaching experience in the streets and the prisons, and then I took what works in the research literature, and I crystallized that down into a book that I hope is accessible and that [people] can read and immediately begin talking people out of their faith. I want to create a legion of people that go out and are empowered with these tools and talk people out of their faith.

VG: You’ve referred to faith in the past as a “cognitive sickness” and a “delusion.” What would you say to those who feel you are attacking their beliefs?

PB: They’re right. I’m undermining their beliefs by taking a look at how they claim to know what they know. So when somebody tells me that Jesus walked on water or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, I want to know how they know that. And I think that’s an incredibly reasonable question. Specifically since they’ve gone out of their way to influence public policy about issues that really matter, and those issues have been incredibly hurtful to people. So if somebody says, “You’re attacking my beliefs,” that’s somewhat true, but I’m really attacking the way they form beliefs. I really want to know how they know that, and I expect an answer. And if you can’t provide an answer, then back to the kids’ table you go. You should have no voice in public policy; maybe you should be a fiction writer.

VG: Faith is often held to be a virtue, whether in politics or everyday life. How do you feel about that?

PB: Faith is not a virtue; faith is an epistemology. Once we understand how faith is an epistemology, everything changes. Because then you’re talking about knowledge, then you’re talking about how people know something. People who make faith claims are making knowledge claims; they’re trusting, for example, in Jesus. “I trust that after I die, I’m going to heaven and be with all of my relatives and Jesus.” Once somebody makes that claim, that’s a knowledge claim. So when you understand that, you can target their epistemology and help them see that that’s just a delusion. Or not, maybe you don’t help them see that’s a delusion, and maybe they know something you don’t know. And if they know something you don’t know, well then, I want to know what it is, because I want to know it too. So if somebody has an epistemology that’s more predictive, more parsimonious, what have you, then I want to know what it is. But having a [good] way to come to knowledge doesn’t make you a good person; having a bad way to come to knowledge just makes you wrong.

VG: Do you believe faith has a place in public policy?

PB: No. Well, does believing something on the basis of no evidence have any basis in public policy? No. You should formulate public policy on the best available evidence. And we should teach people to make better, more discerning judgments as a result of what evidence they have. There has to be some price to be paid, politically, for people who formulate their beliefs on the basis of no evidence or insufficient evidence.

Bringing it back to your book, what is your goal in writing this book?

PB: My goal is literally to create a legion of people who go out wherever the faithful are found [and] in every interaction to help them come to reason and shed superstition, irrationality and faith. That’s my goal. Literally to create a legion of people that will stop the tide of irrationality.

VG: Given that, what would a world in which everyone was an atheist look like?

PB: The way I look at it is, what would the world look like if we helped people to have more reliable epistemologies? Well, people would formulate their beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence. They’d be willing to reconsider their beliefs. They’d formulate public policy on the basis of reason and evidence. I think the world would be more sane, less irrational, less subject to superstition. I think that our sciences would advance tremendously. We wouldn’t have to fight battles over intelligent design or creationism or Young Earthers. I think it would move us in the direction [of] where we want to be as a society.

Vanguard exclusive video interview with Peter Boghossian