By James Bishop| I have a respect for atheists, and I’d even go as far as defending them against unwarranted and unfair claims made by Christians. However, sometimes atheists go too far and make themselves look like fools. Philosopher Peter Boghossian is one of them. Why? Just to whet the appetite, in one of his lectures to fellow atheists he said that “When I speak to speak to somebody of faith, I view them as a person who really is mentally ill” (1).
This rhetoric made up a fair portion of a 2014 discussion/debate he had with Christian philosopher Tim McGrew on a Christian radio show called “Unbelievable.” Boghossian was discussing some of his views he presented in his book A Manual For Creating Atheists which could be argued to be different to other atheist books give it presents itself as a manual with a purpose: creating atheists, converting people to atheism, and training atheists in presenting their views.
In his first chapter he says that his book offers “conversational tools to talk people out of their faith and help them to embrace reason.” Obviously if one disagrees with Boghossian then he is unreasonable because Boghossian has climbed the tallest peak of reason and planted his own flag on top, so he believes. Nonetheless, he addresses those who remain unpersuaded by his views in two points,
“This section will unpack the two primary reasons for this appearance of failure [convincing someone of the truth of atheism]: either (1) an interlocutor’s brain is neurologically damaged, or (2) you’re actually succeeding. In the latter case, an interlocutor’s verbal behavior indicates that your intervention is failing–for example, they’re getting angry or raising their voice, or they seem to become even more entrenched in their belief. Such protests may actually indicate a successful treatment” (2).
According to Boghossian either the person is brain damaged (and must undergo a successful treatment) or he is indeed being persuaded by the truths of atheism and refusing to admit it. The latter being associated with the religious person resorting to shouting, getting angry etc., which naively suggests that there are no religious people who could politely disagree and who would not resort to shouting, getting angry etc. He continues,
“In instances of damage to the brain, no dialectical intervention will be effective in eliciting cognitive and attitudinal change. These and other conditions like some strokes, intracranial tumors, or Alzheimer’s disease affect the brain and are beyond the reach of nonmedical interventions. In short, if someone is suffering from a brain-based faith delusion your work will be futile.” (3)
So, if you do not admit Boghossian is right then you must be brain damaged (suffering a brain-based cognitive deficiency like a stroke or tumor). This is obvious fallacious and nonsensical at its best. Empirically, there are studies suggesting that being religious has advantages over being non-religious.
For instance, religious and spiritual people who participate in religious activities such as prayer, meditation and attendance at religious meetings tend to have better physical health than non-believers. A number of researchers in a journal article “Religion and mental health,” concluded that “hundreds of epidemiological studies performed during the last decades have shown a different picture. Religiousness remains an important aspect of human life and it usually has a positive association with good mental health” (4).
But beyond this obvious blunder, Boghossian has no comprehension that one might disagree with him because he presents bad logic, reasoning, and arguments. This can be chalked down to an open arrogance and lack of humility on his part. A humble person would admit the possibility of being incorrect in some of his views, and might even concede holding some of his views tentatively (but Boghossian has evidently beaten everyone to the pinnacle of the peak of reason).
Boghossian also does not seem to be aware that many religious people feel that they have good epistemic warrant for holding to their beliefs, and that they would consider the arguments presented in his book as weak and unconvincing.
Moreover, what is particularly unfortunate are the popular level atheists who have endorsed Boghossian’s book. Philosopher and theologian Randal Rauser, who has provided a scathing critique of Boghossians book, rightly captures our shared disappointment. He identified a “list of well known atheists that have endorsed this book: Victor Stenger, Richard Carrier, Guy Harrison, John Loftus, Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins.
This disappoints me deeply because I would never endorse a book of Christian evangelism that attributed all evangelistic resistance to the brain damage or sin of the non-Christian. And yet these individuals endorse Boghossian’s invocation of the same indoctrinational categories in defense of atheism. Assuming that all these individuals read the book, it must be that they are in broad agreement with Boghossian’s categories.” (5).
Randal further observes that at the end of the exchange he had with McGrew, Boghossian engages “in a nauseating “make nice” bit by inviting Justin Brierley and Tim McGrew to drop in and see him, should they ever be in Portland. That’s like listening to a misogynist rant for an hour on how women are intellectual inferiors who should stay in the kitchen and then adding a final make nice: “But if any of you lovely ladies are ever in Portland, be sure to give me a call.” Talk about pathetic.”
But let’s no make more of this than we can. Truthfully, Boghossian’s views are hugely damaging for atheism in general, and it is therefore easy to paint atheists and atheism in this light (this is arguably one of several reasons why atheists are the least trusted group in American society. Even Sam Harris stated that atheism is “right next to child molester as a designation.”). Most good, moral atheists (which are obviously not Boghossian nor those who endorse his book) would not hold such views of religious people. We ought to bear that in mind.
Here’s another gem from Boghossian,
“We must reconceptualize faith as a virus of the mind … and treat faith like other epidemiological crises: contain and eradicate… (6) Children raised in a faith-based household should receive “interventions designed to rid subjects of the faith affliction” (7).