New Atheist Pseudoscience

Peter Boghossian is peddling pseudoscience. This becomes obvious once you recognize he is trying to frame his whole case against religion as if he was doing science, when in fact, he is not even close to practicing science.

To begin, even though Boghossian has no expertise in neuroscience, immunology, microbiology, or epidemiology, he builds his case on the existence of something called a “faith virus.” What in the world is a “faith virus?” Boghossian does not seem to know. He provides no evidence to think something called a “faith virus” exists, neither does he make any effort to define what a faith virus is. He simply asserts it into existence and then proceeds to pretend to know that faith viruses do indeed exist.

Boghossian does not stop there.

Like most pseudoscientists, he tries to support the existence of his own version of Dianetics by surrounding it with all sorts of sciencey-sounding words. He likes to talk as if “hosts” are being “infected,” suffering from a “malady” that is in need of “treatment.” He speaks of “immunization,” “vaccination” and “incubation chambers.” He warns of a “public health crisis” and “epidemiological crises.” He talks of “interventions” and “containment protocols.”

Now keep in mind that the use of such terminology is not connected by any scientific thinking or analysis. Again, there is no discussion of what a faith virus is. No discussion of the mechanism by which faith viruses propagate. No discussion of previous experiments that have characterized the “faith virus.” Neither do his claims come with any curiosity. When did the faith virus come into existence? Are there other closely related viruses (knowledge viruses, music viruses, etc.)? Why are there no peer-reviewed studies of the “faith virus” in the scientific literature? Instead, Boghossian is interested in only one thing – attaching the word “virus” to faith. From there, he wants to dress up his argument in a white lab coat by liberally invoke such terminology, creating some rather strange conjunctions, where a virus infection is cured with the Socratic method and the “doxastic” status of the “host” becomes an important consideration in the treatment plan. This is cargo-cult science – a practice that has the semblance of being scientific, but does not in fact follow the scientific method.

Boghossian wants to infuse his atheistic version of Dianetics with scientific terminology because he is trying to make his rhetoric resemble science. Like the typical pseudoscientist, he is trying to make it look like he is doing some sort of science when he is doing nothing of the sort.

Sorry, Peter, but if you want to do science, you need to go back to the beginning. You need to answer some basic questions – Do faith viruses exist and, if so, how do you know? If they exist, what are they? What are their features? What is the mechanism for their propagation? Peter, if you want to sit at the Adult Table, you need to start doing some experiments that address these questions. If all you are going to do is parrot scientific terms and draw pictures of religious symbols on cartoons of viruses, then you need to take your pseudoscience to the Kids Table.

At this point, someone who has bought into the cargo-cult science might object and scold me for being too “uncharitable” with my interpretation, arguing that faith viruses aren’t meant to be taken so literally. Instead, they might argue, faith viruses are memes. Yeah, like that helps. Memetics is pseudoscience. The claim “a faith virus is a meme” is scientifically vacuous. Which explains why the “faith virus” does not exist in science.

What’s more, don’t forget the “faith virus” term is surrounded and propped up by all that other sciencey-sounding language. We are still left with an approach that has the semblance of being scientific, but does not in fact follow the scientific method.

And if that was not bad enough, consider the basic argument itself. According to Boghossian, faith is both a mental illness and a virus that can infect. Peter Boghossian is both tapping into and perpetuating the harmful myth that mental illness is contagious. Unfortunately, people who do suffer from a real mental illness also have to deal with the stigmatization that comes from the myth of mental illness being contagious. How sad it is that there is a philosophy professor out there who, in wanting to be perceived as a scientist when making his anti-religious arguments, is giving life to a harmful myth.

Boghossian is not just peddling pseudoscience. He is peddling harmful pseudoscience. And it belongs at the Naughty Kids Table.

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23 Responses to New Atheist Pseudoscience

  1. TFBW says:

    “Pseudoscience” is a rather charitable description. One might expect pseudoscience to at least imitate the form of science by having experiments and measurements of some sort — badly controlled and inappropriately analysed ones, for sure, but experiments and measurements even so. Boghossian can’t even cite anecdotal results on a par with homeopathy. He describes a treatment, invented from the comfort of his armchair, for a disease which he imagines to be plaguing humanity, the abolition of which he imagines will make the world a better place. His shtick is beneath pseudoscience: it is somewhere between “motivational speaker” and “snake oil merchant” — where the snake oil in question is the book itself.

  2. Michael says:

    TFBW,
    Thanks for noticing. I was originally going to compare him to Nigel West Dickens from RDR.

  3. Luke Parrish says:

    What about cults? Terminology aside, it seems clear that they propagate themselves (which establishes similarity to a virus), and impair cognition (which establishes similarity to a mental illness). I’d be surprised if either phenomenon was not well studied in scientific literature. Obviously their existence does not imply that mental illnesses are contagious.

  4. Michael says:

    What about cults? Terminology aside, it seems clear that they propagate themselves (which establishes similarity to a virus), and impair cognition (which establishes similarity to a mental illness).

    Yes, New Atheism is propagated and impairs congnition. But that’s another topic. Let’s keep this on topic – do you agree that Boghossian is peddling pseudoscience?

  5. Luke Parrish says:

    “New Atheism is propagated and impairs congnition.”

    I’d be comfortable conceding that any kind of label or group affiliation will tend to stimulate some kinds of cognition and impair other kinds. It is human nature. However, the extremes of motivated reasoning achieved by religious faith in its various forms strike me as remarkable compared to those typical in atheistic clades.

    “do you agree that Boghossian is peddling pseudoscience?”

    I’m not sure, since I hadn’t heard of him before. However, I think there is an important distinction between using provocative language to make people think harder about something, and using misleading language to cover up logical fallacies (i.e. make them think less critically). From what I’ve seen here, the idea of casting faith as a transmissible sickness is intended to help people understand that it is self-propagating and not always good. It does not seem likely to mislead anyone into thinking (for example) that bipolar disorder can be passed from person to person.

  6. cl says:

    Hats off to you for speaking out against this guy, I’ve only caught bits and pieces of him but it’s actually enough to almost make me want to start blogging again. Something about this guy seems dangerous, in a different way than, say, the Four Horseman. This guy seems more likely to actually swell up an army of loons.

  7. cl says:

    If I might chime in… Luke wrote,

    “From what I’ve seen here, the idea of casting faith as a transmissible sickness is intended to help people understand that it is self-propagating and not always good.”

    Well, yeah, obviously Boghossian and other atheists *THINK* that about faith, but, as you point out, we must think critically and so the question remains: is faith self-propagating in the same way as a virus? Any honest, informed person must answer “no” it is not, and if the answer is “no” then the follow-up question becomes: then why in the world is Boghossian using such language?

  8. Luke Parrish says:

    “is faith self-propagating in the same way as a virus? Any honest, informed person must answer “no” it is not,”

    Although there are obvious differences, there are also obvious parallels. How else would faith spread, if not like a virus?

    “and if the answer is “no” then the follow-up question becomes: then why in the world is Boghossian using such language?

    Probably to make people think, would be my guess. Also, as noted, he wants to sell books.

  9. Michael says:

    I’m not sure, since I hadn’t heard of him before. However, I think there is an important distinction between using provocative language to make people think harder about something, and using misleading language to cover up logical fallacies (i.e. make them think less critically).

    This is irrelevant. It’s not about hateful language. It’s about inventing viruses and propping that up with scientific and medical lingo. Remember the definition of cargo-cult science – a practice that has the semblance of being scientific, but does not in fact follow the scientific method.

    It’s clear that he intentionally frames his case to have the “semblance of science.”
    It’s clear that he does not in fact follow the scientific method.
    Thus, he is practicing cargo-cult science.

    Yet, for some odd reason, you can’t bring yourself to agree.

  10. Michael says:

    Although there are obvious differences, there are also obvious parallels. How else would faith spread, if not like a virus?

    By focusing only on parallels, you are engaged in confirmation bias. Why would you focus only on parallels?

    What’s more, why the arbitrary targeting of faith? Can’t you likewise make parallels between the spread of knowledge and viruses? Atheism and viruses? Transhumanism and viruses? Music and viruses? What aspect of our social nature cannot be compared to viruses.

    What you offer is nothing more than arbitrarily invoked confirmation bias.

    Word of advice, Luke – Boghossian is peddling harmful pseudoscience. The question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to defend/excuse/rationalize the pseudoscience or whether you want to distance yourself from it. Are you willing to spend credibility points on this battle?

  11. Luke Parrish says:

    “It’s clear that he intentionally frames his case to have the “semblance of science.”
    It’s clear that he does not in fact follow the scientific method.
    Thus, he is practicing cargo-cult science. ”

    This is sort of like saying that a pastor whose sermon is about sowing and reaping is practicing cargo cult farming because his talk has a semblance of farming.

  12. Michael says:

    No it’s not. We’re not talking about Boghossian giving a speech where he uses a couple of scientific/medical terms.

    You never answered my questions:

    Why would you focus only on parallels?
    Why the arbitrary targeting of faith?

  13. Luke Parrish says:

    “We’re not talking about Boghossian giving a speech where he uses a couple of scientific/medical terms.”

    Pretty sure we’re also not talking about fake science, in the ordinary sense of homeopathy and the like. Comparing faith to a virus is most likely a rhetorical device / analogy, not a science claim in this context (unless I’m greatly mistaken).

    “Why would you focus only on parallels?”

    What does focusing on the differences contribute? Obviously faith is not DNA or RNA molecules that invade physical cells, but how does that contribute to the discussion?

    “Why the arbitrary targeting of faith?”

    I think most likely it is because faith he thinks of / wants to portray faith as parasitic and unproductive. (A potentially viable counterargument would be that faith is productive and useful.) Plenty of other things are transmissible in a manner loosely analogous to viruses as well, as noted. That is why the term “meme” was coined. Viruses are more familiar and less confusing (people think memes are internet gags), which explains some of the rhetorical choice, but obviously none of these things are literal viruses.

  14. Michael says:

    Pretty sure we’re also not talking about fake science, in the ordinary sense of homeopathy and the like. Comparing faith to a virus is most likely a rhetorical device / analogy, not a science claim in this context (unless I’m greatly mistaken).

    Is comparing faith to a mental illness also an analogy? It’s pretty clear that Boghossian doesn’t think that is the case. So what are the science claims and what are just rhetorical devices? Where does one end and the other begin? Or are we dealing with someone who wants to make science claims, but also wants the luxury of claiming rhetorical device as an escape hatch when he gets called out for spreading cargo-cult science?

    The problem is that we have much more than comparing faith to a virus. As I noted, he props up this comparison with all sorts of other sciencey-sounding terms. So it’s not just a device or analogy; it’s a narrative that tries to resemble science.

    The only way to clear this up would be to get Boghossian to admit a) there are no such thing as faith viruses (it’s just a rhetorical device) and b) his approach is not scientific.

    What does focusing on the differences contribute? Obviously faith is not DNA or RNA molecules that invade physical cells, but how does that contribute to the discussion?

    What is contributes is clarity – making it clear we are not talking about real viruses. The “faith virus” is supposed to infect brains. Can you name one other virus that infects the brain that does not use DNA or RNA?

    I think most likely it is because faith he thinks of / wants to portray faith as parasitic and unproductive. (A potentially viable counterargument would be that faith is productive and useful.)

    Now, you are getting close. Boghossian chose to attach the word “virus” to religious people because of prejudice and bigotry. He wants to portray people of faith as being diseased and harboring a dangerous parasite to help the New Atheist movement further demonize religious people.

    Plenty of other things are transmissible in a manner loosely analogous to viruses as well, as noted.

    Exactly. But given that New Atheist activists are obsessed with hating religious people, we can understand why Boghossian only attaches the word “virus” to faith.

    That is why the term “meme” was coined.

    No, the meme is supposed to be analogous to the gene.

    Viruses are more familiar and less confusing (people think memes are internet gags), which explains some of the rhetorical choice, but obviously none of these things are literal viruses.

    Yes, people are familiar with viruses as dangerous, harmful, agents of disease. Boghossian’s choice the word has nothing to do with keeping people from being confused by the internet gags. He is interested in a) demonizing other people and b) selling books to the New Atheist faithful.

    Luke, why are you so sympathetic to this harmful pseudoscience? Are you a fan of Dawkins or Sam Harris?

  15. cl says:

    Luke Parrish,

    How else would faith spread, if not like a virus?

    Can a host consciously refuse a virus? C’mon. Now, if you’re on the side of critical thinking, you need to quit playing the fence, man up and actually CRITICIZE Boghossian for choosing “to attach the word ‘virus’ to religious people because of prejudice and bigotry,” as Michael noted.

    Will you publicly condemn this type of behavior? Or not?

    I will.

  16. There is scientific value in thinking of faith and viruses at the same time.

    Please read the next sentence carefully. I am not equating faith to viruses in any pejorative context. Let me repeat I am not equating faith to viruses in any pejorative context.

    What I am saying is that several of the fundamental models of the spread of viruses also apply to the spread of religion. In general people must be “infected” (“evangelized”). Normally this means that there must be contact to facilitate “infection” (“evangelization”). Given small isolated groups it’s likely that everyone will be “infected” (the group will develop norms that encourage people to become faithful).

    To say that faith is a virus can be take as an insult. To say that faith acts like is an entirely reasonable way to use one as a model for the other.

    I’m a new reader of this blog and I have two questions:
    1. What are “New Atheists” and how do they differ from the old ones? Is there a difference between Richard Dawkins and Robert Ingersoll?
    2. What does “Gnu” stand for? As an engineer, I’m familiar with the Free Software Foundation’s use of “GNU” as the recursive acronym “Gnu is Not Unix.” I don’t think this is what you have in mind.

  17. TFBW says:

    To say that faith is a virus can be take as an insult. To say that faith acts like is an entirely reasonable way to use one as a model for the other.

    To single out “faith” or “religion” for this comparison, when it’s just as true of all ideas in general, including scientific hypotheses, is to cast aspersions through negative association. Dawkins is the original culprit in this regard, with his “meme” concept. While he’s quite happy to acknowledge that all ideas are memes, he falls back on the negative connotations of “just a meme” (implying a lack of rational basis) when it suits him to do so.

    What are “New Atheists” and how do they differ from the old ones? … What does “Gnu” stand for?

    Here, let me Google that for you, lazybones.

  18. Michael says:

    What I am saying is that several of the fundamental models of the spread of viruses also apply to the spread of religion.

    Several of the fundamental models of the spread of viruses also apply to the spread of atheism. So why don’t atheists ever use viruses as a model for their atheism?

  19. Kevin says:

    Several of the fundamental models of the spread of viruses also apply to the spread of atheism. So why don’t atheists ever use viruses as a model for their atheism?

    Ooh, ooh, I know the answer! Because atheism is only spread through logic, reason, evidence, and scientific inquiry, whereas religion is only spread through faith (which of course means belief without evidence), peer pressure, geographical location, social upbringing, ignorance, fear, and bigotry. Yay I win!

  20. Michael says:

    LOL! I’m sure there are many atheists who think that is how it is.

  21. I do think that Christianity spreads more like a virus than atheism. The difference is the effect of human contact. In my experience people seldom are converted to Christianity by logic and reason. Instead they are converted by the personal faith of people they know. It’s not “Please now consider the question of transubstantiation and the conversion of the wine and the host into the actual body and blood of Christ in light of the Jewish prohibition of consuming blood.” Rather it’s more like “Come with me to Church tonight. Come, pray, hear God’s Word and feel Jesus lift your burdens and set you free.” You can become an atheist all by yourself, just by thinking and reading books. Becoming a Christian takes a real person to spread the Good News.

  22. Kevin says:

    It doesn’t take other people to realize atheism is illogical. And while many converts from atheism to Christianity do so after a combination of realizing atheism is logically untenable and a powerful emotional catalyst, I’ve seen plenty of testimonies where they came to Christianity on their own, but still don’t like the church system. So there are all kinds.

    All these books being written by ideologically-driven antitheists are literally spreading their ideas around like viruses. Very few are dispassionate analyses of facts or evidence, but instead emotional collections of hyperbole and hatred designed to elicit an emotional response. (Faith Monster anyone?) The majority of testimonies I’ve seen from atheists (well antitheists anyway) usually involve some prior hatred of Christianity or Christians at some point in their past. I can’t recall any personal journey to antitheism that was based on logic or reason, because the facts simply don’t support that type of bigotry.

    Any and every idea can be spread “like a virus”, and can also be arrived at independently without others coaxing you along. The comparison between belief in God and disease is simply that, trying to make people equate believing in God with a mental illness that requires a cure. Pretty pathetic, if you ask me.

  23. TFBW says:

    @Strephon Savoyard:
    We run the risk of talking at cross purposes here. You’re introducing a novel concept of “like a virus” which involves “human contact”. Dawkins’ original “meme” concept, which is the model of “like a virus” that most people will assume when the comparison is made, had nothing to do with personal contact: it simply made the observation that ideas can be passed from one mind to another, and thereby engage in a form of replication, just like a virus can be transmitted from one person to another. A book will do just as well as an in-person conversation for this purpose: there is no need for physical proximity, only for a communications channel to exist from the idea-holder to the idea-recipient.

    If you’re going to change the subject like that, you should make a point of drawing attention to it, since it’s bad for communication if you don’t. Having said that, you may have a valid point, to some degree. I, too, have anecdotal evidence that Christianity is more likely to spread than atheism, given the rich communications channel offered by in-person conversation, as opposed to the more sterile medium of writing. I say this because, in my experience, most atheists who are vocal about their atheism are also obnoxious about it, exuding the arrogance of the Dawkins “go away and learn how to think” attitude. While obnoxious Christians also exist, they are proportionately rare, and while pleasant atheists exist, they tend not to be vocal about it. As such, it’s no great surprise that Christianity wins hands down for effectiveness of in-person evangelising.

    You presume too much, however, when you say, “people seldom are converted to Christianity by logic and reason.” It’s not that the statement is false, in and of itself — on the contrary, it’s probably true. The presumption is in the tacit implication that atheism stands in contrast to this. In my experience, you see, people are seldom converted to atheism by logic and reason. Usually there are strong emotional reasons behind the conversion, and the “logic and reason” parts are post-hoc rationalisations. Indeed, in my experience, few non-trivial human decisions at all are based on logic and reason, although they might be based on intuitions which produce the same outcome as often as not. The New Atheist proclivity for declaring a monopoly on rational thought is just a mixture of arrogance and incompetence: they judge themselves to be particularly bright, and everyone else to be particularly dull, without actually possessing the competence to make that judgement.

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