More on Boghossian’s Pseudoscience

As I have shown, Peter Boghossian’s whole “argument” amounts to pseudoscience.
He takes two pseudoscientific claims, a) religious faith is a mental illness and b) religious faith is caused by an infection from a “faith virus” and combines them into a toxic brew that just happens to perpetuate a myth that does harm to real people – the myth that mental illness is contagious. This myth is serious enough that health care agencies often have to inform the public that mental illness is not contagious.

So basically, Boghossian invents a disease and a vector for the disease, all so he can sell a “cure” that he has invented. So let’s take a quick look at his “cure.”

He begins his book as follows:

This book will teach you how to talk people out of their faith. You’ll learn how to engage the faithful in conversations that help them value reason and rationality, cast doubt on their beliefs, and mistrust their faith. I call this activist approach to helping people overcome their faith, Street Epistemology. The goal of this book is to create a generation of Street Epistemologists: people equipped with an array of dialectical and clinical tools who actively go into the streets, the prisons, the bars, the churches, the schools, and the community-into any and every place the faithful reside – and help them abandon their faith and embrace reason.

Bold claims. But is any of this supported by evidence? Nope. Boghossian provides no data, no evidence, to support his contention that his cure will talk people out of their faith. He is clearly pretending to know something he does not know.

In fact, we could ask a simple question. He claims he has been doing these interventions for over 20 years. So, after 20 years of intervening, how many people has he talked out of their faith? For some unexplainable reason, Boghossian doesn’t seem all that interested in sharing these data with the world.

Furthermore, even if we grant, for the sake of argument, the efficacy of his “cure,” we would need to inquire further. For example, what is the cure rate for this “array of dialectical and clinical tools?” Will his “intervention” technique cure one out of ten? One out of a hundred? One out of a million? Boghossian never addresses this question and shows no curiosity about this. Like most pseudoscientists, Boghossian is only interested in pushing his product.

When it comes to supporting the bold claims about his “cure,” the closest thing Boghossian has to evidence is a set of “interventions” he relays in his book as dialogs. Yet as Boghossian says, “Question everything.” So let’s do so.

First, Boghossian claims these dialogs are examples of actual interventions he carried out in the past. Yet there is no evidence these “interventions” actually happened. It is, after all, possible that that he made them up to spice up his book to help with sales. So are they real or fictional? Who knows? Since there is no evidence that such “interventions” happened, I’ll have to accept that they did on faith. This, of course, puts Boghossian’s best “evidence” for the curative elements of his approach in the hilariously ironic position of having to be accepted on faith.

Second, there is something odd about his reports of his interventions – they are rather lengthy and detailed. Either Boghossian is out there secretly recording his conversations with other people (which would be creepy) or he is relying on his memory of such conversations. Since it is probably the later, it turns out the “evidence” for the curative effects of his approach has been filtered through the mind of someone who wrote, “I think I should be given some type of community service award for devoting my life to helping people learn to reason effectively.” What he reports is how he personally remembers things. Not very trustworthy, eh? So not only are they anecdotes; they are unreliable anecdotes.

Third, and most significant of all, is that no one loses their faith in any of his reported interventions. Now, you might expect an author to showcase his best interventions in a book such as this. Given the way he brags about doing such interventions for decades, it is thus rather telling that no one loses their faith because of them. No one becomes an atheist. Yes, he befuddles people and trips them up with his constant stream of “How do you know?” type questions (something that can be done with just about anyone and just about any topic). But that’s a long way from creating atheists. There is no evidence that the Manual For Creating Atheists ever created an atheist.

In summary, Boghossian invents a disease and a vector for the disease, and then sells a “cure.” But is there any evidence the “cure” works? Nope. It sure looks like Boghossian is the Nigel West Dickens of the New Atheist Movement.

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23 Responses to More on Boghossian’s Pseudoscience

  1. Crude says:

    I believe Bog is currently putting out some movie/TV thing which is a quasi reality TV thing of him doing his deconversion mission work.

  2. TFBW says:

    Boghossian has a much more polished act than Nigel West Dickens, who seems to have been deliberately dumbed down for the purposes of the narrative. Dickens bluffs and blunders through his technobabble; Boghossian has his jargon worked out well in advance, and is practised in maintaining control of the dialogue so it can be used to maximum effect. Dickens merely sells a miracle tonic; Boghossian is not just selling a cure — he’s selling something that can turn the common or garden variety atheist into a purifier of the stricken religious wastelands. He’s not just curing an illness: he’s raising an army of saviours.

    Dickens has nothing on Boghossian.

  3. rubbermallet says:

    voxday is pretty much obliterating him as well.

  4. Squibs says:

    Not a word of a lie – the show is called “The Reason Whisperer”.

    I wonder will he get that printed on his business card?

  5. stcordova says:

    I’m going out on a limb, but I’d be genuinely curious to find out.

    1. if Bog converts a drug addict to atheism, that drug addict reforms
    2. if Bog converts a criminal to atheism, that criminal suddenly becomes highly moral
    3. if Bog converts someone on the brink of suicide, that person finds hope and reason for living
    4. if Bog converts a rather not so nice person to atheism, his family notices what a much better man he is to live with
    5. if Bog “cures” someone of the mental illness of faith, whether that person becomes more mentally healthy by standard metrics
    etc.

    I’d like to hear the testimony of the effect of becoming an atheist on their personal life (aside maybe from becoming embittered with whatever made the believers previously).

    If not positive behaviors result from conversion to atheism, one has to wonder if the patient was ever sick to begin with! Or worse, the treatment (learning to embrace reason) is worse than the problem it proposes to cure.

    I’ve predicted the will be zero or next to zero effect along the dimensions I describe above. Let’s see if observation will align with theory. I suspect that won’t be explored.

  6. G-Man says:

    The title to Boghossians book (“A Manual For Creating Athiests”) can easily be taken negatively by the faithful, but the books central aim is to promote critical thinking; essentially asking why the believe the things they sat they do. Boghossian clearly thinks that applying critical thinking will lead people to atheism. You may disagree on that point, but I would hope you would agree that critical thinking is an important skill to have, and to apply. I would be interest to hear from anyone who disagrees with that.

    On the two claims mentioned:-
    “a) religious faith is a mental illness” – this is Boghossians opinion. Imagine a person in modern America who claims to believe in the ancient Norse god Oden. And I mean 100% believes. They would be diagnosed as having a delusion. I hope we can agree on that. Now, imagine this person entire community also believed in Oden as well. Is the person still delusional? Today medical professionals would say no, as a significant proportion community also believe. Boghossian believes this is wrong, that the number of believes should not determine whether a certain belief is an delusion. I tend to agree with him.
    Question. Are Scientologists delusional?

    b) “faith virus” – I think this is a metaphor. There is no real “virus”, but it does act like one. Such as trying to transfer itself to new hosts (parents bringing up children to believe etc.).
    The second part; that faith “does harm to real people”. The 9/11 hijackers clearly had faith, and it was faith that convinced them to do what they did.

    In reply to stcordova :
    “2. if Bog converts a criminal to atheism, that criminal suddenly becomes highly moral”
    Atheism is just a lack of belief in a diety, nothing more.
    I dont know of any research specific to converts, but its interesting to note that a FoI request to the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that 0.07% of the prison population is atheist, compared to 10 – 20% of the general US population.

    P.S. I hope the irony of the faithful requiring evidence hasn’t been missed by people.

  7. Michael says:

    Boghossian clearly thinks that applying critical thinking will lead people to atheism. You may disagree on that point, but I would hope you would agree that critical thinking is an important skill to have, and to apply.

    The problem is that Boghossian and his faithful fans don’t have a monopoly on critical thinking. In fact, while they pat themselves on the back as if they excel at this ability, in reality, they suck at it. Consider you, for just one example. You assert:

    The second part; that faith “does harm to real people”. The 9/11 hijackers clearly had faith, and it was faith that convinced them to do what they did.

    Cherry picking, eh?

    Let’s apply some critical thinking.

    First, can you tell us what % of people with faith commit 9/11-type atrocities?

    Second, can you make the case that the faithless have never committed similar atrocities?

    Third, how do you know it was religious faith that caused the 9/11 hijacking? Correlation does not equal cause. Could it have been a political view that portrays America as an arrogant, imperialistic force for evil in the world?

  8. Michael says:

    Given his inferior critical thinking abilities, I am not not surprised G-man has not answered my questions this morning. BTW, there is no evidence that G-man read anything else but the first two sentences of my posting. Not surprised by that either.

    Why is it that “street epistemologists” can’t practice what they preach?

  9. G-Man says:

    Hi Michael,
    I didn’t respond earlier because I was busy, and sure you would agree that that fact has little to do with the validity (or otherwise) of my argument.
    You have mentioned my faulty critical thinking skills. Can you specially point out what they are? I would genuinely like to know. I guess everyone thinks they think critically until it’s pointed out to them they where they don’t.
    “The problem is that Boghossian and his faithful fans don’t have a monopoly on critical thinking.” – I agree. No one does.

    “First, can you tell us what % of people with faith commit 9/11-type atrocities?” – Honestly, I don’t know. Probably very few. But these the 9/11 hijacker have faith? Yes. Did religious faith cause them to do it? Yes, they said so themselves on their preattack videos. Did their faith cause harm? Yes. Do all people with faith cause harm? No.

    In Boghossians book is a long list of academic literature supporting his various points in the book.
    It would help me if I knew if you’ve read the book or not.

  10. G-Man says:

    One thing I forgot to address-
    “can you make the case that the faithless have never committed similar atrocities?”- No.
    Atheism is a lack of belief in a deity. That is all. I doesn’t mean you’re moral (or immoral). Just you lack belief in a deity.
    But I don’t know of any reason how a lack of faith can directly lead to such an atrocity.

  11. TFBW says:

    Question. Are Scientologists delusional?

    Question: are atheists delusional? Give reasons for your answer.

  12. G-Man says:

    “Question: are atheists delusional?”
    Atheism is not a belief, but a lack of belief. So I don’t think so. To believe a delusion you need to first have a belief. Do you agree?

  13. TFBW says:

    Some people lack belief in the moon landings. I take it that you will defend their position as not delusional, then?

  14. G-Man says:

    Interesting point.
    Babies, for example, lack belief in the moon landings, and are not delusional. Believing the moon landing did not happen is a belief, and in my opinion a delusion. There is a difference between lacking a belief in the moon landings, and believing they did not happen. Just and there is a difference between lacking a belief in a deity (atheism), and believing one does not exist.

    It can a subtle difference, but an important one. Its a common misunderstanding I hear that atheism is a belief there is no god. I’ve yet to met an atheist who thinks that. I lack the belief because haven’t seen the evidence to convince me. Perhaps you have that evidence and are prepared to share it.

  15. TFBW says:

    Babies lack belief because they are insufficiently mentally developed to hold beliefs. Even once they attain a sufficient level of development, they may still lack belief due to ignorance. I agree that neither of these examples of non-belief is delusion, but to which one are you appealing? I take it that you’re appealing to ignorance, because you “haven’t seen the evidence,” but if you’re ignorant of the evidence regarding the possible existence of God, then why would you suggest that theists are delusional? To suggest that they are delusional implies that there is powerful evidence that the proposition they believe is false, yet you (and all other atheists you have met) decline to believe that God does not exist. What, then, is your basis for implying that theism is delusional, when all you are willing to do is withhold affirmation?

  16. G-Man says:

    Maybe I am ignorant because I haven’t seen the evidence, or maybe there is no evidence. Again, if you have it, please share. You could save my life.

    My basis for implying that theism is delusional are the definition of a delusion
    1. Certainty (“I’m 100% certain my God exists”)
    2. Encouragability (All evidence is seen as supporting the delusion, other evidence is dismissed)
    3. Implausibility/bizarreness (Virgins giving birth, Mohammed flying to heaven on winged horse, Indigenous Americans being a tribe of Israel etc.)

    You probably don’t see yourself in this definition (nobody self-diagnoses a delusion), but surely you have heard of people who are like this.
    Do you agree with my simplified definition of a delusion?

  17. TFBW says:

    You could save my life.

    If you feel it’s that important, perhaps you should take affirmative action and research the matter yourself. There’s a very large body of literature on the subject, much of which is written by people who’ve put more thought into the subject than I have.

    The trouble with your assertion that theism is delusional is that none of the above points are essential to theism. A theist is not necessarily certain, even if he is committed. A theist may consider the evidence to be inconclusive. A theist need not even assent to any form of miracle. So, while it seems rather likely that there are delusional theists out there, that’s a very far cry from establishing your claim that “theism is delusional”.

    On top of that, point number two sticks in my craw, coming from you. You classify theists as delusional on the grounds that they brook no contrary evidence, and yet you don’t even have enough evidence against the existence of God to support a personal belief in his non-existence. An accusation of incorrigibility (note the spelling for future reference) should be backed up by at least one substantial example of contrary evidence being dismissed, or else it’s just hearsay. And if that evidence is compelling enough to warrant an accusation of incorrigibility, then you should put your money where your mouth is, and adopt a belief in the non-existence of God, based on that evidence.

    If this is an example of your critical thinking skills, then I’m inclined to agree with Michael, that they are lacking. On the other hand, maybe you just haven’t expressed yourself clearly, and you can offer some clarifying remarks based on this feedback.

  18. Michael says:

    You have mentioned my faulty critical thinking skills. Can you specially point out what they are? I would genuinely like to know. I guess everyone thinks they think critically until it’s pointed out to them they where they don’t.

    There are several places. We can start with the one I started with. You wrote:

    The second part; that faith “does harm to real people”. The 9/11 hijackers clearly had faith, and it was faith that convinced them to do what they did.

    So I asked you, “First, can you tell us what % of people with faith commit 9/11-type atrocities?”

    You replied, “Honestly, I don’t know. Probably very few.”

    In other words, you chose an example that was atypical. Why would you use an extremely atypical example when talking about faith?

  19. G-Man says:

    “Why would you use an extremely atypical example when talking about faith?”
    Because its an example of faith causing harm. Does it matter if it typical or not? It still caused a lot of harm. In my opinion all faith causes harm by promoting belief without evidence as a virtue.

    TFBW –
    I always thought the most important thing for the faithful (Christians in particular) was to spread the word. I asked twice for evidence and you haven’t provided any. If you really believed I was going to spend eternity in hell, would you spend a few minutes providing me with the evidence? Or maybe your time is too precious to save my poor soul. Or maybe you’re happy for me to go to hell.
    I can only say that if I believed, and I mean really believed, that someone could go to hell for ever, but that I could stop that happening with little effort, I would feel morally obliged to.
    You seem more interested in making a point that saving me from damnation.

    Or maybe you have no evidence.

    “A theist is not necessarily certain”
    Does this imply you are not 100% certain? How certain are you? 80%? 90%? 99% even?
    Whatever it is that would apply you *could* be wrong.
    How could you be wrong?
    What sort of evidence you would need to prove you were wrong?

    “it seems rather likely that there are delusional theists out there”
    I’m glad we can agree on that.

    “A theist may consider the evidence to be inconclusive”
    Why would anyone believe in something where the evidence was inconclusive?

    Please think about these questions. I think they are important.

    We started out have an interesting conversation that I enjoyed, but its turning into a point scoring exercise, which I don’t enjoy and only entrenches positions. So I won’t be replying again. Maybe this isn’t the best forum for such conversations.
    Anyway, good luck to you all in finding the truth.

  20. TFBW says:

    I can only say that if I believed, and I mean really believed, that someone could go to hell for ever, but that I could stop that happening with little effort, I would feel morally obliged to.

    So would I.

    You seem more interested in making a point that saving me from damnation.

    You seem more interested in challenging me, personally, than obtaining evidence.

    Does this imply you are not 100% certain?

    Me, personally? No, I’m not certain. It’s a unique question, and I don’t see how certainty is rationally possible. I’m not even sure it can be assigned a rational degree of assent, because what numbers would one use? Regardless, I see the viable alternatives as Theism or Nihilism, and Pascal’s Wager offers a rational means to choose between those alternatives without much dependency on one’s degree of certainty.

    Why would anyone believe in something where the evidence was inconclusive?

    Because it’s kind of necessary in order to operate as a human being on a day to day basis. Uncertainty is here to stay.

  21. Michael says:

    “Why would you use an extremely atypical example when talking about faith?”

    Because its an example of faith causing harm.

    Huh? Wow. Er, did someone ever claim that you would never ever be able to find a single example anywhere of faith causing harm? Because, if you understood critical thinking, that would be the only claim that would make your example relevant.

    Does it matter if it typical or not?

    If you value and understand critical thinking, it does. If you are going to talk about X, don’t you think you should use a typical example of X? A few months ago, there was a news report of an atheist who went to a church and physically assaulted a pastor. Would you have a problem with me using this as an example of atheist behavior in a church?

    It still caused a lot of harm.

    Are there examples of medical science causing harm?

    In my opinion all faith causes harm by promoting belief without evidence as a virtue.

    Yes, that is your subjective opinion. For someone who claims to value critical thinking, one has to wonder why you mindlessly parrot Boghossian’s book. Like a viral infection, you were infected by this book and seek to spread your contagion.

    Look, can you tell me what percent of Christians “promote belief without evidence as a virtue?” Do you think I promote belief without evidence as a virtue?

  22. Michael says:

    We started out have an interesting conversation that I enjoyed, but its turning into a point scoring exercise, which I don’t enjoy and only entrenches positions. So I won’t be replying again. Maybe this isn’t the best forum for such conversations.
    Anyway, good luck to you all in finding the truth.

    He is running away. I’ll analyze this exchange in an upcoming blog entry, as it provides a nice “teaching moment” in what to expect from future “street epistemologists.”

  23. Crude says:

    A Manual for Creating Atheists, or, ‘How to instill yourself with false confidence and ignorance, and get blindsided by people who know what they’re talking about.’

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