Peter Boghossian’s Atheism Course

Militant atheist Jerry Coyne recently spoke of  Peter Boghossian:

Peter also teaches an “Atheism” class and a separate “New Atheism” class, both of which are wildly popular: they have to turn students away. That’s a good sign, and most of the students are either nonbelievers, doubters, or simply want to learn more about the nature of modern nonbelief.

So Peter Boghossian teaches a class on “Atheism” and another one on “New Atheism.”  Wonderful.

Here’s the syllabus for Boghossian’s “Atheism” class.  The first thing I noticed was the required texts for this 300-level philosophy class.  There are two of them.  The first is

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison.  Prometheus Books (June 5, 2008). 

Harrison is an atheist and Prometheus Books is an atheist publishing company.  Wiki describes Harrison as follows:

Harrison has degrees in history and anthropology at the University of South Florida.[2] He was influenced towards skepticism by thinking about Erich von Däniken’s book Chariots of the Gods?, which theorized that earth had been visited by aliens during antiquity.

It doesn’t sound like Harrison has a PhD in philosophy or religion.  In fact, his book promo page on Amazon.com describes him as “a journalist.”

Harrison describes himself and his book in the video below.  Harrison comes across as one of the New Atheists trying to fly under the radar and the book seems to be going after lots of low hanging fruit and straw men.

Here are some of the mighty theistic arguments Boghossian’s 300-level philosophy class will read up on:

My god is obvious.
Almost everybody on Earth is religious.
Faith is a good thing.
Archaeological discoveries prove that my god exists.
Only my god can make me feel significant.
Atheism is just another religion.
Evolution is bad.
Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.
My god created the universe.
Believing in my god makes me happy.
Better safe than sorry.
A sacred book proves my god is real.

You can see the rest of the list here.

Lastly, Harrison has the distinction of being one of the few people to help promote Peter Boghossian’s strange book.

Harrison’s blurb reads as follows:

“If we want to live in world that is safer and more rational for all, then this is the guidebook we have been waiting for. Relying on extensive experience and a deep concern for humanity, Peter Boghossian has produced a game changer. This is not a book to read while relaxing in a hammock on a sunny afternoon. This is the how-to manual to take into the trenches of everyday life where minds are won and lost in the struggle between reason and madness.”

And that takes us to the second required textbook – Peter Boghossian’s “A Manual for Creating Atheists.”

Jerry Coyne promoted this book as “telling the reader how to become a ‘street epistemologist’ with the skills to attack religion” and John Loftus promoted as “There is nothing else on the market like this book that helps atheists talk believers out of their faith.”  In other words, a manual for converting people to atheism.

If you get a chance, take a look at the syllabus.  Does this class look like an objective, upper-level course that explores atheism from different angles or does it seem more like a class in atheist apologetics?

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5 Responses to Peter Boghossian’s Atheism Course

  1. Dhay says:

    I see the “Atheism” course has been around since 2013 (and that the dates given for the week coincide with Mondays in 2014/14), that the syllabus is apparently unchanged and still includes the “God Helmet” nonsense commented on in an earlier thread.

    https://shadowtolight.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/tweety-pete-says-even-more-strange-things/#comment-5992

    I note that at the bottom of the title page there’s:

    “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”
    Zen maxim

    The wording, and that it’s Zen maxim, is correct; but Boghossian is pretty dozy not to have realised that the “awakening” it refers to is not a growth of rational understanding, the “awakening” is that religious experience which Zen Buddhists refer to as “Satori” — or what Sam Harris would call a “beatific vision” leading to “subjective” truth, which is evidently not objective truth so should probably better be termed subjective conviction. (Or Boghossian, who has an idiosyncratic and very questionable definition of faith — “Pretending to Know Things You Don’t Know” — could quite well call it “faith”.)

    Page 4: It’s perhaps surprising — or perhaps not — that with four weeks of the course devoted solely to Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists, and the course having run for several years now, that in the last more than two years only one more person has signed up to become a Street Appistemologist.

    Page 4: I was quite surprised to find as a course objective: “Develop teamwork skills by working with fellow classmates to analyze complicated epistemological problems. Engage controversial ideas and attempt to come to a consensus.” Surely in any grown-up philosophy course Boghossian would be teaching his students to think independently, each to reach their own conclusions, with the emphasis being on teaching the reasoning process; as I see it, consensus-reaching is what he shouldn’t be teaching.

    Could it by any chance be that Boghossian is using his students’ consensual agreement to develop his app’s content for him?

    Page 5: I see “Extra-credit presentations consist of a 5-minute presentation on one chapter from the Harrison text. In the presentation you will: 1) clearly outline one of the reasons people give for believing in God, 2) clearly state the atheist’s objection, 3) clearly state whether or not you think the objections are valid. Presentations will go in order, from chapter 1 until chapter 50.” Let me see, the regurgitate-Harrison’s book sections 1) and 2) will occupy a large part of the allotted five minutes, leaving … little time for the intelligently reflective part 3) — which is realistically prevented from being intelligently reflective by the time problem, even should the student read out a readied precis of a decent argument.

    Page 6: “What is God? What do you mean when you use the word “God”? If there is no general understanding of what the word “God” means, then is it possible to take this entire course only to find every single student saying “That was interesting, but irrelevant to my belief, because that’s not what I mean by ‘God.'”?” This is phrased as a question, so I’ll answer it as a question: bearing in mind that the syllabus says, “… this course is not about “converting” students to atheism”, why is Boghossian seeking consensus, and asking students to bow to peer pressure?

    Page 7: “If faith isn’t based on evidence, then how does one know what to have faith in?'” He does likes his leading questions, doesn’t he.

    There’s 22 pages, so I’ll stop there and move on. The New Atheism course doesn’t seem to have a syllabus that I can find. What I did find was a 2013 Student Union article announcing it: http://psuvanguard.com/new-class-new-atheism/

    “New Atheism’ is a very specialized course. It has prerequisites, and it assumes some familiarity with the content and subject matter,” Boghossian said. “Everyone in that class truly wants to be there.”

    Which tells me that the parallel Atheism course had too many people on who were just not committed enough, or perhaps not able to reach “consensus”, create a new course for the really committed. Of course, my comments about no new Appistemologists applies with double force to these zealous guys, who really should be queuing up to swell the ranks of the ten thousand, er, sixty-six.

    Apparently, “Boghossian is hoping to turn the “Atheism” course into a MOOC, a massive open online course”. But that was 2013. In 2016 he’s talking about an app.

  2. Michael says:

    one more person has signed up to become a Street Appistemologist.

    LOL. Street Appistemologist. That’s a keeper.

    Let me see, the regurgitate-Harrison’s book sections 1) and 2) will occupy a large part of the allotted five minutes, leaving … little time for the intelligently reflective part 3) — which is realistically prevented from being intelligently reflective by the time problem, even should the student read out a readied precis of a decent argument.

    Good point. And let’s face it – Harrison’s book doesn’t exactly strike me as a challenging read. 😉

    Which tells me that the parallel Atheism course had too many people on who were just not committed enough, or perhaps not able to reach “consensus”, create a new course for the really committed.

    It’s probably the former. If you read Rate My Professor, it’s fairly obvious why the course is “wildly popular” (according to Coyne) – it looks like an easy A.

  3. Dhay says:

    Michael > And let’s face it – Harrison’s book doesn’t exactly strike me as a challenging read.

    His book titles look rather like clickbait:
    50 reasons people give for believing in a god (2008)
    Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know about Our Biological Diversity (2010)
    50 Simple Questions for Every Christian (2013)
    50 Popular Beliefs that People Think are True (2013)
    Think: Why You Should Question Everything (2013)

    And has he really written three books in 2013? Some of those reviewing the last book comment that it is tediously padded out with waffle, as if to fill out a particular number of pages; the same comment about inclusion to pad has been made regarding his 50’s reaching 50; perhaps that is the answer.

    It is the first which is of interest in relation to Boghossian’s Atheism course, and judging by those Amazon reviews which accuse Guy Harrison of putting his own “reasons” in his opponents mouths, failing to use real-life examples of actual “reasons”, and of straw-manning, I reckon this book will be an excellent example of the Socratic Method.

    In a detective thriller, in Plato’s stories about “Socrates”, or in a cowboy film, in 50 reasons people give for believing in a god or in an “argument” between two of a child’s toys — in each we know beforehand that the “good guy” is going to win over the “bad guy”; each is scripted, totally under its author’s directions, so even should the author decide to subvert the genre the story still turns out as per authorial intention.

    To emphasise what others here have already pointed out regarding the app, Boghossian’s two courses seem to be teaching how to win an on-script argument.

  4. Dhay says:

    I see on Page 7 of the syllabus that Peter Boghossian states it as a fact that:

    Logically and epistemologically, atheism is no different than
    atoothfairyism.

    That’s quite a scathing comment to make about atheism.

  5. Dhay says:

    I see on P.8 of the Syllabus, for Week 2:

    TOPICS
    ● The biological basis of belief
    ● The God Helmet
    ● The brain as an engine of belief
    ● Moral questions regarding brains, religion, and belief
    and
    Suggested Reading
    ● Please see suggested reading, above (Shermer).
    ● The original Harris article is also on the dropbox: Harris_Sheth_Cohen

    It’s this last (“Harris_Sheth_Cohen”) which intrigues me: it’s very obviously Sam Harris’ (et al’s) Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty; what, I ask myself, can be learned from this research paper that is relevant to this week of an <Atheism course, a course which the required study of A Manual for Creating Atheists tells us is de facto intended to promote atheism rather than merely educate about atheism?

    Well, the idea that all atheists are naturally science types, people well capable in several or all of Physics, Maths, Biology and Chemistry — that idea is inherently implausible to me, so I’d expect quite a few relative scientific illiterates on the Atheism course; and at student age, none will be used to picking apart scientific research literature; so I expect many or all of Boghossian’s students will be out of their depth when trying to understand this paper, and will be forced to rely on the conclusions of the researchers, or on Michael Shermer’s summary of it in the “The Biology of Belief” section of The Believing Brain, parts of which are surely all or part of the other bit of the suggested reading.

    One conclusion was that:

    Reaction time data were acquired on all subjects (mean reaction time for belief trials 3.26 seconds; disbelief trails 3.70 seconds; uncertainty trials 3.66 seconds). The mean differences in reaction time, although small, were significant …

    “Significant” is a statistical term connected with getting the same results or similar next time if repeating the experiment, rather than indicating major differences; as the text says, the differences were small, approximately one part in eight.

    Despite this, Harris claims that this supports Spinoza’s Conjecture, which Shermer fills out as, “belief comes quickly and naturally, skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity”. Shermer then goes on — and this is the part I reckon Boghossian focuses on — to write that:

    “The scientific principle that a claim is untrue unless proven otherwise runs counter to our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly. Thus it is that we should reward skepticism and disbelief, and champion those willing to change their mind in the teeth of new evidence.”

    How anyone gets from people pressing the TRUE button on average a mere one part in eight faster than when they press the FALSE button, to Shermer’s “our natural tendency to accept as true that which we can comprehend quickly” — and especially to Shermer’s “we should reward skepticism and disbelief” — completely escapes me; these are two thoroughly unwarranted conclusions on the evidence; as regards “champion[ing] those willing to change their minds in the teeth of new evidence”, the paper did no relevant experiment, Shermer is spouting utter bullshit.

    Then there’s the parts of the brain which are activated when pressing each of the three buttons; Harris writes:

    Interpretation: Belief and disbelief differ from uncertainty in that both provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion. …

    For some unstated reason, Harris seems to think that uncertainty does not “provide information that can subsequently inform behavior and emotion”; he is wrong, and I know that because uncertainty most certainly informs and affects how I will behave and feel in decision situations.

    … The mechanism underlying this difference appears to involve the anterior cingulate cortex and the caudate. Although many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true” or its rejection as “false” appears to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing in the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula. Truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense, and false propositions may actually disgust us.

    Very flowery language by Harris about truth and beauty, falsity and disgust, but how justified? His claim relies upon what’s called “reverse inference”: if the same areas of the brain light up in response to (deciding to press the button marked) FALSE as they do to smelling a bad smell, the decision to press FALSE is caused by disgust, er, is it? As regards beauty being associated with (deciding to press the button marked) TRUE, that passage quoted is the only place where “beauty” or any synonym occurs in the paper; so Harris’ flowery beauty and truth claim is unsupported by his experimental results.

    So much for using this paper to teach or support rational thought processes. Harris (and Shermer echoing him, and sometimes expanding) is really quite irrational in his conclusions.

    A couple more points, for any Atheism course student reading. As Harris’ next paper demonstrated (or as he succinctly summarised it for us in interviews and in Shermer’s book), “belief is belief is belief”, such that the brain of a Christian pressing TRUE to “A personal God exists, just as the Bible describes” looks identical to, on an fMRI scan, hence just as rational or otherwise, as the brain of an atheist pressing TRUE to “There is probably no actual Creator God”; and assuming the ‘disgust/falsity’ correlation is valid, each feels equally disgusted when pressing FALSE where the other presses TRUE.

    The second point is that neither paper had anything to do with reason or the biological processes of rationality. True rationality is — trivial algebraic logic or similar excepting — a slow process of information-gathering, pondering, considering and thinking-over, whereas both of Harris’ researches involved looking at brains subjected to simple recall of already-known information under rapid-fire questioning conditions.

    It’s not even as though the experimental subjects had to choose rationally between several options, as in a multiple choice exam; what level of rationality is required to reach a near-instant decision and press the appropriate button out of a choice of three.

    That this paper had nothing to do with reason or the biological processes of rationality is actually there in plain sight in the Interpretation, where it says, “Although many areas of higher cognition are likely involved in assessing the truth-value of linguistic propositions, the final acceptance of a statement as “true” or its rejection as “false” appears to rely on more primitive, hedonic processing …” — a rational person will study that sentence carefully, think about it, and I expect will agree with me that the “Harris_Sheth_Cohen” experiment doesn’t study the biological processes of actual rationality and reasoning.

    *

    I suspect that Boghossian’s current Atheism course will be attracting people who are either insecure in their disbeliefs, or who wish to be better New Atheists — presumably those latter will gravitate to the New Atheism course, leaving only the insecure on his original course.

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