In his syllabus for his course on Atheism, Peter Boghossian includes the following disclaimer:
This course deals with many controversial topics related to people’s deepest held beliefs about god and religion, science and technology, politics and economics, morality and ethics, and social attitudes and cultural assumptions. I hope to challenge you to think about your beliefs in all these areas, and others. My goal is to teach you how to think about your beliefs, not what to think about them. I have my own set of beliefs that I have developed over the decades, which I do not attempt to hide or suppress…in the classroom my goal is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs…
That sounds nice. But two problems come to mind. First, the course requires the text “A Manual for Creating Atheists” and anyone who has read that book knows “how to think” about God becomes what to think about God belief. There is a reason the book is entitled, “A Manual for Creating Atheists.” Boghossian believes that once people learn “how” to think about their religious beliefs, they will become cured and become atheists. In other words, while Boghossian might not proclaim, “You need to abandon your belief in God,” he does teach that belief in a God is a faith virus and faith viruses are bad. A distinction without a difference.
Secondly, take the exact same disclaimer, without a single word change, and imagine the professor was a Christian apologist who spent much time outside the class as part of a movement trying to convert people to Christianity. Imagine the name of this course was “Christianity” and the professor/apologist had the students read his book, “A Manual for Creating Christians.” Would any atheist be somewhat concerned about this?
Also, we can get a feel for how we’re supposed to think about our religious beliefs from the syllabus. Consider the subject of week 2:
Biology, Belief and Ethics TOPICS ● The biological basis of belief ● The God Helmet ● The brain as an engine of belief ● Moral questions regarding brains, religion, and belief
How to think about your belief in God? I see. It’s something your brain generated. And to support this claim? The God Helmet. Boghossian then has his class watch the following video:
I can see how this sensational video would fit into atheist apologetics, but in a class where a philosopher is teaching students “how to think?” For the first question to ask is this: Can this research finding be trusted?
The first thing to note that this was reported in 1990. That’s around 25 years ago, which is a very long time in the realm of scientific research. If this “God Helmet” does what it claims to do, where is the 25 years worth of follow-up research that expands and extends the findings? After all, such a Helmet might have some serious potential when it comes to treating a variety of brain conditions.
Well, a quick check on Wikipedia alerts us to a problem:
Persinger reports that many subjects have reported “mystical experiences and altered states” while wearing the God Helmet. The foundations of his theory have been criticised in the scientific press. Anecdotal reports by journalists, academics and documentarists have been mixed and several effects reported by Persinger have not yet been independently replicated. One attempt at replication published in the scientific literature reported a failure to reproduce Persinger’s effects and the authors proposed that the suggestibility of participants, improper blinding of participants or idiosyncratic methodology could explain Persinger’s results. Persinger argues that the replication was technically flawed, but the researchers have stood by their replication.
In fact, there is no evidence that God Helmet has any physical effect on brain cell function. As one researcher noted:
the magnetic fields generated by the God helmet are far too weak to penetrate the cranium and influence neurons within. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses field strengths of around 1.5 tesla in order to induce currents strong enough to depolarise neurons through the skull and cause them to fire. Persinger’s apparatus, on the other hand has a strength … 5000 times weaker than a typical fridge magnet. Granqvist argues that there is simply no way that this apparatus is having any meaningful effect on the brain, and I’m inclined to agree.
Wikipedia also notes:
Like other neural stimulation with low-intensity magnetic fields, these fields are approximately as strong as those generated by a land line telephone handset or an ordinary hair dryer, but far weaker than that of an ordinary refrigerator magnet and approximately a million times weaker than transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Hmm. When I was young, I remember my sister being on the land line telephone handset for hours and hours. Don’t ever recall her having a paranormal or religious experience because of it.
Does Boghossian ever inform his students about these problems with the “God Helmet?” That would seem pretty standard for anyone trying to teach students “how to think.” Also, don’t you think it might be relevant to point out that Persinger, the only one able to get the God Helmet to work for 20+ years, has also claimed to have used the same type of technology to discover that humans can connect to each other via….. telepathy? In fact, he thinks his telepathy experiments could help us one day communicate with astronauts.
So that’s how students are supposed to think about their religious beliefs. Frame such beliefs as products of biology and support that frame with a 25-year-old study that has not been replicated and was carried out by a scientist who also claims to have discovered telepathy. While such a lesson might appeal to someone like Sam Harris, is it truly a good example of teaching students “how” to think in a university philosophy class? Does it give you confidence that Boghossian’s classroom goal “is not to convince you of anything other than to think about your beliefs?”
HT to Dhay for noticing much of this over 2 years ago.