Think: What would make you into a believer? – Peter Boghossian PH.D

Peter Boghossian was introduced by FFRF Co-President Dan Barker at FFRF’s 35th annual convention on October 13, 2012, in Portland, Ore.

After our convention was fully booked, we realized that you have a nationally known freethought celebrity right here. Peter Boghossian happens to be not only an FFRF member, but he’s on the new billboard that you saw last night, “This is what an atheist looks like.”

Peter is an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University. They want to corrupt the morals of the young people, right? [“Socratic” laughter]. He has a teaching pedigree spanning more than 20 years and 30,000 students.

His fundamental objective is to teach people how to think, how to think through what often seems to be intractable problems. His publications can be found in Dialogos, the Philosopher’s Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Essays in Philosophy, Federal Probation Journal and a host of other popular and academic journals. Peter is working on a book that’s coming out soon, which will be called A Manual for Creating Atheists.

Thank you. It’s a true pleasure to be here, and I’m incredibly grateful for the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and for you here today. Earlier speakers talked about an audience full of their best friends. I feel that I’m among my people and among people that I like and respect.

Thank you also for the work that you do in your communities to make them more thoughtful and rational. I have over two-and-a-half decades of experience teaching in prisons and crowded public universities and in the streets. I call it street epistemology.

One lesson I’ve learned is walking the talk. That’s what I’m going to talk about today.  

Street epistemology

What would it take for you to believe? Well, to believe in what? What would it take for you to believe in a particular religion? What would it take for you to be a believing Christian? Or what would it take for you to believe that the communion wafer that Catholics use transmutes into human flesh and becomes the physical body of Christ?

Or that women should be put in cloth bags and occasionally beaten? What would it take for you to believe that through faith, Jesus Christ can heal people of any and all ailments?  Or that the Easter bunny is a real entity that hides colored eggs? Or that you go to a happy place after you die?  

Why is it important to answer the question, “What would it take for you to believe?” There are two reasons. First, it’s important so that we don’t become what we’re fighting — doggedly certain, closed-minded, epistemologically arrogant, dogmatic and religious. Being genuinely open to revise or to change your beliefs is an attitudinal disposition.

The American Philosophical Association’s Delphi Report on critical thinking noted, “Willingness to revise a belief is a core attitudinal component of an ideal critical thinker.” Being trustful of reason is another critical component.”

Being able to state explicitly what it would take for you to believe or disbelieve in a particular proposition creates spaces, cognitive spaces, openness in your beliefs. Even thinking about a way to answer this question may help you to hold your beliefs less tenaciously.  

In philosophy, there’s a term “doxastic closure.” It’s an esoteric term even among seasoned philosophers. Many philosophers use this in a specialized, technical way.

I use the term in ways that accord with how it’s percolated into public discourse. Doxastic derives from the ancient Greek “doxa.” It basically means belief, but another meaning is how things look or appear to me.

If someone is doxastically closed, that means that their beliefs are immune to revision. Doxastic pathologies are ubiquitous in the realm of faith and religion.

My current research involves looking at mini-dialectical interventions with people to help separate faith from its host — to help people to lose their faith and to become more rational.  

The second reason being able to answer this question is important is because it helps us to model the behavior that we want the faithful to emulate. If we want the faithful to be less doggedly certain, less closed-minded, less dogmatic, then this is the behavior that we need to model. If we want the faithful to be trustful of reason and willing to revise their beliefs, then we need to show them by example.

There’s an entire line of literature on change and modeling behavior. Sometimes it’s referred to as pro-social modeling. It shows that modeling is a key component in eliciting behavior change. One of my favorite questions to ask believers is a variation of Matt McCormick’s Defeasibility Test: What would it take for you to lose your faith?

This is a reasonable question, and when I ask it, I expect a clear answer.  It’s also a diagnostic tool that enables me to quickly ascertain the degree to which one is doxastically closed.

But beyond this, when I’m asked what it would take for me to have faith or to believe in God, I respond that these are reasonable questions. I always give a direct, blunt and honest answer.  In order for us to answer this question, we must first make sure that we’ve asked it of ourselves. We must take a dose of our own medicine. I would never hold a person of faith to a different epistemic standard than I would hold myself. Neither should you.  

I want to be clear that there are obviously no guarantees. Just because one can state what it would take to believe or disbelieve a particular proposition doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly experienced some doxastic openness and are willing to revise their beliefs. 

Sometimes we engage someone who’s argued poorly for their position, but because of dialectical training, we can immediately think of a counterargument to offer for the same conclusion or a better argument, a much stronger argument. We should provide people with arguments for their conclusions that are even better than the ones they’ve offered.  

When I’m having a discussion about faith, I don’t want to have a conversation with a straw man. I want to have a conversation with a real person who’s giving me powerful arguments that have emerged from their experiences. If they can’t provide that, then I’ll provide it for them.

One of the strengths of philosophical training is that it enables you to do this. It’s also one of the strengths that comes from leading an examined life. This is the thing that we should try to model. This is another component of street epistemology.  

Matter of attitude

Having a closed belief system is a complex problem. One part of it is that our brains trick us into thinking that we’re open-minded. Michael Shermer has some wonderful work on this in The Believing Brain. Our brains trick us into thinking that we’re willing to revise our beliefs, that we’re willing to reconsider when we’re not.

Confirmation bias is part of this. We have a natural predisposition to go with our own ideas, to go with the way things appear to us, but we get stuck in appearances.  We confirm our own biases.

An example of this would be the bones of Christ. Whenever I ask someone of faith, a Christian, “What would it take for you to lose your faith?,” often I’m struck when they say, “The bones of Christ.”  

I used to believe that when people said that to me, they weren’t being sincere. I no longer believe that. I think that’s a result of a different sort of epistemological pathology.  Look, let’s say that I had a bag, and I brought a bag in here, and instead of this conference, this is the Apologists’ Conference.

I plop the bag on the table and I say, “These are the bones of Christ. I went to Jerusalem, had a great time, went on an archaeological dig.” Those bones would be examined with far more scrutiny than what the faithful use to believe their current set of beliefs about Jesus and the resurrection. They would do everything to falsify that claim.  

This shows that the problem of why people hold preposterous beliefs is not a matter of a skill set. It’s not because they lack critical thinking skills or because they don’t know their beliefs are absurd. It’s a matter of attitude.

The faithful don’t have the appropriate attitudinal dispositions, like a trustfulness of reason and willingness to revise their beliefs. This is also why we need to help them to break through these delusions by modeling the behavior in ourselves.  

You may be thinking that I’ve placed an undue burden upon you. There are just too many issues, too many ideas to consider what it would take to change one’s beliefs on all of these issues. I don’t think it’s an undue burden. This is what it means to live a thoughtful and examined life.

It’s the ability to reason through problems, to evaluate evidence, to generate counterexamples, to clearly state why we believe or don’t believe, to revise your beliefs, to use the results to inform our decisions to make better lives and form better communities.  

What is atheism?

I’m not arguing that this is something that has to be immediate. If someone asks you what would it take for you to believe, if you don’t know, just say you don’t know, that you’ll think about it and get back to them.

An indispensable goal is to be free from bad reasoning, faulty epistemologies and from the attitudes that lead to religion. What’s not important is to be an atheist. It is important to be a person who trusts reason, who formulates reason on the basis of reliable evidence and who’s genuinely willing to reconsider.

Atheism is a natural consequence of possessing these skills and attitudes. Yet one could be an atheist and not possess these skills and dispositions. That is, one could be a doxastically closed atheist. This should not be an intellectual or attitudinal aspiration.  

Atheism is not an immutable, timeless truth. Atheism is a conclusion. It’s a conclusion one comes to based on an honest and thoughtful examination of reasons and evidence.

In the next [PowerPoint] slide I’ve compiled a comprehensive, historical and contemporary list of all of the evidence and all of the reasons that one should consider when examining whether or not there’s a god or gods. [Blank slide, laughter and applause.] There is no evidence. Nada. Zip. Nothing.  

This is why I don’t believe in God. It’s not for ideological reasons. Dan mentioned his debate with Dinesh D’Souza recently. We don’t not believe in God, as D’Souza claims, because we’re angry. I’m not angry. Dan, are you angry?  

Dan: “Not with you.” [Laughter.]  

We don’t believe in God because there’s a complete lack of evidence. But this shouldn’t deter us from providing answers as to what it would take to believe in God, to believe in leprechauns, or to believe in any other proposition.  

So let’s revisit the questions, the issues that we’ve looked at this morning. I will honestly say what it would take for me to believe in these things. Physicist Lawrence Krauss has an interesting debate with William Lane Craig, where Krauss said, “If God wanted you to believe in its existence, you’d walk outside, you’d look up at the sky and there it would be. And the stars would realign themselves and say something like, ‘I am God. Believe in me.’ ”  

If that happened to me, I would doubt my sanity. I would think that somehow I was the victim of a delusion,  or one of my students spiked my coffee with LSD. The philosopher David Hume has an interesting comment on miracles. He says that there’s stronger reason to doubt the testifier than to trust the testimony.

I’m not sure I would trust this perception. It may be that no perception, or no feeling state, would lead me to conclude that God exists. Instead, I would need argument or reason.  

What would it take?

But let’s suspend that for a moment and go with the example. What would it take for me personally to believe in God?  Well, the stars spelling things out to people in different languages would be interesting. “I am God, believe in me” in Arabic.

I also want predictions. I’d want, I don’t know, something about the future, someone to solve Goldbach’s [mathematical] conjecture, I’d want something that I could latch my hands on to. This is the way I would approach the problem. These are the tools that I would bring to bear on how to think through the problem.  

The communion wafer transforms into the body of Christ. I’m going to combine this with the next one of faith healing. We can turn the tools of science on these questions very easily.

There’s a famous line, “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” The tools of science are quite easy in these cases. What is more difficult is when we enter the moral realm. What would it take for me to believe that we should put half of our population in cloth bags and beat them? Well, this is an astonishingly difficult question.  

If I could be shown that my core value of gender and racial egalitarianism was a cultural artifact, and that somehow forcing women into bags and beating them was actually in their own interest, and somehow contributed to the well-being of society, that would really be something.

Or maybe if I could be shown that I was harboring a mistaken view about reality in regard to women. Maybe, for example, if they were malevolent entities, some kind of extraterrestrials bent on destroying humanity. This is the sort of evidence that one would need to warrant belief in these claims.  

Regardless of the specific belief that’s being examined, in all of the cases, what’s important is to sincerely think about answering the question. This is a way that we can nudge ourselves to think more clearly and more rationally. Just stating that we’re willing to revise our beliefs if shown sufficient evidence, or if given sufficient reason, is not enough. We must be able to state exactly what it would take for us to believe or to disbelieve a given proposition. We need to model the change that we want to see in the faithful.  There’s a lot of work to be done to help people to lose their faith and to embrace reason. This is one step in that direction. It’s possible for virtually everyone to lead a life free of delusion.

To facilitate this, think back to one of the definitions of belief from the Greek. We need to move from appearance and opinion to knowledge. We also need to model the attitudes that are necessary to provide people with hope.

But the hope we offer is a tough hope. It’s not born of platitudes. It won’t make you feel better right away. But it takes away a false view of reality and offers a genuine hope, a hope that’s based on reason and rationality and the tools of science.

It’s a hope your own efforts of thoughtfulness and an examined life will help contribute to that — a hope offered through walking the talk. Thank you.  

FFRF member Peter Boghossian is an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University. His main focus is bringing the tools of professional philosophers to people in a wide variety of contexts. Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @peterboghossian

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