arron chambers logo white image
shadow 50 image

A Conversation with Peter Boghossian

For those of you who don’t know me, let me introduce myself.

My name is Arron Chambers and I’m the Lead Minister of Journey Christian Church in Greeley, Colorado. I’m also the author of seven books, a marriage coach, a leadership coach, and one who deeply believes in critical thinking. I also hold three degrees, including a Masters in Church History and Theology from Abilene Christian University in Texas.

My Dad, a preacher, author, professor, and scientist with a PhD in Ancient History and Human Anthropology from Miami University in Ohio, taught me to never stop learning and to think critically about the important issues in the Church and in the world at large. He encouraged me to read books, listen to messages, and interact with people from–and reflecting–diverse backgrounds/beliefs/perspectives/philosophies, as to not develop my world view in a vacuum.

Which brings me to my new acquaintance and hopefully one day friend, Dr. Peter Boghossian.

Dr. Peter Boghossian was a Councilman for the State of Oregon (LSTA), the Chairman of the Prison Advisory Committee for Columbia River Correctional Institution, an advisor to Sockeye Magazine and The Weekly Alibi, wrote national philosophy curricula for the University of Phoenix, and was a research fellow for the National Center for Teaching and Learning. He teaches Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience, the Philosophy of Education, and Atheism and New Atheism at Portland State University, is an Affiliate research Assistant Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in the Department of General Internal Medicine, is a national speaker for the Center for Inquiry, a national speaker for the Secular Student Alliance, and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Source: http://www.PeterBoghossian.com).

Dr. Peter Boghossian

Dr. Peter Boghossian

I connected with Dr. Peter Boghossian in the most unusual way.

A stranger emailed me to let me know he wanted to connect with me and find out more about me because he’d read in Dr. Boghossian’s book that I’d written a book he considered, “frightening.” After a little research I discovered Dr. Boghossian had indeed referenced my book Eats with Sinners in the notes section of his book, A Manual for Creating Atheists and referred to it as “frightening.” I’ll get back to that in a moment.

(Note from Arron Chambers: I’ve since learned that Peter has never read my book and was unaware of the reference to my book until I brought it to his attention. It was an editorial addition made without the author’s knowledge, which is not uncommon in the publishing world.)

Since its release Eats with Sinners has been described with many terms, but this was the first time the word “frightening” was ever used to describe my book about sharing faith in Christ through intentional relationships, so I was fascinated. I downloaded Dr. Bohhossian’s book, started reading it, and decided to reach out to Peter through Facebook—penning a message about his comments, my book, and my desire to correspond about issues of faith.

Peter wrote back almost immediately and was both kind and accommodating.

After reading A Manual for Creating Atheists, I concluded that Peter’s book is for Atheists what Eats with Sinners is for Christians. It’s a book written to teach a generation of Atheists how to share their “beliefs” with other people through intentional relationships.

We’ve corresponded through Facebook many times over the past year and—with each “conversation”—I’ve gained more respect for him. We disagree on almost every issue upon which people of faith and non-faith could agree or disagree, but I’ve found him to be a most agreeable person and I genuinely like him.

His writings and continued discussions on Facebook stimulated my thinking and led me to ask Peter if he’d agree to an interview. Thankfully he did.

I’ve chosen to simply share our conversation (unedited except for distracting typographical errors and for redundant questions and answers) without much further comment and let you draw your own conclusions. If you, like me, are a Christian, or a person of faith, I think you’ll find this interview well worth your time and a great glimpse into the mind of those who view our faith as somewhat “frightening.”

You’ll notice that, in this interview, I cite chapter and page numbers. A lot of my questions were generated in reaction to assertions, comments, and questions raised during my reading of Peter’s book, A Manual for Creation Atheists. Also, all of my reference are for the electronic edition of Peter’s book.

My hope is that this interview will stimulate your thoughts as well as some cordial interaction/reaction in the comments section below.

A Conversation with Dr. Peter Boghossian

Arron: One definition you use for faith is, “Pretending to know things you do not know.” What do you mean by “know”? How can one not say the same thing of those who claim to “know” that there is no God? What is your objective standard for evaluating whether evidence is sufficient, or not?
Peter: In Plato’s Theaetetus, he writes that Knowledge is Justified True Belief. That is, before you can say that you know something it needs to be justified (you need to have good reason to believe it), true (it corresponds with objective reality), and believed (you need to believe it). At a basic level this is what I mean. In technical conversations I adopt a more nuanced definition. However, in everyday conversations when people ask me how I define the word “know” (and yes, I have these sorts of conversations every single day), this is what I mean.

Arron: Who do you say Jesus is? Do you believe Jesus was a historical person?
Peter: I don’t know.

There’s much controversy surrounding these questions, with prominent scholars on both sides of the issue. The consensus seems to be that there was probably at least one historical figure upon whom the character of Jesus was based.

Arron: Would you accept anything as evidence for one’s faith?
Peter: It depends how one defines faith. I’m not avoiding the question, but unless we’ve defined our terms it’s just not possible to answer this question.

Arron: Do you think faith in God is equivalent to mental illness?
Peter: No. But I do think that certain actions people commit in the name of their god indicate that they suffer from a mental disorder.

If we can agree that specific examples are data points in an underlying pathology, then the only question becomes whether or not we can broaden the examples. For example, Fred thinks that Zeus told him to drown his son in the bathtub. I’d hope we’d both agree that it’s more likely Fred has a mental health issue than Zeus’ actually speaking to him. If we agree that Zeus isn’t communicating with Fred and telling him to murder his son, and if we can agree that that’s indicative of mental illness, then what other examples can we agree upon?

Arron: What is the chief motivator behind your passion for “Street Epistemology”?
Peter: Every single individual is capable of living a life free of delusion.

My goal is to help people become less dogmatic, more reflective and more comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” and more humble about what they claim to know. Street Epistemology is an action plan for how to talk people out of faith and superstition and into reason. It’s a guide for people to help others live lives free of delusion.

This is also the main motivation for my forthcoming app and for my game, AntiMatter Matters. My app gives users the skills to talk people out of unreason and into reason; my game helps people nurture dispositions necessary critical and creative thinking.

Arron: I sincerely I believe I came to faith in Christ through rational means. Why am I deluded?
Peter: Are you willing to change your mind? If you were presented with evidence to the contrary would you revise your beliefs? If you were shown that what you think is evidence is not actually evidence, would you jettison your beliefs?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” then it’s likely you’re delusional. If your sincere response to these questions is “yes,” then it’s far more likely you’ve misconstrued reality than it is that you’re delusional.

Arron: In A Manual for Creating Atheists you wrote, “Faith and reason have endurance. They don’t evaporate the moment you get slugged.” When you get “slugged” by life, how do you cope?
Peter: I don’t think I ever wrote that. I think I wrote, “Reason has endurance.”

(Note from Arron: I got one word of this quote wrong. It was a typographical error on my part. Here’s what he actually said. Loc 192,193 in the electronic copy of A Manual for Creating Atheists, “This isn’t Pollyanna humanism, but a humanism that’s been slapped around and won’t fall apart. Reason and rationality have endurance. They don’t evaporate the moment you get slugged. And you will get slugged.”)

I’ve been slugged, a lot. When I get slugged I usually talk to friends, or go for long walks, or spend time with my family, or do jiu jutsu. Jiu jitsu in particular is quite relaxing. It’s hard to think about your problems when someone is trying to choke you into unconsciousness or break your arms. (I’m aware of the irony of being slugged and wrestling.)

Arron: Do you believe that faith and intelligence are mutually exclusive?
Peter: Again, it depends on how these terms are defined. I think intelligence and faith are unrelated. The fact that both of us lack faith in Thor, for example, says nothing about our intelligence.

Arron: You envision a “better world” (ch 1) where faith in God has been snuffed out and believers have been “disabused” of their faith. In this “better world,” what will be the objective standard for determining “right” and “wrong”?
Peter: I wouldn’t say “snuffed out,” I’d say, “abandoned”. Snuffing out is external, as if reason and rationality were forced upon people, whereas abandoning faith is internal, that is, people make the conscious decision to shed superstition.

Ideally, people would rationally derive their values—as opposed to getting them from ancient books. There are many ways to do this, but I prefer American philosopher John Rawls’ system. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a concise entry on Rawls’ system for how to determine right and wrong: Plato-Stanford

Arron: You wrote, “Whether a person is an atheist or a believer is immaterial with respect to morality.” (Loc 581 of 4685)) How does an atheist determine what is “right” and “wrong”?
Peter: This relates to the last question. I’ll let my response to that question substitute for this one.

Arron: Wouldn’t it be inconsistent–and hypocritical–for you and me to not proselytize (based on our beliefs that the object-or lack there of–of our faiths is salvatory)?
Peter: This is an excellent question, and I think it speaks to core issues surrounding faith, religion, and one’s God.

Proselytizing means getting/convincing people to hold a particular belief. This is precisely the trap ideologues fall into. They think in terms of conclusions (“Jesus is the Son of God”) and not in terms of processes (epistemology, or, how does one know this?). Don’t become vested in conclusions—think about processes, that is, about how one knows what one claims to know.
The moment one weds oneself to, and thinks in terms of, conclusions, one traps oneself into assigning more confidence to a belief than is warranted by the evidence. That is, when one thinks in terms of conclusions (gun control is good/bad, or abortion is/isn’t murder, or Mohammad did/didn’t received revelations from Allah, etc.) one becomes increasingly certain the conclusions one holds are true.

This is problematic for many reasons, but chief among these is that thinking in this way makes one less likely to revise a belief. This is particularly problematic if one also thinks that holding a particular conclusion makes one a better person. The toxic combination of an unwillingness to revise a belief because doing so would make one a worse person, prevents one from arriving at the truth. If one believes one’s beliefs are never inaccurate, one will necessarily lapse into inaccuracy. (For more on this, see Raymond Smullyan’s work.)

This is just one of many problems with proselytizing.

Arron: Where are you on the 1-7 Dawkins God scale?
Peter: 6.7

Arron: Do you have faith in reason or evidence?
Peter: There’s a theme that’s emerging here, we’ve not defined these terms. If faith is defined as, “belief without sufficient evidence,” then I have no faith in reason and no faith in evidence. I use reason as a tool—often an instrumental tool—to achieve a desired end, like helping me figure out our incredibly complex home theater, or how to take the bus from A to B, or less pedestrian examples like how to live a good life. Evidence plays a role in my decision-making process, but I have no faith in evidence. This brief video may help to explain some of these terms: Faith, Just Say No.

(If your question is pointing to the problem of induction, then Stephen Jay Gould made a good argument for why we shouldn’t worry about it—all the evidence we have says that reason and evidence work, and that the laws of physics don’t change, and we have an obligation when it matters to use methods with the greatest chance of a positive outcome. Reason and evidence, therefore, are justified since we know of nothing that works better.)

Arron: So, theoretically, if you were presented with at least one piece of sufficient evidence in God, you’d believe in God? Or, is that not even a logical option in your world view?
Peter: Yes. If I were presented with evidence for the existence of God I’d believe in God. Personally, I’ve always found the question, “What would constitute sufficient evidence for belief in God?” to be interesting. Richard Dawkins and I discuss this question here: Richard Dawkins in conversation with Peter Boghossian.

I’ll add that I have a substantive concern with the phrase “one piece of sufficient evidence.” In this context, I’m not sure what that means. For example, seeing a cow is “one piece of sufficient evidence” that cows exist, but for undetectable entities, what constitutes “one piece” of evidence is tricky. Usually when people use the wording “one piece of evidence,” they mean “one piece of evidence that is sufficient for me”. That is, the thing that is convincing to them. This usually means one is thinking in terms of looking for a reason to believe, which is a terrible way to deal with evidence.

Arron: You say faith is pretending to have sufficient evidence for something for which there is insufficient evidence, while at the same time saying, if you have sufficient evidence then you don’t need faith. So, if I’m understanding your position, any evidence for one’s faith negates one’s faith. You set up a dichotomy between faith and evidence. Therefore, the only option allowed for in your dichotomy is: no faith. Therefore, isn’t your position an example of doxastic closure?
Peter: No, this is not what I’ve said. I never said, “Faith is pretending to have sufficient evidence for something for which there is insufficient evidence”. I defined faith as “pretending to know something you don’t know,” Faith or “belief without sufficient evidence,” [ http://www.amazon.com/Manual-Creating-Atheists-Peter-Boghossian/dp/1939578094/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_i Chapter 2].

(Note from Arron: Peter is correct. My question was not a direct quote. My question was an attempt to summarize his position based on—but not limited to—the following quotes from A Manual for Creating Atheists: Loc 2839 of 4685, Peter wrote, “All faith is blind. All faith is belief on the basis of insufficient evidence, one wouldn’t need faith, one would merely present the evidence.” Loc 554-555, Peter wrote, “‘If the response is, ‘There’s sufficient evidence,’ then your reply should be, ‘Then you don’t need faith.’”)

My challenge to your readers is: Come up with a usage where faith is appropriate without increasing the confidence beyond the warrant of the evidence, but hope, trust, etc., aren’t more suitable.

Arron: What is a common misconception Christians have about atheists?
Peter: Atheists are immoral.

Arron: Would you ever go fishing in a boat with a Christian, if you knew the fish would not be biting? This is me going for levity. I’ve been known to say, “I’d go fishing with him, even if the fish weren’t biting.”
Peter: Of course. I enjoy having spirited, adult conversations.

I had a good chat with Christian Phil Vischer, and after that some people said to me, “Why didn’t you go after him?” I was surprised and disappointed. Why do conversations with those who don’t share one’s views have to be confrontations? (Maybe this is a product of contemporary American culture.) We had a friendly discussion and we both really listened to the other person. Nobody was trying to win or humiliate anyone—we were genuinely listening to each other.

I mention this because Phil’s since become a friend. He’s coming to Portland to speak to my Atheism class next month. I’d be delighted to go fishing with Phil.

My ex office mate, Mark Mossa, is a Catholic priest: Theology-Fordham

I’d go fishing with him anytime.

Arron: What if you’re wrong?
Peter: About what?

It’s certainly possible that I’m wrong about Mohammad receiving revelations. It’s also possible that I’m wrong about reincarnation and samsara. Or the existence of Thor’s hammer. Or the promises of Jesus Christ. But given that I have scant evidence for these things, I did the best that I could. I was honest with myself, sincere, and willing to reconsider what I believe.

Again, it’s entirely possible that the universe has been constructed in a way that’s spelled out in one of the world’s many religions, but if this were the case then the injustice would be grotesque. On the standard Christian model I’d burn in hell for eternity because I didn’t lend my belief to that which I didn’t have sufficient evidence. If this were the case, the universe would be profoundly unjust.

Arron: What is your motivation for “disabusing” believers of their faith in God?
Peter: My goal is to disabuse people of un- or under-evidenced beliefs. My goal is to help people become more thoughtful and more rational. Faith, as I’ve defined it and as people use the word, is anathema to clear thinking. It’s a failed epistemology and it’s harming people. When people abandon faith, they have an opportunity to live more authentic, more meaningful lives. [I discuss this in my 2013 TAM talk: Authenticity

Arron: In the notes section of chapter 4 (Loc 1617 of 4685) of A Manual for Creating Atheists, you wrote, “For a frightening glimpse into the Christian world of ‘Relationship Evangelism,’ see…” and then you referenced my book, Eats with Sinners. What exactly was frightening about my book Eats With Sinners?
Peter: I didn’t read it.

(Note from Arron: I forgive you, Peter. I have faith you’ll read it someday. 😉 )

©2015 Arron Chambers

Read more about Eats with Sinners.

Read more about Devoted Discipleship.

arron chambers logo white image