A Look at the New “Street Epistemology” Atheist Movement

Introduction

I am about to read Peter Boghossian’s new book A Manuel for Creating Atheists which is just one more attempt to turn atheists into an army of evangelists. I recently went to the facebook page called “street epistemology” which happens to be an open group. By the way, my friend Tom Gilson has recently written a response to the book which is available on his website. On the facebook page, you will see atheists doing what they call “interventions.” They attempt to find Christians or religious people and cause them to think about their position. The ultimate goal is to plant seeds of doubt and unravel their belief system. The key here is the issue of knowledge. Questions and comments are some of the following:

“How can you say you KNOW that God exists?”

“Stop acting like you KNOW a, b, or c, which can translate to “stop acting like you KNOW the New Testament is reliable or that we can trust memory and things like eyewitness testimony.”

I could go on and on. But for me, I took epistemology in seminary and have dabbled into it a bit ever since. I also don’t claim to be a full blown epistemologist like Tim McGrew, Alvin Plantinga, or Paul Moser. But from what I see in these discussions, many of these atheists don’t even have a basic understanding of epistemology nor have they ever read the philosophical work done on religious epistemology. And for the record, it wouldn’t hurt to read some Stanford articles such as this one called “epistemology.” And for anyone that’s interested, see John M. Frame’s “Unregenerate Knowledge of God,” for IVP Dictionary of Apologetics.

J.P. Moreland’s Kingdom Triangle

Regarding the issue of knowledge, J.P. Moreland brought this to the forefront his book Kingdom Triangle. In this book (which I read many years ago),and elsewhere Moreland said that Christians needed to start doing the following.

1. Christians need to start using cognitive language and not just faith language.
Christians need to use terms relating to knowledge, evidence, reason, learning and thought, in addition to language about a tender heart and about faith. The Bible uses the word “knowledge” more than it does the word “faith”. Christians must become comfortable with the idea of ourselves as a community of thoughtful and learned people. A Christian can be learned without being snooty or arrogant. If knowledge “puffs up”, the solution is not IGNORANCE. The solution is HUMILITY.

2. Christians must be taught how to argue for their faith and defend their faith. Christians need to be taught why they believe what they believe.

3. Christians need to restore a view of Jesus Christ as an intellectual; as an intelligent and thoughtful person with a knowledge of reality – in addition to being holy. Christians must restore the value of the life of the mind in the Christian community. The division within contemporary society is fundamentally a clash of world views – between those who believe in a transcendent God and those who believe science is the only clue to reality and the physical world is all there is. In that context, Christians cannot afford to propagate our religion on the basis of the claim that it works, that it will address your heart, and that you’ve got to believe it with an act of blind faith. Christians must restore our message as one that is based on knowledge of reality. People can know that God exists – they don’t just have to believe that He exists.

Well keep in mind that Kingdom Triangle came out in 2007. Did many in the Church read Kingdom Triangle and take it seriously? I know many of us as apologists did. But that still leaves out thousands of laymen that could care less. So here we are in 2014 and we now have an atheist evangelistic movement that attempts to show Christians they can’t make any knowledge claims. Granted, this also stems from Boghossian’s attempt to show a “faith based epistemology” can’t hold up under critical thinking. In other words, faith is a virus and can’t give us any knowledge. Now I know from my other discussions with some atheists that they attempt to use dictionary definitions of the word “faith” which is not even close to what the Bible says about the word itself. Forget about actually utilizing etymology or studying the social world of the New Testament and seeing how the word “faith” is exegeted in the Bible. Sadly, for these people it is just easier to just mock the word “faith” itself and make straw man arguments. After all, when you already had people like Dawkins and other pop atheists selling the “faith virus” rhetoric, this is just one more way to keep the ball rolling. One feeble attempt is seen when they quote Hebrews 11:1 passage out of context and then conclude:

1. If we can’t empirically verify God’s existence, faith is blind, irrational, and silly.

2. We can’t empirically verify God’s existence.

3. Therefore, faith is blind, silly, and unsupported.

Certitude and Doubt

In Mortimer J. Adler’s Six Great Ideas where he has a chapter called The Realm of Doubt. Instead, let expand on what Adler discusses in this wonderful book:

The problem we encounter is when we attempt to decide which of our judgments belong in the realm of certitude and which in the realm of doubt. In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria: (1) it cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation, nor can it be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

A judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

So why does this matter? Recently, Wintery Knight posted this on his blog:

“If you love to listen to the Please Convince Me podcast, as I do, then you know that in a recent episode, J. Warner Wallace mentioned a blog post on an atheistic blog that clearly delineated the implications of an atheistic worldview. He promised he was going to write about it and link to the post, and he has now done so.

Here is the whole the whole thing that the atheist posted:

“[To] all my Atheist friends.

Let us stop sugar coating it. I know, it’s hard to come out and be blunt with the friendly Theists who frequent sites like this. However in your efforts to “play nice” and “be civil” you actually do them a great disservice.

We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not. Our highly evolved brains imagine that these things have a cause or a use, and they have in the past, they’ve allowed life to continue on this planet for a short blip of time. But make no mistake: all our dreams, loves, opinions, and desires are figments of our primordial imagination. They are fleeting electrical signals that fire across our synapses for a moment in time. They served some purpose in the past. They got us here. That’s it. All human achievement and plans for the future are the result of some ancient, evolved brain and accompanying chemical reactions that once served a survival purpose. Ex: I’ll marry and nurture children because my genes demand reproduction, I’ll create because creativity served a survival advantage to my ancient ape ancestors, I’ll build cities and laws because this allowed my ape grandfather time and peace to reproduce and protect his genes. My only directive is to obey my genes. Eat, sleep, reproduce, die. That is our bible.

We deride the Theists for having created myths and holy books. We imagine ourselves superior. But we too imagine there are reasons to obey laws, be polite, protect the weak etc. Rubbish. We are nurturing a new religion, one where we imagine that such conventions have any basis in reality. Have they allowed life to exist? Absolutely. But who cares? Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me. Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. So be nice if you want. Be involved, have polite conversations, be a model citizen. Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.

I know it’s not PC to speak so bluntly about the ramifications of our beliefs, but in our discussions with Theists we sometimes tip toe around what we really know to be factual. Maybe it’s time we Atheists were a little more truthful and let the chips fall where they may. At least that’s what my genes are telling me to say.”

In his post, Wallace comments on the statement above, but for more, you should listen to the podcast.

This fellow is essentially expanding on what Richard Dawkins has said about atheism:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

And Cornell University atheist William Provine agrees: (this is taken from his debate with Phillip E. Johnson)

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Back to Certitude and Doubt

So here we see some comments by atheists about their views of purpose, morality, values, origins, etc. Now go back to the certitude issue above. Are you actually going to tell me that these people have certitude about these things? Are the claims here being made by atheists not able to be challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning? Are they beyond doubt? Remember that there are two kinds of defeaters: rationality defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the rationality of a basing a belief on certain grounds) and knowledge defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the legitimacy of a claim to knowledge on behalf of a belief based on certain grounds- see The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, OUP, 2009). We can back and forth and discuss defeaters on both sides of the debate. But once again, neither side will probably ever reach certitude. Never mind the fact that they have to create their own teleology and assume they have a moral obligation to “deconvert” religious people.

On a Positive Note

It is my hope that something like the street epistemology movement will finally wake up ministry leaders from their slumber and actually want to train people in apologetics. I recently posted this article called The Tragedy of the Dumb Church. Remember, there is more than enough resources out there and capable people to teach apologetics. We have been ready and willing to help you in your churches and campuses for years. You can see here how to start an apologetics ministry in your church or start a Ratio Christi chapter on a campus. Times a wastin!

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8 thoughts on “A Look at the New “Street Epistemology” Atheist Movement

  1. porres3423 December 31, 2014 / 4:20 pm

    Every time I read a christian apologist about street epistemology they argue “this movement don’t know what faith is, they just make straw man arguments” . So what is the right definition of faith according to you? no one seem to be clear in this point, not even craig define faith in his article about boghossian book, seems like you avoid the hard topic.

    “Christians must restore our message as one that is based on knowledge of reality”

    oh, so you really don’t need faith

    “It is my hope that something like the street epistemology movement will finally wake up ministry leaders from their slumber and actually want to train people in apologetics”

    please, do it. Anyone who wants to be honest with himself would find weak the christian “rational” defense to their believe, if you train kids to be future apologists surely you would create many apologists, but as well many atheists. Thats why ministers don’t want to do that. Actually religion education never bring the part when teacher has to say to the kids “ok boys, today we would talk about how we know without doubt that god is real, and moreover the christian god is the only true god, let me tell you the reasons and the evidence make us be so sure about our believes”, no, never would find something like that, because if you do that, if you say to the guys “please just believe in god, in jehova, after you find this idea rational in your mind” then many kids going to became to atheist. And thats why religion education repeat once and again and again that believe in god is about faith and not about proofs. Apologists are different, they don’t care if their message is true, they just want to sounds convincing, but not all of kids are like that, some of them are expecting good reasons to believe in god. So please, train kids to be apologist, sow in their minds the idea of need for rationality in religion defense, and please do it before they are brain washed.

    • Todd December 5, 2015 / 6:01 am

      PORRES,

      You have demonstrated the fundamental misunderstanding that Atheists have about “faith” in one line of your response above: “oh so you really don’t need faith” (in response to the assertion that the Christian message is based in reality).

      The fundamental misunderstanding is that “faith” and “reality” (or “evidence”, “facts,” etc.) are mutually exclusive. Faith is a response to what one has determined is true based on supporting evidence (we hope). If you ask a friend to pick up your medicine from the drug store, you have faith (or “trust”) in that friend to do what he or she has committed to do. You are basing that faith on the accumulated evidence of his or her performance in the past. If your friend has routinely failed to do what he or she promises, then your faith/trust in that friend is diminished.

      Your faith is based on evidence; your faith is not eliminated by the presence of evidence.

      Now go back and re-read your statement which I quoted above. I hope you see that your statement assumes that the presence of evidence eliminates the “need” for faith. This is the error that many Atheists make with regard to “faith.”

      The word for “faith” in Greek (used in the New Testament) is the idea of trust in or reliance upon someone or something. This Greek word is also translated “believe” in English Bibles which leads to confusion by modern readers who don’t bother to look at the original Greek and its meaning. Because we (today) associate the idea of “believe” with imagining something to be true with no evidential constraints, we assume that this was the idea held in mind by the writers of the New Testament when they wrote those words.

      When I have explained this to Atheists in an attempt to disabuse them of this faulty understanding of “faith,” they say something along these lines: “Well that’s how people use the word today. A lot of Christians use ‘faith’ in that way (i.e., faith isn’t needed if there is evidence).” Their claim is true. Many Christians today do use the word in this way and they are just as wrong as the Atheists to ignore the original sense of the word as used in the New Testament (the basis of the Christian faith).

      I have been following the encounters of an Atheist who engages in “Street Epistemology” at a college campus in Texas. He makes exactly the same mistake when he’s talking to Christians. Perhaps the Christians aren’t explaining it well enough. But after talking to many Atheists for many years, I’m not so sure that they’re really so eager to understand what Christians actually think and believe. After all, Straw Men are easier targets.

      • chab123 December 5, 2015 / 8:36 pm

        Hi Todd,

        Not sure why you address me as ‘Porres.’ Thanks for your comments. I have lead a campus apologetics ministry for years and have done several outreaches/debates with atheists. I do have a pretty good idea on how they define ‘faith.’I also know how ‘faith’ is used in an exegetical sense in the Bible. It is true many Christians don’t know how faith is used in the Bible. That is due to poor discipleship.

        You say “I hope you see that your statement assumes that the presence of evidence eliminates the “need” for faith.” No, that’s now what I am saying. Jesus gave evidence for many audiences and they refused to trust Him as the Messiah. So faith responds to evidence. Apologetics may serve as a valuable medium through which God can operate, but the mature apologist knows the issue is never the product of historical facts or evidence alone. For example, in James 2:19, it says that the demons believe that God exists. But just because the demons think God exists, this doesn’t mean they have saving faith. Objectively speaking, apologetics or evidence for God may help someone believe that God exists. However, the individual still needs to place their trust in God. This can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 16:12-15). Therefore, the apologist knows and prays as well that the Holy Spirit will move the will of the individual to come to the place to have belief that God exists and also trust in him for their salvation.

        It is interesting that you have a street epistemology movement there. Where I am (Ohio) has a huge atheist population. But I haven’t seen any Street Epistemology movement. If interested, see the book How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology James K. Dew and Mark W. Foreman, 2014, 168 pp. ISBN 978-0801046186.

      • Todd December 6, 2015 / 1:49 am

        Hi chab123,

        My comments probably didn’t make sense to you because I wasn’t addressing them to you. I was addressing them to the person criticizing you (PORRES3423) who is presumably an Atheist or at least has the same misunderstanding about faith as most Atheists do. (Re-read his post and then read mine and what I wrote will make far more sense).

        And as a Reformed believer, I am well aware of the Holy Spirit’s role in conversion and agree with you on that point. But I was addressing another point (the fundamental misunderstanding that many/most Atheists have regarding “faith”).

        Todd

  2. Laura February 1, 2015 / 12:54 pm

    A partially educated person writing a rebuttal to a website, without reading the relevant book, is about as weak as it gets. It’s not the least bit impressive that this person claims to have read an undergraduate-level introduction to epistemology, even if it is on a Stanford website. What street epistemologists are trying to do is encourage people to use good methods for arriving at their beliefs. Good evidence plus valid logic will tend to yield beliefs that comport with reality. Weak evidence and/or flawed logic will tend to yield beliefs that diverge from reality.

    • chab123 February 1, 2015 / 3:05 pm

      Hi Laura,

      I am all for critical thinking. Remember, this post was not a book review. I never said it was. I was writing it because I had seen all the talk about the issue and I had seen Peter’s fb group on the topic. I read several online discussions on the topic and knew that Peter was trying to provide an alternative to “faith based epistemology.” Granted, to this day, he never has been using an exegetical dictionary of the word “faith.” But why should he care?

      No, I didn’t take epistemology in college. I took it in my graduate work. I was humble enough to admit I am not an expert along the lines of the names I mention in the post. I have read their works and would never say I am an epistemologist in the way they are. If you want to listen to someone who is really qualified to speak to epistemology,see Tim McGrew’s debate with Peter on the show Unbelievable. I have Tim’s textbook on the topic. After all, if you want to pride yourself on promoting critical thinking, you would do well to see Peter’s work critiqued by others. You can also see plenty of other reviews of Peter’s work online.

      For the record, I have also led an apologetics ministry for several years at a major college campus and have had plenty of interactions with atheists. What Peter has been attempting to do is nothing new. But I do stand by my comments in that the majority of atheists I have met know nothing about epistemology. Granted, neither do many Christians. But if atheists did spend more time learning about epistemology, they wouldn’t pose many of the same ridiculous objections to theism. Since you said I am partially educated, What textbooks on epistemology have you read? Can you give me some names?

      I already mentioned in my post enough about the problems your worldview has and your moral obligation to convert others to it. You have no certitude for it and never will. Hence, you trust things without certitude and have to say “I just don’t know.” Btw, logic and epistemology are two separate branches in philosophy. Are the laws of logic material or immaterial realities? Good luck grounding logic on your worldview. I think you will eventually see you have to borrow from theism. See more here: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/is-god-real-examining-atheistic-explanations-for-the-laws-of-logic-as-brute-realities/

      At this point, (this post was written a ways back), all I see is Peter creating some more fervent atheist evangelists. But that’s about it. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Peter’s work.

  3. Julia May 28, 2015 / 1:46 pm

    You began above by saying Boghossian’s book is ” just one more attempt to turn atheists into an army of evangelists”. I don’t know if you have read it yet, but making that statement about it *before* you have actually read it or done your research seems counter-productive and backwards. How can you know that the book is ” just one more attempt to turn atheists into an army of evangelists” if you have not yet read it?

    Actually, the main focus is “How do you know what you say you know?” The topic just happens to be religion and faith in the book, however the Socratic Method (what Boghossian uses) is for any belief. It is about using our critical thinking to reason and problem solve. As an educator who sees and interacts with young people every day, most of them are programmed to be spoon fed and afraid to explore and question because they are afraid of getting it “wrong”. Youth are not taught critical thinking.
    I teach art which is all about critical thinking and problem solving.
    Tell me, what is it you think is wrong with learning to think and reason critically about any and all questions/issues in life?

    • chab123 May 28, 2015 / 1:56 pm

      Julia, I wrote this post a ways back. When I wrote it, the book had just come out and myself as well as others were starting to interact with some atheists who were wanting to take Peter’s book to the streets. I never said I was against critical thinking. I planted a educational ministry at Ohio State which helps Christians to learn critical thinking skills. We have hosted scholars and done debates with the atheist group. Yes, some are spoon fed. But we have already seen some of Peter’s disciples who are out evangelizing. So yes, there is an evangelistic aspect to it. My friend Tim McGrew debated Peter on the Unbelievable podcast. I recommend giving it a listen. Btw, I took epistemology in seminary. What textbooks have you read on epistemology other than Peter’s?

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