Ich Bin Atheist shoe, Redchurch Street, Hackney, London, UKPeter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists is a curious and ultimately very valuable book.

It’s curious because it doesn’t make much of a case — or at least not the sort of case I would have liked — for why we should create atheists.

It’s valuable because, if you believe we’d be better off with more atheists, this is a remarkable tool for accomplishing that goal.

I don’t view sloppy thinking as a great evil in itself.  It doesn’t offend me the way hunger and lack of medicine and Hellfire missiles offend me.  So, I look for the argument — which I think can be made — that sloppy thinking has serious results, or that belief in a god leads to a lack of responsibility, or that belief in eternal life diminishes efforts to improve real lives.  This book does not focus on those arguments.

Boghossian points to abstinence-only sex-ed, bans on same-sex marriage, teaching Creationism, corporal punishment in schools, and other offenses in the United States, as well as pointing to various more-severe abuses by the Taliban, as the undesirable results of theism.  But, with the possible exception of Creationism, these things could continue without theism or be ended while maintaining theism.  Perhaps they would be less likely to continue in a theism-free society in which good arguments against those practices had been introduced.  I’m inclined to think that atheistic openness to questioning assumptions leads toward swifter and more radical political change, whether for better or for worse, and that because we need positive radical change so desperately we need the ability to take that risk.

In arguing against the assumption that we must always have war, or poverty, or private health insurance companies, or corporate television networks, or oil drilling, or billionaires, one could do much worse than to appropriate some of the arguments that Boghossian uses to argue against the assumption of theism.  This is the great value in this book. The author provides a guide and numerous examples of how to gently nudge someone away from what Boghossian calls “faith,” as distinct from “religion.”

I think the shift toward the word “faith” has largely been driven by people’s desire to unload the baggage of specific religious beliefs while maintaining a vague conviction in the existence of some vague something that one has no evidence for the existence of.  Boghossian chooses to tackle people’s “faith,” meaning their practice of believing something with no justification, in order not to challenge their social attachment to church attendance, ceremonies, and support structures of religions.  However, I’ve had people tell me they were theists because they are not omniscient and they appreciate profound mysteries, even though they reject such notions as “god” and “heaven” (as if atheists must claim to be omniscient just because they don’t celebrate their ignorance).  So those wanting to cling to religion as they lose faith may themselves describe it as their faith evolving.

Boghossian’s approach to talking people out of faith is a subtle jiu-jitsu — part therapy, part community organizing, part Socrates.  He cites evidence that people can be talked out of faith, as well as that the process often takes far longer than does conversion to faith.  Seeking to encourage those using his manual, the author explains how reactions that seem to reject arguments against faith can actually be signs of making progress.

Boghossian advises targeting people’s habits of faith, not the beliefs they hold.  He advocates a non-combative, helpful, and questioning Socratic approach.  Richard Dawkins comments in a blurb on the back cover: “Peter Boghossian’s techniques of friendly persuasion are not mine, and maybe I’d be more effective if they were.  They are undoubtedly very persuasive — and very much needed.”  I think that’s right, but I also think that for a certain type of person, reading this book would be a way to cure them of their god virus.

Still, Boghossian does little of what I think he could have done to persuade us of the desirability of working as evangelical atheists.  When, in the course of a conversation, Boghossian wants to provide examples of very moral people who are atheists, he picks Bill Gates (who hoards tens of billions of dollars while thousands of children starve and suffer for lack of it; something one doesn’t question if faith in trickle-down economics dominates your thought) and Pat Tillman because he chose to “give his life for his country” (Tillman joined in the senseless slaughter of the people of Afghanistan, came to regret his decision, was killed either accidentally or intentionally by U.S. troops when no Afghans were anywhere nearby, and has been blatantly lied about by the U.S. military and media — a case where skepticism and freethinking would seem to have been badly needed, but where our brilliant producer of atheists seems to have followed his faith in nationalism in choosing this example.)

Of course, most atheists don’t practice cut-throat computer software monopolism, hoard vast wealth, or join in wars.  In fact, atheists tend to be more generous and more antiwar than theists.  But among those who truly behave morally, including by working and sacrificing for peace and social and economic justice, civil liberties, and the natural environment, are many who say they’re motivated by religion.  Boghossian, in advocating steering conversations away from abortion or school prayer, says to aim for the root: “Undermine faith, and all faith-based conclusions are simultaneously undermined.” One has to hope that doesn’t include the good conclusions along with the bad.

Oddly, Boghossian’s approach, in which he strives to understand and sympathize with the person whose faith he is attempting to remove, gives very little mention to such motivators of religious belief as the desire not to die.  Boghossian uses Socratic questioning to get people to see the error of their ways.  He doesn’t try to open them up by addressing their unstated fears of death or a world without an authority figure.  When death finally gets mentioned, far into the book, the author refers to the atheist’s position as “the unknowable” and “not knowing.”  Not knowing what, exactly?  That everything goes blank and ceases?  We do know that.

Maybe Boghossian is right that there’s nothing to be said on that subject, and a society in which people are not taught religion will be a society with much less religion in it, even while death remains horrifying.  Toward the end of the book, the author claims that sound reasoning will give someone a feeling of control that is superior to the feeling of comfort in imagining that their loved one is still alive in a magical place.  But this depends, I think, on recognizing that belief in “heaven” is weak and unsatisfying because at odds with most of one’s other beliefs.  (See In Bad Faith by Andrew Levine.)  Surely actually believing that nobody dies and that one prioritizes rational belief formation would be the most preferable combination.  But we don’t have that choice.

Photo from Cory Doctorow licensed under Creative Commons