A new episode of The Humanist Hour is available for listening. Keep reading to find out details about this month’s program.
In this month’s show, Todd and Kim interview Dr. Peter Boghossian, philosopher and the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists.
Dr. Boghossian, an instructor of philosophy at Portland State University, has instructed “30 thousand students – in prisons, hospitals, public and private schools, seminaries, colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, and small businesses. His fundamental objective is to teach people how to think through what often seem to be intractable problems.”
Listen and Todd and Kim talk to Dr. Boghossian about many topics including his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists,” the “faith virus,” how to get religious believers to change their way of thinking, the non-theist sense of wonder, gateway beliefs, and a new TV project called “The Reason Whisperer.”
Links from this month’s episode:
- Website: Portland State University website for Dr. Peter Boghossian
- Book: A Manual for Creating Atheists, by Dr. Peter Boghossian
- Facebook page: “The Reason Whisperer” TV project
- Twitter: @peterboghossian
Music from this month’s episode (in order of appearance):
Christopher Bell, a mohawk-sporting cellist/songwriter, is from Illinois. His new album Sirens features many lyrical themes pertinent to Atheism.
“While his last three efforts have dabbled in folk and rock music, Sirens changes the format. Building songs on vocal loops gives the album a dark, otherworldly quality. With songs stripped down to their essential parts, the album’s sound is cold and stark, like wind whipping through a sparse landscape. Drums have been replaced by glitchy pops and cracks and beatboxing. Strings weave around each other.”
Transcript: The Humanist Hour #90: Dr. Peter Boghossian
Kim Ellington: Hey, everybody. Welcome to The Humanist Hour. We have author and professor, Peter Boghossian. We’ll be discussing the built-in BS meter, defensive postures, and eradicating the “faith virus.”
Todd Stiefel: We’ll also be talking about how very, very white Santa Claus is, street epistemologists, and the Easter Bunny as a gateway drug.
Kim Ellington: Welcome to the show, everyone. You’re Todd.
Todd Stiefel: And you’re Kim. Welcome to The Humanist Hour, an official broadcast of the American Humanist Association. What’s going on, Kim?
Kim Ellington: A little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s the holiday season. How are you doing?
Todd Stiefel: I am great. I just want to wish you a Merry Christmas.
Kim Ellington: Thank you very much. You know, it amazes me how many people — I actually go back and forth myself, Todd. My nine-year-old daughter asked me this year, she said, “Mom, why are we celebrating Christmas if we’re not Christian?”
Todd Stiefel: That’s a good question.
Kim Ellington: It is a good question and it let me, oh, it just opened the doors to, “Well, actually, Christmas is not really a Christian celebration, honey.” What do you guys do?
Todd Stiefel: It’s like the word is but, we celebrate Christmas, we call it Christmas and, whatever. To me, it’s like being a secular Jew. I’m a secular Christian when it comes to the holidays. I just like it. This — hey, let’s face it, the Romans were on to something with Saturnalia, the Christians did a great job of expanding it and incorporating pagan traditions in and now it’s just a 2000-year-old or a 3000-year-old meme [sounds like] that has evolved and improved, and I like the smell of trees and giving gifts and getting gifts and the generosity and the love and the family and all that jazz. I think Christmas rocks.
Kim Ellington: I do, too. And do you know that Netflix actually has a burning Yule log? Well, I guess they probably call it something else, but it’s a burning Yule log. It’s an hour of the crackling and popping and the happy little sounds of a burning Yule log.
Todd Stiefel: That sounds very tranquil. How many hours have you spent with the Yule log?
Kim Ellington: I’m starting tonight. I just read about it. I’m very excited. And apparently, according to one of my friends who posted about it on Facebook, they actually have cracking and popping like the little — for those who can’t hear, you can actually read that the logs are cracking and popping in case you can’t tell that.
Todd Stiefel: So, wait. It’s like closed captioning for the Yule log?
Kim Ellington: Yes. It’s subtitled. It has no dialogue but it is subtitled.
Todd Stiefel: Yule log for the hearing impaired. Well, that’s good, I guess. That’s cool.
Kim Ellington: Yes. That’s the Christmas spirit right there to me. It’s caring about everybody, even those who can’t hear the actual cracking and popping. I like it.
Todd Stiefel: I do like that. They should throw in a couple of Jingle Bells here and there too, just like in parenthesis “jingle, jingle.”
Kim Ellington: Jingling in the distance? Yes.
Todd Stiefel: So, you’re not having a war on Christmas?
Kim Ellington: I am not having a war on Christmas. I had a moment where I pulled out a couple of boxes of ornaments and I thought to myself, “You know, I am not Christian. Why am I putting up a Christmas tree?” And then, I smiled and I hugged myself and I said, “You know what, these traditions really aren’t Christian. They have been overtaken.” I think the war on Christmas is actually the Christians who are having the war on Christmas. I think it might be –
Todd Stiefel: Yes. They’re trying to wipe out the references to — It’s like, “We’ll keep the Christmas tree but let’s not talk about the fact that it was pagan.”
Kim Ellington: Right. Exactly. Let the rest of us enjoy our little holiday, too. Yes. I think just love for everybody. That’s the way it goes.
Todd Stiefel: I agree. But just as long as you teach your daughter that Santa is white. Fox News made it very clear — Megyn Kelly was like, “Santa is white and so is Jesus. They are freaking white. And if they’re black, they’re not really black because their bones are white.” Yes.
Kim Ellington: Yes. Yes. Really, probably the only very pale-skinned Middle Easterner ever to pop out of the Middle East.
Todd Stiefel: I actually looked up — like, when she went on that whole rant about Jesus being white, and like, “It’s a fact, it’s verifiable,” I’m like, you know, I’m curious actually. I’ve always assumed he was dark-skinned but — except maybe when I was real little and all I saw were these pictures of Scandinavian blue-eyed, buff, bearded — you know, Jesus worked out a lot and was very blue-eyed.
Kim Ellington: Yes. He filled out his robes. He did, nicely.
Todd Stiefel: This is totally true. And so, I decided — like last week after she was doing that rant, I decided, “You know, I’m going to get a little educated. He spoke Aramaic. Well, let’s look at who speaks Aramaic now.” And there are still millions of people who speak Aramaic and they mostly live in Syria, and the pictures of modern-day Aramaic-speakers, yes, they are –
Kim Ellington: Super white? Super very Caucasian?
Todd Stiefel: They’re so Caucasian except for their olive skin and kind of — you know, they’re not as fully Middle Eastern. They’re more like — they looked more Mediterranean mixed with Middle Eastern. An example was Andre Agassi who is very not bearded and very bald actually and a very olive-skinned, although he’s also ripped out just like Jesus.
Kim Ellington: Oh, yes. Oh, Andre, when I was — yes, oh, Andre. Yes. Go on.
Todd Stiefel: But, yes. I mean, he was probably an olive-skinned Middle Eastern-type guy with brown hair and brown eyes, and yes, sure, I’m sure he had the beard and all, but no, he was not a blue-eyed Scandinavian dude. Like, that’s just not a fact.
Kim Ellington: So, he didn’t look like Megyn Kelly?
Todd Stiefel: Actually, Jesus was a woman.
Kim Ellington: She’s a pretty girl.
Todd Stiefel: Jesus was the best female Messiah we’ve ever heard.
Kim Ellington: Sacrilegious. Blasphemy. Todd Stiefel.
Well, you know, I did see her — well, okay, they won’t call it a retraction. It was her response — they both start with R, I can see how they can get confused. But she was trying to say that she didn’t really mean it that way, that it was a joke and anybody who didn’t take it as a joke was watching the whole thing with completely the wrong light. And, of course — she spoke very much in capital letters or italics — of course she knew that children wouldn’t be watching the show at 11 o’clock at night or 10 o’clock, whenever it was, and that anybody who took it too seriously was not picking up on the entertainment value of what she was trying to convey.
Todd Stiefel: Right. A friend of mine was telling me about that and then how Jon Stewart played the clip back and it was so obvious in the clip that she was dead serious.
Kim Ellington: Oh, yeah.
Todd Stiefel: Like the facial expressions, the tone of voice, she was serious and that she was just lying about it. So, he kind of played, “Yes, as you can see she’s utilizing all of the comedic foils available to her when making that statement.”
Kim Ellington: Oh, dear.
Todd Stiefel: Ah, yes, yes, Christmas. It’s that time of year. But I’m looking forward to it.
Kim Ellington: It’s war time, Todd. Don’t forget it.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, I’ll definitely be packing heat for Christmas just in case the war begins. I’m thinking of investing in a tank.
Kim Ellington: It’s a good time for the 2nd Amendment people as well.
Todd Stiefel: Yes, clearly, the war. So, what else is going on with you?
Kim Ellington: Well, on a more humanist note, on actually from the American Humanist Association Facebook page, they posted a wonderful article about a Danish word — I may slay this word, I did my best with the phonetic spelling that they put in the article — it’s “hygge” and it is the concept of love and family and caring and sharing. It’s essentially a one Danish word to describe the Christmas feeling, the love and sharing. And it was really a neat concept. And apparently the Danes have the — I think it was the World Health Organization, but don’t quote me on that, I think it was — that said that the Danes were some of the happiest people on earth and they may have been like the number one happiest country, and they credit it to this hygge, this feeling of love and caring and sharing. And I thought we are going to do this. The humanist community is going to take over, instead of having the Christmas spirit, we’re going to have the hygge spirit — or maybe it’s just hygge, we’ll have to ask a Danish person if it can be a spirit or if it just is what it is.
Todd Stiefel: I think you’re totally off track. I think that the reality is is these Danish folks are missing the historic veracity of Jesus and why he’s the reason for the season, and I think we need to use our armed forces to force them to accept the true meaning of Christmas, not this hygge stuff.
Kim Ellington: War on the Danes? Are you declaring war on the Danes, Todd?
Todd Stiefel: I am formally, on behalf of all of the power I have over these United States –
Kim Ellington: Which is not considerable.
Todd Stiefel: Not considerable but enough that I can declare a war on the Danish country, all of them, and, yes, Denmark is in trouble. We’re going to take them out and subjugate them to the will of Jesus, and that’s what the war on Christmas is going to be about, dang it.
Kim Ellington: I think we own it now. We’re going to start this. It’s a movement. It’s a movement.
Todd Stiefel: Yes. But that’s a cool sentiment. I like that.
Kim Ellington: Yes. I need to –
Todd Stiefel: Hygge.
Kim Ellington: So, hygge. Look it up folks. It’s actually H-Y-G-G-E, if you have not actually read this article yet. It is a really, really neat concept. And as a loving, caring, care-about-my-fellow-humans-and-like-to-spread-love-and-peace-in-the-world, I’m getting behind it.
Todd Stiefel: I like that it’s an example of when “Y” is really used as a vowel instead of just a consonant.
Kim Ellington: Yes. Hygge in the sky. We got it.
Todd Stiefel: And sometimes –
Kim Ellington: Hygge in the sky with diamonds.
Todd Stiefel: A moment ago, you used the word “slaying.” I think you were saying you were slaying this word or something.
Kim Ellington: The pronunciation, yes.
Todd Stiefel: Pronunciation. But I couldn’t help, as soon as you said slaying, think of “a sleighing song tonight. Oh, jingle bells.” And every time I hear that song — and maybe just because I played too many video games, I hear that song and I think I should be playing like Call of Duty or some warfare game, and like — it’s a slaying song, not like a sleighing ride, but S-L-A-Y-I-N-G. Is that kind of twisted of me to hear it like that?
Kim Ellington: I kind of like that. I like that I have an image in my brain now. Because when we go slaying, you throw the bodies in the back and you keep going.
Todd Stiefel: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a slaying song, children. That’s what –
Kim Ellington: To the sound of bells. I like it. Well done, Todd.
Todd Stiefel: And don’t forget about Santa’s claws.
Kim Ellington: [Indiscernible].
Todd Stiefel: I think that too. I know I’m demented. It’s okay.
Kim Ellington: Like a grizzly?
Todd Stiefel: He does. He is a scary, jolly, fat man.
Kim Ellington: Badly in need of a manicure.
Todd Stiefel: He’s an elf with claws and fangs and talons. Or is that Krampus?
Kim Ellington: I think you — oh, Santa Krampus. Krampus Claus?
Todd Stiefel: Krampus is scary.
Kim Ellington: It is. I saw a couple of pictures. I know there’s not a real one, Megyn Kelly. I know there’s not a real one. [Cross-talking] –
Todd Stiefel: But Krampus is white.
Kim Ellington: Children, if you’re listening, the Krampus is white, okay? Everybody knows it.
Todd Stiefel: But wait, is Krampus the bad guy? I think he is.
Kim Ellington: He is.
Todd Stiefel: Ugh. Then I’m pretty sure Megyn would think he’s not white then.
Kim Ellington: We should have her on the show and let her –
Todd Stiefel: We should ask her are all of the bad Christmas characters’ colors. Yes.
Kim Ellington: [Indiscernible] white.
Todd Stiefel: Yes. He is not white. We don’t know what color he is. We won’t cast any aspersions on other people with different hues and melanin content, but clearly the bad guys aren’t white. I think Megyn would say that.
Kim Ellington: Yes. I could use a little more melanin content. I am glowing in the dark.
Todd Stiefel: I am so pasty. It’s okay. My butt is as pasty as Santa.
Kim Ellington: We’re not going to talk about your butt paste, Todd.
Merry Christmas, everyone. That’s my present to you.
Todd Stiefel: So, we have — moving right along in a more reasonable direction, now that we’ve completely made fools of ourselves in this season, we have a pretty awesome guest this month.
Kim Ellington: We do, indeed. If anyone has not heard the name Peter Boghossian, you’re about to. Or actually, you just did.
Todd Stiefel: You have now if you hadn’t before. Yes, Peter is a fast-growing force in the movement actually. He’s become kind of a big thinker, quickly with his latest book, although he’s actually been pretty active for a number of years. He’s kind of exploded very recently with his latest book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, and he’s going to be talking about that along with a variety of other things he’s done.
Kim Ellington: I like this man. I have been listening to his lectures. He is amusing and he is incredibly intelligent. I love people that I can learn from, which is pretty much everybody, but particularly Professor Boghossian. And I love his name too.
Todd Stiefel: So, Professor Boghossian is a professor of philosophy actually at Portland State University. He is an author, as we said, but has also been published in The Philosopher’s Magazine, Skeptical Inquirer. Education policy, he has been a councilman for the state of Oregon and a chairman of the Prison Advocacy Committee for Columbia River Correctional Institution as well as many other interesting honors.
Kim Ellington: Hmm, I did not know about the correctional facility. That is interesting. Maybe he’ll say a word or two for that.
Todd Stiefel: Welcome to the show, Peter.
Peter Boghossian: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Todd Stiefel: It is great to have you here, even though I have heard and learned recently that you are in fact a demon. Is this true?
Peter Boghossian: Yes. An underpaid one.
Todd Stiefel: So, tell me about this demon thing.
Peter Boghossian: Somebody sent me a clip of a Christian broadcast in which they talked about my book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, and one of the hosts of the show suggested that I was an actual demon.
Todd Stiefel: Like a real-life demon?
Peter Boghossian: I guess, in the same way that Santa is real. I mean, I don’t — it invoked, I must say, a type of puzzlement in me at first. It was really quite funny, and my friends on Twitter got a big kick out of it as well, but it does go to show the depth of the pathology that these people hold. So, when someone makes an argument that you don’t understand or that you can’t comprehend, you just say that they’re a demon. It’s kind of a convenient, cognitive strategy to distance yourself from any substantive, intellectual work when engaging a topic. But, yeah, it was funny, it was interesting. I’m the lowest paid demon, I have to say, of any of the demons I know.
Todd Stiefel: Now, is that an ad hominem attack or would that be considered an ad demonem [sounds like] attack?
Peter Boghossian: That’s awesome. You just made something for the canon [sounds like]. We’re going to put that in the lexicon for critical thinking [indiscernible].
Kim Ellington: I think Peter Boghossian is the Krampus, Todd. I think that’s what it is.
Todd Stiefel: What exactly is causing people to think you’re a demon? You have this new book out. What the heck is freaking people out so much?
Peter Boghossian: Well, the book is a guide that teaches people, teaches readers how to talk people out of faith and superstition and into reason. And so, what the book does is it gives people a template, literally a line-by-line template, and I draw from a vast body of literature — psychology, cult exiting — and it’s specifically designed — they’re called interventions, treatments that one can give another person, to change the behavior of people who do not want their behavior changed. So, I think that people are upset or indignant or offended — and certainly not all Christians. Some Christians have — a few Christians have responded, not many, and it’s not just about Christianity — but a few folks have responded somewhat favorably saying that this is an opportunity for them to use this to teach their parishioners how people go about undermining their faith. Okay. But I think that the idea that you can — look, there are literally many corpuses, corpi, whatever the plural of corpus — corpuses of literature that teach people how to talk other people into a faith tradition, and my book teaches people how to talk other people out of the faith tradition, and people do not like that. They are upset about it.
Kim Ellington: One of my favorite quotes from you — and I imagine that something like this must be there, that — this is a direct quote, by the way, not an edited one, and it may be from your demon self, it may be from you in your best, I’m not sure, but you said, “Basically, I undermine people’s ideology.” Do you suppose that’s how you earned your horns?
Peter Boghossian: I think so, but I guess one would have to ask the people making the claims. But that’s the funny thing. Like, you’ll say to someone, well, is it okay if I undermine — I mean, you can leave the Abrahamic traditions, like scientology, “Is it okay if I undermine the views of the scientologist, the ideology of the scientologist?” “Oh, yes. That’s good. That’s good.” Okay. “Well, what about a Mormon? What about the idea that Joseph Smith is the last prophet if they’re not a Mormon?” “Oh, yes. This is very good.”
So, people have a blindness with seeing their own delusions as delusions but they have no trouble whatsoever with seeing other people’s delusions as delusions. And so, how do we help people break through dogmatism and how do we help people to become less certain and less confident about what they know, and frankly, to be more humble about what it is they claim to know.
Todd Stiefel: In your book, you talk about street epistemologists. What do you mean by that?
Peter Boghossian: This shouldn’t be an academic exercise. This should be something that’s accessible to people, that they can use. You know, when you’re on the street and someone comes up to you and they tell you about whatever superstition they happen to tell you about and they want you to subscribe to their superstition, you’re not in a classroom anymore. You’re on the street. And when you’re in prison — you know, I do a lot of work with prison inmates — you’re in a kind of street. And it’s important to teach people how to use these skill sets to turn those interactions into opportunities. So, when someone approaches you and they want to convert you or what have you, what is the optimal way to do this in any context, specifically in context outside of an academic environment where those discussions aren’t mediated?
Todd Stiefel: And your opinion is that pure logic and reason is not always going to completely get someone to abandon the beliefs to which their identity is tied?
Peter Boghossian: Yes. I mean, it’s a funny question, but one of the things that I advocate — so, there’s a line of literature — and again, I didn’t just pluck this stuff out of the sky — there’s a line of literature in psychology and it’s specifically used with behavioral change for drug addicts, drug and alcohol addiction, and it deals with this thing called the transtheoretical model. And the transtheoretical model attempts to — and I wed this with a motivational interview, and it’s another line from the literature — about moving people through these stages of change. The key is to meet people where they are and to address where they are on this continuum. And it’s very, very difficult for people to understand, thoughtful, rational people to understand that in certain stages of someone’s journey to reason, you cannot introduce facts into the discussion because they don’t formulate their beliefs on the basis of facts and evidence in the first place. So, not only is it unproductive but it can be counter-productive to do so. So, there are strategies to address a root belief, a root way of forming, an epistemology way that one comes to knowledge that don’t invoke facts or evidence.
Kim Ellington: When you’re talking to a prisoner, I’m assuming that most often who you’re talking to — and I may be making a far assumption here — but is someone who has not necessarily been well educated, although I could be completely wrong? So, you’re starting from a completely different perspective than where they’re coming from?
Peter Boghossian: Yes, you have to meet them where they are. And so, I don’t know where people are, that’s why I advocate initially you need to ask some diagnostic questions. I’ve become much more blunt recently — and I’ll give you an example of a question — but the reason I’ve become much more blunt is that I just do this so much that I’ve managed to condense the whole interaction, the whole intervention down.
By the way, just parenthetically, I have a TV show that I’m working on called The Reason Whisperer. And in The Reason Whisperer, I go into churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues and de-convert people. Just on the spot, real people, no actors, no scripts, just by talking to them. So, it’s vital to meet people where they are in this process.
Todd Stiefel: All right. I’m sorry. I have to take the bait. Tell us more about this show. Is it going to be on a certain channel? Give us the dirt.
Peter Boghossian: Well, it’s funny that you asked. I just had dinner with friends actually, our mutual friends, Shermer and DJ and Jamy Ian Swiss last night and they gave me some advice about what would you do with the show, and when we’re off air I’ll ask your advice about it. So, we have a trailer coming out in a week and we have a number of possible distribution venues, we’re not sure. But basically I do on film exactly what’s in the book and what I want the viewers to get out of is that this is not a Jedi mind trick. It’s that anybody can do what I do. There is nothing special about me. I’m just a guy who’s given up his life to completely eradicate the faith virus. And one way we can do that is — so, I’ve studied the literature, I’ve written a book on it, and now I want to — I know a lot of people don’t read, but they can watch the interventions and then they can go out themselves and help friends and loved ones and maybe even people they don’t know, if they’re particularly ambitious, and abandon their faith and embrace a life of reason.
Todd Stiefel: It seems like if bigoted twits that sell duck calls can get their own reality TV show, this should be able to become its own reality TV show.
Peter Boghossian: One would think, right? I mean, so, no one’s ever done anything like this. And one of the things that I think is interesting about this is we follow up with people later and see where they are and see if the treatment stuck or to see if they reverted. And the results of that have been particularly interesting.
Kim Ellington: My first reaction would be that people would walk away from you going, “Yes, he’s got a point,” but that would cause them to dig in deeper an hour later or a day later.
Peter Boghossian: Yes, and that’s in the book. So, there’s a line of literature about sometimes you think you’re making someone’s epistemic situation, you know, the way they come to knowledge and the way they formulate beliefs, you think you’re making it worse but you’re not. You’re actually making it better. And one sign that you’re making it better is that, it’s complicated to explain, but you’re basically guiding people through a series of questions to ask them if they agree with themselves and if it makes sense. And one consequence of that, one response to that is anger, tears, being upset, and then they dig in. They dig deeper into the beliefs they already have. When that happens, you know that the intervention is successful. And it’s important at that point — and this is, again, from the cult exiting literature, we know this, it’s important again to follow up and to help those people and meet them at that stage of change. So, that response, sometimes violent, sometimes aggressive, sometimes hostile, sometimes very tearful, frankly, is a sign that you’re helping people.
Todd Stiefel: Now, your book is A Manual for Creating Atheists. Do you find that you end up often not getting people all the way to atheism, that they stop somewhere along the way? And specifically I’m thinking deism which is kind of a resort where people are — their god of the gaps is collapsing to a point where science can’t even really touch what happened before the Big Bang very well right now. Does that end up happening a lot? Do you end up creating a lot of deist as well?
Peter Boghossian: The goal is not to create atheist in spite of the title. Here is the thing, you could create an atheist but you could leave their epistemology intact, the underlying belief formation mechanism. And so, then they could go out and continue to do — have whacky beliefs and act accordingly to those whacky beliefs. The goal, and I specifically advocate in the book, not targeting a belief in God. I’m not interested in a belief in God. I’m interested in the entire belief structure itself. I want to change the whole belief structure, so that the epistemological ambition, the goal of helping people through knowledge is much more ambitious than just the god delusion — to borrow a phrase from Richard. The goal is to change the very fabric of the way people think about problems and to help them realize that the only way to think about problems is on the basis of reason and evidence and that in turn can help them lead a more reflective and more examined life so they can toss of these dogmas, these superstitions.
Kim Ellington: So, it’s interesting to me — again, to pull you back to what you’ve done in the prisons — my local free thought community, one of the things that we’re getting involved in is trying to get free thought books into the prisons because the religious community does a lot putting religious books into the prisons, and I’ve never understood the thought of putting someone else in power in your life, how that’s supposed to help you when you get out. So, I’m fascinated by the thought that you are actually going in there and talking to people, and I can imagine that the pushback against you would be humongous.
Peter Boghossian: So, okay. So, I think someone just tweeted something about books in prisons today. Were you involved in that?
Kim Ellington: I was not, actually, no.
Todd Stiefel: CFI is working on a project — I don’t recall the name off the top of my head but Leslie Zucker [sounds like] is leading it to help get free thought books in prisons.
Peter Boghossian: Yes. So, no. I mean, there was no pushback at that time because when I originally went into the prison — so, I came to the free thought movement, like so many people, like Jerry [indiscernible], they were biologists, different people come, because they’re — Jamy Ian Swiss or Randi [phonetic], there were magicians, or what have you. So, this isn’t even my primary — well, now it’s my primary research area, but when I was doing work in the prisons, it wasn’t to help disabuse people of faith and embrace reason. It was to help disabuse people of this idea that they need to commit crime. So, specifically, it was to help them in their journey to desistance.
And then, again, that’s where a lot of the tools from the book came in from these experiences in prisons. So, I have some ideas — we can talk about them now or off the tape what you can do. You know, one of the things when you put these programs in is that you should put them in at the same times as the religious programs so that gives people a choice. Oftentimes, inmates are just kind of funneled into these religious programs. And then, we need to start funding libraries. I mean, I’d love to get my book in every prison library. Nothing would make me happier. So, we need to start programs in which we can get books into — and, you know, not just my book obviously, but books targeted to people that can help them understand the value of reason.
And I know I’m talking a lot, but I just want to say that here is what’s really important about this, what’s really important about this is that we need — this is not about giving people a critical thinking skill set. That’s super easy. This is about helping people value the right things. And right now, people are not valuing the right things. They’re valuing faith, or many people in prison are valuing the quick buck or what have you. We need to help people — we need to give people a discerning mechanism by which they can value those things that will help them flourish as human beings.
Todd Stiefel: Now, something I’ve encountered when trying to do this a little bit — and I’ve never kind of tried to systematically go out and de-convert people but I’ve definitely had my fair share of conversations on the subject, and one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of times people will give ground really quickly on many areas as you’re kind of probing — “so, was there really a Noah’s ark with the dinosaurs on it not bothering to eat the sheep,” and “no, that’s silly,” and “are there really going to be four horsemen,” “no, that’s silly,” and there’re huge areas where they’d give real fast or have already stopped believing. But then you get down to certain pieces and you might be able to ask a few questions of why you believe this or why not and they’ll even give on those. But then there’re these spots and you can see it happen. You could see it change in body language and in tone of voice where the only way I can say it is like it’s like the shields just went up. The shield is up and all of a sudden it’s like, “Well, I just believe, okay?” Or, I’ve even had people say, “I don’t know why I believe that but I do,” and you could tell they don’t want to talk about it anymore and now they’re pissed.
Peter Boghossian: Okay.
Todd Stiefel: How do you get past that?
Peter Boghossian: All right. That’s a great point and I’m going to wed that with something I had mentioned earlier. So, what you’re talking about is what’s called the defensive posture. So, people will invoke these defensive postures, and the key is to help people not invoke the defensive postures. There are many, many, many ways to do this. In the book I give certain words that I suggest people use. And again, those are pulled from the literature.
One thing before I address that directly, I will say that you’re right, people will give on certain things or they’ll have their epistemological landscape, if you will, the way they come to knowledge and they’ll have certain holes in their landscape, certain peaks and valleys. So, that’s why I advocate a quick series of diagnostic questions at the beginning of the intervention. And again, I probably do now 20 to 30 of these interventions a day, and for me it just becomes a time to just — it helps me time-wise because I’m just disabusing so many people of faith now, I just don’t have time to spend 30 minutes with somebody.
So, the first thing is you need to build some kind of rapport, and that’s vital. That has those questions that you initially ask and that conversation has to begin in sincerity, with total sincerity. That’s the other thing, that this process is rooted in people being sincere, it’s rooted in the person giving the intervention and the treatment being sincere. So, once I have a good idea of where they live, who they are, if they have kids, et cetera, et cetera, I file that information because I can come back to it and use it later on. And again, I took some of those techniques because I reverse engineered the literature on religious evangelism and I looked at what people do and why it works and why it’s successful.
So, then what you need to do is you need to ascertain one’s degree of epistemic closure, belief closure. In the book, I call it “doxastic closure,” but just basically — it’s a big word but it basically means — there are only two big words in the book — epistemic and doxastic. Everything else is written for a general audience. So, I’ll ask a question, like, “Well, okay. How certain are you that Mohammed rode to heaven on a winged horse?” I think that’s in Sura 33:40 but don’t quote me on that. And I’d go, like, “How certain are you on that?” if they subscribe to the Islamic faith tradition. So, the number they give me will determine — I’ll meet them where they are based on that number. So, if they say they’re 100 percent, well, then the rest of the conversation, they’re not getting any facts or evidence, whatsoever. None. Zero. That’s off the table. If they tell me that they’re 60 or 70 percent, okay, then we can use evidence and reason as fulcrum to help them dislodge the certainty to knock them down one tier to 40 percent which is 50 percent which is the “I am ready to change.”
So, now to answer your question directly. You’ve built rapport, you’ve ascertained someone’s degree of belief closure. Now, the trick is — I mean, of course, the trick all along has been that you don’t invoke their defensive posture. The way that you don’t invoke their defensive posture — and this differs from person to person — is that you have to re-frame questions and you have to change things about yourself. So, you don’t interrupt people, you listen to people, you don’t look at these interactions as debates. They’re not debates. You’re not about winning. You want to disabuse somebody of specious epistemology. So, it’s not a debate. The moment you think it’s a debate and you conceptualize it in terms of winning, you haven’t helped somebody and their belief forming mechanism remains intact, their cognitions remain damaged.
So, there are many ways to not invoke someone’s defensive posture and one needs to be mindful of this in the beginning of these interactions. But it’s absolutely vital that people view these communicative interactions not as points of attack. This is not about attacking people. This is not about — this is about helping people. And once we can set the ground rules for ourselves and to re-conceptualize these engagements, then you’re more likely to not — someone’s not likely to put up their shield.
Todd Stiefel: How do you bring the shields down once they’re up?
Peter Boghossian: Okay. Well, there are a few ways. Different people will put up their shields for different reasons — I’m thinking of Star Trek, [cross-talking] –
Todd Stiefel: Me, too. I’m sorry. I’ve been avoiding saying “enterprise,” but I’ve got Kirk, “Shields off, Captain.”
Peter Boghossian: I’m in L.A. and I’ve been walking around and taking pictures and tweeting stars, and I don’t want to look at a — I’ve got a lot of stars. I don’t want to look at — I don’t want to cheat and go on the Internet, but I’m looking for William Shatner’s star. I found Patrick Stewart’s, DeForest Kelley’s, et cetera, et cetera.
All right. Anyway. So, I’m a big sci-fi fan, a big Star Trek fan.
So, different people will become defensive for different reasons, and so that’s why the rapport building is really important. Because when people know that you’re sincere, they will act accordingly and they’ll be met with some kind of reciprocity. So, something I do is I’m always — it’s a series of questions that you ask people. Once you figured out that percentage — and again, a lot of that depends on where they are in their stage of change. One of the things you can do is you can make it explicit that you’re completely willing to revise your beliefs. And if people will see that — and one thing they may do is that they may mirror that themselves, or at the very least, they’ll be less likely to throw up their shields.
The other thing that’s really important is, don’t ask a question unless you really want to know the answer. People have built-in BS meters and they’re able to detect phonies and frauds, and just don’t be a fraud. Just remain sincere in these discussions. The other thing is if you refrain from assertions and keep to questions, people are much more likely to look at that and to want to continue that engagement.
Part of the problem is that many atheists, frankly, — and I’ll be blunt, I was talking to Dan Barker about this — the faithful have gone to great lengths to propagate the angry atheist narrative. And if people — and I write about this in the book — if people even catch a whiff that you are the angry atheist, then the whole treatment is compromised, the intervention is over.
Look, when people go into churches, and I’ve been going to a lot of churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques, these people are not angry. In fact, quite the contrary. They’re so delusional, they love you, they love everything, they’re the most — again, speaking from my experience, these people are incredibly sincere. They want to help you, they want to save you. And it’s that sincerity and that sense of community that people pick up on. So, anytime you create an adversarial relationship with someone, you — as Kim was saying about deepening people in these beliefs — you deepen people in these beliefs in the worst possible way because people will dig in not because they’ve started to ask questions but because they’re angry.
If I’m talking too much, let me know. I’d just give you a quick analogy. My mentor was telling me — he’s 95, he was interned in Buchenwald by the Nazis — and he was telling me about a research study in which they looked at Americans who defected to Korea. That’s right, Americans who defected to Korea. And they found out that all these guys were basically from one — they were trained in one place, and the training received, they were told that the Koreans were monkeys, they were savages, that they were horrible people, other than they’re so different. And when they were interned and they found out that not only was this not true but they actually treated them with kindness. Those people were far more likely to defect than people who were told that the enemy was just misguided. They’re decent people but they’re under a terrible political system and we need to help them. I think that that can — we can learn a lot of lessons from that.
Todd Stiefel: I think that’s interesting. It almost reminds me of why I think a lot of the war on drugs has failed, and I think it’s failed on many levels but — I remember back in the ‘80s as a kid, seeing these commercials on TV, “Just Say No,” and “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” and it was like, if you smoke a joint, you’re going to go murder your mother and burn down the liquor store and all those crazy stuff. And there was like no differentiation between the risks of each different drug. It was just like all equated and lumped together. And I think that was almost dangerous because as soon as somebody finds out that not every drug is going to kill you the first time and not every drug is going to make you go murdering people — some of them might — but as soon as people start seeing that, that’s the gateway. It’s like, “Well, they lied to me. What else did they lie to me about?”
Peter Boghossian: Exactly. Yes, that’s one of the things that happens when we stop, as a society, we stop valuing the truth.
Kim Ellington: I like that. I was actually interested in your — we’re talking about dropping the shields. One of the things that I have done in a past life and still do somewhat is I’m actually a dating coach. It’s more of like a social dynamics where I help people who — yes, they weren’t raised in a way that helps them make human connections. So, it’s something that I’ve been passionate about for actually close to 10 years now. And one of the first things we talk about is everybody has a shield and a sword, metaphorically, of course, and if you want someone else to drop theirs, you kind of have to drop yours first.
Peter Boghossian: Yes. It’s kind of like — so, let’s say that, Todd, someone wants to punch you in the face –
Kim Ellington: Which we do often.
Todd Stiefel: There’s probably several of that.
Kim Ellington: And those are his friends, Peter.
Peter Boghossian: We’ll bracket them. We’ll leave them at the side of the road.
So, there are better and worse ways to deal with that situation. So, here is a worse way to deal with that. So, I won’t swear, it’s to basically say two words, beginning with an F, the first word, you can figure it out. That not only brings back to people putting up their shield but, to borrow Kim’s idea, wanting to slash you with a sword.
The other thing you could do is you could say something like, “Oh, you could never beat me up,” or what have you, or you could pull from a subjective state and say, “Boy, I would really hate that. That would really hurt me.” And that changes the interaction.
Todd Stiefel: Interesting.
Kim Ellington: So, seeing it from making sure that you’re looking at the whole interaction and not just your own side?
Peter Boghossian: Yes. And did you notice the use of the word “hurt” too?
Todd Stiefel: You’re talking experience rather than judgment.
Peter Boghossian: Yes. You’re talking subjectivity, you’re talking about — you’re shifting the conversation, and even if you notice the pause that I gave in that. Again, this isn’t — anybody can learn to do this stuff. It’s not magic. It’s just — it really isn’t a Jedi mind trick. It’s just you really need to be sincere — I believe that it all — I really do think it all starts in sincerity. It’s about helping people to understand that they’ve fundamentally misconstrued reality and that they’re suffering from some pretty severe delusions and that the fact that they’re harboring these delusions is not only harming their communities but it’s hurting themselves. It’s really hurting them.
Todd Stiefel: I totally agree with you. But some might ask and some might think that our energy shouldn’t be really put into converting or de-converting at all. Now, I would disagree with that. But where do you think the balance should be? How much energy should go towards, like, converting believers or helping believers improve their epistemology versus trying to reach out towards the people who are already non-religious and getting them more engaged in community and the movement?
Peter Boghossian: I think it’s a good question. I have two responses: First, it’s not up to me to say what kind of contribution people can make to help live in a more rational community. Everybody has their own contribution to make. I don’t really have many skill sets, frankly, so this is a contribution that I can make. I’m not even saying it’s the solution. I’m hopeful based on evidence that it is part of a larger solution that we need to look at thematically. So, whatever contribution one wants to make, I think that’s fantastic, and people need to contribute what they’re capable of contributing.
But in terms of conversion, I don’t — I’ve been using the word “de-conversion” but it’s not really de-conversion. I was on a podcast with Stefan Molyneux and he said something — oh, no, he did a rebuttal to a woman who wrote just an unbelievable — it wasn’t even a hack job. I mean, she didn’t even read the book and she wrote a review of the book and she basically equated me to being a Nazi. And he said something really interesting in that he said, “If somebody believes the earth is shaped like a banana and you helped to show them that the earth is not shaped like a banana, have you converted them?” Have you — it’s not about –
Street epistemology and what I’m advocating isn’t about converting anybody. It’s about education and it’s about giving people the tools so that if you have to look at it in a converting paradigm, giving people the tools so that they can convert themselves. So, I think those two points, I think they’re important to your question. Again, to quickly reiterate, it’s not up to me to tell people what contribution they should make to reason rationality. I don’t have any idea. I’m just a guy who’s kind of sick of the faith virus and wants to put an end to it, and this is the contribution I’m making. And I think looking at this in terms of converting or street evangelizing is the wrong way to look at it. I mean, I don’t know any evangelist. In fact, the antithesis of evangelism is that people don’t want you to revise your beliefs, and that’s the thing that I urge people over and over again, first and foremost, that they should be willing to revise their beliefs, and when people see that they’re willing to revise their beliefs, then they should have examples ready when people ask them, “Well, have you changed your mind?” “Yes.” “Like on what?” That’s not about evangelizing.
Kim Ellington: So, have you changed your mind on a few things?
Peter Boghossian: On many things, actually, it changed my mind.
Kim Ellington: Like what?
Peter Boghossian: Oh, I’ve changed my mind on political things, I’ve changed my mind on social things, sexual things, I’ve changed my mind on just a whole host of things. Like, I’ll give you an example: I really thought that the Iraq War — I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I didn’t believe that he was within a moment’s notice of launching them. I thought there were deeper geopolitical realities that led to the decision. I believed that it was a good idea. I thought we would be treated like heroes. You know, we’d come in and they’d be like, “Oh, the Americans, they helped us threw off this maniac,” and I really did think that it would — I didn’t necessarily think it would be a thriving democracy but I thought that it would certainly be better than when Hussein was in power, and I was wrong about that. So, that’s just one thing.
Kim Ellington: I find that having a child and trying to explain the world which is constantly changing to someone who’s just trying to find a fixed point to understand a concept has been one of the most challenging things of my life. And I find that when I talk to — you know, obviously I have a lot of religious friends, I think most people do or we wouldn’t — well, we have each other, I have a pretty good free thought community but I do love my friends who still embrace faith, and I find that it’s challenging because the thought process, it’s like they — everything else about them that I love, all the facets of them that I find fascinating, it’s like suddenly they stop and they go back to being a child again and just digging in their heels and refusing to listen to mom.
Peter Boghossian: Yes, they’ve lost their sense of wonder.
Kim Ellington: Yes.
Peter Boghossian: So, how old is your child?
Kim Ellington: She just turned nine.
Peter Boghossian: Oh, okay. Yes. I have a daughter and a son myself. I guess, it’s important to lay the groundwork for your child — I’m not one to give parenting advice, I don’t know how I’m doing myself, but I think –
Kim Ellington: We won’t know for a few years, will we?
Peter Boghossian: I know. I have many ways to fail, few to succeed, so I think it might have less to do with raising a child. We have friends who have adopted 12 disabled kids from China, and that’s really been a model to me. We adopted a little girl from China who was a waiting child and that’s had a lot of meaning in my life. And I think helping people to reclaim that sense of wonder, I think that there’s something intrinsically noble about that. I think that there’s something that’s important about that that faith taints or robs people of that. It really is a sort of arrogance that’s masquerading as humility.
Kim Ellington: And that is the word I use all the time, “Oh, the arrogance of you people.” In my head. I don’t say it to them. But about, I don’t know, a month or two ago, I don’t know if you heard about it in the news where Oprah told the — I can’t remember her name right now, my apologies –
Todd Stiefel: Diana Nyad, I believe.
Kim Ellington: Yes. And she told her that she wasn’t really an atheist because she had awe and wonder about the world, and it just sickened me because I feel like from my perspective that while people can say, and they do quite often, “Oh, the wonder of God,” but you look around you, if you look at the fact that there’s like three million different kinds of arthropods and you start looking at how amazingly — how they’ve evolved for each one of their environments and that there’s one who has a jaw that’s three times as long as its body and for its specific little spot — oh, gosh, I feel like I have more awe and wonder every time I learn something new from my nine-year-old’s National Geographic kid’s magazine is much more wondrous than the Bible.
Peter Boghossian: Yes, of course it is. And those interactions, when somebody or someone would say that to you, that’s an opportunity, and I think we need to look at those as opportunities. So, what she did there is she just switched to the benefits argument. And I can tell you — I can’t give a percentage — it’s extraordinarily high, 99 percent of the time, people will switch from “my faith is true” to “my faith is beneficial to me.” And so, when all else has failed, that’s the sort of response that you hear. And the sad thing is it’s exactly the opposite. It’s exactly the opposite of what they’re asserting.
Kim Ellington: Yes. Because the world is an amazingly wondrous place and I can’t imagine just being happy with such an easy answer.
Peter Boghossian: Well, even think about it like this. We know that that’s just de facto false. That’s just false. Because people think not only is there this metaphysical entity, this God, this being, creator, what have you, but I know what he wants you to do, I know what he wants me to do, us to do ethically — well, right there, that shuts down your sense of wonder. I know where he wants certain people to put their genitalia or not put their genitalia, I know what he wants people to face a certain direction, not imbibe certain foods. So, right there, that shuts down the very idea that one should do the intellectual work to figure these things out. It’s a tragedy, really.
Todd Stiefel: Well, Peter, I’ll ask one last question. What is it exactly that you have against the Easter Bunny?
Peter Boghossian: I don’t have anything against the Easter Bunny.
Todd Stiefel: Prove that.
Peter Boghossian: I think — I don’t know this but I think that it might be kind of a gateway belief. I think that it’s really important — and Kim mentioned her daughter — I think it’s really important that we give children, we help them discern make-believe land from reality. And every time we talk about these Santa or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or what have you, I think it’s a sort of lie but it’s a sort of lie in a really bad, bad way. It’s not a lie in that it’s physically injurious or harmful to somebody but I think that it has the potential to damage people’s cognitive capacities. Now, I know someone — people think it’s preposterous, that guy is some kind of extremist, but I think we really need to — it goes back to the idea of value, what is it that we value? Do we value make-believe land or do we value formulating beliefs in the basis of evidence? What kind of community do we want to live in? What kind of lives do we want to lead? And faith has robbed us from much of the joy of the intellectual work in figuring that out work.
Kim Ellington: Well, that and the fact that there’s a lot more evidence for Santa Claus when everybody’s talking about him, we’ve got books about him, of course, we have religious books as well, but the presents really do show up under the tree for many people, not everybody.
Peter Boghossian: They do.
Kim Ellington: They’re actually there.
Todd Stiefel: And I actually do think that there is a benefit to the Easter Bunny, because I just remember going with my kids to Easter events and stuff, and there is the Easter Bunny and these kids are coming up to sit on his lap and take pictures, and I’m thinking, “You know, I’m glad we have the Easter Bunny because it’d be pretty screwy if instead there was like a dead resurrected Jesus with a bloody crown of thorns on his head and these cute kids sitting on his lap.” I mean, that would traumatize people. Thank goodness for the Easter Bunny.
Kim Ellington: Thank goodness for our pagan heritage and fertility.
Peter Boghossian: Well, I’d like to thank you guys a lot for having me on. I appreciate the opportunity to talk a little bit about some of the ideas in the book. And if I get down there or if you’re ever here, let’s have dinner and have a great chat, continue our chat.
Kim Ellington: Absolutely. I want to be in L.A. right now.
Peter Boghossian: That was nice. Yes. Cool. Well, I’m here. Todd, here I am, giving a talk tonight and then I’m giving a talk on Sunday, and then, — I can’t remember what I’m doing, I’m doing something else on Saturday, but a lot of talks and a lot of fun.
Kim Ellington: Good.
Todd Stiefel: Well, thank you for being the show. And also thank you once upon a time, you gave me some good advice for my Reason Rally speech actually, so thank you very kindly for that as well.
Peter Boghossian: Oh, it was my pleasure. I appreciate it. All right. Thanks again.
Todd Stiefel: Thanks. Have a great one, Peter.
Kim Ellington: Bye, Peter.
Peter Boghossian: Bye.
Todd Stiefel: Folks, that was author and professor, Peter Boghossian. You can follow him, @peterboghossian — which is the @ symbol, peter — you should be able to spell that part — the next part is B-O-G-H-O-S-S-I-A-N. That’s where you can follow him at Twitter. I’d also highly recommend checking out some of the videos he’s done on YouTube especially the Easter Bunny. Just do a YouTube search for his name and Easter Bunny and you’ll find it, it’s highly entertaining.
Kim Ellington: And if you would, you can like us on Facebook. We also have a listener comment line where you can leave us your thoughts, ideas, and comments at (202) 618-1371. And you can also find us at thehumanisthour.org where you can find previous episodes, show notes, and information about your crazy co-hosts and our lovely producer, Brian.
Todd Stiefel: Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Kim. This is another fun episode.
Kim Ellington: It is. It has been a good time, Todd.
Now, you know me. Everybody, you’re getting to know me a little bit, I like some quotes and I have one today. Can I share it with you?
Todd Stiefel: Absolutely.
Kim Ellington: This is for you, Todd.
Todd Stiefel: Oh, for me.
Kim Ellington: Yes, this one is just for you and everybody else. This is from Stephen Covey who was obviously a pretty well-known writer — well, I hope it’s obvious because it’d be weird to have a non-obvious well-known writer. He says, “The person who is truly effective has the humility and reverence to recognize his own perceptual limitations and to appreciate the rich resources available through interaction with the hearts and minds of other human beings. When we’re left to our own experiences, we constantly suffer from a shortage of data.” Isn’t that wonderful?
Todd Stiefel: It’s beautiful.
Kim Ellington: It is. I love people. This is great.
Todd Stiefel: So, Kim, what I found really interesting about that is Stephen Covey — is this the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People?
Kim Ellington: It is.
Todd Stiefel: Yes. So, interestingly he’s a Mormon. And what I kind of find cool about that is one of the best parts about being a humanist is we can take awesome ideas and concepts from every source. We don’t have to just go to one Bible or one Quran. We could take the best of from everywhere and help us lead better, more fulfilling lives. So, that’s cool.
Kim Ellington: I like it. We can cherry pick and be honest about it.
Todd Stiefel: Precisely. Well, listeners, thank you very much for joining us on the show. Stick around. We’re going to have our blooper reel rolling in just a moment. And Kim, thanks a lot, and I’ll talk to you again next month.
Kim Ellington: Sounds good. Bye, Todd. Bye, everybody. Thank you.
Todd Stiefel: Bye all. I want to talk about Santa and Jesus being white, like really freaking white.
Kim Ellington: Yes, let’s do it. They’re whiter than you and me, and that’s saying something.
Todd Stiefel: They’re whiter than — well, I would save it for later.
Kim Ellington: It’s The Humanist Hour. I’m not doing it right. Todd, you do it. You do it. I can’t get it off.
Todd Stiefel: All right. Let’s do it. So, you say you’re Kim.
Kim Ellington: I’m Kim.
Todd Stiefel: And this Todd. Welcome to The Humanist Hour, the official show of the American — sorry, I can’t do it. It’s just funny. Sorry, sorry.
Kim Ellington: We’re the official talking heads of the American Humanist Association. It’d be fun to have a fun intro.
Todd Stiefel: Yes.
Kim Ellington: With me sounding like I’m myself or –
Todd Stiefel: Or the first one –
Kim Ellington: Welcome to The Humanist Hour.
We have a listener comment line for us to leave you our comments. Oh, geez. It’s The Humanist Hour today.
Todd Stiefel: You do yours and I’ll just jump in after you.
Kim Ellington: Okay. Hello everyone and welcome to The Humanist Hour. I don’t like that voice. That sounds like my mom.
Okay. Author and professor — if I don’t write it down, I’ll say something silly.
Todd Stiefel: I’d rather you say something silly.
Kim Ellington: I probably will.
It’s The Humanist Hour. This –
Todd Stiefel: You just made it to the blooper reel. Congratulations.