BOOK REVIEW: The New Atheism’s Little Red Book Knockoff Sucks

by Matthew Cavedon:

I recently read Peter Boghossian’s Manual for Creating Atheists. It was terrible, managing to span the distance from historical obliviousness to political totalitarianism. Why am I reviewing it here? Misery loves company.

Atheism, Debate MeBoghossian, a professor of philosophy at Portland State University, bills his effort as the first atheist attempt at training people to speak persuasively to non-atheists. I hope to God he’s either lying or won’t be the last (for intellectual stimulation’s sake), because Boghossian’s argument is incredibly weak, and his practical conclusions downright evil.

The core of Boghossian’s attack on faith (the only way he seems to know of for speaking persuasively to non-atheists) is that faith is to accept a conclusion that lacks sufficient evidence to be logically compelling. By logic, he means evidence-based inference, thinking that relies on observation by the senses and proceeds from the facts to broader theories.

To be sure, there are many important gains that humanity has made through that particular kind of logic. People can now understand themselves as rational beings inhabiting an orderly universe—and they can use their knowledge of that universe to better understand life, intelligence, and our historical origins. The past five centuries, and the past two in particular, have seen a real revolution in human knowledge and technology thanks to evidence-based inference. We also recognize that ideas and social conditions are often far more contingent than we had realized, and that many conventions useful once upon a time have now become excuses for injustice. These are positive developments.

But that’s all there is to Boghossian’s version of history: along came science and melted old myths into thin air. We should all rejoice. Nay, we must all rejoice. Boghossian punches at the postmodern Left first, assailing political correctness and relativism on college campuses as an idiot’s retreat from logic. American academia’s friendly tolerance of different religions and cultures is the kind of mushy indulgence we expect to show children, not rising scholars (not that Boghossian wants to indulge children, either—he urges adults to expunge expressions like “thank God” and “damn it” from their speech to avoid corrupting impressionable youth).

Why such crankiness looking left? The same reason Boghossian’s book is one long vomit at the religious right: the old myths—especially religion—aren’t just quaint trinkets that belong in MODERN REASON’S curio collection. They are “epistemological viruses”: dangerous remnants of irrationality that threaten violence and oppression, lunacy and an inability to accept SCIENCE at every turn.

The best way to handle them? Violence and suppression. Boghossian dedicates an entire chapter to “containment protocols” against religion (placed immediately after his chapter calling for campus tolerance of militant atheism against the namby-pamby Left, because I’m pretty sure Boghossian is actually just the false flag operation of some religious fundamentalist group). First, elementary and middle schools will teach children the errors of thinking religiously like their parents. Then, public health institutions will find ways to eradicate religion among the adult public. Finally, for those thought criminals—er, carriers of “epistemological viruses”—who remain, the government will establish therapy and counseling centers dedicated to… rehabilitation, I’m sure.

Boghossian’s book proposes moral monstrosity and social tyranny. It is also oblivious, in that the pretty picture of scientific progress painted above is not the entirety of the world’s experience since the Enlightenment. It soon became clear that evidence-based inference can’t be the only kind of logic in a decent humanity. Economics, law, and political science all set out to replace their own conventional ways of thinking with naked rationalism. They discovered that there are still very deep, non-evidential value questions that have to be addressed in charting life together—but only after many brilliant minds ended up at radically (often violently) different conclusions about how to order society and seek human flourishing. It is to the credit of both the intellectually freewheeling Left and the religious revivalist Right that this generation is rediscovering the other kinds of intelligence human beings possess. The logic of commitment to human rights and human dignity is well-suited for life together in globalization. Imaginative expression and artistic aesthetics heighten human freedom and enjoyment. Emotional sensitivity and empathy, even if they can be overdone into excuses for censorship, are foundational to diverse friendships. Community cohesion and mutual aid are the very richness of life for many people. And of course, religion is humanity’s often noble efforts to be faithful to its reasonable belief that order, beauty, morality, and love have their grounding in Another’s love for us, in Truth beyond what our minds impose.

More is needed than just the kind of logic Boghossian wants to dictate our entire worldview.

The byline at the bottom of A Manual for Creating Atheists states that the author was expelled from New Mexico’s doctoral program (ranked 8th in the West, unranked globally). Between his cramped considerations and totalitarian conclusions, that’s less a rebel’s boast than an apology for the failed apologist.


Matthew Cavedon is a graduate of Harvard University. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in both law and theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

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