21st Century Atheism: Street Epistemology
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21st Century Atheism: Street Epistemology

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According to the website, “street epistemology”

…refers to a conversational technique introduced in 2013 by Dr. Peter Boghossian, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. It is a more productive and positive alternative to debates and arguments.

The author goes on to say:

The goal of street epistemology is to guide people into engaging their critical thinking skills and applying them to their own beliefs about the world. Street Epistemology is about teaching the most fundamental features of critical thought. It's about helping people recognize the value of skepticism and the scientific method. It's about illuminating the distinction between beliefs about the universe and the objective truth of the universe.

Or, to say it another way, this is a relatively new counter-apologetic that you will run into on the “street” (think social media, college campuses and classrooms, conversations at the coffee shop, etc.). This technique doesn’t focus on any particular argument (Cosmological, Teleological, Moral, Reliability of the NT, etc.). Instead, this approach attacks your epistemological foundation for belief—that is, street epistemology asks how sure are you that you know that your belief is true (this is the epistemology aspect of the technique).

Street epistemologists are the door-knocking evangelists of atheism and they are just as well trained as any other evangelists. They have been taught a ten-step method of reasoning. If you encounter a street epistemologist, here is what you can expect:

Step 1: Build Rapport They will build rapport with you by finding common ground. They do this to disarm you and make you more receptive to their argument.

Step 2: Identify Claim They will work around to inquiring about your beliefs, particular beliefs about God and the Bible.

Step 3: Confirm the Claim They will make sure they are understanding you correctly. In doing so, they are asking you to confirm your commitment to a certain truth claim (The Bible is the word of God, for example).

Step 4: Clarify Definitions Here the street epistemologist will try to remove obstacles to clear reason by asking you to define your terms clearly—“What do you mean when you use the word, God?”

Step 5: Identify a Confidence Level The street epistemologist will ask you how confident you are in your belief on a scale from 0 to 100. (This particular technique is sometimes used to build doubt in your mind that you really believe what you believe. To see the effect of this technique, see the Craig--Sharp Discussion.)

Step 6: Identify the Method Used to Arrive at this Confidence Level, In other words, the street epistemologist will ask you what makes you think your belief is true.

Step 7: Ask Questions to Expose the Unreliability of this Method If you say, for example “that just seems right to me” the street epistemologist might point out that inductive reasoning (“seems right to me”) is a weak and often flawed method for finding the truth. Their question leads to this argument: “How can you be so certain that such a method for discovering truth is reliable in the case of your belief?”

Step 8: Listen, Summarize, Question, Watch, Repeat Here, the street epistemologist will listen kindly, probe for other weaknesses in your epistemological foundation, and ask more questions. They will look especially for places where you seem to show that you doubt your own belief or see a problem with it. When they see these indicators, they will dig deeper into why you are sure of your belief.

Step 9: Wrap Up They will ask you again about your confidence level. “Are you still 100% sure of your belief?” they might ask.

Step 10: Part Company The street epistemologist will be looking to see that you enjoyed the conversation, that they made you think in some way, that your level of certainty might have decreased during the conversation, and that you might like to sit down and talk again. If they see these things, they will judge their effort a success.

What do you do to prepare to meet the street epistemologist? First, familiarize yourself with this method. The more familiar you are with this method, the more comfortable you will be when you encounter it. (You might even benefit from role-playing this kind of encounter with Christian friends.) Second, know what you believe and why you believe it. If there is any place for commending street epistemologists, it is for their demand that if we make truth claims, we have solid reasons for why we hold them. Every Christian ought to be able to give well-reasoned explanations for why they believe what they believe (1 Peter. 3:15, cf. Acts 17:22-34). Third, and very importantly, realize that you don’t have to have 100% confidence in order to hold a true belief. In fact, to weakly believe a hypothesis (like God Exists.), you only need to believe that hypothesis is “more probable than not.” Or, to put a percentage on it, you only need to have a confidence level of 51%. Finally, such a weak belief can be held to be true on the basis of an inference to the best explanation form of justification. That is, one can be justified in such a weak belief if it is reasonable through properly functioning mental faculties to believe that this hypothesis is the best explanation of the observed data (think Design demands a Designer.).

To summarize, there is a new, smarter, more sophisticated approach being used to attack faith. You've been warned. Will you be ready?

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