In the discussion thread to “John W. Loftus defends Peter Boghossian” Mr. Loftus provided yet another “defense” of A Manual for Creating Atheists. He writes:
“Boghossian does indeed use rhetoric to his advantage. I like it because I agree with him that Christianity is baseless. He’s writing to motivate those of us who agree with him. I like that too. The problem guys, is that you don’t agree with us that Christianity is baseless. Why can’t you get that through your thick skulls? 😉 His book is not intended to convince you because you are not his target audience. So all this blathering about definitional apologetics is just that, blathering. I’m sure you object to his definition of faith too. So what? If you want to engage books that argue against your faith they exist. Until then, the ONLY valid criticism of the main point of Boghossian’s book is one that can successfully argue his proposals to change the religious landscape won’t work, or on second thought, that if they work it would be bad for the world. Stop being so obtuse, okay? It doesn’t make either of you look too good.”
Note that Loftus doesn’t even try to respond to my multiple critiques of Boghossian’s spurious definitions. Instead, he counters by insisting that I’ve missed the whole point. Boghossian’s aim is to “use rhetoric to his advantage.” His purpose is “to motivate those of us who agree with him.” Consequently, “the ONLY valid criticism … is one that can successfully argue his proposals to change the religious landscape won’t work….” (emphasis added)
With this “defense” Loftus has laid out with blushing candidness that Boghossian’s concern isn’t with truth or accuracy. Consequently, it is simply mistaken to criticize him for failing to be truthful or accurate. Boghossian’s concern, rather, is with cultivating effective techniques for his fellow atheists to convert others to atheism.
Let’s put this in perspective with an illustration. Bucky has just started his first day at “Honest Moe’s Used Car Lot.” Moe hands Bucky a training manual and Bucky begins to read things like this:
“Tell the customer the car was never winter driven.”
“Tell the customer the car was owned by a little old lady.”
“Moe,” Bucky says, concerned, “How can we tell customers the car was never winter driven or owned by a little old lady? Do we know that’s true?”
Moe shoots Bucky a withering glance. “The manual uses rhetoric to the salesman’s advantage” he snaps. “The ONLY valid criticism … is one that can successfully argue the manual’s proposals to sell cars won’t work….”
What’s going on here? How should we understand Moe’s (and Loftus’s) defense?
Enter philosopher Harry Frankfurt.
In 2005 Frankfurt published a book provocatively titled On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). (I talk more about it here: “Car salesmen do it. Lawyers too. And politicians. And also academics.”) In the book Frankfurt argues that bullshit differs from lying in the following way: while a liar intends to present a false statement with the intent of getting another person to believe the false statement, the bullshitter doesn’t care whether what he says is true or not. All he cares about is eliciting an effect from the listener, be it selling cars or converting theists. And so he will say whatever works to elicit the desired effect.
In other words, Loftus has defended Boghossian by conceding that the man is a bullshitter. He cares not about the truthfulness or accuracy of the claims he makes in his book. He cares only about the effectiveness of his techniques at yielding conversions.
I think that this is indeed an apt description of Boghossian’s book and I am grateful for Loftus’ bumbling candor in revealing the fact with such bald clarity. There are many words for this phenomenon, several of which begin with “b”: the above-mentioned “bullshit” as well as “baloney”, “balderdash” and “bunk”. In recognition of Boghossian’s utter disinterest in truth, I propose yet another: bogusian:
bogusian. n. Any person who bullshits. e.g. “Boghossian is such a good bogusian that he could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo.”
And there we are. Thanks Mr. Loftus, for telling us the kind of person we’re dealing with.
Loftus certainly opted to take a radical response. But has he indeed vindicated the book as a bogusian manual? I don’t think so for two reasons.
First, even on the terms Loftus offers us, the value of the book is still wholly contingent upon its ability to make atheists. So until there is hard evidence that it is indeed effective at doing this (and indeed that it offers a net benefit over other methods), Loftus has absolutely no evidential basis for his endless litany of sycophantic praise. (But then, as I’ve already noted, Loftus cares not a bit about “evidence” however much he loves to crow about it.)
Second, even if the book is shown to be effective at making atheists, that hardly justifies it, for one can still repudiate the ethics of being a bogusian. If Bucky’s ethical compass is working, he’ll tell Moe where he can put his sales manual, and then he’ll find another job.
It is no surprise that Loftus’s ethical compass seems to be in need of some servicing. But for those who still believe truth is more important than salesmanship, the value of Boghossian’s manual is exhausted in its ability to serve as a paperweight or door stop.