Back in November, 2013 I received an email from Justin Brierley, host of the excellent UK radio show “Unbelievable”. (If you happen to be unfamiliar with the program and you have any interest in irenic and thoughtful God-discussions, you need to click the hyperlink and start listening to the archive.) Justin asked me if I would be interested in coming on the show again (I’ve been on twice before) to have a discussion/debate with Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. I agreed and Justin told me he’d get back to me in the new year.
I heard back from Justin last week with the news that Boghossian had refused to appear on the show with me because Boghossian insists that I am not a scholar.
(Footnote: Boghossian may still appear on “Unbelievable” in the future, but it will have to be with a scholar.)
Anyway, the downside is that in preparation for the interview I purchased Boghossian’s book (which I just received in the mail today). So I will make the best of an unfortunate situation (i.e. 12 bucks wasted) by reviewing this inexplicably popular book in the next few weeks.
I will say that there is one thing I appreciate about the book straight off: it is unapologetically evangelistic. This is like Paul Little’s book How to Give Away Your Faith but for atheists. Even though I think atheism is completely wrong, I can at least respect atheists who are committed to spreading their worldview. After all, if you believe there is no God that’s a pretty important bit of news, and one well worth sharing with your neighbor.
Interestingly, last week I received an email from a reader requesting that I review Boghossian’s book in my blog, so it looks like that wish will be fulfilled. That reader also sent me the following excerpt from the book:
“To prevent doxastic closure it’s also important to read the work of noted apologists. The only two I’d suggest are Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, though I’d urge you not to buy their books; their projects don’t need your support. If you must buy one of their books buy it used and support a local bookstore, this way the author doesn’t receive any royalties.” (Kindle Locations 3419-3421).
This excerpt caught my attention for a couple reasons.
First, this is incredibly childish advice. Don’t buy new books by your intellectual opponents so that they don’t receive any royalties from your purchase? I mean grow up, please.
But it was the deeper reason that stuck with me. But before I get to that I must address the term “doxastic closure”. I have not seen this term used before. I am familiar, however, with the term “cognitive closure”. This term has a couple different meanings. In philosophy it refers to an anti-reductionist position according to which understanding of certain phenomena (e.g. consciousness, intentionality, free will) may transcend the human mind. This doesn’t seem to fit with the passage.
In psychology, cognitive closure refers to a drive to explain, and thus an intolerance of unexplained facts. The danger, as you might have guessed, is that the drive for cognitive closure can lead to unworkable, reductionistic solutions which are adopted merely to escape the psychological uncertainty of unexplained phenomena.
If this is the idea that Boghossian has in view, and it seems to me very plausible that it is, then he would effectively be advising that one ought to read at least a couple apologists (Craig and Plantinga) so that one is not unduly dismissive of them.
So let’s consider the passage again with that interpretation. Boghossian is then advising that his reader also read Plantinga and Craig (but only Plantinga and Craig?!) so that they are not unduly dismissive about theism and theistic apologetics.
If this really is his advice, then I must say it is absolutely terrible advice. Simply reading or listening to somebody you disagree with doesn’t prevent cognitive closure. The only way to do that is to read your opponents with charity. Needless to say, when you preface the advice to read somebody with the proviso that their works are so bad (and harmful) that you ought never pay money for the books if possible, you have undermined any hope in your reader of engaging their works with charity.
Indeed, things are even worse. You see, when you inoculate people against charitable reading, and then advise them to read the books whilst inoculated, the result is people even more unable to consider seriously any views that differ from their own. After all, they read Plantinga and Craig, and even managed to do so without giving the morons a dime in royalties! Haw haw!
So here’s a hint for keeping an open mind. Encourage people to read books by those of dissenting opinion. And as you do so point out that it really is okay if they receive a dollar in royalties from your purchase.