I began my review of Boghossian’s book by pointing out the spurious definitions he provides for terms like “faith” and “atheism”. John Loftus immediately sprung to Boghossian’s defense (not surprising given that he had gushed about the book like a prepubescent superfan at a Justin Bieber concert). However, instead of attempting to critique my analysis of Boghossian’s spurious definitions, Loftus opined that such criticisms missed the point of the book altogether. And just what was the point? As Loftus explains:
“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?”
In other words, the quality of Boghossian’s analysis and the truth of his claims are irrelevant: the real question is whether his book can make atheist converts.
(I replied in the article “Loftus admits Boghossian doesn’t care about truth. I call that bogusian!” by pointing out that Loftus’ position, i.e. the use of language to elicit effect irrespective of the truth content of that language, is by definition, bullshit. In response, Loftus went apoplexic in his article “Dr. Randal Rauser is a Liar! A Liar for Jesus. There is no escaping this.” But I didn’t lie. Nor did I even say anything false. I offered a precise and correct analysis. The real (and ironic) question is whether Lotus was intentionally lying when he repeatedly called me a liar.)
All this is prefatory for the current object of discussion. You see, I agree that Boghossian’s book is concerned, above all, with the practical goal of making converts. And I agree that he freely twists language and invokes indoctrinational oppositions to serve this end. That’s why it is so interesting that where it comes to the point of making converts, the book provides perfectly awful advice.
To see a good example of the problem, one only need consider the point where Boghossian provides a “transcript” of an exchange he had with an acupuncturist (in other words, this is his attempt to summarize how he remembers the conversation going; the acupuncturist might remember things differently). The stated purpose of recounting this alleged real world exchange is to model to the reader how to engage those who have “faith”. We join the exchange in progress with the lady asking Boghossian whether he has tried acupuncture:
RC: Have you tried acupuncture? I ask because I’m an acupuncturist.
(She handed me her card. I took it and read it. She was a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine.)
PB: No. I haven’t tried it because it doesn’t work. (57)
RC: I don’t understand why you’re so confident it doesn’t work.
PB: Because there’s no evidence for it. In fact, there’s actually evidence against it. You should read Bausell’s Snake Oil Science (Bausell, 2007). (58)
Let’s start with the first exchange. There are two problems with Boghossian’s response here and they are devastating to the effectiveness of his methods.
The first problem is that Boghossian seems to have no awareness of the fact that people don’t change their core beliefs quickly. As I point out in “Why Christians don’t give up God easily (and why atheists don’t accept him easily)” the more that one has invested in a belief (in terms of emotion, reputation, time, personal connections, job, etc), the more resistant a person will be to surrendering that belief. If RC is a “Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine” then she has clearly committed much of her life to acupuncture. Consequently, one can expect that RC will be very resistant to surrendering her belief that acupuncture works. And thus, if one wants to disabuse her of that belief, it is not going to happen in a five minute exchange. At most, one will be limited to raising a potential question in her mind, not refuting her beliefs outright.
The second problem is that Boghossian forgets the most basic wisdom of Dale Carnegie: be likable. Don’t be offensive. Just consider the first chapter of Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People which is aptly titled “If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive.” Sure, there are more sophisticated treatments than this self-help book, a book which is now older than the hills. But by the same token, there is a reason this is the most successful self-help book of all time. There is good wisdom to be found here. What floors me is that Boghossian seems utterly familiar with this most basic of advice. As Carnegie observes:
“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” (5)
In other words, if you want people to change, you don’t attack them directly because they will likely go on the defensive. Instead, you approach them sideways, in a genteel, winsome manner. Tell a story, ask a question, get them thinking in a new way. Maintain your good relations as you push back on certain beliefs and plant the seeds of doubt.
Boghossian utterly ignores that advice. He could have respectfully engaged her, presenting genuine interest mixed with confusion of a real friend who had had a bad experience with acupuncture. Or he could have raised an honest and disarming question about whether any peer-reviewed scientific papers provide evidence beyond the placebo effect. Or he could have inquired into the underlying mechanisms by which acupuncturists believe the procedure works. Instead he leads with both barrels blazing by initiating a direct confrontation: “No. I haven’t tried it” he says, “because it doesn’t work.”
This is not an anomaly in the book. Time and again Boghossian quickly assumes a combative posture and engages in full on conflict. Along the way he caricatures the views of Christians and other people of “faith” while encouraging his disciples to mirror this obnoxious condescension. And when these methods inevitably fail? Well then, as we saw in Part 8 of my review, it must be because the person resisting has brain damage.
Sorry Boggs, but there are more plausible explanations than brain damage to explain resistance to the entreaties of you and your disciples. Resistance is much more plausibly explained in terms of your unrealistic expectations about how much a reasonable person will change in a single encounter. They are also attributable to the fact that you are unnecessarily aggressive and condescending and all-together unlikeable. If you present yourself as an obnoxious, condescending jerk, you will do little more than alienate those you claim to want to reach, thereby further entrenching them in their beliefs and perpetuating negative stereotypes of atheists. In other words, you do far more damage than good.
Now let’s turn to the second excerpt where Boghossian compares the acupuncturist’s stock-in-trade to “snake oil”. Keeping in mind Carnegie’s advice about criticism, if Boghossian wants to direct this acupuncturist toward a resource to get her thinking, the very last resource he should recommend is a book titled “Snake Oil Science”. Whether the book is good or not is beside the point (so far as I can see, it is a good book, though the publisher is not “Bausell” as Boghossian clumsily says; instead, it is Oxford University Press.) This lady has committed much of her life to acupuncture, and now she hears her discipline and her vocation being compared to “snake oil”. Could anything be more off-putting than this?
snake oil. n. “any of various liquid concoctions of questionable medical value sold as an all purpose curative, especially by traveling hucksters.”
Boghossian would have been far better to direct the woman to a peer-reviewed journal article which would raise important scientific questions about the placebo effect and the value of acupuncture. Instead, in an exchange of but a few minutes he suggests she is both wholly ignorant and possibly a disingenuous huckster. As Carnegie’s advice would suggest, after that exchange she may be even less likely to consider scientific problems with her beliefs than she was before.
Nor, as Boghossian would have it, would this resistance indicate the acupuncturist’s “brain damage”. Instead, it would point to the fact that Boghossian is obnoxious, combative, and has the emotional intelligence of a turnip.