Breaking Down Street Epistemology?


Mark McGee is another apologist on the smear campaign against street epistemology. Although I don't fully agree with the principles of SE(street epistemology), I can't help but defend it simply because there is a very central truth to it that is hard to deny. That truth is that respectful, kind and sincere engagement can change the way we have the global conversation about religion. The book encourages atheists to be kind and thoughtful, and people like +Anthony Magnabosco and +Socrates Jones  are practicing those principles actively. The methods of SE has changed my own life for the better, because I've learned to ask questions instead of going for an all out assault with a battery of logic and philosophy.


Mark does not understand this. Mark is focused squarely on what he perceives as the insidious nature of questioning the faith of others. I'm going to examine some of the things Mark says and I think you will also come to agree with me that Mark's reaction is a knee-jerk reaction and not a reasonable evaluation of SE as it is practised.
"The atheist is looking for possibly unreliable methods to determine belief in God, which means he or she is claiming to know the reliable method to determine belief in God. But, wait a minute! Do atheists believe there is a reliable method to determine belief in God? Of course they don’t. If atheists believed there is a reliable method to believe in God, they would believe in God because they know the method upon which they can rely."
This is a simple misunderstanding. Unfortunately Mark, like other apologists, are not committed to understanding anything that is counter to their strongly held beliefs. It is absolutely true that atheists do not posses a method to reliably know if god exists. That is why we ask believers. If there is a reliable method to know god we want to know what that is. To quote from the SE book:
"Certainty is an enemy of truth: examination and reexamination are allies of truth." - A Manual For Creating Atheists (pg 43)
"It’s obvious that the statement about helping people discover that they’re using an unreliable method to arrive at belief in God is a ruse, a clever trick."
Not at all. I know that when I believed I had poor reasons to believe. So I don't believe anymore. If anyone can show me that there are good reasons to believe I will change my mind. Mark would be lying if he had to assert that most christians have good reasons to believe in god. If he believed that he would not be engaged in apologetics, which aims to soothe the cognitive dissonance believers experience when they encounter disagreement. If these believers had good reasons, Mark would have nothing to fear. The "trick" would not work.
" Christians ask questions to understand what people are thinking and to guide them to supply ‘evidence’ that will help answer people’s questions about God and the Christian worldview."
Not in my experience. Christian street evangelists (who are the opposite of SE practitioners) trigger cognitive dissonance in other christians so they can get those christians to buy into apologetics.
" So, we ask, are street epistemologists (atheists) asking questions to understand what people are thinking so they can supply them with ‘evidence’ to help answer people’s question about the atheist worldview?"
Atheism is not a worldview. I almost feel physical pain at this point having to mention this over and over again.
"Is it reasonable to ask someone to select a percentage of their belief about God?"
Yes.
"Does that mean anything?"
Yes.
"Where is the logic in a belief percentage?"
It's very simple. If you have absolute certainty then you assign 100%. Maybe you have some doubts, but you are still sure, so you might say 75%. If you don't believe it will be less than 50%. It is a very simple concept. It is not systematic; it is just meant to be a subjective evaluation from the perspective of the believer.
"From an apologetics perspective, what is the atheist’s argument? What is their evidence? "
Mark wants this to be about apologetics. Somehow we are not allowed to ask people why they believe. We always need to present an argument. It is about the believer's internal reasons for believing what they do. I often use the methods of SE on racists. I will ask them why they think one race is superior to another. As the discussion moves forward, and they become aware that they have poor evidence, they are open to changing their minds. That's the point. If Mark's argument is that we can't just ask people for justification of their beliefs, then he implies that we should leave racists, sexists, and all manner of mistaken people to their own devices. The fact that I use SE on fellow atheists should confuse him, and it should probably confuse him more that I use this exact method to get atheists to abandon bad arguments against religion.
"Asking unreasonable questions in what appears to be a reasonable manner is an off-balancing technique."
I suppose this is fair, but thus far Mark has not demonstrated that any of the questions street epistemologists are asking is unreasonable.
" ‘What if that hadn’t happened to you? Would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if your grandmother didn’t get better after you prayed, would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if the feelings you have after a church service are bad instead of good, does that mean you would feel differently about God?’ And so on. ‘What if’ questions are not based in evidence. They are not reasonable, rational arguments. They are not logical. They are just ‘what if’ questions used as a tactic to confuse and mislead."

This is not the first time I have seen an apologist express a hostile attitude toward thought experiments. What if questions are valuable tools in thinking. What these questions often expose is that the reason the theist has given for their belief in god is not the actual reason they have for belief in god. When they are pressed on this they say that if that event hadn't occurred they would still believe, when they have given a specific event as their reason for belief. This indicates that the believer is just using these justifications as cover for some other underlying reason for belief. The purpose of Socratic method and SE is to get to those reasons.

As a sign of good faith, I will answer Mark's questions:

‘What if Christians you knew growing up in your church had been nicer to you? Might you have grown up believing in God?’

Unlikely. Noah's ark set me on the path of doubt, not how christians behaved. If christian behaviour had any effect, I would have been an atheist much sooner.

‘What if your grandmother had lived instead of died after you prayed for her? Is it possible that you would have believed in God if she was healed?’

Sure it is. Something had to trigger my doubt, and grammy's passing definitely made me think more about my beliefs than I did before.
"That is not a reasonable discussion, it’s a tactic."
Okay, but I just answered the questions without hesitation. It was an interesting thought experiment.
"However, and this is the danger to believers who have not learned why they believe what they believe, unreasonable questions asked in a reasonable fashion often have the appearance of being reasonable and thereby can mislead without being obviously misleading." (my emphasis)
This is exactly the problem with apologetics. If someone does not know why they believe what they believe, they have no justification and should not believe it. That's the entire point of things like SE, to get people in a place where they believe things based on good reasons. But people need to go on this journey for themselves. By telling them why they should continue believing something we rob them of true knowledge. Mark himself was an atheist and claims to have found god through evidence, but he wants to rob others of the journey he himself went through. If you don't have good reasons to believe something, don't believe it. Look at the evidence and decide as objectively as possible whether you find it convincing or not.
"Christians of all ages, but especially the young, must be equipped to ‘recognize’ atheist arguments for what they are, including when there is no argument."
Of course the best way to prevent people from engaging with people they disagree with is to indoctrinate them. If christians have good reasons for their beliefs they don't need to fear SE. In fact SE should have the effect of converting people to their beliefs, because it encourages openness to the ideas of others.
"The word ‘faith’ means “trust, confidence,’ so a crisis of faith means a believer is struggling with trust and confidence issues."
Trust and confidence in what or who? This definition is nonsensical.
"All believers, if they’re honest with themselves, have times in their walk with God when they struggle with trust and confidence, but that doesn’t mean they are going to ‘lose’ their faith."
Doubt is important. Doubt is how we find the truth. And we shouldn't run to our own camps when we feel doubts about any of our beliefs. We should go and see what the other side has to say. If your goal is to find the truth this is what you will do.
"ask them to ask one question at a time and allow you to answer the question before commenting or asking another question."
This assumes that we don't let people answer our questions? Really? In no kind of interaction is that desired. In fact the Gish Gallop was a Christian invention. I haven't seen it used by SE practitioners. What this seems like is an outright lie.
" A true conversation is two-sided. What atheists are looking for is a one-sided event where they ask questions for the purpose of pushing their agenda on an unsuspecting victim."
There is nothing that prevents believers from responding with questions. This is where I diverge from SE. I think an exchange is positive and should be promoted. However I don't think that SE practitioners refuse equal exchanges. At least I've never seen it.
"Atheists are not trying to help anyone discover a reliable method for believing in God. They have one primary motive – to lead believers to ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’ That’s a term atheists use as the goal of talking people out of their ‘faith tradition, irrationality, and superstition,’ and ‘into reason.’ Atheists believe that once they can lead people ‘into reason,’ the former believers will ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’"
The level of projection here is severe. Christian apologists are focused on converting people, so it is hypocritical to find that behaviour wrong in others. Yes, I want to talk people out of their poorly held beliefs. That is true about every kind of belief be it about science, politics or religion. I want to live in a world where people have good reasons for believing things. As far as I can tell, Christians have poor reasons for their beliefs, so they must abandon them if we are to have a better world. If people can use reason to come to belief in god, then more power to them, but I am not okay with a majority of the world having beliefs for stupid reasons like being taught to believe those things by their parents. We need to move beyond that as a species because it represents the friction that hampers our continued progress.
"Because I’ve been on both sides (atheist and theist) I have some background in what each side is doing and why they’re doing it."
Not really. It is evident that Mark was not a intellectually fulfilled atheist. Anyone who refers to the "atheist worldview" is ignorant about stronger forms of atheism.
"They need to know that the atheist world is coming for them and will use any trick they can find to deceive them to the point of questioning what they believe. Teach your children what to believe ‘and’ why they can be confident that what they believe is the Truth based on truth and reason."
I'll use this final comment to move into my conclusions. There was a time before SE, when all we did was try and show religious people the flaws of their beliefs. This method is not convincing to people. People need to follow their own path to knowledge. Each and every one of them. By talking at them instead of to them nothing changed. Street Epistemology changed all of that. It is the beginning of a discussion that I think we need to have to improve the way we conduct ourselves in these exchanges. We never asked questions. Questions give people a chance to reason through their beliefs. There isn't a better question than one that makes you think. It is a gift, and if it results in you changing your mind it can be extremely rewarding. Apologists like Mark are in damage control mode. They know that most christians don't have good reasons to be christian. If most of those christians realise that the rational step for them would be to abandon their faith and investigate the question objectively as committed agnostics there would be a level playing field. Mark does not want that, because he knows that once people lose their belief in god it is unlikely to return. He is an exception, not the rule. 

The idea that we are trying to trick people is the worst part of what Mark has to say. He assumes that we think we need to trick people to get them to abandon their faith. That we are inherently dishonest and evil. It makes me angry that apologists keep smearing us like this. We have a difference of opinion. We are trying as honestly as possible to get people to question. That's really all we want: people who question, doubt and consider things carefully and abandon certainty.  

The truth is that Mark is afraid, and he should be. Mark is afraid that SE will work, and that there will be more atheists. He is afraid of people asking questions. He knows that people who embrace their doubts are likely to lose their faith. He doesn't want to see that, because he assumes that he has "Truth" with a capital letter T. Maybe Mark should listen to what SE is about, instead of trying to smear us as evil tricksters.


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