DR. PETER BOGHOSSIAN is a full-time faculty member in Portland State University's philosophy department who is well known around campus for directly challenging his student's faith-based beliefs. He's also had his fair share of criticism for such recent public lectures as "Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and Other Delusions: Just Say No!" and "Faith as a Cognitive Sickness," which drew hundreds of attendees.
MERCURY: You often speak out against faith, calling it a delusion and a cognitive sickness. How come?
PETER BOGHOSSIAN: Because enough is enough. A lot of people are sick and tired of being held hostage to the delusions of others, and I'm one of those people. I think that people are hungry for a frank, honest discussion about things—particularly about faith. To profess things you don't know for certain, and then claim the reason for your justification is faith? That doesn't contribute to the conversation. That's the end of the conversation.
How do you handle it in class when someone makes a faith-based claim?
I use the Socratic method—it's a way of asking people certain targeted questions. It's pointless for me to tell someone that their reasoning is wrong. Why should they listen to me? It's much better to help people understand why their reasoning is wrong so they can correct that.
So you're saying that using faith as a way of reaching conclusions isn't valid. I heard a guy in one of your talks say, "I wouldn't fly in a faith-based airplane."
Right. That's Matt Thorton—a friend of mine. Would you fly in a faith-based plane? No, of course not. If you wouldn't fly in a faith-based plane, why would you want to formulate a social institution based on faith? Why is it that we give more credence to values that come from a faith-based process when we formulate institutions and laws and conventions, but we don't in technology?
I was raised atheist/agnostic, but sometimes it appears that people of faith have better values, or at least they think they do and then I go along with it.
You put your finger on it. Faith comes with an almost moral edifice that people are expected to buy into. If somebody makes faith-based claims, that somehow means they're "better people," or good or virtuous people. I'm doing my best to undermine that notion. That's just not true.
Do you see it as a larger problem? Bigger than just whether someone is a good person or not?
Oh absolutely. It affects our public policy today. You see it with the treatment of homosexual individuals. This is real. These are real people. These are people who are being denied civil rights on the basis of a book that was written in the freakin' Bronze Age. The creator of the world actually cares about where people put their penises? Just think about that from an objective point of view: We go to some planet and we see these green blobs. And half the green blobs have a celery stalk and the other half don't. Some of these green blobs start sticking their celery stalks in some other holes and everybody's up in arms. The creator of the universe doesn't want the celery stalk in this hole. How do you respond to that? That is outside the bounds of reason. The only thing you can say is "go to the children's table." Those are the sorts of things that come up when we as a society don't value critical rationality.
Do you think the world would be better if people didn't use faith as a method of reasoning?
Yeah, I do. My mentor said to me once, "Pete, you'd be so much better if you just didn't do stupid shit." That's a lesson for life. If you want to think better, just don't do stupid shit. Don't find a way of thinking that's terrible. Find ways of thinking that are at least mediocre.
Yeah. So, all this has been pretty controversial stuff. What are some of the obstacles you've run into?
My talks have been cancelled at PSU numerous times. Why is that? What is the problem with getting this message out? Are we afraid to make people feel bad? To offend people? It's interesting—every time I've had a talk cancelled, I've challenged the people who cancelled it to a debate... and no one has accepted yet. If I were to debate somebody, and they could show me that there's really good evidence... that faith really is a reliable guide to reality, that would be fantastic. Then I'll be their voice. I'll be the voice of faith.
You touched on something I've been thinking about lately. Why is it that for the most part skeptics seem open and more willing to reconsider their beliefs, and people of faith aren't? I feel like it might be because if an atheist is wrong, he'll gain a god—and that would be very comforting. But if a person of faith is wrong, he'll lose a god.
"Willingness to reconsider" is one of the American Philosophical Association's key concepts. It's an attitude. But that attitude of willingness to reconsider one's beliefs is antithetical to the idea of faith itself. Faith contains the giving up of oneself. And that's part of the problem. That's part of the delusion, frankly. And it's really sad. It's really sad because I think that people really do want to know what's true.
How do you think atheists and agnostics should handle faith-based claims? It's scary for me. I'm agnostic. It's scary for me to talk to my religious friends.
Why is it scary for you?
I think it's tied to what you were saying earlier. I feel like they're better, or they know something I don't, and I don't have a right to challenge it.
Yeah, you do have a right to challenge it. A colleague told me one of my talks offended him. I said, "Your offense means nothing to me." Nor should it. If you want to provide reasons and evidence then you can sit at the adult table and we can talk about that. But just "I'm offended" carries no legitimacy. And listen, it's not as if when somebody makes a faith claim, I'm advocating that you jump on it. But, for starters, when someone makes a faith claim you don't buy into that doesn't mean the act itself is immune from criticism. Let's just not buy into that. As long as people remain silent, this juggernaut will continue. There has to come a point in the discourse when we just don't allow certain claims to be made. I think maybe part of the solution to making these cultural changes is to treat faith-based claims like racist claims. To stigmatize those claims. "That's not cool, we don't let that into the discussion." It's not about a right to believe—believe whatever you want. It's about the truth or falsity of a belief and about a process that will lead you to the truth or not. Clutch your Bible? Sit at the children's table.
So if a faith-based claim is delusional, do you think you can really change somebody's mind with reason? Have you changed anyone's mind?
Have I changed anyone's mind? Okay... I want to be clear that this isn't "The Cult of Pete" or something. I could be replaced easily. That said, I have helped hundreds of people lose their faith. I have hundreds of emails and Facebook thank yous from people who have lost their faith, who have liberated themselves from that unreliable process of reasoning. Every single person is capable of living a life free of delusion. Everyone.
I have a friend who used to be religious—he isn't anymore, but his mother still is. He told me he'd be absolutely petrified to see what his mother would be like without the moral guidelines she gets from her Bible. Like, I guess she's already a pretty judgmental lady? And if she didn't have her faith, the shit would hit the fan... like, she would be terrible. What do you say to that? What happens when somebody gives up their faith after a lifetime of relying on it?
Well, then we stand on our own two feet, don't we? Then we become responsible for ourselves and we don't defer to books that were written thousands of years ago by people who didn't know anything. Anybody alive on Earth today has more knowledge than the people did then. I mean, they didn't even have lens technology. They had these weird flat-earth notions. They didn't have microscopes. They died young. They didn't have advanced dentistry. They didn't have any of that stuff! And so we're taking guidance from these books? Are you kidding me? Using these ancient texts to make objective claims is not valid.
Can you talk about the difference between subjective claims and objective claims?
Sure. Subjective claims are anything that's a matter of taste. Do you like Battlestar Galactica?
Okay, well you're wrong about that, but that's a subjective claim. What you like to eat... listen to. Objective claims are like, "How old is Earth?" Well, you've got a lot of people running around thinking it's 6,000 years old. And those same people want to teach that in the classroom. That's an objective claim. You're making a claim about reality. When you make those sorts of claims, we can bring the tools of science in to examine and to test this. And we see that it is false.
It seems like on a broader level you could ask, "Where did the universe come from?" It's an objective question, but the answer is we don't know.
Yeah, we don't know. And you know what? That's a wonderful answer. Not pretending to know things that you don't know is a virtue.
It's comforting to talk to somebody who thinks they have all the answers sometimes.
Yeah, I'm not comforted by that at all. I find it instantly suspect when someone professes to know things they can't know. Okay... do you want to talk about the fear of death?
I'll talk about anything you want. I feel like the fear of death is why a lot of people believe.
That they're going to go to heaven or some happy place?
Yeah, or somewhere at all. That they won't just end. Do you think about that much?
Would it really change the way you live?
Maybe at the end, you know? Maybe you'd be less scared at the end. It's scary, right? Are you not scared of dying?
I don't know. I want to be there for my kids. I have two kids. And there's some work I want to do. I want to try to make sure the world is a little more rational when I leave it. A little less vulnerable to superstition. We all have our little contributions. When you really think about an immortal soul—it would be a terrible thing to have. Would you really live your live differently if you found out you were going go to heaven or hell? I wouldn't live my life one iota differently. And I'm always suspect of people who say that they would.
Dr. Peter Boghossian's next lecture, "Rationality and Irrationality," will be held on Sunday, May 6, at 10 am at Friendly House (1737 NW 26th). It is free and open to the public. You can follow Boghossian on Twitter (@peterboghossian). If you want to join his mailing list and learn about upcoming lectures and debates, text "Delusion" and your email address to 22333.