Street Epistemology

An Atheist Confesses: I was wrong

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A little over a year ago, I started the website.

After half a decade’s worth of debates with believers online, I felt that I was getting somewhat good at it. I'd amassed enough of a library of my stock responses to standard apologetics that I thought sharing those strategies could be beneficial to others. My tutorials and other articles have garnered about five thousand or so casual viewers worldwide thanks in no small part to some exposure from AronRa, the president of the Atheist Alliance of America. He’s graciously given me a plug for an article I'd written about him, Matt Dillahunty, and Seth Andrews for the website which lists Richard Carrier and some other prestigious names among their advisors.

I may need to pause here to go get a broom and clean up all the names I dropped. Sorry for that. My intent was to establish that, while it’s only a hobby, the website is something I take seriously, even when I'm being frivolous about my seriousness.

People have written and thanked me for some of my notes on the way I handle certain arguments and, for everybody who has ever dropped me an email like that, I'd like to offer a sincere "Thank you." I'd also like to say, "Please stop using most of the advice I'd offered you. I think I was wrong. I think I may have been very, very wrong."

"Gosh, Stupid Atheist, how were you wrong?" some of you who apparently speak like kids from 1960s sitcoms might be asking. Forgive me, but I need to drop two more names: Peter Boghossian and Anthony Magnabosco.

Mr. Boghossian conceived, outlined, and I believe coined the phrase “Street Epistemology” and Mr. Magnabosco subsequently became a black-belted ninja of the discipline. As gently as possible, Street Epistemologists simply want to plant a seed of doubt, sometimes referred to as "leaving a pebble in their shoe." It's a chess match, but an accomplished SE practitioner can make it look more like Tic-Tac-Toe.

Watching hours worth of Boghossian and Magnabosco videos made it crystal clear what I've been wrong about, and it's this: I was trying to use reason to counter the unreasonable. That's akin to fighting their asbestos suit with a flamethrower; they're just going to layer on more protection as things get hotter. And (as anybody in a relationship can attest) you can't simply scream "YOU'RE BEING UNREASONABLE!" and expect to score any points on your side of the argument.

In fact, we might need to consider abandoning the argument itself altogether, though perhaps not in every circumstance. Debating is fine in a formal debate setting. But for me at least (and a lot more of us, as the SE tactics gain traction, and subsequently, acolytes) it comes down to this:

If you really want to change minds, you've probably got to change tactics.

In my defense, I seem to have gotten it somewhat right in an article I'd written titled "You’re an Idiot, But Don’t Take It Personally." Easier said than done, when the person you're having a conversation with keeps insisting your children deserve to spend eternity in torment just because you've raised them to be critical thinkers.

But you've got to keep your cool, at all costs. You're talking somebody down from the ledge of irrationality. This is a fellow human being whose faith is like a band-aid. They may well suffer some pain at having it removed and recoil as a result. So be aware of that. Be sensitive to their sensitivity. And as the Prophet Aaron Rodgers told us in the book of NFL, Season 50, verse 2015: "Relax."


Street Epistemology as I practice it lacks the actual "Street." I'm more comfortable in the online realm, because it allows me the time to compose myself as well as my sentences. Maybe that'll change some day, but for now I'm keenly aware that I lack the patience, fortitude, and frankly, the nads required to do this stuff face-to-face.

Nonetheless, some of my online encounters have begun to pay off. For the most part, I'm a fixture in the Disqus chat forums used by a number of online news and blog services. My conversations can often be found in the Religion forum. And here's the weird part: since adopting the Street Epistemology-esque tactics, I've made more than a few devout friends online.

Insofar as we (apostates and infidels in general) need to make inroads toward amending our image as abrasive buttholes, I think establishing these sorts of relationships is important. I'll use a conversation from this afternoon to tell you why. This isn't an SE exchange specifically, but it's one example of why the aftermath of those interactions is as important, I think, as leaving pebbles in shoes.

I'm typing this on Thanksgiving eve, and just got hailed by a Christian I've spoken with many times who I suspect might be bipolar. He'll often get overheated by my inquiries, but I can usually calm him down by rephrasing questions, explaining that I'm sincere in my curiosity, or by simply assuring him that no offense was intended and offering an apology. In any case, this is a guy who has told me on a number of occasions that he was done talking to me and that my family and I were doomed to a torturous eternity at the hands of his loving God, all the while peppering in a few not so “love-thy-neighbor”-ly invectives for good measure.

For your convenience, I've copied and pasted our exchange from this afternoon below, with the name of the interlocutor (IL) changed as a courtesy to him.

Pete: Long time no see! So you changed your picture. What happen to the A. [Note: I’d recently changed my avatar from an ‘A’ to a thumbnail of my eyeball.] Hope your [sic] having a great day.

Stupid Atheist: You too, Brother Peter! I thought I owed it to people to look 'em in the eye while conversing. ;-) [Note: Another theist Like'd this comment.]

Pete: Are you ready for turkey day? [Note: He goes on at some length to share his plans with me to enjoy an Amish-style dinner.]

Stupid Atheist: Nice. We keep meaning to do that. Thanks for the reminder; I'ma put it on the calendar for next year.

[Note: I went on to likewise elaborate on my family’s holiday plans here. Please keep in mind, when we first spoke, this guy was positively gleeful about the notion that I might someday burn for all eternity for being disrespectful of his deity.]

Stupid Atheist: Hope you have the best of holidays, my friend. Apologize to the Guy Upstairs for my disregard of the first of the Deadly Sins tomorrow. I'm down 35 lbs this year and I'm gettin' my gluttony on. Xapis...

Pete: You and yours have a great holiday.

= = = = = = = = =

Granted, that's not specifically a Street Epistemology exchange. What it IS, though, is evidence that relationships can be formed with complete strangers despite our (sometimes vitriolic) differences, SE is a great tool for creating those types of common bonds rather than drawing divisive lines in the sand between us.

Please understand, prior to adopting this sort of methodology, I routinely allowed arguments to emotionally escalate to the 'scorched Earth' level. Pooh-pooh the Bible all you like, but I am a HUGE fan of Hammurabi (“ eye for an eye…” and all that). If somebody else dropped their gloves, mine came off, too.

I'm confident that I'm on a number of blocked/ignored lists as a result of my reactionary nature, and that haunts me. Those bridges are burnt and any chance I might have had to make a lasting connection is lost. Perhaps I won some arguments along the way, but I've accomplished almost nothing toward winning hearts and minds, and those people I've alienated may now be closed off to considering the value that any other infidel might bring to the table.

That's tragic, and we shouldn't let it happen. I try earnestly to keep that in mind when things flare up emotionally.

There's a demonstrable payoff to that approach. A prolific Catholic apologist on Patheos often takes the time to respond in great detail to my honest, non-confrontational questions. Our latest conversation prompted two of his devout readers to engage me, and our conversations have gone on now at length. The last reader to chime in inserted themselves into the conversation with this statement:

"... such a cordial discussion is a precious thing to read and of course some thoughts of mine pop up in my head."

For me, the fact that a Christian felt comfortable approaching an atheist stranger in a non-confrontational manner like that is itself a huge win. No, I haven't won an argument, I haven't one-upped the devout on any point of contention, but I've won enough of their respect and attention to begin having a productive dialog in earnest which, on several occasions now, has resulted in humble introspections and even retractions from my new devout friends online. And I think that's huge.

If we're content to win hearts today, I think we'll have a far easier time winning minds tomorrow.


Author Bio

The Stupid Atheist is a Cheesehead (resident of the state of Wisconsin in the USA) who had whatever potential for religious faith he might have had beaten out of him as a kid by Catholic nuns. That's a bad reason to be an atheist, but it's a helluva motivator for an inquisitive kid to give serious consideration into becoming one.

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