Street Epistemology: Friendly Questioning of Beliefs

An opportunity for me to practice a conversational technique called “Street Epistemology” (SE) fell into my lap a while ago via the Canadian Atheist Facebook page when someone named Dillon asked us/me a question. SE is a non-confrontational conversational technique (not a debate) to try and get your partner to evaluate the reliability of the method by which they came to believe what they believe. The technique more or less started from Peter Boghossian‘s book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, but has taken on a life of its own since then and has developed beyond the book and its author. These days, there is an active website, YouTube channels, Facebook study groups and an excellent app for learning SE. I’ll list some of my favourite resources at the end.

I’ve included below the entire conversation with some post-analysis and notes about what I’m doing as I go.

Dillon
Sorry to bother you. May I ask why you are an Atheist?

 

Me/Derek (via Canadian Atheist’s Facebook Messenger)
No bother at all, certainly! I’m an atheist by its definition, in the way most people are a-unicorn or a-leprechaun or a-Zeus – that is to say, lack of evidence to support the hypothesis of any god or gods.

 

Dillon
Okay fair enough i don’t judge. Do you believe in any spiritual beings?

Derek
Can you define “spiritual being”?

Sensing Dillon wanted to chat, it occurred to me to try SE. So, having started in a friendly tone, I proceeded to turn the tables and ask questions – which is the core of SE. One of the most important questions you can ask is to define things.

Dillon
Anything that’s not of this world. Primarily a ghost or something along that line?

Derek
No. Are there any that you believe in?
Though you should also define “not of this world”. What does it mean to be accessible in this world, but not “of it”.

 

Dillon
Haha I believe in God but I’m not your typical Christan. I have my own reasons for this.

I was an atheist for all my life until a year ago. I’m just trying to get an idea of what other atheists think of God, demons, ghosts etc

I made a bit of a mistake here in my eagerness and asked more than one question at a time, which gives him an easy out on defining “not of this world.” I neglect to follow up on that one, but don’t want to fully take over the conversation either.

Derek
That’s very interesting – and what reasons did you have for being an atheist prior to that?

 

Dillon
Well I refused to believe in a floating man in the sky. No matter what argument I gave Christians they all said the same thing

“you can’t put logic into God for he is outside of human logic”

To me that was like a toddler plugging their ears pretending I didn’t exist haha

But I used reason not to prove God exists but to prove it’s better to believe than not. So after I attended a college course on religious education trying to disprove God I ended up believing 😂

 

Derek
If memory serves…Pascal’s wager, right? So how confident are you now in your god belief (0=not confident at all, 100=100% sure my god exists) (is this the Christian god, or deist god, or?)

 

Dillon
Christian God 100%

 

Derek
That’s very confident! And what puts you at that 100% level?

Asking for a starting confidence level is something you’ll hear near the beginning of most SE conversations. I got slightly off track by asking confidence in “your god belief,” whereas I think I should have said “your god is belief is true.”

Dillon
Because of all the religions I studied at college Christianity is the only religion that offers “unconditional love” from God. I understand a lot of Christians don’t understand what it means to be Christian unfortunately so I hope non believers take each person one on one

 

Derek
Can you explain how the offer of “unconditional love” contributes to the likelihood of the belief being true?
(agreed – “christian” encompasses a very wide swath of beliefs – I am only interested in your story at the moment)

 

Dillon
It doesn’t. That’s what faith is for. But I chose to have faith in unconditional love over karma. I don’t disgrace other religions at all or others beliefs I just choose to have faith in love. I respect the fact there is still judgment and a lot of the bible is filled with horrible things but I choose Christianity for its unconditional love

 

Derek
Ok – sorry if I didn’t explain my question clearly. So, if I understand you correctly, you chose which god to believe in based on the idea of unconditional love. My question is what factors led to 100% confidence that the god is real – that the belief is true?
(And sorry, I should add my name is Derek, I manage the FB page, but don’t speak for/represent all contributors to the CanadianAtheist.com blog.)

 

Dillon
I see! Okay Derek nice to meet you!

1. We exist there for we have to be created. That means we need a creator (our parents) who created them? Their parents. So where does that chain end? There has to be an “initial creator” that creator had to create itself. Only something out of time and reason could achieve that.

2. If I believe and die they’re two scenarios. A. I die and there is a God I go to heaven.
B. there isn’t a God and nothing happens so who cares 😂

3. There are multiple original documents of the bible. We get all our history from the people that lived before us and what they left behind. There is enough original copy’s of the bible for me to believe they took it very seriously.

4. Faith. It’s that simple

That’s too much to tackle, so I pick one. In hindsight, it may have been better instead to ask for Dillon’s number-one reason. If you watch enough SE on YouTube, you’ll find this is the more usual way. Often evidence will be claimed as the reason at first, but when questioned, you’re left with just faith as the only remaining thing putting them at 100% confidence in their belief.

Derek
Let’s focus on #1. Why does there need to be an initial creator?

 

Dillon
Because we are here. So is the earth, stars, space etc
Something created that. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist

 

Derek
How do you know that the cause was a god?

 

Dillon
Creator*
That can have many names, God, Allah, Buddha, Zeus etc
Different cultures call “the creator” by different names I call him God

 

Derek
How do you know that the universe didn’t always exist?

 

Dillon
How do you? Nobody knows that 😂 the trouble is we won’t truly know till we are dead
My personal answer (not right or wrong just opinion) is that if that’s the case the universe is God/creator

 

Derek
Great – I agree it is best to simply say ‘i don’t know’. Now, given we don’t know that answer, can you still also say that you can be at full 100% confidence that the belief is true?

It’s always nice when someone will admit they don’t know something. So #1 on Dillon’s list clearly isn’t the reason for 100% confidence if there is a “don’t know” involved. But Dillon tries to answer a different question, not one of “confidence”:

Dillon
My answer to that is this. I want to be a professional boxer. That won’t happen if I don’t believe in it 100% therefore if I don’t believe 100% then what’s the point in believing at all 🙂

 

Derek
In one case you’re talking about something that you desire to happen (becoming a boxer). In our case we want to know if a reason for belief in something current is justified. So let me be more specific. When you say you are at 100% confidence, do you mean confidence in desiring it to be true, or confidence that your reason for believing is true?
That is to say, I assume you don’t mean that your creator exists -*because* you confidently believe in him/her. Right?

 

Dillon
I believe in God because it makes the most sense. Like I said it’s the only religion that offers unconditional love. We have free will and I choose to believe in a God that loves and forgives

 

Derek
I totally hear you about why you have chosen the Christian God over others. I want to get at your reasons for believing that this god exists.

 

Dillon
It’s a very long explanation. The movie “a case for Christ” accurately explains it. Honestly as an atheist it’s very interesting to watch

 

Derek
For instance, you gave one reason above , an argument about first causes. We agreed that nobody actually knows what happened, but you remain at 100% confidence the god exists. I am interested to hear then the other reasons that bring your confidence in the god’s existence back up to 100%.

 

Dillon
Faith
If we don’t know what happens when we die then faith is our most powerful tool
I believe 100% in God because I have faith he exists

Like I mentioned, I probably could have gotten here more quickly, but perhaps not. But predictably, it takes “faith” to be 100%, ultimately. Always be sure to ask what they mean by “faith” though. Not everyone will give the same answer and it can go off the rails if you assume the wrong definition. But getting their definition isn’t always easy:

Derek
So I’m sure to be in the same page, can you give me your definition of ‘faith’?

 

Dillon
My definition of faith is this. I believe that Jesus is lord and have faith in him that he offers unconditional love in world that has gone to shit 😂 if you don’t have faith you won’t get into heaven

 

Derek
That’s something you have faith in. But what is faith?

 

Dillon
Faith like believe is individual to each person. I can’t explain what faith is to you because you have a different way you put faith in something

 

Derek
I only want to know what it means for you. Some might define it as “believing in something without evidence”, but I don’t want to guess or put words in your mouth.

 

Dillon
I have evidence as I feel God’s love… I’ll tell you what if I change the word to “trust” that explains it

There – in this case “faith” is essentially “trust.” So is “trust” a reliable way to determine if something is true or not?

Derek
Ok, yes, it did sound like you were talking about trust. So, is trust/faith a reliable method of finding out what is true? Can we use faith to determine other kinds of answers about our day-to-day life?

 

Dillon
Not really because any other subject that isn’t about God can be “humanised” and we can use human logic to get an answer.

Trust and faith are different in day to day things

You can have faith to win the lottery but to spend all your money on tickets because you trust you will win is silly

 

Derek
Can you explain further why this subject is different? I’m not sure I’m following – are there different types of logic?

 

Dillon
Absolutely. As soon as you humanise God you make a mistake. God is beyond logic that we humans can achieve. Evidence for this is that we don’t know what happens when we die but will find out when we are no longer here
We can’t obtain that knowledge in this life

 

Derek
How do you know you will find out something after you die?

 

Dillon
Well I don’t. But if it does I can say told you so. If not you can’t tell me I told you so 😂
Back to the better to believe than not thing haha

 

Derek
😆 well, I appreciate your honesty. If more people were comfortable saying “i don’t know” this world would probably be a better place.

 

Dillon
Well I’m not going to lie and pretend I know what happenes when we die lol

At this point, I really like Dillon. He’s quite willing to admit that there are unknowns behind his reasoning – but it can be hard to get from there to dropping below 100% confidence in the truth of his belief. So, another common question in SE is, later in the conversation after questioning the method of arriving at the confidence level, to ask if maybe they are willing to slide down the scale a bit.

Derek
I guess I’m still curious then what brings you up to 100 and not, say, 90, given the several “i don’t know”s. Is it something other than those 3 then? You mentioned feeling god’s love. I’m sincerely curious to know what you mean by that.

 

Dillon
Ah my friend if you you don’t feel God’s love I can’t explain it to you. It’s different to each person. That’s what makes it 100% and why I trust God

 

Derek
So would you say this is the central evidence for your belief that God exists?

 

Dillon
Yes because what I feel is real

 

Derek
How did you come to the conclusion that this feeling came from a deity?

 

Dillon
Because I only found it when I accepted Jesus into my life

 

Derek
I have a devout Muslim friend who expresses much the same feelings – how can you be sure the feeling is from the Christian God and not something else?

The Outsider Test for Faith. Next, you never want to tell someone their feelings aren’t real – of course they are real – but how can they be sure of the source of the feelings?

Dillon
Because in Islam there isn’t unconditional love. You have to earn it. The thing is Islam recognised the Jesus was real but he wasn’t the son of god. The Jews, Christians and Muslims are all connected but this will get complicated if we get into that lol

 

Derek
Agreed, I don’t want to get into that either. I mean, how do you know the feeling’s source? It could be from an alien for example.

 

Dillon
Like I said. You won’t know unless you feel it yourself. It’s a spiritual thing my friend

 

Derek
Cool, I understand that the feeling is very strong for you, as it is for others in other religions. Given the competing feelings are equally strong, what makes you, personally, sure that the feeling is caused by a god?

 

Dillon
Because nobody can prove that it is God physically it then goes back to faith. I choose to believe my feeling comes from God and trust I’m right. Just as a Muslim does with Allah because we have free will so we are free to believe what we want weather it’s true or not

Since we’ve rounded back to faith, I start getting the sense it may be time to bring the conversation to a close for the time being. I’m not terribly hopeful, but Dillon appears honest with what he doesn’t know, so I probe again to see if he can still really claim to be at 100% confidence his god belief:

Derek
Absolutely, I agree we are free to believe things that are true or not true. Are you saying that, you don’t know if it is true, but that you are making a choice? Would it be fair to say you are 100% confident in your choice, but not 100% confident that it is true then?

 

Dillon
Nope 100% all around. I don’t have to prove it’s right because it’s what I believe but it’s up to others to prove it wrong if they want. But you can’t prove it wrong or right. There is no point in debating it haha

 

Derek
If one can’t prove that something doesn’t exist, does that mean we should believe it?

 

Dillon
Again it’s real to the individual. So that being said you need to experience God’s love in order to know it’s real

 

Derek
Well, Dillon, I really appreciate the time you spent answering these questions, and for contacting us. Perhaps we can chat again in the future!
Would you have any issues with my sharing this conversation? I could use just you first name or change it for privacy?
I think it is beneficial to show these kinds of chats can be interesting and civil.

 

Dillon
Not at all brother share away! If I deny God in front of men he will deny me but show my faith to him in front of others he will treat me the same. I agree it’s nice when two different beliefs don’t argue. Chat any time Derek🙂

I posted the conversation to a Street Epistemology study group and got positive feedback, including agreement that it was a good point at which to end the chat, given the way it was becoming clear that we would need a whole other chat to get through what appears to be Dillon’s subjective ideas of truth. If we chat again, I’ll do a follow-up post.

As promised, here are my favourite resources for learning SE:

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