December 3, 2014

Street Epistemology is Inspiring

I have not yet read Peter Boghossian's book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, but it is on my list of books to read. In the meantime, I have been watching Anthony Magnabosco's excellent street epistemology videos on YouTube and enjoying them very much (here's a link to his channel). He starts with a brief video of his interaction (e.g., 5 min Street Epistemology: Paul | Faith is Everything to Me) and follows it with a longer "breakdown" video in which he analyzes the interaction, highlights his mistakes, and offers helpful suggestions for anyone wanting to use the methods (e.g., Street Epistemology Breakdown: Paul | SE Tutorial 1). I think he makes some excellent points about the nature of belief and provides many useful ideas about how to engage others in these tutorial videos. I have watched the first three of his tutorial videos so far and look forward to seeing more.

I must confess that I initially had a hard time getting into the first video. When I saw that he was set up on a college campus with his camera and a sign, I was instantly reminded of what I have seen evangelical Christians do on college campuses far too many times. Fortunately, I stuck with the videos and soon realized that my initial impressions were wrong. I'm glad I pushed through because this would have been a great example of missing out on something positive due to a hasty judgment that turned out to be wrong.

Magnabosco goes out of his way to explain that street epistemology is not about proselytizing. While I would not personally stand in a public area with a sign or try to engage strangers in discussions of their beliefs, I still found much to like in these videos. Moreover, I agree with his suggestion that the methods he models could just as easily be used with friends, family members, or acquaintances during conversations. And I have a much easier time imagining myself having similar discussions in those contexts. So while I'll never be a street epistemologist, I consider this to be an excellent model of how to discuss belief with others where the goal is facilitating deeper understanding.

If I had one minor quibble with what I've seen across Magnabosco's videos, it would have to be that I am not entirely persuaded by his claim that he's not out to change others' beliefs. I appreciate that he's focused on encouraging others to think more deeply about their beliefs, but I'd guess that he hopes that this will eventually help them to abandon false beliefs. There have been times in some of the videos when it seems obvious that he is subtly leading people in ways to undermine aspects of their beliefs. I do not have a problem with him doing this, as I agree with him that we should all seek to believe things that are true and avoid believing things that are likely to be false. I suppose I just find it a bit puzzling that he seems reluctant to embrace this. After all, the title of Boghossian's book, which has appeared in every video I have watched so far, refers to "creating atheists" and not "creating deeper thinkers" or something similar.

I find far more to like about Magnabosco's videos and his approach to making them. One of the things I find very appealing about the method he demonstrates is its wide applicability. I could easily imagine it being used for all sorts of shoddy beliefs outside of religion, including those that are unfortunately common among some atheists. In fact, my favorite video so far features an atheist who believes in karma. I appreciate that he deliberately steers clear of counter-apologetics, debate, insults, and the like. I also really like how his method aims to stimulate thought and respects the fact that change will occur at different rates for different people. This strikes me as very important. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of all is the manner in which Magnabosco takes the time to critique himself afterward. This is such a nice change from the arrogance on display from some YouTube atheists. In watching the videos, one really gets the sense that he is learning and growing right along with those he encounters.

In any case, if you feel like seeing some thought-provoking videos that show what promoting reason and critical thinking on the street might look like, I encourage you to check out Magnabosco's street epistemology videos. You can find his breakdown tutorial videos here with links to the original videos in the description.

H/T to My Secret Atheist Blog

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