Sorry for any typos, spellos, and lack of links. I'm on a device that limits me.

I've been reading Peter Boghosian's "A manual for creating Atheists". Some of it is good and interesting. But the further i get into the book, the more troubled I am.

The issue is, when is it OK to attempt to deconvert someone? I get the feeling from the book, the author thinks it is always OK. He refers to people as subjects, and sounds like he us trying to cure them of a disease. With or without their permission.

He uses a medical analogy, curing them of the god virus.


One of the "prime directives" of medicine is, do no harm. Another is, an individual has a right to their autonomy. Even if someone has an illness, administering a treatment against the patient's will, or without their knowledge, is considered assault.

Yet Boghosian discusses a devout young man who, apparently without saying what he is doing, in one conversation he creates such profound doubt in his "subject"s mind, the young man leaves looking horrified. He never sees the young man again.

This was in the workplace. Boghosian, as a professor, is an authority figure. The young man, as a custodian, is in a subservient role.

What happened to the young man? We never learn that. Did he go into despair and commit suicide? Did he leave his supportive religious community and family and become a vagrant? Is he now a successful scientist? We never find out.

So that's my question. How do we decide what is OK? Should we try to deconvert innocent, unsuspecting people? Should there be some kind of informed consent? Is there a difference between engaging in public discourse, vs. "treating" an unsuspecting individual, about whom you know little, or know well?

I know, there are millions of theist missionaries. I posit they do considerable harm. One of the harms they do is spread religious paternalism/maternalism.

How does one decide on an ethic for deconversion?

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Valid points! 

Here is where situational ethics comes in. The young man asked recently if he should reveal his atheism to his 80 year old believing grandparents, and that is not an answer one can give for another. There is no reason to bring discomfort to ageing people, especially if they have little to do with one's life and future, other than the love and care of family members. 

I don't think there is ever a reason to proselytize, and there are many situations in which asking and expecting a rationale for a belief seems not only reasonable but responsible. 

I very strongly think that valid questions that come because of bible writings or liturgy is appropriate. I want to know why someone believes the way they do, and if they are going to bring up the subject, I have a right to ask. I don't bring up the subject, because frankly, I am not interested in the conversation that comes from a religious person's intent. 

I like a conversation that begins with their statement of their belief and they ask for my opinion. That invites me to be honest in my reasoning. An exchange between people of different points of view interests me very much, if the intent is not to convert me to mysticism and delusions. 

When the question of non-believers not having a moral base, I just laugh. That is the silliest question and I hear it all the time. All I have to do is recite one story from the old and new testament and an example or two of the hypocrisy that occurs in modern religious practice, and I can get them off my back in a very quick order.

The notion that the religious do good works is the biggest farce I can think of. Church communities who take trinkets, or occasional food supplies, or blankets to an impoverished population, and then use that miserable population to raise money that is not used for the poor, hungry, sick, and uneducated just maintains and perpetuates the misery. A real effort by a church community to go to the cause of the poverty and misery, and make changes where the problems begin makes a whole lot more sense to me.

I respect people who work to stop spraying poisons on farm workers, or to start paying workers a living wage, or to provide safe working conditions and empower workers to flourish, or to not allow dangerous situations to occur, such as to maintain escape doors so workers can get out in case of fire or fumes, and empower women to have control over their own lives, to encourage family planning, and to provide adequate health care to keep the working population and their families healthy. 

These types of efforts make hug differences in people's lives. Stop giving them a spoonful of porridge and then tell the community how many spoonfuls you gave out, while ignoring the need for access to sustainable food sources. These little "project" smack of self-glorification. 

Being asked to consider questions is a hazard of being alive.  All it's doing is asking someone to think.  Boghossian isn't pushing anything on anyone. 

Also, people will psychologically defend themselves if they need to.  And they do.  In my experience when I've questioned religious people, they get silent, perhaps come back quoting some more Scripture. 

Maybe it does make people question more though.  We don't know what happened to the young man, perhaps he was also diverted from wasting decades of his life promoting Mormonism. 

Our ability to question and reason and analyze is a positive thing, and encouraging that gift in religious people AND in ourselves, is doing a good thing

However it is also unprovable so far as I can tell, that people are better off without their religious beliefs-without-evidence.  Religion did evolve in human societies - or rather, the human mind evolved so as to enable religious beliefs, for social cohesion and group unity, to enable people to sacrifice their lives for the group in warfare because they believe a good afterlife awaits them. 

It would be an experiment for humanity, to see if we could better avert our many looming calamities without religion.  Whether we could better think long-range and better overcome our tribalism without religion. 

At least, we would probably be better off without the religious beliefs that dehumanize outsiders and make it OK to murder them. 

What happened to the young man? We never learn that. Did he go into despair and commit suicide? Did he leave his supportive religious community and family and become a vagrant?

We need to be the best and kindest people we can and be supportive as nonbelievers.  One huge part of human despair is feeling that other people aren't really there for you, that you have no connection to humanity.  And that connection with other people is stronger when they are being honest.  Not questioning others' beliefs is a way of not being honest with them. 

And is the supportive religious community really so supportive?  They can be VERY cruel to people who don't fit in, who aren't able to repress their disbelief.  They are (probably always) authoritarian.  There are jerks in the "supportive religious communities" as well.  A lot of the "kind and loving" atmosphere is fake and the people have simmering resentments and repressed rage. 

Also, you seem to be interpreting Peter Boghossian's method as more aggressive than it is.  The Socratic method involves being open yourself.  It involves asking people questions, and asking questions is NOT proselytizing.  The statements are limited to statements of fact.  

The Socratic method tends to keep your own mind open, because what you are doing is asking questions.  Stating beliefs tends to strengthen them; when religious people proselytize they are probably trying to convince themselves as well as others. Boghossian says repeatedly in his book that it's important to keep an open mind oneself. 

Boghossian comes across as a kind person in the videos I've seen. 

Learning is a natural part of life.  Initially, it is purely a matter of survival, later a means of growth and development, though that original aspect of maintaining one's head above water never really leaves the scene.  Through all that, like it or not, there is a consistent casualty to the process of learning.

That casualty is ignorance.

Like it or not, ignorance of various things will fall by the wayside as we live.  Because of habit, comfort, indoctrination or some other motivation, we may cling to some notion which has no basis in fact.  This doesn't change the falsity of that object, any more than it does the evidence around us that it is truly false.  Some people never come to terms with that conflict and live out their lives keeping belief and fact at arm's length from each other, regardless of what someone else tells them or what reality lays in front of them.  Others will be open to it or at least brave enough to listen.

Remember that all Boghossian is doing is opening doors of possibility, laying out a point of view which differs from those who embrace religion and irrational belief.  This is the process he suggests to us in A Manual for Creating Atheists, and it is nothing more than that.  What we do is lead the horse to water.

It's the horse who will decide to drink or not.  It always has been.  It always will be.

It's the horse who will decide to drink or not.

Absolutely, and in practice the "horses" do often not drink - at least, they come out with a response that indicates they're still trying to promote THEIR belief.

I agree! It is the process of offering an idea; what one does with that idea may be painful, it may present cognitive dissonance, it may put an end to relationships. Doubt, questioning, asking questions, being skeptical are all qualities of the human character.

I don't like knowing others feel pain because of what I say, I do like the notion of causing one to question the values upon which they base their lives. If they determine being obedient is the way they want to live, it is none of my business. If they hurt like the dickens, cry, scream out in their agony, I hope someone is near who can hear them and give comfort; I just hope it isn't a vulture from the evangelical crowd.  

I respect Daniel for his concern for the young man. That is Daniel's nature and one of the reasons I hold him in such high regard.  I don't want to discount his care for another, nor do I trivialize his feelings. He rings a cautionary bell that we must heed. If we offer a seed of doubt, we must be available for the pain of growing and developing. 

Daniel, long ago, encouraged me to use Sucratic questioning with my believer great-grandchildren. It was a wise counsel. There are plenty of adults with them daily who do not put their faith in a delusion. The adults in our family will give kind and wise guidance. I am sure the kids are confused with Jehova Witnesses on the other side of the family, and they get the lectures all the time. They do come to me with questions and I am honest with them, even as I know it sets up cognitive dissonance for them. They know they are loved by me and by my side of their family. They will make a choice one day that is right for them. 


Although, I would have doubts about bringing up such fundamental questions to someone on their deathbed.  Perhaps it would just upset them. 

Agreed.  Christopher Hitchens joked about this once, suggesting telling catholics that: "you don't have to go on living like a slave, you know!", but it was clear from his tone that he wasn't serious.  Atheists can see such 11th hour proselytizing as ridiculously poor form.  Would that the believers could share that sentiment.

The Socratic method isn't proselytizing. 

Once you get a religious person to admit they don't know if their religion is true - which a lot of them admit anyway - that is all Peter Boghossian is aiming for, as I remember. 

If they can admit they don't know it's true, but are in the religion because they enjoy it and get benefits from it, they're telling the truth and I would feel we're on the firm ground of reality together.


However, we need to be careful of what type of 'benefits' they reap from religion. If they want to have benefits such as walking around in T-shirts that bear "God Hates Fags", then we have a problem.

Seems like it's the sense of speaking for Divine Authority that enables people to wear such T-shirts.  If someone wore a t-shirt saying "God (who may just be my inner voice) hates fags", so what? 

I've shared this with theists:

"If God hates the same people you do, you may have created him in your own image."

(paraphrase of a quote attributed to Anne Lamont or Fr. John Weston)

Also: "If horses had gods, they would look like horses!" (Xenophanes)

More quotes and essays, including good stuff about how god concepts developed over history, at


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