UPDATE: Here is a link to see the large number of conversations that Anthony has had with various believers. Many are with street preachers, but others are just with random people he meets outside the University of Texas, San Antonio buildings and people visiting the Alamo site in San Antonio.
Some of you may recall Peter Boghossian’s book “A Manual for Creating Atheists” in which he advocated for engaging in “street epistemology” with believers. Briefly, Boghossian described these as encounters with believers in which he would engage them in a conversation about their beliefs and structure these somewhat like a Socratic dialog. He would ask them to explain the nature and strength of their beliefs and ask questions that would lead them to reconsider their beliefs and the way in which they defended them or sought to justify them. In the book, Boghossian provided a few examples of conversations in which he had engaged and talked a bit about various techniques that he considered crucial to having a successful dialog. In particular, he made it clear that he avoided getting into a debate or an attack on the person he was talking to and would merely strive to get them thinking more clearly about their beliefs. Shortly after the book was published, Boghossian announced that he was going to begin posting video examples of these conversations as a means of providing a tutorial for those interested in pursuing this idea. So far, that hasn’t happened and I suspect it might never happen. We’d be left with the short and incomplete examples in the book and have to figure it out on our own. My own interest was in merely having a more productive way to talk with a believer rather than attempting to argue with them, but examples would still be helpful.
Now, someone who read Boghossian’s book has done the tutorial work for him. Anthony Magnabosco has recorded several conversations he has had with believers in San Antonio, Texas, mostly on the campus of the university located there. The videos include all of the conversation, but some also include his analysis of what he was doing, what mistakes he made and what reactions he was able to observe in those with whom he was conversing. There are currently 4 of these conversations available online at the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/sebdplaylist/. It is best to view them in order I think. The first and the fourth are probably the best, but to get the full picture, you should look at all of them.
In addition to these 4 tutorials, Magnabosco has several other conversations which follow the same pattern, but lack the “breakdown” in which he provides commentary and explanation of what he is doing. A couple are with street preachers who are trying to engage in conversations so that they can proselytize for their faith to people willing to talk to them. Magnabosco gets them to become the object of the conversation rather than him.
Even if you are not planning on doing any street epistemology yourself, watching these videos gives you a very good introduction into how you can explore someone’s faith and open small gaps in their commitment to their beliefs by careful questioning. An interesting note is that he almost always asks them to rank the strength of their belief on a scale from 0 (no belief) to 100 (absolutely certain about their belief). All of them give their belief a rank of 100 suggesting that they feel their belief is unassailable, but in responding to questions about how they can support this assessment, they all discover there are problems. A couple begin to rethink things while others either reaffirm that they can’t be wrong or get uncomfortable and seek to end the conversation.
Magnabosco is generally very good in these conversations, but acknowledges that he is still learning and often makes what he considers to be mistakes. On the whole, his approach seems less confrontational than Boghossian’s and reminds me a lot of the “client centered” dialogs advocated by a clinical psychologist of many years ago named Carl Rogers. I had to learn this technique at one time, but hadn’t had any real need to use it for many years. I suppose I could build up my skills in it again since it isn’t particularly difficult to learn. In fact, you could learn much of it from watching these videos. The technique here is not being used as a therapy of course, it is just a way to keep a conversation going on a topic that might ordinarily become more difficult to discuss.