What is Street Epistemology?
(See SE examples here) Coined by Dr. Peter Boghossian in his book ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’, Street Epistemology (often shortened to just ‘SE’) is a conversational tool to help people examine the foundations of their beliefs in a way that encourages honesty and wonder.
SE’s effectiveness in this is incredible.
While the talks usually center around God beliefs, the method of Street Epistemology can be used for other deeply-held beliefs such as karma, ghosts, aliens, conspiracy theories, and even social issues, to name a few. A key benefit of SE is that it tends to reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming defensive, which is what usually happens when one is presented with facts that contradict their position.
With SE, intense effort is made to make the interlocutor comfortable, open, honest, and introspective, so that the reasons why the person holds the belief can be understood and examined. It is not uncommon for a person to lower their confidence in the reliability of the method(s) they used to maintain the belief after a conversation where Street Epistemology is employed.
How Does Faith Factor In?
In Boghossian’s book, the author recognizes that many people who hold supernatural beliefs in a God will base their conclusion on faith. Faith is an unreliable method to concluding something is true because one can use faith to make a decision about any claim.
Many people who conduct SE get excited when a person discloses that they use faith, because the unreliability of that method can be exposed with a few simple Socratic questions, and thus, the interlocutor can decide to abandon the unreliable belief, lower their confidence in the belief, or decide to find other reasons to keep holding the belief.
Confusion About Street Epistemology
Many people confuse Street Epistemology for Street Evangelism. A main consideration to factor in before coming to your own conclusion is to remember that a good Street Epistemologist should only sparingly tell their interlocutor things. Instead, the sign of an experience SE’er is one who asks their interlocutor things, with enough time in between questions to allow the person to fully understand and consider their answers.
Another common misconception is that one must be on the street and initiate talks with believers. Most people, it seems, use SE when an opportunity arises, like when an evangelizing believer knocks on your door, or someone makes an off-hand remark about their belief in God.
The Street Epistemology Community
There are a growing number of forums where people who are interested in SE can meet to discuss and practice the method. The best place to locate these venues is on the Street Epistemology website (http://www.streetepistemology.com).
Street Epistemology Examples
A quick search on YouTube for ‘Street Epistemology’ will yield a number of talks, critiques, and examples of SE in action. People are encouraged to share their encounters with people on social media to help educate others.
The Future of Street Epistemology
It’s hard to say where the method will go in the future, but it seems that it is catching on and will eventually break out of atheism and into the mainstream communities.