By Karen Garst ~
Epistemology = “The theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”
This blog post is about Street Epistemology (SE). I interviewed three women who have learned about its methods and have engaged in conversations with people who hold religious beliefs using these methods. Because of the length, I have not used every answer to the questions I posed. A special thanks to Christine, Lynnsy, and Violet for responding to my questions and a special thanks to Anthony Magnabosco who introduced me to them.
1. How would you define SE?
Street Epistemology is a set of conversational tools for conducting respectful dialogues with individuals about their deeply-held beliefs. The idea is to use these tools and techniques to help both conversation partners understand the belief in question, explore the ways of knowing used to justify the belief, and hopefully to assess the reliability of these ways of knowing what is true. (Lynnsy)
2. Why do you think it is important?
The ability to hold a conversation with someone, especially those who hold opinions that differ from ours, is one of the most important skills one can have and share with others. Discussion is essential to a civil society and democracy is founded on it. SE is one of the ways we can engage in civil discourse. Dialogue and discussion are how ideas move forward into our lives and become actions so that insight can be shared. The abuse of dialogue is one of the ways that people are manipulated into beliefs that don’t help them; it’s how their freedom can be taken from them. Our liberty depends on being able to effectively challenge those who are trying to take it from us by convincing us of what they believe to be true, whether they are trying to recruit us into a cult/religion, or to influence how we spend our money or to take substances, or stay in a bad relationship. (Christine)
3. How did you learn its methods?
I have degrees in literature and philosophy and am trained in facilitation. My day job is in communications. I think about conversation a lot, so the SE approach appealed to me strategically and I wanted to be systematic about understanding it. I’ve been involved in the SE community in a few ways and one was helping to organize the role-play elements sessions in the private FB group. So over the various sessions, I worked through some of the key element sin practicing SE as part of that activity. I always learn something at each session. Lynnsy made a substantial contribution in terms of building community and conceiving useful tools as well. As a member of the early discussion groups, she came out of the gate with a process flow chart etc. and she later started recording conversations and such. I am pretty sure she introduced the clipboard to the concept! Her involvement certainly inspired me to stay with it.
I learned mostly by watching Anthony Magnabosco’s videos, reading A Manual for Creating Atheists, and participating in many conversations in the Facebook Group Because I’m a visual learner, I created a flow chart to help me remember the process, and eventually helped write bits of The Complete Street Epistemology Guide (both available in the resources section of streetepistemology.com).(Lynnsy)
The only training I’ve had has been with content like the Atheos application, A Manual for Creating Atheists, and channels like those of Anthony Magnabosco.
4. Is there a "normal" or "common" reaction when you speak to religious people?
I engage people who can’t seem to get their head around being able or having the freedom to question a given belief. When I detect that this might an issue for them, I probe for it and work through that with them. They are usually shocked that I would even ask a question about their belief. Topics include beliefs about what they are capable of, about other people, about how things work, about what we have to accept, etc. One belief I encounter in my region which was predominantly Catholic in the past, is that Catholicism is the only form of Christianity. It has been shocking to some people, even after they no longer believe in following Catholic doctrine, to learn what beliefs are espoused by others who call themselves Christians. SE can help open minds to considering other ways of looking at issues we thought we understood well. (Christine)
I find that my conversation partners love to talk more about WHAT they believe (the tenets, teachings, dogma, etc) than WHY they believe (what convinces them it’s true). They often need me to phrase the question several different ways before they understand that I’m asking how they arrived at their stated confidence level. I’ve also noticed how many believers tend to peg themselves at 100% confidence, even if they can’t verbalize why they are so confident. But they are still 100% sure! In my experience, it’s also uncommon for someone to tell me they’ve lowered their confidence level as a result of the conversation, even if they admitted doubts or couldn’t explain why their method of knowing was reliable. (Lynnsy)
5. If there are many different reactions, what are they?
When I use SE, it is with someone I’ve met who seems to me to be entrenched in a belief that, by their own admission, although they may not have realized they expressed it as such, does not seem to be serving them well or causes injury to others. I tend more to work through a series of short conversations with people I know or work with (as opposed to SE with strangers) and build rapport with them to be able to draw them out. I think it is important that a person feels heard. I feel I have done good SE work when the person expresses that they felt that I listened to their position and understood where they were coming from and then says they will think about our discussion. I have been surprised by those who are doxastically (refers to a type of logic about reasoning about beliefs) closed, when I get a glimpse into the world view they have, and how they feel they must impose it on others, and how it seems that the more closed they are, the more they must impose on others. (Christine)
Reduced to its essentials people can be defensive, open, reflective, and incurious. I've noticed sometimes people can get stuck in their stream of thoughts and begin micro preaching. Other times believers are genuinely curious and enjoy the conversation. (Violet)
One of the most fascinating things I’ve learned doing SE is the sheer variety of ways that people arrive at and justify their deeply-held beliefs. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the most often cited reasons for belief are based in personal experiences with the unexplained, though even those experiences range from a relative recovering from a grim medical prognosis, to support through a terrible experience or addiction, to a vision or other strong feelings of supernatural wonder. What they all had in common was that the individual ascribed these experiences to their particular deity because they couldn’t otherwise explain it. (Lynnsy)
6. Is there a difference in reactions of men versus women?
I often find myself working a little more on building rapport with women to draw out their thoughts. They seem more reluctant to talk openly about their beliefs. Men seem to want to get right to it. Once into it, though, I find women can often be more open and men may become more entrenched in their position, not always willingly. However, that is an impression based on my own experiences, and I ought not to generalize. I am careful about how I engage people, too, as it is important to me not to alienate people or make them feel personally challenged — it’s about the belief not the person and we distinguish the two. The times when a conversation made a person change their beliefs, I took care to provide referrals and resources to help with next steps if needed. (Christine)
No I don't think there is much I can say on the differences of men and women when doing SE. Perhaps there is one in which women tend to be a little more suspicious of me and my motives. (Violet)
I can’t say that I’ve noticed a difference in the way men and women respond. I’d say it’s more about whether the person has the time or inclination for my interview. I think because most of my interviews have been conducted on college campuses, there is less of a gender divide than there might be with older people. College students are also accustomed to answering questions and supporting their answers, which helps the interviews go easier for me! (Lynnsy)
7. Do you think there is a difference if women who are trained in SE approach women versus a man trained in SE?
We have not given much thought to the gender of those we approach and how we differentiate techniques depending on what gender we ourselves are. If there is to be other training (I’m not aware of any specific course), I would hope that it is also based on shared best practices. I had not looked at SE from the male/female perspective, which is odd, since I have at times been the only woman on a given thread or in an RP session and now you’ve got me thinking about it. As a general principle, I would want to ensure that I was not building my SE practice on any shaky gender-based beliefs as that might close me off to greater insight. (Christine)
There may be some minor differences between the two, but I'm not sure one would be better than the other. (Violet)
Because the main point of SE is to engage one-on-one, any individual’s response to a man approaching versus a woman approaching is going to be based on their own biases. I do think, however, that it’s extremely important for more women to learn about and employ SE (even if just in their own daily lives with friends and family) in order to normalize the idea of discussing deeply-held beliefs. Women are often expected to be more polite than men, so might avoid provocative discussions in order to not offend anyone. But how can we make good decisions about how to act if we can’t talk about and amend the foundational beliefs on which our actions are based? (Lynnsy)
Resources for learning more about Street Epistemology:
The Complete Street Epistemology Guide – Many collaborators including Lynnsy.
The Manual for Creating Atheists by Dr. Peter Boghossian.
Training videos by Anthony Magnabosco
Atheos by Dr. Boghossian in conjunction with the Richard Dawkins Foundation of Science and Reason.
Information on collaboration – Christine’s site.