“Street epistemology” is the “application of epistemology (the study of knowledge) outside of formal academic contexts.” According to its advocates, it’s a “fun and effective way to talk to people about what’s ‘really true.’” It “helps” people reflect on the reliability of the methods used to arrive at their deeply held beliefs by identifying, understanding, and challenging “belief claims” with probing questions (Streetepistemology.com). Especially popular is to question “faith” and “feelings” as SE advocates consider neither valid.
This approach was popularized by an atheist named Peter Boghossion, who is a full-time faculty member at Portland State University in its philosophy department and national speaker for the Center for Inquiry. Advocates often take to the streets to question Christians on why they believe in the hopes that seeds of doubt will be planted in their minds. Sadly, many Christians (captured on the atheists’ Go Pro cameras) are unable to well articulate their positions. These responses encourage street epistemology advocates.
A person who calls himself “@P1neCreek” Douglas on Twitter has asked me to appear on his YouTube channel to debate him a couple of times, yet I feel that Christians who appear on others’ YouTube channels are well-advised to prepare in advance by doing due diligence and watching their previous shows. Accordingly, I happened upon one of Douglas’ shows yesterday. He spotted me in the chat and asked me to answer the following question, which I’ll paraphrase here:
“Would you rather be with Jesus on earth in His spiritual form or in His physical form?”
“I would rather be with Jesus in His physical form…we could have a coffee together.”
“OK. Because if you said you would rather that He be in the spiritual form, I would have to call BS…but aren’t you a little upset that you’re only experiencing this inferior form?”
I had to leave the chat to drive to the airport and I reflected on better ways to respond. When I arrived at the airport, I tuned in again to his channel and this time, I heard him conversing with a pastor called Mike Winger. I thought Mike’s answers to his many pointed questions were phenomenal and you can hear the entire (very long) conversation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdWUkQDQRL0.
In a nutshell, Douglas made suggestions that questioned God’s justice for the drowning victims during Noah’s time. He also made statements such as the “cornerstone in Christianity is scapegoating” and “some say Paul is the leader of Christianity (not Christ).” Again, Mike Winger competently addressed all of these points.
The “instructions” atheists use to engage in street epistemology are as follows:
- Identify a topic in which one can find an injustice. Perceived injustices help to plant doubts in believers’ minds, according to this model. Douglas selected the victims of the flood in Noah’s time.
- Ask the Christian how he feels when he hears that babies have drowned in present times.
- When the Christian responds that he feels terribly about such tragedies, shift the conversation to the topic selected in item #1 (Noah’s Ark) to draw parallels.
- Ask the Christian how he feels about the morality of a God who would cause such tragedies.
- The Christian will either remain in silence or – as Mike Winger did – he will offer the (many) justifications for God’s actions (based in this case on the moral depravity of those living in Noah’s time, along with God’s perfect mercy, perfect justice, and ability to see the potential of descendants of such egregiously immoral cultures).
How Should We Respond as Christians?
As Christians, we are called upon by Christ to share the Good News and respond in kind (1 Peter 3:15), so we can’t ignore this approach or approaches by other atheists who have set out to plant seeds of doubt in our fellow brothers and sisters. We are also called to fully educate ourselves and to understand all of the arguments both for and against Christianity. Accordingly, I offer a few brief suggestions to respond to such lines of questioning.
- Read the Bible passages on Noah’s Ark, the Canaanites, the Midianites, Biblical slavery, and virgins. Many Christian scholars have studied these events to offer responses that take into account the historical context of the cultures, along with the appropriate genres, literary hyperbole, and intentions of the authors. I recommend visiting www.reasonablefaith.org by William Lane Craig as he offers a wealth of free resources on these topics.
- Always bring the conversations back to Jesus Christ and His example of obedience, sacrifice, mercy, love, forgiveness, and passion for the needy.
- Identify heroes of the present and the past who have overcome horrific tragedies and have emerged victorious after giving themselves to Christ. Such an approach will shift the burden of explaining justice back to the advocates of street epistemology, who will be better able to understand God’s justice.
Louis Zamperini was a U.S. Army Airforce prisoner of war during World War II who was captured by the Japanese and kept in camps for months. His captor singled him out and physically and mentally tortured him, as detailed in the movie “The Unbroken.” At one point, his captor demanded that Zamperini’s fellow prisoners stand in line to punch Zamperini in the face. Those who refused were beaten and broken in extreme ways. Zamperini maintained his strength, yet when he was finally freed, he spent years as an alcoholic who hated the man who had heaped such trauma on him.
Then one day he found Christ. He read the Gospels and the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and began to allow himself to cry for the first time in his life. This video by him (in his 90s) recounts his story, which became one of love and forgiveness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=vwwAmTgD2A8
Why Does God Permit Tragedies in the World?
God is in the business of building our character and our spirits. Through the example of Jesus and His forgiveness of His enemies on the cross, we are instructed to take up our own crosses, to overcome challenges and tragedies, and to love our neighbors and forgive our enemies. Louis Zamperini’s example is a testament to the joy we can experience once we do same.
Suggestions to Respond to Street Epistemologists
- Identify a situation in which love overcame, whether in our own lives or the lives of others. Keep that situation in mind to possibly share if an answer to the next question is not forthcoming.
- Ask the street epistemologist whether he or anyone he knows has successfully overcome tragedies in their lives.
- Ask the street epistemologist whether such tragedies made those people stronger.
- Would the street epistemologist rather spend time with those he mentioned who have overcome tragedies to emerge victorious – or would he rather spend time with people who have had their lives handed to them on silver platters? Would he rather spend time with Louis Zamperini, Nelson Mandela, or Harriet Tubman – or with the spoiled son of a very wealthy man who spends his days pondering ways to blow his money?
- Ask the street epistemologist why he thinks we are here on this earth.
- Explain the story of the crucifixion, forgiveness, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- Offer this story from George MacDonald (as told in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity).
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself” (Lewis, 1946).
I hope this helps anyone interested in building the case for Christianity. Keep in mind always that those who have adopted the Boghassion-style of street epistemology may be just lost sheep who need to find their way back to God. Deep down, they may be looking to you for hope and light.
Thank you for your time.
Lewis, C.S. (1946). The Great Divorce. C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. USA