How to Become a Street Epistemologist

If you've ever tried to argue or debate with a believer, then you probably discovered that arguing, debating, and presenting facts rarely changes a person's mind. The believer's defenses go up, and, afterwards, they may hold their belief even more strongly than before.

This article describes an approach to help believers to reflect on the reliability of how they came to believe what they believe, instead of critiquing the belief. This approach is called "Street Epistemology" (SE). It was first described in "A Manual for Creating Atheists" by Dr. Peter Boghossian. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies what it is to "know" something, so "Street" epistemology is simply using everyday language for the two of you to find out how the believer came to have his or her belief.


  1. 1
    Build rapport with the believer if you don't already know her or him. It's important for the believer to feel comfortable rather than confronted.
    • Small talk enhances your ability to seem non-threatening, but it's also important the believer not feel held captive.
    • Some street epistemologists, such as Anthony Magnabosco begin with the prompt "Would you like to have a 5 minute conversation?" and set a timer, so that the believer will not feel trapped in conversation.[1]
  2. 2
    After you've determined what the believer believes, ask how certain they are that belief is true. Some examples of beliefs are god, spirits, or supernatural phenomena, but any belief can, may, and should, be questioned.
    • Asking the believer for a confidence scale is a technique from Motivational Interviewing that can be helpful in SE.[2] For example, if your believer believes in the Christian God with 97% confidence that belief is true, you may remark "Wow, that's high. So, why didn't you say 100%?" When prompted, they may begin to give their own reasons to doubt that belief. On the contrary, if they were to answer that they believe with 30% confidence, you may remark "Hmm. That's low. What places you down there?"
    • If your believer has 0% confidence, you may not need to perform SE.
    • If your believer has 100% confidence, which is very likely, then still remain casual and friendly, remarking on the number, but put more emphasis on the following steps.
  3. 3
    Ask why they have decided their belief is true. Express genuine interest and curiosity in the reasons they give and maintain a friendly demeanor. It's important to slow down and give them time to think about their responses.
  4. 4
    Based on their reason for belief, ask a question that asks the believer to think whether or not this is the true reason for their belief.
    • Using "If-then" logic can create useful questions about reasons for belief. For example, if the believer believes in the Christian God because they were raised to, you may ask "If you were raised by a Hindu family, then would you believe in Hindu Gods?" Generally, the question should try to take the reason they gave for believing out of the picture to see if they still believe.
    • Comparing a person's belief to that of a person who believes an alternative thing is especially useful for the topic of religion and other competing ideas. In our above example, you may proceed with "If a Hindu is convinced that he has the truth, and he believes because of his upbringing, and you and he can't both be correct, then is believing what you were taught as a child a reliable way to arrive at the truth?" This is the most difficult part of this technique. It takes study and practice on your part to know which questions will be most effective.
    • If your believers says she or he would still believe without that reason, then repeat that they said they wouldn't believe if that reason were true, so try to find a different reason, repeating the step. Example: [Given your believer named "honesty" as a reason for supporting Donald Trump] "If you said you'd still support Donald Trump for president, even if he were shown to have lied, then is it fair to say that maybe you support him for a different reason?"
    • If your believer can not name one reason, then it might be useful to ask for a pie chart of reasons, where they assign percentages to each reason.
  5. 5
    Give the person ample time to pause and reflect. If you've asked the right questions, then the person may need some time to think about it. Let them have this time. Don't say anything while they stop to ponder what you just asked, even if they don't say anything for several minutes. These moments are where the true progress is made.
  6. 6
    Don't expect the person to change their mind on the spot. Your goal should be to plant a seed of doubt. It may take years to grow. End the conversation once you feel you've given the believer something to think about.
    • As much as people may dislike changing their minds, they dislike changing them in front of people even more. People come into beliefs much faster than they abandon them. Think of SE as planting a seed of doubt, which can grow over time.


  • Watch Street Epistemology videos on YouTube. Some street epistemologists record their interactions with believers. These videos are a great way to learn the technique by example.
  • Join the Facebook Street Epistemology study group. This is probably the best resource for improving your skill and understanding of this technique. Interact with other street epistemologists, ask questions, give and receive advice, etc.
  • Study and practice whenever you can. This technique is a skill set that takes time to develop.
  • One-on-one interactions are ideal. Other people listening in will be tempted to interrupt with their own thoughts and derail the conversation.
  • Don't get sidetracked into dogma. Often the believer will unwittingly dodge a question about epistemology by talking about the doctrine they believe. Be polite, wait it out, and then return to your question. "Thank you for explaining that, but I don't understand how that answers my question about ...."
  • Don't get drawn into a debate. If you find yourself arguing over facts, then you've let the conversation get off track. Bring the conversation back to how they determined that the belief is true.
  • Don't make statements. Ask questions instead.
  • Know when not to engage a believer. If the believer just wants to preach to you, then trying to have a conversation would probably be a waste of your time.


  • Don't try this with people you have relationships with until you've had enough practice to feel confident that you can engage people in this way without alienating them.

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Categories: Science