In this next installment of my review of Peter Boghossian’s A Manual for Creating Atheists we turn to consider his definition of “atheist.” In our last installment we saw that Boghossian ignored the way the word “faith” is standardly defined in formal and common usage, opting instead to construct tendentious definitions borne of his own boundless imagination. We now find Boghossian engaging in the same behavior as regards the term “atheist”.
It must be said at the outset that defining “atheist” isn’t a difficult task. As I noted yesterday, in Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2003), Julian Baggini defines atheism as “the belief that there is no God or gods.” (3) The “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” defines atheism as “the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” Countless other standard reference works (e.g. Oxford Companion to Philosophy, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy) reproduce the same basic definition. And a consultation of that l’enfant terrible of encyclopedias, Wikipedia, yields the following: “Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.”
So the basic definition is simple enough. And yet, inexplicably, Boghossian ignores the standard definition, opting instead to provide two of the strangest definitions I’ve ever come across. Not only are they strange and idiosyncratic, but a consistent application of them would entail that some people who do believe God exists would count as atheists while some people who believe God doesn’t exist would not count as atheists.
But enough by way of introduction. Let’s consider the two definitions.
One bad definition
Let’s start with the first definition. Boghossian writes:
“‘Atheist,’ as I use the term, means, ‘There’s insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a divine, supernatural creator of the universe. However, if I were shown sufficient evidence to warrant belief in such an entity, then I would believe.'” (27)
I noted above that Boghossian’s definitions are not only strange and idiosyncratic, but they also entail that some people who believe in God are atheists and some people who don’t believe in God are not atheists.
Let’s start with the first point, a person who believes in God and yet qualifies, by this definition, as an atheist. Consider, for example, a Christian fideist named Dave. As a fideist, Dave believes God exists, but he also believes there is insufficient evidence to warrant belief in God. (I am following Boghossian’s not uncontentious assumption that “God” is definitionally equivalent with “divine supernatural creator of the universe”). And Dave also believes that if sufficient evidence to warrant belief were provided, he would believe based on that evidence. But for now he believes in God as an unwarranted doxastic commitment unconstrained by evidence. According to Boghossian’s definition, Dave meets the conditions for being an atheist, even though he believes God exists.
Now for an example of a person who believes God doesn’t exist and yet who fails to qualify as an atheist by this definition. James believes God doesn’t exist but he also believes there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief that God does exist. According to Boghossian’s definition, James would fail to qualify as an atheist despite the fact that he believes God doesn’t exist.
You might be wondering, how could James believe God doesn’t exist whilst also believing there is sufficient evidence to warrant belief that God does exist? The question, generalized, is this: how can James believe p when he recognizes that there is sufficient evidence to warrant not-p? The answer, in fact, is simple. Consider an example. The evidence before the court supports the conclusion that James murdered Kate (DNA, motive, plus an eyewitness who claims to have seen James outside Kate’s door). However, James has warrant to believe that he didn’t murder Kate. (He remembers staying at home watching tv on the day of Kate’s murder.) Consequently, James could simultaneously believe that a person would be warranted in believing he murdered Kate, even whilst reasonably believing he didn’t murder Kate. The same scenario applies to belief that God doesn’t exist: one could believe God doesn’t exist whilst also believing that the generally available evidence would be sufficient to warrant belief that God does exist.
Another bad definition
That first definition is bad. In endnote 8 Boghossian goes on to provide an even worse definition of “atheist”, to wit:
“An alternative definition of ‘atheist’ is: a person who doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to the creation of the universe.” (37)
According to this definition, if a person doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to the creation of the universe, then he’s an atheist. But there are many people who believe God exists and also who don’t pretend to know things they don’t know with regard to the creation of the universe. It follows on this second definition that these people are atheists, but of course this is absurd.
At the fear of belaboring this blushingly obvious point, let me provide an example. As many of you will know, last year I interviewed the famous physicist Professor Don Page for my podcast. Professor Page was Stephen Hawking’s special assistant for a couple years in the late 1970s and he has gone on since then to have an illustrious career. Professor Page certainly doesn’t pretend to know things he doesn’t know with regard to the creation of the universe. He is as rational, penetrating, and intellectually modest a thinker as I’ve met. But then it follows that according to this definition, Professor Page is an atheist, despite the fact that he believes God exists (and is, in fact, an evangelical Christian).
I began by noting that the word “atheism” (and its cognates) has a clearly established standard definition. Inexplicably Boghossian ignores that definition and presents two definitions in its place, each of which entails that some people who believe God exists are atheists while some people who believe God doesn’t exist are not atheists.
And with that we come to the rather glaring conclusion: if Boghossian can’t even provide a proper definition of atheist, what business has he in writing a manual on how to make them?