I apologize that I am still in chapter 2 of Boghossian’s book but so much needs saying about this chapter that I think it’s well worth taking the time. After all, Boghossian appears to be building a foundation here for what comes later in his book and if it can be shown that the foundations to his method are false then it’s likely everything he builds on it will be fallacious too.
In this post I address Boghossian’s definition of ‘atheist’ (kindle Loc. 382)
Boghossian begins with a quote from Stephen Roberts:
“I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer God than you do.”
Boghossian makes no point based on the quote itself so I will just note here that many theists have responded to this quote and pointed out it is not really saying anything profound and that it is actually quite misleading in terms of creating definitions. Theologian Edward Feser has already explained, far better than I could, why this is a non-starter.  I am as much an ‘atheist’ as a moral realist is an anti-realist because they have adopted one more model of moral realism than the anti-realist has. I am an ‘atheist’ as much as an epistemological realist is non-realist in having just one more theory of epistemic realism than the non-realist. It’s a nice quip but it makes no point whatsoever if you think about it. I’m amazed anyone would take it to be making a serious point at all. There are even memes which dismantle it:
As with the word faith, Bogossian points out that there are various definitions for the word atheist. He took 10 kindle pages over the word faith and yet only offers 2 pages on ‘atheism’ despite expressing the view that:
“Of all the terms used in this book, none is more problematic, more contentious, more devisive, or more confusing than the term “atheist.””
A thoughtful person ought to wonder why there is such a tiny discussion on it if that really is the case. The footnote to this part of the chapter is longer than the two pages in the text of the book!
After noting that there are multiple possible definitions he says:
“‘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.” I recommend we start to conceptualize ‘atheist’ in this way so we can move the conversation forward.”
Wait just a minute though… Boghossian is permitting himself the right to self-define his position. He wishes to be understood to be an atheist in this sense but he won’t allow religious people to self-identify how they understand a term like faith? Does this not seem somewhat hypocritical? He wishes to be allowed to define his position but he won’t allow a religious person the same courtesy. Instead he wishes his SE to attempt to force the religious person to take a position most of them don’t accept. I would like to know what reason, or even better, what rationale is being used here by Boghossian whereby he gets to set up the definition rules as he sees fit. Why should I not use the word ‘atheist’ however I wish to use it and then impose my definition upon him? Who was it who set up this linguistic hegemony and who is going to force me to adhere to its fascist regime? Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem allowing Boghossian to define what type of atheist he is (since I know there are many differing definitions) but what I would like is the courtesy to do likewise.
Unfortunately, Boghossian is sending his SEs out without informing them that there are many other definitions of ‘atheist’ in the world and that even in the very subject Boghossian teaches there is a meaning of ‘atheist’ which is contrary to his own. I am, of course, making reference to philosophy. For example:
“Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods. Thus much Western atheism may be better understood as the doctrine that the Christian God does not exist.”
George Mavrodes The Oxford Companion to Philosophy p.63
“Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”
William Rowe The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy p.62
“Atheism, as presented in this book, is a definite doctrine, and defending it requires one to engage with religious ideas. An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being.”
Robin Le Poidevin Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion p.xvii
“Many different definitions may be offered of the word ‘God’. Given this fact, atheism makes a much stronger claim than theism does. The atheist says that no matter what definition you choose, ‘God exists’ is always false. The theist only claims that there is some definition which will make ‘God exists’ true… A claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance needs to be confessed.”
Anthony Kenny What I believe p.21
A classic text on the meaning of atheism in the philosophical context is Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification and yet Boghossian does not even interact with it in the slightest at this stage of his book. Martin makes a very helpful distinction which many other philosophers also use. Martin notes the etymology of the Greek can take the meaning without God which he sees as personified in d’Holbach, Carlile, Southwell, Bradlaugh, Besant, and Smith. He notes that the philosopher Anthony Flew understood the word quite differently to mean anyone who is not a theist. However, he then also admits that there is a popular usage of the word where atheism means a person who believes there is no god or gods (Martin labels this ‘positive atheism’). Martin even comes to admit that attempted accounts of what atheism is can quickly become problematic to a place where he says:
“… the above characterization of atheism is misleading since it masks the complexity and variety of positions an atheist can hold.” p.465
To his credit, however, Boghossian references an email exchange he had with the atheist and physicist Victor Stenger. He quotes Stenger as saying:
“It’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of knowledge. I have knowledge beyond reasonable doubt that there is no God.”
Footnote 10, Loc.620
In the same footnote Boghossian states that he hopes a recent atheist movement called ‘Atheism+’ (which he defines as atheism + social justice + support for women’s rights + against racism + fighting homophobia + critical thinking + scepticism) won’t last long. I do not know much about this movement since it appears to be largely a north American debate among atheists concerning to what extent they should only be defined by what they do not stand for.
It would appear that some atheists wish to take a positive stand on some matters and I see little harm in that so I wonder why Boghossian appears so opposed. He then reiterates that, for him, atheism is merely lacking a belief in God. But then he says this:
“Atheism is not about racism, homophobia, or the practicing of tai chi; it’s simply about not having enough evidence to warrant a belief in God. Atheism is about epistemology, evidence, honesty, sincerity, reason and enquiry.”
Footnote 9, Loc.612
I must confess that Boghossian has lost me now. First he made it clear that atheism was not ‘Atheism+’ anything else but now atheism is ‘Atheism+’ certain tags so long as all the additions are the additions he wants to put in. On what basis can he be telling his fellow atheists what they are and are not allowed to put into their worldview when he does precisely that? Especially since he offers no rationale for why some things are in and others are out? And could it be mere coincidence that what Boghossian atheism has to be is the type of cerebral, philosophical atheism that appeals to himself? Maybe if Boghossian were female or if he were in an ethnic minority or was living in the (so-called) third-world then maybe some other form of Atheism+ would be appealing to him.
What I don’t understand is what is to be gained by admonishing his fellow atheists for not defining the word the way he wants to define it. I cannot help but notice he takes the group called ‘Atheism+’ to task but he does not criticize Victor Stenger for his definition of atheism which is different from his own. Most curious!
So how about a little role-play and then a conclusion?
What if I created a religious version of the ‘Street Epistemologist’ [I feel we need a name for him at this stage so let us call him a ‘Religious Epistemologist’]? What would it look like if I played Boghossian’s game on his own terms (viz permitting myself to self-identify and not permitting my interlocutor the same courtesy)? Let’s imagine how this might play out.
RE: “I have faith in God.”
SE: “Ahhhh, so you pretend to know things about God you don’t know then!”
RE: “Well that’s not what I mean by ‘faith’ I’m afraid.”
SE: “Well that is what the word means so, by definition, you’re pretending.”
RE: “Exactly what evidence do you have that when religious people say they have ‘faith’ what they mean, at some conscious or unconscious level, is that they are merely pretending to believe something?
SE: “In Peter Boghossian’s book…”
RE: “Hang on a minute! I’m asking you how religious people use the word not what atheists say about how religious people use the word.”
SE: “Ahhh but you see Boghossian quotes the theologians Migliore and Tillich as saying…”
RE: “I’m sure I read an article somewhere on the internet which showed that Boghossian had quoted Migliore out of context and since when did a radical Christian existentialist like Tillich get to represent the views of an entire religion?
SE: “Well I admit I don’t know anything about Migliore or Tillich…”
RE: “Well then you cannot quote them just because they appear in Boghossian’s book can you?”
SE: “Well I still don’t think Boghossian is wrong anyway even if he got Migliore wrong and even if I cannot explain Tillich to you.”
RE: “Am I right in thinking you’re an atheist!?”
SE: “Yeh… and?”
RE: “So you do not believe that God exists and I would like to know why you reject the idea of God existing?”
SE: “Ohhh… I’m afraid you are mistaken since that is not what ‘atheist’ means to me!”
RE: “But it really doesn’t matter what it means to you. Look! Here is the Oxford Companion to Philosophy and the Routledge Concise Companion to Philosophy and both of them make it clear that atheism is the active rejection of believing in God and therefore you need to provide some reasons for your view.”
SE: “No – that’s not what I mean by ‘atheism’. When I use the word I simply mean that I am lacking any belief in a God because of the lack of evidence.”
RE: “Sorry but you cannot really be an atheist if that’s what you think because I have evidence that the term is used in a way different from the way you’re defining it!”
SE: “Yes but you see I’m not that sort of atheist I’m afraid.”
RE: “But I have evidence the word is used contrary to the way you are using it!”
I hope you can see where we are going with this imaginary conversation? Exactly. Nowhere! This is nothing but a philosophy of religion version of the argument clinic from Monty Python. We are going absolutely nowhere at all. This methodology of defining other people as you wish to define them and not permitting any self-identification gets no-one anywhere. All it does is encourage greater misunderstandings, more frustration and hostility toward each other, and makes the exchange of ideas even more difficult than they were before. This is a way of shutting down conversation not opening it up.
Furthermore, this is all being proposed under the guise of doing a style of philosophy which Boghossian promised us would be more Socratic in style. But this is not the Socratic method at all. The Soctratic method is about asking questions of each other, sharing proposed definitions and views, attempting to understand them aright, repeating them back to ensure we have understood them correctly and then (and only then) attempting to critically interact with them. What Boghossian is proposing is the antithesis of the Socratic method. As someone who works in education I find it somewhat depressing that a method which is so effective is being mis-sold to people who might not know better.
Having noted that Boghossian’s approach is that he will not allow his interlocutor to self-identify it also appears that he would like all atheists (no matter what variety of atheist they are) to adopt his definition at least as some kind of heuristic device.
If you are an atheist and your definition of that word differs from Boghossian’s I would suggest you should be bothered by this approach too. The reason is because he suggests that it is only this definition of atheist that will “move the conversation forward.” [Loc. 392] Boghossian appears to think that if you are an atheist in the sense given by Kenny or Le Poidevin that you are at some serious disadvantage in talking to theists. Why? I don’t know why because he really does not explain. I have an idea what the motive is but I will make more of it in the next two posts. Perhaps you can think of one too?
Boghossian concludes his talk of the term atheist by insisting that:
“A difference between an atheist and a person of faith is that an atheist is willing to revise their belief (if provided sufficient evidence); the faithful permit no such revision.”
In the last paragraph of this section Boghossian notes that Dawkins sets up a 1-7 scale of belief with 7 being “absolute disbelief” and uses this to show that Dawkins is still partly open to the question of God’s existence. This appears a little trivial especially since Dawkins corrected that to a “6.9” when interviewed by Bill Maher.  In that same interview he gave to Maher he also suggested this 6.9 represented exactly the same degree of probability he had that there are no fairies or pink unicorns. I wonder if it’s really true to suggest then that Dawkins is really as open to the idea of a God as Boghossian is making out. Of course it’s true Dawkins does not make the definite claim there is no God but the point is he still thinks the idea is absurd so I don’t think Dawkins is as open as he’s being made out to be here by Boghossian.
Boghossian finishes that paragraph by talking about how the theist and atheist are different in that one is open to revising their ideas and the other is not. That appears to be a very odd thing to be saying given that one of the people who endorsed his book was John Loftus and Loftus certainly claims to have been a theist before revising his views and becoming an atheist. It certainly seems odd to suggest theists cannot possibly be open to revising their views when there are many examples of theists who have done just that (unless Boghossian is attacking their credibility and suggesting they were only pretending to be theists and I’m sure he cannot be doing that). The case of Loftus seems most pertinent since he claims he was not only a Christian but a well informed one as well. Boghossian must either concede that his assertion is wrong or he must insist that Loftus (and numerous others who claim such an experience) is not being honest and he never really was a Christian after all. It is both puzzling that Boghossian says it and it’s puzzling Loftus endorsed a book which says it.
Next time I shall look at Boghossian’s definition of ‘agnostic’. If you made it all the way through I thank you!
 See Edward Feser’s superb response here.
A bit of light relief is called for. Here’s the Monty Python clip I alluded to earlier:
PS. This conversation with Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio is rather interesting in light of what we have just been thinking about. I’m just going to comment on how the conversation begins.
Molyneux begins by explaining how he doesn’t like the term ‘atheist’ and how he wishes to simply just be called a philosopher instead. And then Boghossian says this in reply (c.2 minutes in):
“I don’t ever promote atheism. I think we should be promoting critical thinking and reasoning and rationality and there are certain conclusions, certain consequences of that, certain things that will fall from that. Atheism is just not a part of my identity. My identity is not in opposition to something else. And I think clarifying these terms is key… I personally don’t use the word ‘atheist’.”
But Boghossian just made it clear, in his book, that he DOES wish to hold on to the term ‘atheist’ so long as it’s used to mean, what Michael Martin calls, ‘negative atheism’. He says once we conceive of atheism that way it can move the conversation forward. Remember how Boghossian told us, in his footnote, how atheism was about “epistemology, evidence, honesty, sincerity, reason and enquiry.” So is Boghossian now saying that he DOES NOT stand for this list of things? Of course he’s not. But the problem is he’s using the word ‘atheist’ in at least two different and distinct senses (this is the charitable way to read him so he does not look stupid by the way). But unfortunately what it still leaves us with is a man who is using language in a very obtuse fashion and not in the careful, well-defined way in which most professional philosophers insist upon.
Personally I think this is only going to contribute to more confusion and I have already stated my concern on that matter (so I won’t begin another rant now). Thanks!