What Atheism Isn’t

What is atheism? The canonical view, set forth in  the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines it as follows: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God” [link]. More recently, however—and especially in popular atheist circles—the trend has been to broaden the definition to mean “lack of belief in the existence of God.” Of course, things go much easier for the atheist on this definition. Atheism simply becomes the default position; it is justified unless and until the evidence moves one from lack of belief to belief. As Flew once said, atheism can be presumed.

Now in his Manual for Creating AtheistsPeter Boghossian follows this same general course. Unfortunately, in his case at least, it leads to an unusual confusion. According to Boghossian, “‘Atheist’, as I use the term, means”:

ATHEIST:  (1) “There’s insufficient evidence to warrant belief in a divine, supernatural creator of the universe,” and  (2) “if I were shown sufficient evidence to warrant belief in such an entity, then I would believe” (p. 27).

Notice he doesn’t say there is sufficient evidence to believe God doesn’t exist. His claim is far more modest: there isn’t sufficient evidence to believe he does. To flesh out (2), the second conjunct, Boghossian turns to Dawkins’ The God Delusion:

Dawkins provides a 1-7 scale, with 1 being absolute and 7 being absolute disbelief in a divine entity...Dawkins, whom many consider to be among the most hawkish of atheists, only places himself at a 6. In other words, even Dawkins does not definitely claim there is no God (pp. 27-28).

Now strangely, this is used to underwrite the claim that since Dawkins’ unbelief isn't definitive, if he were presented with sufficient evidence, he would believe. But of course this doesn’t follow at all. Even if Dawkins is a 6-out-of-7 atheist, it doesn’t follow that he would believe if given the appropriate evidence—not unless we’re assuming that Dawkins’ is a perfectly rational epistemic agent. Here some leading atheists have their doubts [link]. Indeed, how do we know there aren’t other non-rational factors contributing to his disbelief? In a much quoted passage, Thomas Nagel confesses:

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I don't want the universe to be like that. [link]

So perhaps I’m presented with sufficient evidence for God, but simply don’t want theism to be true—a psychological fact that actually results in my not properly seeing the evidence as sufficient. That’s perfectly possible, one thinks.

But then isn’t ATHEISM in need of revision? For, if true, it implies that stubborn atheists aren’t atheists. Not only do I have to believe there isn’t sufficient evidence for God, I have to be open to revising my belief. But how is that even relevant to whether I’m an atheist. If I’m stubborn but right, then I justifiably don’t believe. If I’m stubborn but wrong, then I’m not justified in my non-belief. Still, since I’m a 6-out-of-7 on Dawkins’ scale, I don’t believe. Maybe I should believe; the fact, however, is that I don’t. What am I, then, but an atheist (broadly speaking)?

Now here the complaint will come: “In that case, you’re really not an atheist, but more like an agnostic.” Well, what precisely is that? Boghossian defines the position as follows:

AGNOSTIC: (1) “Agnostics think there’s not enough evidence to warrant belief in God, but (2) “an agnostic is willing to revise her belief if provided sufficient evidence” (p. 28).

Do you see the problem? Boghossian’s ATHEIST and AGNOSTIC are one and the same. For both, there is an initial clause stipulating that the evidence isn’t sufficient, and then a second about an individual's willingness to revise her beliefs when the right (i.e., sufficient) evidence comes along. Here Boghossian sets his face squarely against the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There aren’t three categories: theists, atheists, and agnostics. There are only two: theists and atheists or (if you prefer) theists and agnostics. Something has clearly gone amiss.

There actually is a problem of insufficient evidence a foot. It’s the problem arising from the absence of any evidence that the Boghossian definition of ‘atheism’ approximates the truth. The good professor can hardly fault his readers, therefore, if he finds them jumping ship and casting their lot with a-ATHEISM.

— Richard Brian Davis