Peter Boghossian is an interesting figure. Back in January I wrote a review of his new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, which intends to teach non-believers how to lead the faithful out of their faith. I found myself torn between appreciating the ambitious motivations behind it and wanting to ridicule it mercilessly as a piece of pretentious choir-preaching. The methodology is well-researched, but the substance underlying it leaves much to be desired. Portraying faith as “pretending to know what you don’t know” is not likely to help in deconverting most theists, but even worse are tactics like spreading unbelief through comic books and TV shows starring “Epistemology Knights” and “Faith Monsters”.
I feel like I achieved a nice compromise in my review by being generally charitable, yet directing criticisms where necessary. After all, Boghossian’s wilder remarks are not the overall tone of the book, and perhaps playing into the propaganda game is what will be the most effective against the actual disinformation campaigns, like those commandeered by Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. I was prepared to give Dr. Boghossian the benefit of a doubt – that is, until I came across his Twitter feed.
Agnosticism is arrogant. It asserts there’s enough evidence to conclude that god’s existence is possible.
This comment is something I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss, or anyone who isn’t well versed in philosophy. Peter is a philosophy professor, though, which obviously means philosophy is, you know, his job. In A Manual for Creating Atheists, he specifically draws attention to the philosophical field of epistemology, or the study of knowledge, as an important part of understanding religious beliefs and leading people out of them. It seems like Dr. Boghossian should be quite aware that the evidentialism he endorses throughout his work is just one epistemological theory among several. It seems like he should also be aware of the difference between belief and knowledge, how that plays into probability and possibility, and how those all relate to the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.
For a long time now, philosophers have commonly understood knowledge as justified true belief. In the 20th century, this definition was called into question by famous experiments establishing what has become known as the Gettier problem. Some have attempted to move forward by switching focus from justification to warrant, but the main point here is that knowledge is seen as a subset of belief. To know something is to have a certain belief that is true and justified, or true and warranted. On evidentialism, the more and better evidence one has for a belief, the more justified they are in holding that belief. However, if someone has no evidence for a belief, it does not mean what they believe is impossible, it merely means they are unjustified in holding that belief.
Agnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, for knowledge, and the prefix a-, meaning without. An agnostic is someone who doesn’t claim to know something. This is different from an atheist in that an atheist is someone without theism, where theism is belief in God. Thus, while an agnostic says she doesn’t ‘know’ whether or not God exists, an atheist says she doesn’t ‘believe’ God exists. One view is about knowledge, the other is about belief, and so while they are separate in meaning, they aren’t mutually exclusive. I often call myself an agnostic atheist because I don’t claim to be certain that there is no god, but I think the probabilities swing far enough that I am justified in doubting the existence of God.
Evidence does not establish possibility or impossibility, especially not when we’re talking about logical possibility. Scientific studies even do not rule out sheer possibilities, they either support or don’t support a hypothesis. Likewise, the reasons one may have for being an agnostic may not have to do with the quantity or quality of the evidence at all. You might see the god concept as so confused and incoherent that you simply can’t pronounce to have knowledge on it either way. If, like me, you accept that evidence can’t ever give us absolute certainty, or such strong claims about possibilities and impossibilities, you might be an agnostic because you think there are other considerations we don’t or can’t have access to.
It seems like a professional philosopher should know better than to make such an incendiary and naive remark. However, just the other day, Dr. Boghossian again posted something at least as absurd to his Twitter feed:
Being published in the philosophy of religion should disqualify one from sitting at the adult table.
Many of the most devastating critiques of religion have come from philosophers of religion. The field may have a majority of religious believers in it, but there have been quite a few notable atheists published in philosophy of religion journals, too, such as J.L. Mackie, Paul Draper, Ted Drange, Graham Oppy, Erik Wielenberg, Stephen Maitzen, and William Rowe. Theistic philosophers have also done their share of worthwhile criticism of theistic arguments, among which would be Tim and Lydia McGrew for their attack on fine-tuning, as well as Wes Morriston for his work against the cosmological argument.
These philosophers who Boghossian would exclude from “the adult table” are far more deserving of those seats than Peter and (many of) his New Atheist buds. I say this not just because of Boghossian’s childish behavior, but also because each of them writes on an academic level that just is miles above the others. Many of the arguments against God proliferated in atheist circles today are owed to these philosophers of religion. Dr. Boghossian frankly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and his principal objection seems to stem solely from the fact that “religion” is part of the philosophy of religion name.
I’ve seen a few comments on Facebook calling Boghossian “our version” of young earth creationists, saying that he almost seems like a viral marketing gimmick for the God’s Not Dead film. To this I’ll add that he’s like the Deepak Chopra of atheism. Chopra is a new age ‘guru’ who spouts wisdom that’s eaten up by his followers, yet is less wisdom than it is gibberish. In similar fashion, Boghossian plays to an audience that he knows, one that disdains anything and everything remotely connected to religion. These “cultured despisers” of religion, as Schleiermacher once called them, are quite happy to agree with whatever fits the us vs. them narrative they’ve constructed, along with its clear emphasis on the inherent and unavoidable evils of religion, while little things like arguments, facts, and honest dialogue take a backseat.
The annoying thing is that men like Boghossian thrive off of the criticisms sent their way. In their minds, it validates what they have to say, it exposes ‘anger’ in their critics (a frequent theme in Peter’s Twitter feed), and it serves as an opportunity to circle the wagons yet again. As they say, bad press is better than no press, and Mr. Atheist Manual is doing all he can to elicit controversy and stir the pot. One can only imagine where he will go next. Maybe he’ll found his own atheist scholarly journal where only his favorite kinds of atheists will be allowed to publish, then sweepingly declare anyone not publishing there must sit at the kids’ table.
Just as we denounce Chopra for his juvenile nonsense, we should denounce even fellow atheists for theirs. In the past, non-theists have done well in taking Alain de Botton, S.E. Cupp, and others to task for some of their overly-generous statements regarding religion. We should be equally willing to critically examine statements that are so poisonous in their characterization of belief and faith. I don’t think Boghossian is helping anyone but himself in his simplistic treatments of complex philosophical issues.