Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:
There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct. In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.
Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:
However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?
There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.
We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.
But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.
Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”