Last month we posted some commentary on the 31st National Convention of American Atheists, titled Atheists Convene. We specifically noted some of the comments made to the press by Dr. David Eller, an anthropologist from Boston University. Dr. Eller has replied to our criticism of his remarks and his response can be found in our May feedback forum.
He makes three points which merit a reply:
First, he takes the word "belief" to signify a conviction held in the absence of evidence. This is, in my opinion, an idiosyncratic use of the word. The usual sense of belief is something one holds to be true. Period. It may be something that can be demonstrated (e.g. I believe the Pythagorean theorem), it may be something for which there is good evidence which nevertheless falls short of proof (e.g. I believe the universe had a beginning), or it may be something for which there is little or no evidence (e.g. I could believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe).
Dr. Eller specifies in his reply that he is to be understood as intending this last sense only. Very well, but then his claim that he holds no beliefs is rather uninteresting. There probably aren't very many people who hold a belief for which there is no evidence. We can quarrel about what constitutes good evidence and how much evidence is necessary to warrant a belief, but most beliefs people hold are based on some kind of evidence.
Even so, not all beliefs are based upon evidence, and I suspect that Dr. Eller holds some beliefs for which there not only is no evidence, but for which there can be no evidence. He believes, I'm willing to bet, that kindness is right and cruelty is wrong, that a Mercedes is more attractive than a garbage truck, that a Mozart symphony is more pleasant to listen to than gangster rap. He probably holds beliefs about all of these things, or perhaps their contraries, and yet I doubt that those beliefs are based upon any evidence more substantial than his own subjective preference.
Second, Dr. Eller writes: "if I cannot provide some facts or some logic to support a claim, I should not support that claim; rather, I should reject it, at least provisionally" but what facts or logic can he adduce to support this claim itself? If what he says is true then he should reject it as lacking factual support, yet he obviously doesn't.
We might also ask why a person is not justified in holding to a belief in the absence of supporting facts until the evidence against it becomes persuasive? Why cannot beliefs be considered innocent until proven guilty? Take, for instance, my belief that the world is more than five minutes old, that it did not come into being five minutes ago complete with an apparent history that it does not really have. I have no way to prove this nor are there any facts which support my belief that cannot also be explained by the hypothesis that the world really is only five minutes old. Yet, until I'm shown evidence which contradicts my belief, I'm perfectly justified in holding it, and indeed, would be perverse not to.
Third, Dr. Eller states that my unsympathetic treatment of his claim that atheism is rational but theism "holds onto peoples' hearts even as they lose their minds" is "ugly and condescending" and smacks of "a petty mind that enjoys bringing better minds down".
What I said that elicited these strong words was that "There are few sensations more gratifying to an academic than the satisfaction of knowing that one is intellectually superior to one's fellows. We should avert our eyes from professor Eller's unseemly arrogance, acknowledging that the pleasure he derives from flaunting his superior rational gifts doubtless makes the practice of it irresistible for him."
Perhaps Dr. Eller didn't intend for his suggestion that theists are irrational and atheists are paragons of Reason to sound like an arrogant manifestation of intellectual snobbery, but it does. Moreover, when he declares that labeling as arrogant his claim that atheists are intellectually superior "smacks of a petty mind which enjoys bringing better minds down" he confirms the very assessment he objects to. What sort of person is it, after all, who would insist that his mind is better than that of his opponents if not one who enjoys flaunting what he perceives to be his superior intellectual gifts?