Today I was skimming Jack David Eller’s essay “What is Atheism?” when I came across a passage that I felt compelled to comment on. In this passage Eller is explaining how, in his view, atheists don’t hold the belief that God doesn’t exist. Instead, they simply lack belief that God does exist. He writes:
“However, it might be presumed that recovered atheists, those who have had to fight and argue their way out of theism, have a belief, just a belief-not. Unhappily for theists, this analysis is false. Imagine, for example, that a person is led to believe in childhood that Santa Claus exists. Through personal effort or counter-teaching, she learns or concludes that there is no Santa. Would you reasonably now say that she ‘believes that there is no Santa Claus’? Of course not. The rejection of the Santa-belief is not the belief in no-Santa. It is not a belief at all. It is the absence of a belief….” (“What is Atheism?” in Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity, p. 7)
The bizarre nature of Eller’s analysis, combined with the seasonal content, forced me to set aside my glass of eggnog and take a moment to reply.
Let’s start with the child who “learns or concludes that there is no Santa.” Would we reasonably now say that she ‘believes that there is no Santa Claus’? Eller concludes, “Of course not.” I have to wonder whether his cool confidence in saying something so bizarre was enough to convince anybody who took a second to reflect. (Sadly, I suspect it was.)
Regardless, the sane answer is: “Of course, yes indeed.” My daughter is a great example. She once believed Santa existed. When she came to believe at about the eight of seven that the proposition “Santa Claus exists” is false, she came to believe the proposition “Santa Claus doesn’t exist” is true. Thus, she believes Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
By the same token, the person who comes to believe the proposition “God exists” is false de facto comes to accept that the proposition “God doesn’t exist” is true.
Agnosticism is a different matter, of course. The person who ceases to believe “God exists” is true does not necessarily believe it is false. Thus, ceasing to believe that God exists is consistent with being an agnostic (i.e. refraining from affirming that God exists) and being an atheist (i.e. affirming that God doesn’t exist).
But this isn’t relevant for Eller’s case since he doesn’t describe a person who ceases to believe there is a Santa (a position consistent with agnosticism about Santa). Instead, he describes a person who “concludes that there is no Santa”, a position that precisely parallels the atheist who concludes there is no God. In both cases, this new epistemic position entails belief in the non-existence of the entity in question.
Now back to my eggnog.