Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.” It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism. In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.
Rosenbaum opens with this gem:
Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.
Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.” Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means. Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible. At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize. As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.
The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph. He writes,
Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.
Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed. The “certitudes” of atheism? What might those be? How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything? Groan.
I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.
Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.
And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding. First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all. It is a lack of a belief in any deity. Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist. Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god. If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist. It’s just that simple. In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well. Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.
But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.” I can’t see that it is. Seriously, who holds that view? We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will? I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view. And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet? Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer. Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing. Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason: no one has said this.
Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?” He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,
In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.
No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared. They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing. In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously. I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.” I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything. What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place? Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all? Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case. Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay? You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.
I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point. Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold. In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:
Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.
Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions. The hubris here could take down an elephant. Seriously, Ron? You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course? Really? Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.
Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.” Nice pat on the back there, Ron. It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world. That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.