An Atheist’s Response to Ron Rosenbaum’s “Agnostic Manifesto.”

“It’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists,” says Ron Rosenbaum, writing for Slate.com (6/28/2010). Agnosticism, as he defines it, is “radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.”

Rosenbaum sees atheism as “a theism … a faith-based creed.” He describes atheists in terms that are usually applied to the hard-core religious: “credulous,” “childlike,” intolerant,” “unbending,” and “Inquisitor[ial].”

Huh? Atheism is a theism (meaning, presumably, a kind of theism, a subset of theism)? And this is because, like theism, it is based in faith? Rosenbaum seems to have forgotten how to consult a dictionary, or maybe he is as “radically skeptical” about dictionary definitions as he is about God’s existence.

Redefining atheism as a subset of its opposite is a sloppy trick, made all the more transparent by the words themselves. The prefix “a-,” from the Greek, negates the word it is attached to. So “atheism” means “not theism.” There is simply no way an atheist can simultaneously be a theist, any more than a disease can be both symptomatic and asymptomatic.

This confusion—or poorly executed sleight of hand—rests insecurely on another, larger befuddlement—namely, Rosenbaum’s implied equation of “faith” with “faith in God.” His syllogism is: Theism is faith-based, and atheism is faith-based; therefore, atheism is a theism. Even if we accept the second shaky premise—that atheism is faith-based—the conclusion still does not hold.

Because atheists have faith in science, Rosenbaum claims, they are no different than theists, who have faith in God. But this is simply wrong, and we must say so, even at the risk of being called “intolerant” and “unbending.” Faith in science is not theism, regardless of how you slice it.

In his rush to declare that agnosticism rules, Rosenbaum is impervious not just to distinctions but also to nuance. He seems to regard all faith as the same, and it is in either an “on” or an “off” position.

In fact, everyone has faith in certain propositions, but there are as many levels of faith as there are levels of evidence, probability, and reason. Faith exists in an inverse relation with whichever one of these applies. The less evidence there is for a proposition, the more faith is required to believe it. The less reasonable the arguments, the more faith is required.

Take probabilities. Nearly everyone has faith that the sun will appear on the eastern horizon tomorrow morning. There is no necessity for this to happen, however. Some cosmic event might interfere to prevent it. But there is an extremely high probability that it will occur, and so we don’t find groups of people endlessly debating it.

Let’s go a lot lower on the scale of probability. Boarding a passenger jet is something most people can do with relative confidence because the probability of its crashing is relatively low. However, our faith that we will arrive safely at our destination is probably not nearly as great as our faith that the sun will “rise” tomorrow morning. There are still plenty of people who get panicky on jets or refuse to travel in them altogether.

Let’s go “way low” on the scale of probability, which will take us “way high” on the scale of faith. Most Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected a couple of days after his death on the Cross. What we know with a very high level of certainty about the laws of nature tells us that the probability of any such resurrection having occurred is practically nil. No case of a two-day-old corpse returning to life has ever been scientifically documented. Belief in Christ’s resurrection therefore requires enormous faith. (Those who have such faith should not be too quick to congratulate themselves, however, as faith sometimes comes much more easily than skepticism.)

What I’ve just demonstrated about the inverse relationship between probability and faith also applies to the other two pairs: reason/faith and evidence/faith.

Like the Christian’s resurrectionist claims, any theist’s claims about God require enormous faith because they are unsupported by reason, evidence, or probability. The best Rosenbaum can come up with is the argument—supposedly from “reason”—that something could not have been created from nothing and that God is therefore a possible explanation for the existence of anything. This argument doesn’t fly any better than the “flying” spaghetti monster, but Rosenbaum dresses it up with fancy Latin phrases anyway. (“You know about the pons asinorum, right?”) The first-cause, unmoved-mover god is just a terminator used to cap an endless regression. It is no more logical than the giant tortoise on which the earth is supposed to rest according to Hindu mythology.

I don’t want to skip too lightly over this point. Once again, Rosenbaum is setting up a false equivalence with his claim that the atheist’s faith in an ultimately knowable universe is no better than the theist’s faith in God as a first cause. The equivalence is false because, once again, the probabilities are on an entirely different scale. Scientific understanding of the universe has made spectacular strides in the past century. We now know things about space, time, gravity, matter, and energy that early scientists could only have dreamed of knowing, and anyone who doubts this need only recall NASA’s 1997 mission to Mars. The improbability of our ever fully understanding the universe is due to our physical limitations, not to the inherent “unknowability” of the universe.  The claim that the universe is ultimately, if not proximately, knowable has high probability precisely because we have come so far along a trajectory toward understanding it.

So, do even the most rigorously rational and atheistic scientists have faith? Yes, but not much, and in fact very little when compared to any sort of theist.

Indeed, what have theists been up to during all those centuries when the scientific method was yielding such impressive results? Mostly just reacting, writing apologetics, revising notions of God to fit with realities that can no longer be ignored. Absolutely no progress has been made toward either shoring up the theistic hypothesis or explaining why the usual standards of evidence should not apply.

Rosenbaum likes to play “gotcha!” with the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” His rule for this game is that if you can’t provide a satisfactory answer, then your atheism must be a sham. But I’m not playing, and neither should any other self-respecting atheist. Rosenbaum is imposing a completely arbitrary condition on atheism. Once again, he might have consulted the dictionary. Mine tells me that atheism is (a) the doctrine or belief that there is no God, and (b) a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. (I’ll take the second of these.) It says nothing about rejection of all varieties of faith, uncaused causes, creation ex nihilo, or scientific solutions to ultimate questions. Rosenbaum has just erected another straw man, and he is about to erect yet another.

He now quotes the famous 19th-century agnostic Thomas Henry Huxley to show why atheism is wrong:

This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

But our “radical skeptic” seems not to have questioned whether Huxley’s principle applies to all atheists or even whether he even intended it to. I personally did not recognize myself in Huxley’s description. I call myself an atheist not because I claim that God does not exist but rather because I do not believe that God exists, as in the second dictionary definition I just cited. I see no evidence for his existence, and yet my level of certainty, which is very high, entitles me to call myself an atheist. If my level of certainty were much lower, then I might call myself an agnostic. The fact that one can not be absolutely certain about these matters does not make one an agnostic.

Imagine a scale running between -100 for pure atheism and +100 for pure theism, with pure agnosticism at zero. Certainties—warranted or not—are highest at the two ends and lowest in the middle.

How is one to know where one’s personal beliefs fall along this continuum?  Perhaps one way would be to measure brain activity of subjects who are instructed to curse and shake their fist at God. In my case, such gestures would be entirely theatrical, devoid of either fear or anger, because I would not believe I was addressing anyone. A true theist would refuse to follow the instruction, and the thorough-going agnostic would be extremely conflicted. In this connection, what are we to make of the photo shown below? Could Pope Benedict be just a little bit agnostic about God’s looking out after him?

Nothing says, “I trust you, God,” like three inches of bullet-proof glass.

Some atheists may make the claim that Huxley’s atheist has made, but others—even of the so-called “aggressive” variety—are more likely to take a position similar to my own. This undercuts Rosenbaum’s key argument in a very fundamental way. Is he talking about atheism, or just about a certain variety of atheism? In pointing to the shortcomings of certain atheist writers, is he making a solid case against atheism? Or is it just a case against certain behaviors that theists, atheists, and agnostics may all share?

The word “atheist” only describes a person’s stance toward the God hypothesis, but it says nothing about that person’s temperament or his or her habits of thinking in other areas. An atheist who has arrived at his or her disbelief in God by applying rigorous rules of evidence may not apply those same rules in matters of political ideology. So, for example, Communists of the Stalinist era may have jettisoned religion along with Tzarist government, but they adopted a political system that strongly resembled a religion, complete with saints, holy books, pilgrimages, “sacred” tombs, authoritarian ideology, and all the rest. Their credulity was simply displaced from the sacred realm to the secular one. The failures of atheistic Communism should not be imputed to atheism but rather to Communism itself, which was based on a flawed understanding of human nature.

But enough defense of atheism. A word about Rosenbaum’s agnosticism is in order.

Rosenbaum’s agnostic is an equal-opportunity doubter for whom any religious truth claim deserves as much skepticism as any other. This post-modernist doubter is (undoubtedly) hard-pressed to take any position whatsoever on questions that may be answered by recourse to evidence, logic, or probability. This is radical skepticism, indeed. Atheism and theism are just narratives serving some purpose that has nothing to do with our quest for truth. Both are driven by what he sees as “unwarranted certainties.”

Rosenbaum is of course correct in characterizing atheists and theists as more certain of their positions than agnostics, but he doesn’t allow the legitimate possibility that only one of these two positions may be correct. His inclusivity and “fairness” might be admirable in certain scenarios, such as dinner conversations, hiring practices, classroom management, or marriage counseling, where impartiality and rapport are so highly valued. But how useful are these traits to anyone trying to establish the truth of a proposition? Certain pursuits—especially philosophy, law, engineering, and science—cannot be successful if they are too observant of such niceties. The Bhopal disaster, the Gulf Oil Spill, or the Challenger explosion are reminders of how badly things can go awry when engineers, fearing to “rock the boat,” fail to take firm positions about clear and present dangers.

In matters of theoretical science, we don’t insist on agnosticism or even consider it warranted after our knowledge reaches a certain level. In the 16th century, agnosticism about Copernicus’s heliocentric theory may have been a reasonable position, but in our day, anyone who declares himself an agnostic about this is regarded as delusional. Around 1970, agnosticism about anthropogenic climate change may have been called for, but it is now—and with complete justification—characterized as “denialism.” Considering the speed with which climatic events are unfolding, such agnosticism may be considered delusional within only a few more years.

As for theism, the question, “Is there a god?” can be answered affirmatively—and with virtually any degree of certainty—if we discard all the rules of evidence. But the answer then becomes meaningless, because any question about immaterial beings can also be answered affirmatively. Where there are no objective standards of truth, there are only subjective experiences, and these are immune to verification. As meaningful as these may be—and even “true” in a phenomenological sense—they do not constitute evidence in support of the truth claim.

Of one thing we can be certain: There is no evidence for the existence of the Judeo-Christian god as “he” is usually conceived—omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, creator of the universe, etc. Adjust the attributes in any way you please, and there is still no evidence.

Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so empirical methods alone will never help any atheist “prove” that god does not exist. What the theist is left with, however, is a claim that has no more credibility than any of an infinite number of other claims that can be made about spiritual beings. Science-fiction writers and Hollywood have shown us the limitless possibilities for imagining such beings. Modern science has given us the tools for understanding that they are only fictions.

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4 Responses to “An Atheist’s Response to Ron Rosenbaum’s “Agnostic Manifesto.””

  1. redatlas Says:

    Hi,

    I’m sorry to conflict with your opinions, but the writer on agnosticism is correct. I think he defined new atheism more by belief in the idea that all is knowable under the lens of orthodox science than disbelief in god or gods.

    Paradox doesn’t necessarily imply impossibility, just phenomena currently outside the reach of our tools of explanation. My issue with your analysis is your implicit assumption of universal definitions, something I believe the agnostic author hinted at while observing rejection of the catholic god versus ambivalence toward the personally defined god of Leibniz.

    I consider myself agnostic and, if there is a god, it encompasses what is currently unknown or inexplicable to me. As I move through life I continue to define god, this so-called uncaused causation or in my mind, simple paradox, by determining what it is not. The universe is far too complex to conquer entirely with sleight of mind and tricks of logic. For some questions we must work the old way, slowly removing one disjoint piece of the puzzle after another.

  2. SteveG Says:

    Quote: “I consider myself agnostic and, if there is a god, it encompasses what is currently unknown or inexplicable to me. As I move through life I continue to define god, this so-called uncaused causation or in my mind, simple paradox, by determining what it is not. The universe is far too complex to conquer entirely with sleight of mind and tricks of logic.”

    Of course, arbitrarily slapping the word “God” on cosmic forces (or possibly just meaningless phrases) like “uncaused causation” is exactly what sleight of mind and tricks of logic are all about.

  3. TheBarkingAtheist Says:

    I would like to say that I agree with nearly everything that you have stated except for something in the last paragraph. “…absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…” The famous Carl Sagan quote (or more technically, he is quoting someone else, but it is widely attributed to Sagan).
    Victor J. Stenger, particle physicist and philosopher, would also disagree. “Elephants have never been seen roaming Yellowstone National Park. If they were, they would not have escaped notice. No matter how secretive, the presence of such huge animals would have been marked by ample physical signs — droppings, crushed vegetation, bones of dead elephants. So we can safely conclude from the absence of evidence that elephants are absent from the park.” The absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
    Other than that, great post.

  4. William Inhell Says:

    “Strong” atheists are no different than theists. They both require faith for their position. New Atheisms attempt to co-opt agnosticism as a form of “weak atheism” is spot on from Rosenbaum. However, he fails to really encapsulate the fact that agnosticism is not only a theological position.

    Agnosticism is of the essence of science, whether ancient or modern. It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.

    -TH Huxley

    It’s really not that hard to understand. Do some research. Agnosticism, and the idea that reflects the quote above is the most correct position to have on anything. Religion, philosophy, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories. Your article is correct in that atheism doesn’t address any of these, or any particular prinicple for that matter. It focuses on one particular type of supernaturalism.

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