Sorry, But That’s Just Wrong

There was a piece on Slate a while back by Ron Rosenbaum which set out to distinguish agnosticism from atheism. It was annoying simply because Rosenbaum got so much wrong.

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 some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

This is nothing more than the same argument tossed up by theists – “Atheism is really just another form of faith! You can’t prove god doesn’t exist!”
Except that Rosenbaum doesn’t go quite so far as to accuse atheists of making that assertion. Rather, he claims that we have faith in the ability of science to eventually answer all questions. Atheists, he claims, have simply replaced god with science.
Rosenbaum is no more accurate than the god freaks on this point.

To the god freak, the reply is simple: I do not assert that there is no god. I assert that there is no evidence upon which one might conclude that there is. In the absence of any such evidence, I do not accept the proposition that god exists.

To Rosenbaum, the reply is slightly longer: The faith I place in science is based entirely upon the ability of science – demonstrated uncountable times over hundreds of years – to make accurate predictions; to provide working solutions to real problems; to offer falsifiable, repeatable, demonstrable evidence for the claims it makes.
Thus, it is NOT faith at all. Faith, by definition, is a belief held in the absence of evidence. One might even go further and say that faith is a belief held in spite of the evidence, but the less demanding form is both sufficient for, as well as fatal to Rosenbaum’s facile argument.
Science, in providing so very much EVIDENCE for its claims: computers, generators, cars, airplanes, vaccinations, heart transplants, blood transfusions, submarines, medicine, plumbing, X-boxes…is anything but faith. Science provides demonstrable, objective FACTS. It is TRUTH, or damn well the best approximation thereof.
I simply recognize – as do all thinking people – that science provides better answers, better ideas, better suggestions and better courses for the investigation of TRUTH than anything else. It certainly offers a better shot at answering ANY question than do the ginned up fantasies of theists.

In any case, atheism IS NOT, as Rosenbaum glibly and thoughtlessly suggests, a belief that science can or will be able to answer EVERY question. Atheism has nothing to do with science.
Rosenbaum is simply wrong when he claims that atheists have the sort of faith in the scientific method he describes.
Moreover, he engages a rather insulting bit of hypocrisy by accusing me of such blind faith. Firstly, it isn’t blind. Secondly, that science may not be able to answer every question is no reason to either insert god in the place of good answers (as theists do), or to toss up one’s hands and say (as Rosenbaum seems to wish) “Let’s just accept that we cannot know!”

If one were interested in playing Rosembaum’s silly little game, one might also point out that it requires EXACTLY the same sort of faith to say, “There are questions to which we may never know the answers.”
He cannot possibly KNOW that, thus it is an article of FAITH. And so falls the great skeptical agnostic.

This seems to be the central point of Rosenbaum’s bit (who, by the way, admits to having meddled with the Templeton Foundation – spineless apologists for religion in science).
He accuses the atheists of worshiping science. He doesn’t want to “worship” ANYTHING – he’s a skeptic! And so, with the very middling, bland, almost grovelling attempt of the true fence-sitter, he attacks both poles from the middle, willing to accept being equally detested if he cannot be equally liked: “Maybe there are things we can never know.”

Perhaps there are. But the claim that atheists either believe, or assert, that science CAN answer all questions is simply false. It is nothing more than a straw man of Rosenbaum’s own creation.
Atheism is NOTHING more than the absence of belief in magical, omnipotent, intervening, sky wizards. To insist that atheism includes an unwavering “faith” in the ability of science to provide answers to the girl, the gold watch and everything is simply a lie spun either from ignorance, or from something more sinister.

It is a rather weak and sad bit of sophistry to split the difference between “God did it!” and “We don’t know”, stand precisely between the two and insist that “We cannot know” is any sort of valuable contribution to anything.

Rosenbaum asks, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
He drops it as a challenge – one he supposes that no one can answer.
The simple philosophical answer is, of course, why not?
Furthermore, there seems to be some support in recent physics research for the presence of matter in greater quantities than anti-matter, which would go a long way in terms of SCIENCE, Rosenbaum’s personal bogeyman, providing AN ANSWER.
Rosenbaum’s strategy very closely resembles that employed by a three-year-old who has discovered the question, “Why?”
He just keeps repeating it, ad infinitum…ad nauseum, until he gets the answer for which he so desperately longs: “We don’t know.”
AHA! And we may never know! AHA, AGAIN!

Of course, Rosenbaum would only be too happy, one suspects, to move the goalposts: “Why are WE here?”
Pushing the playing field further and further into purely philosophical territory – “What is the meaning of life?” – in order to smugly demonstrate that there are questions which science cannot even address. And to what purpose does Rosenbaum engage in such contortions? Well…it would seem that Ron prefers, when faced with difficult questions, not to be bothered asking. It’s easier for Ron to toss up his hands and retreat into comfortable ignorance, much the same way theists retreat into comfortable unwarranted certainty.

The great physicist Richard Feynman once remarked that he was fine with a universe in which there were unanswered questions; that the awe and wonder – the mystery of it all – was not, for him, at all a frightening or disconcerting prospect. Rosenbaum is not only comfortable with not knowing, he would prefer to stop asking questions.
I do not think that was what Feynman had in mind.

Rosenbaum’s entire argument rests on the premise that atheists BELIEVE science can, and will, answer ALL questions. This is a canard, and a rather pathetic falsehood on which to construct an attack on atheism.

One might better ask, “How does one so muddle-headed and confused get a job writing on science, religion and philosophy?”

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6 Responses

  1. “Why are WE here”? To perpetuate our own species, of course. That’s the scientific answer.

    One does that by being a good parent (including the “it takes a village” kind of parent), a valued member of the community at large, and a careful steward of the Earth’s precious and finite resources.

    Theists usually ask this question as a code for “why should I do good in this life unless I get rewarded after I die?”. In short, it’s a not-so-subtle way to direct the conversation to their deeply held wish that there really IS a pony under all that manure.

    Sorry. No.

    • Since Cousinavi recently celebrated Geddy Lee’s birthday:

      Why are we here?
      Because we’re here
      Roll the bones
      Why does it happen?
      Because it happens
      Roll the bones

  2. I’m sure there’s a difference between atheists and agnositics, I’m just not sure we can ever know what it is.

  3. a canard:

    a false or baseless, usually derogatory story, report, or rumor!

    That just made my day! Great post

    “It’s easier for Ron to toss up his hands and retreat into comfortable ignorance, much the same way theists retreat into comfortable unwarranted certainty.” – love it.

  4. It was always my understanding that an atheist was somebody who had a firm belief that there were no god/gods and that an agnostic was somebody who didn’t know and/or just didn’t care. But with all the Neo-Cons, Neo-Libs, New Atheists, New Labours, Metro-sexuals and the 42,693 sub-genres of techno-music, its getting harder everyday to keep things straight.

    I think humans, like most pack animals, are programmed to set up social rankings, follow leaders and adhere to their rules. They do this either out of fear, or hope their loyalty will bring rewards. (Fear & hope? Sounds familiar for some reason.) Others do their best to resist, often forming sub-groupings with their own leaders and rules, either out of disdain for the dominant rulers and their rules, or out of career advancement motives (ie They want to replace them and impose their own rules.)

    This is the basic premise of the corporate world. This is why mindless partisan politics are so popular. This is why bullshit shows like Survivor are so popular. This is why professional sports are so popular. This is why people follow every inane move of every inane celebrity. And this is why religion has been so popular. They all tap into our base animal instincts, our desire to join sides, follow leaders, and right or wrong, ride them as far as we can. And it generally requires a blind faith of a sort.

    Because of these complex social dynamics, leaders are always trying secure their position by codifying their ways of thinking into laws and “ultimate truths”. Combining religion and politics is a natural, so to speak. Even science can get co-opted. The rulers seek the blind faith of the population. It’s not so much about following the rules as it is about following the ruler. It’s a loyalty test. Drink the Kool-aid, motherfucker!

    It’s also why people mindlessly follow religions, celebrities, fashion trends, line up for hours to buy the latest tech-gadget, “follow” people on Twitter, and believe in all kinds of other stupid, self-destructive things. There are people living in trailer parks who actually vote Republican for fuck sakes! They are all instinctively trying to pass a loyalty test in the hopes they will be rewarded.

    This is why atheism is accused of being another religion. The accusers are either projecting themselves onto atheists or they know how humans work and expect the same to develop in atheism. It is also why atheism, science and even the best intentioned philosophies can degenerate into de facto religions and/or personalty cults. We are such an ignorant, self-centred, bunch of social climbing sheep that, even when right, we can be be right for all the wrong reasons. As Bill Maher says in various forms, “Don’t follow the leader. Follow the idea based on its merit.” (I invoke that quote with a touch of ironic humour.)

    Worship (and self-worship) is what us damn dirty apes are programmed to do…either by evolution or a creator…or both. I just don’t see much in the way of overwhelming evidence. All I can form is hunches.

    One of these hunches is that, if god/gods actually exist, our puny, pathetic, brains would either be incapable of recognizing them, or our heads would explode upon meeting said deities. This would be a case of “wrong, even when right”.

    I’m also pretty sure He/She/Them/It would think we deserve to have our heads explode for the shitty job we’ve done with their creation.

    • There is, at least arguably, such a thing as a “Strong Atheist” – someone who asserts that there is no god. The problem with the position is that there is, of course, no way to prove such a claim. This is the sort of atheism that draws the criticism that it amounts to another form of faith.
      The criticism is not wholly justified because, even in terms of Statements That Cannot Be Proven True, the two claims “God is” and “God is not” do not stand four square equal. It may well be argued that the total absence of evidence FOR the existence of god(s) can be taken as evidence that god does not exist…in much the same way that the absence of elephant shit is pretty good evidence that there are no elephants living in my house.
      Nevertheless, as a matter of simple proof, neither claim can be proven true. Thus, to claim it as fact is, technically, an article of faith.
      Atheism does not require, however, that I claim god does not exist. It is sufficient that I do not believe there is. This is substantially different than the assertion “God is not.” Maybe there is a god…but I see no evidence that would support such a claim, and in the absence of evidence, I’m not inclined to accept such an extraordinary proposition, nor to permit those who claim to know what it wants to dictate what I may or may not do on that basis.

      Agnosticism – the wishy washy refusal to engage the question – seems rather pointless to me. “Maybe yes, maybe no…but I can never know so, so I don’t think about.”
      It’s atheism that lacks any sort of spine and works too hard to appease those whom one must at least suspect of being rather delusional.

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