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?”