“New Agnostics” or “Same Old Ineffectual Wafflers”

My brain has been blasted by the confident inanity of Ron Rosenbaum. He's a chipper flibbertigibbet who is proudly agnostic (no problem with that) and as dumb as they come (which is a problem). He has written an essay on Slate titled "The Rise of the New Agnostics" which has a few little quirks. No such movement exists, which he admits, it's strikingly unoriginal to invent a 'new' epithet for your nonexistent movement by appropriating a three letter modifier from the "New" Atheists which we all detest and groaningly disavow over and over again, it is a remarkably incoherent manifesto, and he says so many stupid things that I was confused into thinking it was a comedy piece for a while. It's like he's ripped off the worst theistic arguments and repackaged them into a mess that he proudly calls agnosticism. John Wilkins, who is a proud agnostic, should be embarrassed by it. More about John in a moment.

Rosenbaum begins with one of the hoariest old cliches around. Groan along with me, please.

…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.

Picture the first meeting of the New Agnostics, Ron Rosenbaum presiding.

Ron: That New Atheism is just another religion, and I reject religious dogma! Therefore, I have established this new and unique view, the New Agnosticism.

Fred: Errm, Ron…but isn't the New Agnosticism just another religion, then?

Ron: No, it's not. We have none of the characteristics of a religion, unlike atheism.

Bill: Wait, Ron, I think Fred is onto something. I'm a true agnostic, and I reject your attempt to shoehorn me into your dogma. I'm leaving your cult to form the New New Agnosticism.

Fred: I'm so confused. Isn't that another religion? You've got a name for it after all…

Walt: Exactly right, Fred! So come join my new group, the Revised Agnostics!

Ron: Splitters! Heretics! Schismatics!

It's awfully easy to sit there and call anything a religion, so we often get this absurdly circular argument: religion is bad, we don't like people who say we shouldn't follow a religion, therefore the non-religion is a religion. I wish people like Rosenbaum — and there are a lot of them — would stop and think for once. Atheism is not a religion, and it's ridiculous to assert that it is. It's fine for people to dislike [group that opposes religion] for some reason, but it's ludicrous to use the argument that it's because [I dislike religion]. It puts them in the same set! Please try to formulate specific objections.

Now Rosenbaum does have some gotchas that he throws at the New Atheists as reasons why they are wrong other than that they're "just another religion". The problem is that they're either ignorant or hilarious. First, you have to read the funny one. This is the remark that had me wondering whether this was comedic satire. Notice that now science has become a religion:

Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist's criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself. I just don't accept turning science into a new religion until it can show it has all the answers, which it hasn't, and probably never will.

Read it again. Savor it. Contemplate it. I'll understand if you are ready to stop right now — Ron Rosenbaum has declared himself a world-class idiot. To quote Dara O'Briain: "Science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it would stop."

One other specific issue I have to take with Rosenbaum is that he's lazy. He's got one question that he's absolutely sure will stump the atheists, and justify his rejection of them. It's an old and distinguished philosophical question, but hardly relevant.

Faced with the fundamental question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive.

He's even phrased it as a direct challenge.

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.

Allow me to bounce that right back to him. What is the New Agnostics' answer to why there is something rather than nothing? If the failure of atheists to be able to answer it (which he affirms by simply throwing out physics as unpersuasive) is grounds for rejecting their philosophy, then why isn't it equally damning to his New Agnostics?

I can guess. Because the New Agnostics take great pride in answering "I DON'T KNOW" to as many questions as possible. Probably in a Mr Gumby voice, too.

Although, actually, some of us do have pretty good answers to the question, and it's apparent that Rosenbaum hasn't even tried to look them up before posing with his challenge. He could have looked up Sean Carroll, who gives a characteristically thoughtful and rather philosophical answer.

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — "Why is there something rather than nothing?" — doesn't make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like "The most natural universe is one that doesn't exist" possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe.

Or perhaps he could have looked up Victor Stenger, who is a bit more blunt.

What this example illustrates is that many simple systems are unstable, that is, have limited lifetimes as they undergo spontaneous phase transitions to more complex structures of lower energy. Since "nothing" is as simple as it gets, we would not expect it to be completely stable. In some models of the origin of the universe, the vacuum undergoes a spontaneous phase transition to something more complicated, like a universe containing matter. The transition nothing-to-something is a natural one, not requiring any external agent.

As Nobel Laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, "The answer to the ancient question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' would then be that 'nothing' is unstable."

Of course, those guys are mere physicists. Nothing they could say would be at all persuasive.

Rosenbaum goes on a mad scramble to drop names in a scattershot fashion, including such luminaries as Eagleton, Berlinski, and Plantinga, which ought to dazzle you right there, but unfortunately among all the twits he also dug up a friend, John Wilkins. John is a nice guy, but he does have an ugly blind spot when it comes to atheists, despite being one himself (oh, he will hate me for that). It might be because we Affirmative Atheists have been poking him in the eye with this stuff for so many years. Anyway, Rosenbaum wrote to Wilkins and asked him to do his homework for him, and list some of the nasty habits of the New Atheists.

For now my objections to the "New" Atheists (who are a vocal subset of the Old Atheists, and who I call Affirmative Atheists) are the same as my objections to organized religion:

1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.

Oh, that is just too much. I can guess John actually will be a bit embarrassed about the fact that Rosenbaum is using his argument to justify setting up a new tribe, Usagnostics, in opposition to Themtheists and Thematheists.

It's a silly argument in the first place. Whenever we take a position on anything, it immediately opens up the possibility of opposition and segregation into multiple camps. We don't like brussels sprouts; They love the slimy little things. Tribes are what people do, naturally and spontaneously. The question is always about how they deal with other tribes — shall we execute Brussels Sprouts Eaters, or is it sufficient to merely deport them, or shall we just have an information campaign and make fun of the crazy people who eat the awful green balls?

John throws out another canard. We've been over this so many times…

4. Knowability: We are all atheist about some things: Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on. [Which is why the "are you agnostic about fairies?" rejoinder is just dumb.] But it is a long step from making existence claims about one thing (fairies, Thor) to a general denial of the existence of all possible deities. I do not think the god of, say John Paul II exists. But I cannot speak to the God of Leibniz. No evidence decides that.

"Are you agnostic about fairies?" is a good question, because it highlights what people actually think. John gives the right answer; he doesn't believe in fairies. Most people say the same thing. The point is that it is not only possible, it is reasonable to reject major categories of belief. John also gives the right answer about the Catholic god, which is just as phantasmal as fairies, and he also gives the very same answer about deist or pantheist gods that all the New Atheists give. Neither I nor Dawkins nor Larry Moran nor any atheist I've ever talked to will say that we have evidence that the remote and abstract God of Leibniz does not exist.

I know he hates it when we say this, be Wilkins is awfully hard to distinguish from any other atheist, except for the fact that he insists on the label "agnostic". If it makes him feel any better, he can always call the rest of us agnostics, too. We'll humor him.

You get the idea — I'm not going to try to take apart every word in Rosenbaum's disjointed agglomeration of poorly thought out nonsense. But I will leave you with one little phrase from the article that tells you everything you need to know:

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship…

Goodnight, Ron Rosenbaum.


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