Friday, July 2, 2010

The Strawman of the Faithful Atheist (Part 1)

Ron Rosenbaum – The rise of the new agnostics

Ron Rosenbaum wants to distance agnosticism from atheism, claiming that atheists are just as faithful to their dogma as theists are to theirs. He does this in a number of ways, at various points either misrepresenting the truth or misunderstanding it, but these logical errors are very common so I want to address them.

Very importantly, in the early stages of his article, he names names. The reason this is important – and admirably rigorous of him – is because when you say ‘atheists say X’ you could be referring to any fringe idiot who self-identifies as atheist, or to some hypothetical extreme version of the hypothesis that no real person ascribes to; but when you say ‘Richard Dawkins says X’ you allow your claims to be refuted. Possibly he should have been even more rigorous by actually checking to see if these people (Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens) had said what he claims they did, but still, it is refreshing to see someone criticise real people instead of untraceable keyboard warriors. Now, I personally have not read much by Dennett or Hitchens as yet (though what I have read/seen leads me to believe that it is unlikely that they would have said what Rosenbaum intimates) but I am reasonably well-versed in Dawkins’ claims, so I will focus on those.

Rosenbaum claims that atheists “display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence.” And, I suppose you could claim that some self-identified atheists who don’t truly understand the movement do indeed act in such a way. But not Dawkins. Dawkins makes a point, in The God Delusion, of explaining the spectrum of theistic probability – which, for the uninitiated, is a representation of how certain a person is about the existence of god, with 1 being 100% certainty in god and 7 being 100% certainty in no god. As he represents it, a person who calls themself a 6 is saying “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” Dawkins says that he himself, and he suspects the vast majority of those who identify as atheist, would identify as about a 6.5 – essentially believing that there is not one jot of evidence that supports the existence of any divine being, while allowing for the possibility that they might be some day proven wrong. Indeed, at the same time he also points out how dangerous a pure 7 is – how like a 1 it is in its unwarranted certainty. So essentially Rosenbaum and Dawkins have much the same to say on this topic – both of them warn that professing complete certainty in anything – particularly something that would be so difficult to know with any degree of certainty – is unscientific and just as bad as ardent theism. Rosenbaum, however, accuses Dawkins and other atheists of this crime, despite their fervency in avoiding it.

Rosenbaum says at one point that his New Agnostic’s t-shirt will read “I just don’t know”. Atheism’s will read “Neither do I, but the evidence so far suggests almost zero probability of a deity, so we’ll act on the assumption that there isn’t one. Still, we’re always looking for new evidence and if we find any, we’ll freely admit it.” I suppose the print will have to be pretty small. You might need glasses.

But this is the problem with agnosticism. It doesn’t really tell you anything. Despite what he claims, it is a hybrid of Weak Theism and Weak Atheism. All the attributes he ascribes to it – doubt in complete certainty, radical skepticism – are not only attributes of atheism but are almost by definition not attributes of agnosticism. Doubt in complete certainty is a given, but skepticism? Skepticism is not being non-partisan and standing in the middle of two groups. Skepticism is looking at a hypothesis and thinking critically about it, and making an assessment of its veracity. Atheism is not really about saying “There is no God” – that is the much rarer anti-theism. Atheism is about saying “Phenomenon A is caused by natural law X” and not involving God in the explanation. A quick look at the etymology of the terms will tell you this – anti-theism is against the idea of God or trying to disprove the possibility of God, but atheism simply takes God out of the equation.

So if you consider yourself skeptical, you should look at what theism claims – that God exists in a particular form and has performed particular acts, and that He intervenes in the lives of humans, tells them of His nature and that anyone who says that His nature is any different is wrong/heretical. That the universe acts according to the laws of a book written by people under the impression that God was instructing them, most of which are demonstrably false. Then look at what atheism claims – that the universe follows natural laws that we are slowly learning about through observation, that these observations will hold true to anyone at any time, and that you can test these for yourself…and, as a side note, that these laws require no deities to explain them.

I want to stress this – the fact that there are no deities involved in the process really is just a side note, one that has been brought to the fore by the fact that theists still ask “But, wait, where is God in all this?” Looking critically at both theories does not result in fence-sitting. The truth is, there is no fence between theism and atheism – the competing theories aren’t “God” and “no God”, they are “God” and “science”. It’s a false dichotomy, perpetuated by those who don’t understand and those who wish to denigrate atheism by attacking it on the theists’ terms.

As an aside, you can see how non-skeptical and deliberately non-inquisitive Rosenbaum is by his self-appointed alliance with Mysterians, who believe that we flat-out cannot know the nature of consciousness from within consciousness. Though I don’t pretend to know anything about the Mysterian movement, if it is as he describes then this is the kind of intellectual apathy that appalls me. It’s not a theory, it’s a lack of a theory; a commitment to staying out of the discussion, to not even trying to find the answer. This is agnosticism in a nutshell – saying “I don’t know, and I’m not even going to try to find out.” Come to think of it, that’s what should go on their t-shirt.

(Part 2 here)

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