Slate's Ron Rosenbaum doesn't understand atheism

5 July 2010

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ZJ: Recently, Slate.com published an article by Ron Rosenbaum criticizing atheism and proposing agnosticism as a superior alternative. In examining his arguments, it's apparent that Rosenbaum has a number of misconceptions about atheism, science, and their relation to one another, which severely weakens his case against the atheistic position.

Rosenbaum opens by stating that "Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism." But while agnosticism isn't synonymous with atheism, it is compatible with atheism, and is often present alongside atheism. While some agnostics may not identify as atheists, their religious views could still be considered atheist, simply because they do not hold a belief in any gods. And regardless of what they may think about whether it's possible to know if gods exist, if they don't actually believe that any gods exist, that is a position of atheism. Agnosticism isn't the same thing as atheism, but they aren't mutually exclusive, either.

Rosenbaum then describes agnosticism as "opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer." However, the degree of certainty that atheism does offer is warranted. It's important to understand that the certainty of atheism is not absolute, or final, or forever impervious to modification. It is provisional, and open to change in the face of new evidence.

But this certainty is warranted. The available evidence does not reflect the existence of gods. It does reflect the nonexistence of gods. And unless additional evidence is found that indicates the existence of gods, there is no reason for us to believe they exist. So while the certainty of atheism is only tentative, it is indeed warranted—and it is much more warranted than belief in gods.

Rosenbaum continues, saying that "agnostics see atheism as 'a theism'—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety." He may only be using this as a figure of speech, but atheism is not a kind of theistic belief, because it does not involve belief in any deities. It's actually the absence of such beliefs. Similarly, atheism is not a position based on faith. Instead, it is a lack of faith. We don't have faith that there are no gods, we just have no faith that there are any gods.

Simply not believing in gods does not involve any kind of faith, because it does not require taking a position that is unsupported by evidence or contradicted by evidence. We just find the reasons for belief in gods to be insufficient and unconvincing. Faith is not necessary in order to not believe in something that there is no reason to believe in.

Elaborating on this point, Rosenbaum claims that "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." But a measure of confidence in our ability to explain the workings of nature is merited, and very well-supported by a long line of successes in our past and current efforts to understand the universe. This is not a kind of faith—it is a reasonable expectation based on evidence. And having this degree of certainty is nothing like the religious act of worship, because it does not involve ritually honoring a deity.

In any case, the ability or inability of science to explain the origins of the universe is irrelevant to the validity of atheism, because the lack of an explanation for how the universe began does not make the existence of gods any more well-supported. The absence of such an explanation is not a weakness of atheism, because it still provides no reason to believe that any gods exist.

In an ugly bit of rhetorical excess, Rosenbaum says that "some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor." These two positions and dispositions aren't exactly comparable. The inquisitions in Spain, Portugal and Rome involved the most staggering violations of human rights, in the form of intense persecution of those who followed other faiths, and show trials for imaginary crimes like divination and witchcraft. The accused were often tortured to obtain a confession and identify other alleged heretics, or else they would be burned alive. In contrast, simply not believing in gods does not entail violating the rights of people we disagree with, let alone torturing and killing them. It's really not the same kind of thing at all.

Rosenbaum goes on to say that "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 this question can just as easily be turned around: Why should we expect there to be nothing instead of something? Why is it that "something" requires explanation, and yet "nothing" can apparently just be assumed? Making such an assumption would seem to require the same kind of knowledge that Rosenbaum insists we may never have.

Regardless, the absence of an answer to this question is, again, not a shortcoming of atheism, because it does nothing to support the existence of gods. If we do not know why the universe exists, then all that means is that we don't know. It doesn't mean we now know that the existence of gods is somehow more likely. We don't know that, because we just don't know. And if it did turn out that the universe created itself from nothing, then the objection that this is philosophically or logically impossible would still do nothing to overturn or invalidate the evidence supporting this.

Rosenbaum then says, "scientists have tried to answer it with theories of 'multiverses' and 'vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,' none of which strikes me as persuasive." But if any of these theories do eventually develop into a cohesive, well-supported and superior explanation of the universe's origin, they aren't going to be undermined just because Rosenbaum may find them personally unsatisfying, and this will do nothing to diminish their evidentiary basis or their ability to provide useful and valid answers. It seems rather odd that Rosenbaum would criticize science for failing to explain the cause of the universe, and then casually dismiss scientific efforts to do just that. Could it be that he simply doesn't want this to be explained—or at least, not explained by science?

Rosenbaum continues, saying that "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." But nobody is suggesting turning science into a religion, because there's nothing religious about it. Even if it did have "all the answers", this would still be no reason to treat it as a religion. That's just not what it is.

But if science is to be regarded as a religion, as Rosenbaum seems to imagine it is, it would be vastly more successful than any religion in history. The scientific process and its ongoing acquisition, confirmation and revision of knowledge, based on the observation of reality, has generated far more useful and reliable results than the alleged divine revelations of religious believers. Religion gives us laws about killing people for worshipping the wrong god. Science gives us the laws of motion. Which has been more helpful?

Furthermore, the discoveries of science have allowed the development of technologies that are much more effective than religious ritual. All the prayer in the world, no matter what religion you follow, will do nothing to save a child with diabetes. Science will give you synthetic insulin, and tell you the proper dose to use as well. The so-called miracles of religion pale in comparison to the accomplishments of science. Religions have stories of people levitating and magically ascending into the sky. Science allows us to live 200 miles above the earth for months at a time, and then come back alive.

Do we really want to go down the road of suggesting that science is being treated as just another religion? Because compared to science, religion just can't compete.

Rosenbaum goes on to say that "Atheists have no evidence—and certainly no proof!—that science will ever solve the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Just because other difficult-seeming problems have been solved does not mean all difficult problems will always be solved."

Quite simply, this is a total inversion of rational thought. A lengthy series of successful discoveries using the methods of science does suggest that these methods will also be successful in answering other questions, including questions such as the origin of the universe. And in no way does the past and current success of science suggest that it will be unsuccessful in the future. At any point in the history of scientific progress, anyone could have said the same thing as Rosenbaum: "Just because other problems have been solved doesn't mean all problems can be solved." And yet science made successful progress anyway. The possibility that it may not be successful has never been a compelling reason to give up on even trying in the first place.

And if our current successes aren't a reliable indicator of our future successes, then they're an even less reliable indicator of our future failure. Why would our success at finding answers suggest that we're incapable of doing just that? Rosenbaum's position is rather like saying, "Well, we've been immensely successful so far, so let's just stop right now, because this obviously isn't going to work." What sense does that make?

Rosenbaum then claims "atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation 'ex nihilo'". Actually, a well-supported theory of the origins of the universe would not be superstitious at all. Superstitions are not based upon evidence or knowledge, and a coherent explanation of how the universe began, based on the evidence available, could not rightfully be considered a kind of superstition. And, once again, the lack of such an explanation does not make the existence of gods any more probable, and does not constitute a defect in atheism.

Rosenbaum continues to hammer on this point, saying "In fact, I challenge any atheist ... 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." Quite simply, answering this question is not the responsibility of atheism. It does not need to be answered in order to not believe in any gods, because atheism does not depend on having an explanation for "why there's something rather than nothing". The absence of this explanation does nothing to weaken the atheistic position, because it does nothing to support the existence of gods. Implying that it does, when in fact, we just don't know, is nothing more than an argument from ignorance.

Rosenbaum does say that "I accept all that science has proven with evidence and falsifiable hypotheses but don't believe there is evidence or falsifiable certitude that science can prove or disprove everything." But science doesn't need to be able to prove or disprove everything in order for atheism to be valid. Even if science can't prove or disprove everything, this doesn't provide a reason to believe that any gods exist. These limits of science would not comprise a refutation of atheism.

Rosenbaum goes on to say that "Agnosticism doesn't contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties", and later claims that "Agnosticism doesn't fear uncertainty. It doesn't cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism."

But Rosenbaum's version of agnosticism goes far beyond merely acknowledging uncertainty when necessary. Instead, it attempts to impose an inappropriate degree of uncertainty upon certainties that are warranted: certainties such as the nonexistence of gods, given the available evidence, and the likely success of science given its past accomplishments. Again, these certainties are not absolute, and shouldn't be regarded as such. But neither should they be misleadingly depicted as more uncertain than they really are.

And because these certainties could indeed be shown to be incorrect, there's no sense in calling them "dogmas". They are not something that we "cling to in the dark". We don't have to, because they stand on their own in the light of evidence. Allowing our beliefs to be guided by evidence is really the opposite of dogma. If anyone's in the dark here, it isn't us. Rosenbaum may say that his agnosticism "doesn't contend there are no certainties", but when he tries to force uncertainty onto certainties that are quite reasonable, it's difficult to see why this kind of agnosticism is a preferable position.

Rosenbaum then says, "New Atheism offers the glamour of fraudulent rebelliousness, while agnosticism has only the less eye-catching attractions of humility. The willingness to say 'I don't know' is less attention-getting than 'I know, I know. I know it all.'" But the so-called "glamour of fraudulent rebelliousness" is simply irrelevant to atheism. Even if he finds certain attitudes or expressions of atheism to be distasteful, this still does nothing to show why we should believe that any gods exist. A criticism of atheists is one thing, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a criticism of atheism.

If Rosenbaum's agnosticism is supposed to incorporate humility, it's difficult to see where exactly that humility comes into play. There's nothing humble about ignoring well-supported and warranted certainties and insisting that they must really be uncertain. That's not saying "I don't know". That's saying "I know better than reality". But ensuring that our degree of certainty is proportionate to the evidence is a genuine humility. It means being humble enough to change our beliefs to reflect reality. And this does mean recognizing when we do not know something, but it also means affirming that we do know something when we have enough evidence to be reasonably certain of its truth. Rosenbaum's agnosticism and its rejection of these warranted certainties, replacing them with an across-the-board uncertainty, is anything but humble.

Finally, Rosenbaum says, "The courage to admit we don't know and may never know what we don't know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know." But casting doubt upon everything with no regard for whether it's warranted is not difficult and hardly requires any courage. It is, however, irresponsible, and lazy—a way of exempting yourself from the requirement that your beliefs concord with reality, in favor of imposing a total uncertainty upon everything regardless of how appropriate it may be.

What's truly challenging is following the evidence wherever it may lead you, and having the courage to adjust your own beliefs as necessary. And that includes the courage to actually know things when the evidence supports them, rather than clinging to the perceived safety of pure uncertainty. Ultimately, Rosenbaum's misplaced uncertainty is really no better than what he believes to be misplaced certainty. Both of these mistakes are rooted in a disregard for evidence, and both are just as wrong.

The arguments that he's provided here are not a criticism of atheism, but only what he imagines atheism to be. He accuses atheism of offering more certainty than it really does, or ever has, and of failing to answer questions that it was never intended or required to answer in the first place. Instead, it is Rosenbaum who fails to answer the actual position of atheism, because nothing he's said here constitutes a reason to believe in any gods. He hasn't uncovered any deficiencies in atheism—he just doesn't understand what it is. And if these misleading and irrelevant attacks on atheism are supposed to make agnosticism look better in comparison, let's just say I'm still on the fence.

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