Ron Rosenbaum has written a piece in Slate on agnosticism, in which he generously quotes an Australian “scientist”, that is, me. Oh dear. This is going to set the cat among the pigeons. And indeed one such cat, my friend and sparring partner PZ Myers, has already responded. Read and decide for yourselves. However, I reprint my email to Rosenbaum under the fold.
Ron, I would be pleased to write something for you, but on reflection – and this is before my morning coffee, so take it with a grain of salt – I do not think I can adequately explain it in less than an essay myself. I have, as by now you have no doubt discovered, tried to express my ideas in a series of posts, but if you ask me direct questions, perhaps I can answer.
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 organised religion:
1. Too much of the rhetoric and sociality is tribal: Us and Them.
2. It presumes to know what it cannot. More on this below.
3. As a consequence of 1 and 2, it tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of “weak” Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).
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.
5. But does that mean no possible evidence could decide it? That’s a much harder argument to make. Huxley thought it was in principle Unknowable, but that’s a side effect of too much German Romanticism in his tea. I can conceive of logically possible states of affairs in which a God is knowable, and I can conceive of cases in which it is certain that no God exists. All we are doing now is negotiating the price, as Shaw said.
The “map” that you will have seen on my blog divides those who make existence claims (God exists/does not exist) from those who do not (It is knowable/it is not), for individual claimed deities. It is vital to make sure that you realise each claim is indexed to a particular posited entity. One can be agnostic about one entity and atheist about others, and even theist about some, simultaneously. I happen to be atheist about most and agnostic about some (and theist about none).
There remains only the attitude one has to this subject: I am an apathetic agnostic (Greek for “don’t know, don’t care”). Ask me about something interesting, like the nature of species…
Now PZ has taken much umbrage against the tribalism claim, and I can well understand why, what with the You’re Not Helping debacle and all: accusations of tribalism are loaded with emotion. But let’s be serious; those who identify as atheists are as tribal as everyone else, some to a very vociferous and nasty degree, and some not at all, just like the rest of humanity. Including, were agnosticism to become a movement, agnostics. The fact is, atheists, new or old, simply do act tribally, denigrating the Other and all that. So too do Skeptics, Humanists, Secularists, and Pastafarians. And, were it to be the case that Ron’s New Agnostics became a coherent movemet, they would too. This is why I do not recommend a movement. All I want is to be be taken at my word. I don’t want to convince anyone else of anything about this. “Let each man hope and believe who can”, as Darwin, another famous agnostic, wrote before gender-inclusive language became the norm.
But the objection to being called “tribal” is not supported by starting out “Ron Rosenbaum [is] a chipper flibbertigibbet who is proudly agnostic (no problem with that) and as dumb as they come (which is a problem)” and calling agnostics “Same Old Ineffectual Wafflers”. That certainly looks tribalistic to me.
So, I’m not an atheist in the general sense. I’m not a faithiest. I’m not a “fellow traveller” or a Mysterian, or any of those. I am simply an agnostic. In fact, I am a Militant Agnostic. Not only do I say “I don’t know”, I rigidly insist that you do not either. Good thing, then, that I don’t care…