June 29, 2010

Those darned "new atheists"

This frustratingly shallow article in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum attempts to make the case for "new agnosticism" by casting atheists and theists as two sides of an arrogant, closed-minded, faith-based coin. It begins:
Let's get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.
Well, no. That's not what those words mean. And no radical skeptic would consider for a moment the possibility that unseen, all-powerful being(s) are influencing our day-to-day lives despite the absence of a shred of evidence of it over the entire course of history. And it's not like nobody was looking.

The reason the "new atheists" as so shrill and strident about the fact that there are no gods (yes, we call conclusions reached after thorough study of overwhelming evidence "facts") is not that we hate religious people. It's not that we, as the author of this article believes, "display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence." In fact, every available bit of evidence points to no gods.

Before memetics, it was puzzling to see that so many people believed in something that wasn't real. But now we understand the dynamics of mind viruses and how certain ideas catch on regardless of how true they are. The god meme grew from below, out of people's desire to have a simple explanation of things they didn't understand, and from above, as priests and politicians found they could use it to control people. Which they still do. There's a reason churches are tax exempt.

No, the reason we are shouting so loud that there is no god is that we believe everything will work better if people think and act based on reality rather than on fantasy. It makes me nauseous when I see the President of the United States talk about his imaginary friend. What other ridiculous things does he believe and how do they factor into his decision making? How much did fairy stories influence Bush to get us into two wars? And we won't even talk about the beliefs of the kids who crashed five planes on Sept. 11.

The "new atheists" see the tipping point coming and we want to kill the god meme before it kills us. We have important decisions to make and I'd rather not have my elected officials making them based on chicken entrails.

As for the "new agnostic," let me offer Ron Rosenbaum a better definition: An atheist who's afraid to tell his mother. Ron, grow a pair.

9 comments:

wwjimd said...

Richard, I am certain you know what a strawman argument is. I think the level of criticism leveled is far below your ability, and I feel disappointed. Come on, starting off by bitching about proper word usage? Give me a break.

Part of me thinks, I must be missing something. Are you trying to pull something here, or should I really take this at face value?

@wwjimd

Richard said...

As far as I can tell, Zach, you're missing not just something but everything.

Johnny said...

Interesting ...
That Rosembaum article seems to only focus on a single question.. "Explination of why the universe exists" ...
In his eyes, not having an answer to this therefore "invalidates" both Theisms, and/or puts them on some level field. Irrelevant...
For example, we have never seen the far side of Pluto, but that doesn't "invalidate" people that refuse to believe that Thor & Cupid live there, nor put them on the same footing with those that Do believe Thor & Cupid live there...

jaytorr said...

An agnostic is just an atheist in denial.

I would expect an agnostic manifesto to at least attempt to define agnosticism in real, practical terms, but as far as I can tell Rosenbaum says an agnostic is someone who thinks God exists with probability [0.000...1 , 0.999...9]. That definition implies that agnosticism is a meaningless label - for practical purposes, it matters a lot if you think your version of God exists with p=0.01 or p=0.99. By comparison, it doesn't really matter that much if you think God exists with p=0.000 or p=0.001 (Pascal notwithstanding).

I wish people were not afraid of using numbers in their arguments. They really help clarify your thinking and avoid internal contradictions and denial.

Cristi Stoica said...

Someone claims that "p is true", other claims "p is false", while other "I don't know whether p is true or false.". The third position may be completed in both directions: "I don't know whether p is true or false, but I believe that it is true", or "but I believe that it is false". It also can remain as it is: "I don't know whether p is true or false, and I don't prefer it to be true, or to be false". These nuances are not splitting the hair: for the people who make them, they really are important. You can be a theist and acknowledge that you don't know, but you believe. In this case, you are still agnostic, because you don't know. Similarly, you can be agnostic but believe that there is no God. There are many nuances. This has nothing to do with the amount of evidence or the lack of evidence. The true skeptic can doubt about all appearances.

I think that believing that you know there is no God is not the same as don't knowing there is God. This is why I consider that we cannot identify skeptics with atheists. An atheist may be skeptic, but this is not necessary. Yet, many atheists claim that atheism is skepticism. I think that this meme is incorrect. It is an efficient meme, but it is not right.

Perhaps this tendency of identifying atheism with a skeptical position is related to the tendency of identifying atheism with a scientific position. But this again is incorrect. I agree that atheism is more close to skepticism and to the scientific method than theism is. But agnosticism is closer, at least so far. Up to the present moment there is no result proving the existence of God, or its nonexistence, which has been published in a peer-reviewed journal and which can be reproduced experimentally, or whose logical validity can be verified by the peers. Also, there is no such result proving that we cannot know whether there is God or not.

So, I would conclude that it is a matter of belief whether to accept p or its negation, and even to remain undecided. Is this choice more than the survival of the fittest meme in our mind? Who is he who transcended the laws of Nature and is beyond the blind battle of the selfish memes?

Richard said...

There will never be a peer-reviewed article proving the nonexistence of anything, because that's impossible.

Given that there is no evidence whatsoever of supernatural forces of any kind (despite James Randi's longstanding offer of a million dollars for such evidence), I think skepticism necessarily leads to atheism. Positions other than atheism are, as you said, the result of selfish memes winning out over reality.

Cristi Stoica said...

Randi's offer is a good argument, but still not a proof. Many things we now know are true were thought to be false for long time, because there was no generally accepted evidence for them. There were times when scientists denied the possibility that rock exist in the sky, or the possibility of flight with heavier than air machines. Would someday a computer program pass the Turing test? The list is very long. What is possible and what not?

I confess that I am just a man. I don't know what it is in the sky, not even what is in the mind of other people. This is why I equally respect them without regard of their religion, or lack of religion. I cannot say that the personal, inner experiences reported by other humans are illusions, just because they are not similar to mine.

I only trust mathematical proof, but I know that this by itself cannot tell how the things are, only that sometimes it can tell us how they cannot be. I am not meme-free, but I think that the best I can do is to let the memes come and go. There are two ways: reject all memes, or let all memes come and go, let them be free, enjoy them without being attached. The goal is the same: to be free. You can do this by being closed, or by being open.

Sorry for talking about myself, I did this because I don't know the Truth, only my subjective view. I consider this view to be based on something I am thinking now to name "open skepticism" (I thought I invented this term right now, but Google told me others are using it too. I do not know if they are giving it the same meaning).

Peter said...

I think belive in something gives people hope that in the future a better life will await them. They would rather except something untrue instead of going around in the dark. That their choice....

barbara dillon said...

I absolutely loved this comment of yours (even if I do wish there was a big daddy in the sky to take care of me). I used to be in a cult, it took me years of internal questioning, looking at things that made me uncomfortable and then turning my back on my entire life (friends and all). Hearing someone speak too a very real problem (of those in power believing and defending the inconsistent whims of religion) in an entertaining way is a very refreshing read indeed. (ps. I still wish i could find that invisible s#b. it really would be nice not to have to face the music and grow up)