The rise of the new agnostics.

Scrutinizing culture.
June 28 2010 2:03 PM

An Agnostic Manifesto

At least we know what we don't know.

(Continued from Page 2)

We had an exchange over a dinner at the Harvard Club after he had given a talk there promoting his new religiosity, which seemed to me just a more mystified version of Aquinas' uncaused causation, the Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow bringing them into being. I asked him over dinner what it meant to stand outside time and space and how such a Supreme Being got there, and he sought refuge in evasive mysticism by asking loftily, "What is time?" To which I replied, "You go first."

"Troublemaker," he muttered to the woman sitting next to him. Yes, agnostics are troublemakers!

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But I was troubled by the lack of intellectual ferment in the agnostic world. It's true the works of David Berlinski, most recently The Devil's Delusion,take on the new atheist science from an agnostic point of view. And recently there was a stir occasioned by Paul Kurtz, the much-admired former editor of the agnostic/atheist publication The Skeptical Inquirer who had taken to the pages of the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry to attack the "true believer atheists," whom he called "true unbelievers" for behaving just like religious zealots:

We need to ask: are there fundamentalist "true unbelievers"? Many secular-atheists in twentieth-century totalitarian societies were indeed fundamentalists in the sense that they sought to impose a strict ideological code and willingly used state power and brutal violence against anyone who dissented. Stalinism is the best example of the readiness to punish deviation in the name of "the holy secular doctrine," which the commissars in the gulags used to enforce obedience. Fortunately, the extremes of this form of doctrinal terror have declined with the end of the cold war.

Nonetheless, there still lingers among some true unbelievers an unflinching conviction toward atheism—God does not exist, period; they are convinced of that! This kind of dogmatic attitude holds that this and only this is true and that anyone who deviates from it is a fool. This insults a great number of reflective believers.

John Dewey, the noted American philosopher, observed that "The aggressive atheist seems to have something in common with traditional superstition. … The exclusive preoccupation of both militant atheism and supernaturalism is with man in isolation from nature." [A Common Faith]

This argument that some atheists had become "true unbelievers" provoked a war of words (both online and in print) between atheists and agnostics that was valuable in distinguishing the two.

Then the writer John Farrell referred me to the agnosticism blog of John Wilkins, an Australian thinker, which introduced me to the fact there is an ongoing debate between the New Atheists and the Newer Agnostics. * When I e-mailed Wilkins about what the most important points of contention in these debates were, he sent me back this provocative five-point response, which I'll reprint below with my own annotations:

"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."

So true. The verbal vitriol and vituperation that self-proclaimed New Atheists indulge in in the comments section of crusading atheist and Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins' blog recently caused Dawkins himself, horrified by the not excessively "bright" mob he'd created, to shut down his comments section. (The concern was attacks on my fellow Templeton Cambridge fellow Chris Mooney who is a pro-science atheist but not an "incompatibilist," a nonsense term I don't have the patience to explain but for which they wanted his blood.)

2. [The New Atheism] 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).