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.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

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.

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the "New Atheism"—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it's important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

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I would not go so far as to argue that there's a "new agnosticism" on the rise. But I think it's time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as "a theism"—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. 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. (And some of them can behave as intolerantly to heretics who deviate from their unproven orthodoxy as the most unbending religious Inquisitor.)

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 the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of "multiverses" and "vacuums filled with quantum potentialities," none of which strikes me as persuasive. (For a review of the centrality, and insolubility so far, of the something-from-nothing question, I recommend this podcast interview with Jim Holt, who is writing a book on the subject.)

Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship, being lectured to by believers and nonbelievers, I found myself feeling more than anything unconvinced by certainties on either side. And feeling the need for solidarity and identity with other doubters. Thus my call for a revivified agnosticism. Our T-shirt will read: I just don't know. (I should probably say here that I still consider myself Jewish in everything but the believing in God part, which, I'll admit, others may take exception to.)

Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist's criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself. 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.

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. And so atheists really exist on the same superstitious plane as Thomas Aquinas, who tried to prove by logic the possibility of creation "ex nihilo" (from nothing). His eventual explanation entailed a Supreme Being standing outside of time and space somehow endowing it with existence (and interfering once in a while) without explaining what caused this source of "uncaused causation" to be created in the first place.

This is—or should be—grade-school stuff, but many of the New Atheists seemed to have stopped thinking since their early grade-school science-fair triumphs. I'm thinking in particular here of the ones who like to call themselves "the brights." (Or have they given up on that comically unfortunate term?) The "brights" seem like rather dim bulbs when it comes to this question. It's amazing how the New Atheists boastfully stride over this pons asinorum as if it weren't there.

You know about the pons asinorum, right? The so-called "bridge of asses" described by medieval scholars? Initially it referred to Euclid's Fifth Theorem, the one in which geometry really gets difficult and the sheep are separated from the asses among students, and the asses can't get across the bridge at all. Since then the phrase has been applied to any difficult theorem that the asses can't comprehend. And when it comes to the question of why is there something rather than nothing, the "New Atheists" still can't get their asses over the bridge, although many of them are too ignorant to realize that. This sort of ignorance, a condition called "anosognosia," which my friend Errol Morris is exploring in depth on his New York Times blog, means you don't know what you don't know. Or you don't know how stupid you are.