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.

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.

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, 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.

Alas, agnostics still suffer from association with atheists by theists, and with theists by atheists. So let us be more precise about what agnostics are and aren't. They aren't disguised creationists. In fact, the term agnostic was coined in 1869 by one of Darwin's most fervent followers, Thomas Henry Huxley, famously known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his defense of evolutionary theory. Here's how he defined his agnosticism:

This principle may be stated in various ways but they all amount to this: that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty.

Huxley originally defined his agnosticism against the claims of religion, but it also applies to the claims of science in its know-it-all mode. I should point out 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. Agnosticism doesn't contend there are no certainties; it simply resists unwarranted untested or untestable certainties.

Agnosticism doesn't fear uncertainty. It doesn't cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

The circumstances in which I found the quotes from Huxley are worth noting since they point up the undeserving misapprehension of agnosticism as some subcomponent of atheism.

I came upon the Huxley essay in a book called The Agnostic Reader, a lone nod to agnosticism in an entire yardlong shelf of smug New Atheist polemics at a local Borders. The book's latest essay dates back to 1949. Time for an agnosticism revival, I say.

Why has agnosticism fallen out of favor? 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."

Humility in the face of mystery has been a recurrent theme of mine. I wrote most recently about the problem of consciousness and found myself allied with the agnostic group of philosophers known as the Mysterians, who argue that we are epistemically, flat-out unable to know the nature of consciousness while being within consciousness. I'm reluctant to call agnostics Mysterians, much as I like the proto-punk ballad "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. But I do like that agnosticism, which in fact can be more combative than its image, does have a sort of punk, disruptive, troublemaker side.

I was once called a "troublemaker" by no less than Terry Eagleton, once the wunderkind neo-Marxist post-modernist guru who ruined the minds of several generations of comp lit students and who has now turned into a promoter of a New Religiosity, with books such as Reason, Faith, and Revolution and On Evil.

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!

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).

Cue James Brown chords: Say it loud! We're agnostic and proud!

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.

Fascinating. He dismisses Catholicism, but he won't deny outright the arguments of a philosophical believer such as Liebniz. I have been following with interest the argument of neo-Leibniz defenders of the existence of God, such as  Alvin Plantinga, and his critics, such as  John Hick. *

5. But does that mean no *possible* evidence could decide it [existence or nonexistence of God]? 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.

Wilkins' suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

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.

As Errol Morris put it in the conclusion of one his epic multipart New York Times examination of anosognosia—not knowing what we don't know:

We have "the desire but not the wherewithal to make sense of experience. One might easily forsee that this would lead to unending unmitigated frustration and suffering. But here's where self-deception [and] anosognosia ... step in. We wouldn't be able to make sense of anything, but we would never be aware of that fact."

Like I said, it's complicated. But the world has suffered enough from oversimplifications. The agnostic moment has come.

* Correction, July 2, 2010: This piece originally referred to John Wilkins as an Australian scientist. He is not a scientist. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, July 28, 2010:This article originally referredto Alvin Plantinga, incorrectly,as a Positivist. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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