Ron Rosenbaum has written a piece for Slate called An Agnostic Manifesto. It’s a complete howler from start to finish. A full-scale rebuttal of Rosenbaum’s argument – and that’s being generous – can be found at Pharyngula.
As anyone who reads this blog already knows (there are some of you, I promise!), I like Ron Rosenbaum. He’s a top-notch investigative reporter who wrote one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in recent memory (Explaining Hitler). That’s why I’m dismayed by his article. He’s going after scientism and calling it atheism. And how confused he is.
His arguments for agnosticism- there aren’t any new ones here at all – are meant to “hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.” But atheism is not a certitude. As Sam Harris – that world-famous atheist – never tires of pointing out, the word atheism shouldn’t even need to exist. It only does because religious belief is so widespread. We have no word for non-astrologer. This is worth considering as Rosenbaum makes his way through the muck of his own misunderstanding.
Rosenbaum actually gives the game away early: “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.” This is just after he makes clear that “I still consider myself Jewish in everything but the believing in God part.” So Rosenbaum doesn’t believe in God, agrees substantially with the “new atheists'” arguments agains religion, but for some reason feels the need to distinguish himself. They just aren’t punk enough.
Rosenbaum’s gripe, if I have it correctly, isn’t with atheism at all; it’s with scientism, which he scandalously and sloppily attributes to people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. But this is like confusing meliorism with utopianism. His Big Unanswerable Question for the atheists is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He apparently is of the opinion that many, if not most, atheists think they have the answer to such a (trick) question. He hasn’t read much of the literature, clearly. Nowhere in my reading have I come across such an inane claim as to know “why” the universe exists, unless you count various scriptural claims. He has it ass backwards.
So obsessed has he grown with what he believes to be his pot of gold that he even posits the Rosenbaum Challenge:
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.
Even if we all agree that we cannot know the answer to such a question, science at least suggests it may be knowable. Rosenbaum accepts the Mystery as eternal. Why? If scientists thought that way we would still be the cowering subjects of priests and shamans, trembling at the wrath of the gods each time we heard thunder crack beyond the hills. The anti-science posture among some intellectuals has really got to go.
Anyway, one could go through the whole article in similar fashion. But, again, why? Perhaps this “agnostic manifesto” gives some of the best reasons to just come out of the closet and go atheist. Rosenbaum’s agnosticism is little more than a caricature of what he pretends to detest (which is just what he says about the atheists). And if he really wanted the scientific-cum-atheist community to take his ranting seriously, he should’ve kept his mouth shut about his Templeton Fellowship.