Generally, I’ve found that self-identified agnostics fall into two main categories (a) atheists who want to keep their friends, and (b) accommodationists and self-righteous non-believers who don’t own a proper dictionary.
Ron Rosenbaum is clearly a member of the latter camp.
He wrote this article for Slate that’s filled with the same sneering and obvious strawmen that’s so typical of diatribes like this. His argument is basically that agnosticism is the only real skepticism and that atheism is–get this–a faith-based position. Wanna see my surprised face?
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.)
I’d delve further into this (and believe me, there’s plenty to delve into), but the fact is that the sort of atheists Rosenbaum has a problem with just don’t exist. Maybe you’d be able to find a handful of atheists who claim to be certain that there isn’t a god. But they’re every bit a fringe position as people who think the Earth is flat.
Most atheists, myself included, are more than willing to admit a lack of certainty in our position about the supernatural. And most atheists don’t adopt this mystical “faith position” that’s so oft mentioned, but rarely demonstrated. I’ve never met anyone claiming to be an atheist that’s said “I know there’s no god. I have no evidence for this, but I believe it to be true.” A statement like that would actually be laughable to me.
Ultimately, though, I think Rosenbaum’s biggest failure is that he doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between saying “I know there’s no god,” (which no one in their right mind does), and “I don’t believe in god.”
Atheists are people of science and reason. And science is all about the best explanation. The best explanation so far is a godless one, until evidence is presented that makes a theist explanation more likely. Seriously, what is so difficult about that?
Dan Dennett also brings up a good point:
Have you noticed how self-proclaimed (and self-satisfied) agnostics often sneer at us arrogant, over-confident atheists without expressing any parallel contempt for the Pope, Rick Warren, the imams, and so on for their similar if opposite avowals of certainty? In the future I plan to insist on agnostics being equal-opportunity sneerers.
It really doesn’t seem like the “New Agnostics,” as Rosenbaum calls them, are really interested in intellectual integrity. If they were, one would think they’d at least have the wherewithal to understand the meaning of the concept you’re attempting to criticize, and make sure that you’re not beating away at strawmen.
But, hey… I can’t be certain.