Thursday, August 05, 2010

Ron Rosenbaum and the New Agnostics

Only by being published in Slate does Ron Rosenbaum's essay, An Agnostic Manifesto, escape being merely listed in my The Stupid! It Burns label. Indeed Rosenbaum's egregious stupidity is excusable only because so many people masquerading as professional public intellectuals have endorsed his views.

Rosenbaum chides the New Atheists for pretending certainty where they have none, for failing to answer certain "big questions" of philosophy, and for "excessive tribalism".

The charge that atheists pretend certainty is nothing more than a baseless lie; as a professional journalist Rosenbaum and as a commercial journal Slate can plead only inexcusable professional negligence as an alternative to intentional falsity. The denial of certainty, the appeal to evidence, the provisional nature of skeptical conclusions is a dominant theme in all atheist writing. Indeed, one must conclude that Rosenbaum has intentionally misrepresented or negligently failed to read even the table of contents of the God Delusion, containing the chapter heading, "Why there almost certainly is no God." Perhaps English is Rosenbaum's second language; native speakers understand almost certain as not certain.

We must conclude that Rosenbaum is incapable of reading and understanding simple declarative statements in the English language, has done no research whatsoever about atheist thought or is intentionally and slanderously misrepresenting atheists' position: He is either mentally defective, professionally incompetent or intentionally lying.

Similarly, Rosenbaum uncritically quotes John Wilkins:
[I]t 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.
First of all, nobody (with the possible exception of Leibniz himself) even understands — much less actually believes — the God of Leibniz. For every professional philosopher who says he understands Leibniz' God you'll find another to call the first not just mistaken but (using circumspect but easily decoded professional jargon) an incompetent hack*. Secondly, there is a qualitative difference — much like the qualitative difference between certain and almost certain — between saying that one does not believe in any God and one disbelieves in every God.

*There's nothing special about Leibniz' God; this sort of controversy is true about every proposition that philosophers discuss... except the privilege and status even incompetent hacks dissenting philosophers deserve.

Most importantly, if no evidence decides the existence of the God of Leibniz, then what good is it? A proposition that is compatible with all logically possible evidence, a proposition whose denial is equally compatible with the facts in evidence as its affirmation, is no proposition at all: Wilkins implicitly asserts that the God of Leibniz is not the sort of statement one can even disbelieve.

It's nonsense to assert that atheists automatically deny any string of words that anyone arbitrarily attaches the "God" label to. Rosenbaum himself cites Dawkins as if not authoritative then at least representative of atheist thought; we must therefore gape in astonishment that he has failed to read, comprehend or accurately represent the first (IIRC) chapter of The God Delusion, where Dawkins makes perfectly clear that he is not addressing the metaphorical use of "God" by people such as Einstein, nor the vague, abstract (and mostly bullshit) notions of God put forth by hordes of obscurantist philosophers; he addresses the ordinary, everyday notions of God satirized by Carlin and readily apparent in the violent conflicts around the world between Shi'a and Sunni, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Christian, and given voice even in the "civilized" West by homophobia, misogyny, evolution denial, racism and cultural exceptionalism. One must believe Carlin's God to say, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." And millions must have Carlin's God to allow such a speaker to have any status at all as a public intellectual.

Rosenbaum wastes considerable ink challenging the New Atheists to answer the "big" philosophical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? There are very few truly Stupid Questions, but this one is one of them, and determining its status as a Stupid Question is philosophy 101. It's not even a "pons asinorum" that Rosenbaum fails to cross: it's easily within the capacity of a bright twelve-year-old (but not, perhaps unsurprisingly, within the capacity of journalists or philosophers). Suppose there were some answer: There is something rather than nothing because of X (whatever X happens to be). We would then immediately ask the question: Why X rather than not X? If we can ask the question, then we have just moved the problem around; If we can't ask the question, then X by definition isn't a proposition; it isn't actually an answer. The best anyone — skeptic, atheist, philosopher or theologian — can say is that something — whatever that something happens to be — just is. The controversy is about what that something is, and the atheist position is that whatever it is, the evidence strongly contradicts the idea that this something is the notion of God affirmed by billions of people:
an invisible manliving in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you.
This is the sort of God my ex-wife's mother fervently believes exists, and from fear of whom she has endured a lifetime of unhappiness, submission and terror.

The charge of excessive tribalism is equally nonsensical.

In Mars Attacks, President James Dale finally meets the invading Martians and delivers an impassioned speech extolling the benefits of cooperation between humanity and the Martians, ending with the iconic, "Why can't we all just get along?" The Martians promptly murder him.

After more than two millennia of religious wars, inquisitions, heretic burning, and the time-honored religious traditions of marginalizing, oppressing, imprisoning, torturing and murdering scientists, physicians, dissidents, artists, homosexuals and the half of the human race who have vaginas, accusing atheists of excessive tribalism is a move of gobsmacking obtusity. We cannot talk about atheists' excessive tribalism until an initiative such as Proposition 8 receives the same sort of electoral ridicule as would a similar measure forbidding marriage between the left- and the right-handed.

As long as the religious behave as they do, I'll proudly proclaim my membership of the tribe of those who are not racist, not homophobes, not misogynists, not protectors of child rapists, not authoritarians, not oppressors.

I'm certainly pleased that many religious people do indeed behave civilly and humanely, and good for them. But I'm suspicious of even civility and humanity that requires an invisible man in the sky cracking the whip, an invisible man more often claimed to demand atrocity as civility. It is not that religion demands inhumanity, it is that religious superstition can just as easily justify and encourage ignorance as knowledge, atrocity as kindness, hate as love.

I do not appeal to any God: I treat people with kindness and decency because that's who I myself am; to behave differently I would have to change my whole personality. The religious, on the other hand, appeal to God's will in what seems like a similar way I appeal to IRS regulations requiring that I write off medical expenses only in excess of 3% of my adjusted gross income; if they changed the regulations, I would change my tax return without the slightest moral qualm.

This is not just an abstract or theoretical term. A majority of the voters in California, voters who would publicly affirm that God is Love, that God demands we behave decently and civilly towards all human beings, passed Proposition 8, which denied a basic civil right to gay people just because they were convinced that their God hates fags and loves breeders. Of course, there is no God to hate fags (or even love them); the point is that the idea of God serves no better purpose than to objectify and sanction one's biases, good or bad. How many voters would passed Proposition 8 if it were crystal clear that a Yes vote meant that they personally hated fags?

And at the end of the day, who can blame us for "excessive tribalism" when Rosenbaum himself writes — and Slate publishes — outright lies and slander to marginalize and exclude atheists from his tribe?

1 comment:

  1. Why is there something rather than nothing? I have spent quite a lot of time recently trying to adequately explain just why this is a really stupid question.

    It is a bit like asking "Why is blue blue and not green"


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