First we had the New Atheism. Now Ron Rosenbaum at Slate is calling for a New Agnosticism. There are a couple or three things to say about his interesting essay.
First, Rosenbaum is at pains to define agnosticism in a way that, I think, distorts the word.
Second, his piece is largely given to criticizing the New Atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens (who, parenthetically, is reported to be suffering from esophageal cancer), an enterprise of which I heartily approve, but when he mentions theism, he mostly fires at a straw man.
Let me explain my objection to Rosenbaum's definition of agnosticism. He starts his manifesto with this:
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 don't think this is correct. An atheist is one who lacks a belief in a God or gods. Since agnostics lack a belief in God or gods they are atheists, ab defino. To be sure, there are two kinds of atheists - what we might call strong and weak.
The strong atheist, like Dawkins, et al, claim, often dogmatically, that there is no God. The weak atheist allows that God may exist but that even if he does there's not enough evidence to justify belief that he does. This is precisely the agnostic's position and there's really not much practical difference between it and the stronger form of atheism.
Although his critique of the strong atheists is quite good (despite placing a little too much weight on the atheist's inability, or failure, to come to grips with the question why there is something rather than nothing, a criticism which a lot of atheists will probably dismiss with a shrug of indifference) his problem with Christian theism seems to stem from a profound misunderstanding of Christianity.
For instance he says:
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 don't know which theists he was talking to or what they said, but when I hear intelligent people talk about their Christianity I rarely hear them speak in certainties. I hear them mention their "faith commitment," or a "leap of faith," or "wrestlings with doubts," or "seeing through a glass darkly," or the fact that God's existence is the "best explanation for a host of facts about the world," but I don't hear them talking, as the New Atheists often do, as if they just couldn't be wrong about God's existence. If Rosenbaum thinks Christianity is about certainty he hasn't read Kierkegaard.
He seems to think that Christian commitment is something one makes once they arrive at some proof of the truth of the Gospel, but I don't think that's the case at all. Christians place their trust in God because they're convinced he's there, they have good reasons for believing he's there, and they hope they're right. But what they don't have is certainty. No one is vouchsafed that luxury this side of the Jordan. That's why Scripture says that believers "live by faith."
I did enjoy Rosenbaum's essay, however, and I recommend it for the many good things he says about the New Atheists. Here's one example:
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.
Pons asinorum. I like that.RLC