Why the new atheism tends to get on my nerves. A piece by Julian Sanchez called Agnosticism and the Varieties of Certainty counters the idea that atheism is really just agnosticism – i.e. it’s not a fundamentalist belief that God doesn’t exist, because that can’t be proven either. His basic premise is that because God can’t be proven, it’s not worth believing. Different than: God could exist.
To the extent that it is a meaningful question, I have no reason to expect that science either eventually will, or even in principle could answer it. But I am not sure why I am supposed to care, except insofar as it’s interesting to mull over, if you go for that sort of thing. Suppose I allow that it is a genuine mystery—radically uncertain, even. It’s outside the realm about which we can talk meaningfully or offer evidence. So what? If there were some part of the world about which we couldn’t even in principle gather information, would I have to declare myself a basilisk agnostic because, after all, they might be there?
Trouble is God isn’t a thing like a basilisk. Here’s a basilisk, by the way, a mythical serpent.
God is (potentially) everything – including good and evil. It’s not an entity that answers prayers like a fact-checker. God is consciousness, time, space, beyond our current understanding. To suggest that concept is not worth exploring – because it can’t be proven – is sort of a slap in the face of scientific inquiry. When have scientists ducked from a good challenge (don’t answer that)? So, taking spiritual questions out of life doesn’t make life more concrete, it makes it less so.
I will admit that I am a weirdo who believes that what we imagine has the potential to be real. A mythical creature doesn’t exist in Newtonian reality. But maybe…one day. We won’t need a helmet to access virtual reality. We’ll be able to project it with our minds (possibly). If matter is just energy, perhaps the energy of thought can one day become material. And once the imagined becomes real – everything becomes imagination.
That’s a science fiction story, though, and won’t fix my TV if it breaks.
He goes on:
I don’t know why there’s something instead of nothing, if the question is even intelligible, any more than I can prove I’m not a brain in a vat. These are interesting facts to reflect on in an epistemology seminar. They have very little to do with my ordinary assertions about how to get to The Passenger or whether the details of any particular cosmology seem persuasive, or whether praying to Mecca or confessing to a priest seems like a sensible thing to do.
Keep religion out of it. Religious ritual has little to do with the debate about the possible existence of God, which is a far cry more important than something to merely be debated in an epistemology seminar. No, the debate doesn’t give you directions to some place on the map, but neither does art or music. The question of God is fundamental to human existence – proven, of course, by the interest in the new atheism. Obviously, it’s a vital topic. But the premise of much atheism seems to be that God is too unknowable to even bother thinking about, let alone believing. What separates us as humans is the ability to think about these topics, so depriving us of this seems to trivialize a fundamental aspect of being human.
It’s also telling that he says, “I don’t believe in…psychic powers either.” So he discounts all anomalous phenomena? There’s a whole host of puzzling and fascinating information about general esoterica. If he’s discounting all instances of anomalous phenomena, how are we to believe it when he discounts all evidence of God? Again, these types of topics are currently unprovable, but unprovable today doesn’t mean unprovable tomorrow. Saying otherwise is a sort of arrogant view that what we know today is all we will ever know. But that has never been the case with human knowledge and progress. To not keep looking – and to not acknowledge that it’s worth looking for – is anti-knowledge as well as anti-theism.
He ends, “There’s still no reason to treat God talk as anything more than another bit of human storytelling.” That would suggest that storytelling is a triviality – which is why it seems like the new atheists suck the fun and magic out of – not just God – but life itself. It’s the condescension that gets to me: God is just a story. There’s no such thing as just a story. Yes, but you can say – God was invented, just like a work of art. Until you can answer me why a particular work of art came to being, where in the dreamworld of the imagination it came from – not just the how, but the why – God is an inspiring topic and worth investigation. That’s my belief – not: God exists. But: God is worth exploring.