Atheism, Agnosticism, and Certainty About the Origins of the Universe

In a recent Slate essay, Ron Rosenbaum argues that agnosticism is preferable to atheism because atheists wrongly believe that they can explain the origins and nature of the universe:

I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

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.)

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing.

I think Rosenbaum fundamentally misconceives the nature of atheism. Atheism is not a complete theory of the nature of the universe. Rather, as I discussed here, atheism is simply a rejection of the existence of God, by which I mean a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and completely benevolent (the definition [traditionally] accepted by [the vast majority of adherents] of the major monotheistic religions). One can reject the existence of God without believing that we “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”

There are numerous arguments against God’s existence that don’t depend on any particular theory of the origins of the universe. In my view, the “problem of evil” is one of the strongest. For a good and accessible summary of the major arguments for atheism that don’t require explanations for the nature of the universe, see David Ramsay Steele’s recent book Atheism Explained. The “new atheists” whom Rosenbaum attacks also don’t rely on any comprehensive theory of the universe in making their case against the existence of God. Writers like Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have their flaws; but believing that they can explain the origins of the universe isn’t one of them.

But how can atheists rule out the possibility that God created the universe if they don’t have an airtight alternative explanation? The answer is that it’s often possible to rule out one potential explanation for X even if we don’t know for certain what actually caused it. For example, I don’t know why I had a headache a couple days ago. But that doesn’t mean I can’t rule out the theory that it was caused by a witch’s curse. There is strong evidence against the existence of witches with magical powers that isn’t tied to any particular explanation for the origins of my headache. Similarly, if we have strong arguments against the existence of God that are not tied to any specific cosmological theory, we have good reason to be atheists even if we can’t explain why the universe exists.

My purpose here is not to provide a comprehensive argument for atheism. That can’t possibly be accomplished in a blog post. Rather, I want to make the much narrower point that such an argument doesn’t require a demonstrably true alternative explanation for the existence of the universe. And most serious atheist writers do not in fact rely on the claim that they have such an explanation.

Rosenbaum is on firmer ground in criticizing some of the rhetorical excesses of the “new atheists.” Richard Dawkins, for example, has foolishly claimed that religious training of children necessarily amounts to “child abuse.” On the other hand, some theists engage in equally ridiculous rhetorical abuse of atheists. Theist intolerance and bigotry against atheists is at least as common as the reverse. For example, some 50% of the American public believe that it is impossible to “be moral and have good values” if you don’t believe in God. In any event, the crude rhetoric and intolerance of some adherents says very little about the ultimate validity of either atheism or theism. And it also doesn’t provide much of an argument for agnosticism.

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