The rise of the radical agnostics

Ron Rosenbaum has been getting his share of verbal spanking for the past week from the secret atheist police. They are always out to silence the opposition, even if the opposition is pretty much on their side. Atheists, the new Radical Agnostics say, will settle for nothing less than absolute unbelief. Anything veering from the path of the Truth (there is no God) is suspect and therefore mincemeat for the Atheist Inquisition, especially if you’re guzzling Templeton gelt. It’s only a matter of time before they set up the gallows in your hometown.

What is this radical agnosticism Rosenbaum has proposed, anyway? It is the assertion that WE DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING. It paints science as the pretension to a TOE – or Theory of Everything – and atheists as the henchmen of its church. Agnostics, feeling left out of the NYT bestseller list in the past seven years, want their share now, too.  But how can you be radically undecided? This reminds me of one of those hollow political slogans you see at election time in Italy, Estremo Centro. Get it? Extreme Center. Enough fighting! We have the answer. We’re all just a bunch of ignoramuses. Scientists are no better than theologians. Life is a mystery. We’re all hypocrites. Even me. Even you.

What ever happened to the ancient, respectable art of making an argument and backing it up? Or is that just too fundamentalist for these troubled times?

Ron Rosenbaum’s agnostic howler

Ron Rosenbaum has written a piece for Slate called An Agnostic Manifesto. It’s a complete howler from start to finish. A full-scale rebuttal of Rosenbaum’s argument – and that’s being generous – can be found at Pharyngula.

As anyone who reads this blog already knows (there are some of you, I promise!), I like Ron Rosenbaum. He’s a top-notch investigative reporter who wrote one of the most engrossing books I’ve read in recent memory (Explaining Hitler). That’s why I’m dismayed by his article. He’s going after scientism and calling it atheism. And how confused he is.

His arguments for agnosticism- there aren’t any new ones here at all – are meant to “hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.” But atheism is not a certitude. As Sam Harris – that world-famous atheist – never tires of pointing out, the word atheism shouldn’t even need to exist. It only does because religious belief is so widespread. We have no word for non-astrologer. This is worth considering as Rosenbaum makes his way through the muck of his own misunderstanding.

Rosenbaum actually gives the game away early: “Let me make clear that I accept most of the New Atheist’s criticism of religious bad behavior over the centuries, and of theology itself.” This is just after he makes clear that “I still consider myself Jewish in everything but the believing in God part.” So Rosenbaum doesn’t believe in God, agrees substantially with the “new atheists'” arguments agains religion, but for some reason feels the need to distinguish himself. They just aren’t punk enough.

Rosenbaum’s gripe, if I have it correctly, isn’t with atheism at all; it’s with scientism, which he scandalously and sloppily attributes to people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. But this is like confusing meliorism with utopianism. His Big Unanswerable Question for the atheists is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He apparently is of the opinion that many, if not most, atheists think they have the answer to such a (trick) question. He hasn’t read much of the literature, clearly. Nowhere in my reading have I come across such an inane claim as to know “why” the universe exists, unless you count various scriptural claims. He has it ass backwards.

So obsessed has he grown with what he believes to be his pot of gold that he even posits the Rosenbaum Challenge:

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

Even if we all agree that we cannot know the answer to such a question, science at least suggests it may be knowable. Rosenbaum accepts the Mystery as eternal. Why? If scientists thought that way we would still be the cowering subjects of priests and shamans, trembling at the wrath of the gods each time we heard thunder crack beyond the hills. The anti-science posture among some intellectuals has really got to go.

Anyway, one could go through the whole article in similar fashion. But, again, why? Perhaps this “agnostic manifesto” gives some of the best reasons to just come out of the closet and go atheist. Rosenbaum’s agnosticism is little more than a caricature of what he pretends to detest (which is just what he says about the atheists). And if he really wanted the scientific-cum-atheist community to take his ranting seriously, he should’ve kept his mouth shut about his Templeton Fellowship.

Paul Berman’s new book

Sam Harris and his Project Reason just sent this to my inbox. He’s finally decided that his was the only voice missing from the chorus and, just when it seems the Catholic Church has slipped back into a relative silence after months of well-deserved hardship on the public relations front, has now put in his own three cents worth.

Ron Rosenbaum has a long piece in Slate about Paul Berman’s new book The Flight of the Intellectuals. In fact, it was Harris who pointed me to Berman’s Terror and Liberalism which, if you haven’t read it, is a must-read. I never miss anything Rosenbaum writes, and word has it he has a book in the works on World War III or IV, I’m not sure which. Could it be a Berman-esque rebuttal to Norman Podhoretz?

I haven’t read the entire review yet, but the essential point about Berman’s book is that it is a defense of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or rather an attack on her liberal attackers. The names Garton Ash and Buruma surface here and there, as well as that of Tariq Ramadan. The question posed is, Why was Salman Rushdie defended by the same people who chide Hirsi Ali today? How has this softening of the liberal intellectuals (of which Berman and Rosenbaum are two) towards Islamism come about, and why?

Read the review. Then read the book. Then we’ll have a pow-wow over it.

The End of Anonymity

Who are you?
Who are you?

I was catching up on Ron Rosenbaum’s recent posts when I came across this article about a super model who took her anonymous internet slanderer to court. She apparently pressed Google for the specifics (and got them), resulting in what they are calling the first case of anonymity-busting in internet history. True or not, I’m glad to see one of these anonymous bozos get whopped. There is too much abuse of anonymity–bloggers and commenters alike–and one day we will look back at now as the lawless frontier days of the early internet.

Of course, this doesn’t rule out the reality of those who are in real danger lest their identities be discovered (think Iran or China). But what these self-aggrandizing abusers are doing is damaging the online environment for those in real need of anonymous expression.  

Kevin Kelly, of Wired, wrote in Edge:

There’s a dangerous idea circulating that the option of anonymity should always be at hand, and that it is a noble antidote to technologies of control. This is like pumping up the levels of heavy metals in your body to make it stronger.

Privacy can be won only by trust, and trust requires persistent identity, if only pseudoanonymously. In the end, the more trust the better. Like all toxins, anonymity should be kept as close to zero as possible.

In a similar vein, Yaacov Lozowick suggests that the recent CiF Watch website–created to monitor the Comment is Free blog at the Guardian–would benefit from not being anonymous. He reasons thus:

The one quibble I have is their choice to remain anonymous. I’m not a fan of such decisions. They don’t live in Hamas-controlled Gaza, or Iran, or Egypt, or Syria, or all the many other places in the world where it’s dangerous to have an opinion.

Comment may be free, but opinion apparently is not.

Obama the Machiavellian

Ron Rosenbaum writes:

I think Obama is a true Machiavellian. By abandoning “axis of evil” rhetoric, and by making that Cairo speech, however anodyne it was, and by not jumping in too soon, he turned the Iranian revolution into a pro America phenomenon, rather than allow the fascist mullahs to smear it as a pawn-of-America phenomenon. Not bad for a rookie.

And he made this point two paragraphs after congratulating Slavoj Zizek on an “uncharacteristically sensible and persuasive essay.” It appears Zizek actually has a mind capable of constructing complete, semi-linear thoughts when it feels like it. So why doesn’t he do it more often?

Ron Rosenbaum: Typos or Neologysms?

I love reading Ron Rosenbaum’s blog. He is unafraid to confront both the idiots on the left and the dorkbots (my humble attempt at a Rosenbaumism) on the right. Besides, he wrote one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. I wrote about it here.

What infuriates me is that he is a rampant misspeller. I admit this gives me pause at times, although I know no one in perfekt and blogging is often done at high velocity: in cars, trains, helicopters etc…but can there be any excuse for the following waterfall of mangled orthography?

I did something I hadn’ t done for a million years. I listened to Dylan’s first album Bob Dylan, from beginning to end. Thirteen songs, 12 or them negligable material–and one song, if not immortal than at least awe-inspiring, awesome. It’s the next the last song on the album, which makes it all the more surprizing since you have to put up with 11 ho-hum imersonations of blues singers, impersonaltions of other folkies, covers of old chesnuts.

I mean, can’t you read it over just once, Ron, before striking the “publish” key?


Prophecy Derailed

Ron Rosenbaum has an interesting reflection on the 2012 cult, which I’ve never heard of before (but then again, I don’t really follow these things). It’s typical pseudo-prophetic mishaguss. And many people lap it up.

Here’s Rosenbaum:

“Why am I so fascinated with unmitigated full bloom looniness? Shouldn’t we just laugh it off? Unfortunately nonsense like this has led to millions of dead from religious wars over just such clashing idiocies. I think it reminds us that this kind of baseless belief is at the heart of all religions and that man has suffered immeasurably since the beginning of civilization from it and that, it’s looking more likely that it will cause the death of enlightment civilization, just a brief candle in the vast darkness of ignorance.”

I, too, am fascinated by unmitigated, full bloom looniness. Recall The Secret? We all should be so fascinated, because we live in a world full of apocalyptic death cults and nuclear weapons. Also, we should be slightly worried for the future of our planet and our civilization.

Today’s nutjobs might be tomorrows deathmobs. The point is worth making.

Lanzmann vs. Rosenbaum vs. Hitler

I’m almost at the end of  Ron Rosenbaum’s massive search for Hitler–or, more precisely, for what made Hitler Hitler? The book, entitled Explaining Hitler, is less an attempt to explain Hitler than to come to grips with various threads of Hitler explainers who have spent much of their lives grappling with the Hitler enigma. It’s well-nigh impossible to contemplate the Shoah without some attempt at explanation: it was the product of German anti-Semitism (Daniel Goldhagen), Christian anti-Semitism (Hyam Maccoby), Adolf Hitler’s personal passion for Jew-hatred (Lucy S. Dawidowicz)…then there are those who downplay Hitler’s role, blaming the Inevitable Forces of History for the murder of six million Jews, or those who add that many Catholics, Romany and homosexuals were killed as well, in an attempt to steal back their greatest tragedy from the Jews and “universalize” it (or de-Judaize it).

One of the most peculiar of Rosenbaum’s subjects is Claude Lanzmann, director of the 9 1/2 hour film Shoah. Lanzmann finds all attempts at explanation obscene, and Rosenbaum aptly titles his chapter on Lanzmann “The War Agianst the Question Why.” But why declare war on those like Rosenbaum (and most of us nerds) who ask the forbidden question, why? Lanzmann’s metaphor is itself lifted from Primo Levi, a man who knew first-hand from Auschwitz (unlike Lanzmann): “Here there is no why,” a German guard maliciously quips to the young Levi, who was only asking why the guard wouldn’t let him have the icicle he’d noticed hanging from the roof of his barracks. Lanzmann turns this into a kind of “eleventh commandment”–thou shalt not ask why. I find Lanzmann’s logic (if there is any) puzzling, to say the least, and tend to shy away from mystic auras, in any case.

I’ll come back to this book in future posts. It’s worth reading. Meanwhile, here is an excellent review of the book.