Ron Rosenbaum’s “Agnostic Manifesto” at Slate has been making the rounds lately. He makes a few arguments against atheism, the central one being this:
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. […]
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. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive. […]
Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.
I don’t think this criticism hits the mark. For starters, as Rosenbaum quotes approvingly from John Wilkins, we are all atheists about something: “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.” This is the lay meaning of the word “atheism,” and it’s a useful meaning. When I tell people I am an atheist they understand that this means I don’t believe in any of the gods imagined by (or revealed to, if you disagree) human beings, and their understanding is correct.
Does this mean I am 100% certain that no gods exist? No, but certainty is a mug’s game. In real life we are faced with countless hypotheses about the nature of the world and we must use our best judgments about which of them to take seriously. I will concede that there is a non-zero probability that God once made a covenant with my ancestors, or sent down his son to offer us eternal life, or even that we are all headed toward Ragnarök. However I’m not going to spend much time investigating these possibilities.
On this I think Rosenbaum agrees, which leaves us with the less exciting kinds of gods that only philosophers bother talking about. It’s true that I cannot explain “why there is something rather than nothing.” But I don’t see why it should be my job to explain it, or how positing a god does any better. To this question the philosophers’ god is not a solution, but rather the placeholder to a solution. As Julian Sanchez writes, this is merely “gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.” Without giving the word meaning there’s nothing for me to be agnostic about.
Will advanced physics explain why there is something rather than nothing, if that question makes sense? I don’t know, but I also don’t know where else one would reasonably look. Perhaps the answer will turn out to be something we might call a god, or maybe someday I’ll be presented with a definition of god that plausibly and meaningfully answers the question. Until then I think it most honest to call myself an atheist, at least in regard to all the gods that matter.