Richard Dawkins Admits He’s Agnostic!!~1!!!~one!uno

This means that he obviously can’t be an atheist!  Right??

Apparently Dawkins was at Oxford recently having a debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and “admitted” to not being completely certain there was no God.  Shortly thereafter I see blog entries and articles popping up with headlines like “Richard Dawkins, Famous Atheist, Not Entirely Sure God Doesn’t Exist“, in which they breathlessly report the breaking news:

LONDON (RNS) A controversial Oxford University professor billed by many as the world’s “most famous atheist” now says he is not 100 percent sure that God doesn’t exist — but just barely.

In a 100-minute debate with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins surprised his online and theater audiences by conceding a personal chink of doubt about his conviction that there is no such thing as a creator.

But, to the amusement of the archbishop and others, the evolutionary biologist swiftly added that he was “6.9 out of seven” certain of his long-standing atheist beliefs.

Now, I’m not writing this to jump to his defense; he’s a big boy and can take care of himself.  However, there are three things about this article and others I’ve seen that irk the hell out of me.   First, this is not news.  He has held this conviction for a long time and even described it in his book “The God Delusion”.  A detailed description of his “Spectrum of Theistic Probability” can be found here.

Dawkins argues that while there appear to be plenty of individuals that would place themselves as “1” due to the strictness of religious doctrine against doubt, most atheists do not consider themselves “7” because atheism arises from a lack of evidence and evidence can always change a thinking person’s mind. In print, Dawkins self-identified as a ‘6’, though when interviewed by Bill Maher[3] and later by Anthony Kenny,[4] he suggested ‘6.9’ to be more accurate.

Second, atheism is not a belief.  I’ve written about this before.  Atheism is a rejection of claims that divine beings exist based on believers’ inability to satisfy their burden of proof.  This means, of course, that if such evidence is provided (and it’s something that is objective, testable, repeatable, etc.) then we would happily believe in a god from then on.  It’s as simple as that.  There is no “atheist belief system”; it’s a single position on a single issue,and the rest is up to the individual.

Third, atheism and agnosticism cover two different ideas:  atheism has to do with belief, while agnosticism refers to knowledge.  I, for example, am an agnostic atheist.  I don’t believe in a god, but I also think there’s no way to ever really know whether one truly exists or not either.  There is a possibility he’ll poke his head out of the clouds tomorrow and say, “Here I am!”, but I suspect that won’t happen.  The more likely scenario is that humanity – barring catastrophe – will continue on, and not find any evidence one way or the other to suggest the existence of any kind of supernatural being.  The closest we’ll likely ever come in the future is a development of an understanding of the universe that causes more of a drive to pantheism as opposed to the current focus on the “personal” god interested in our everyday lives.

On another note, I’m going to be posting another movie week, because I’m going to be away.  I’ll try to mix it up a little bit; there was a talk that Sam Harris gave about the label of “atheism”, consciousness, and the subjective experience which I enjoyed so I’ll probably throw that in with a few other things.

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2 Responses to Richard Dawkins Admits He’s Agnostic!!~1!!!~one!uno

  1. Richard says:

    “Third, atheism and agnosticism cover two different ideas: atheism has to do with belief, while agnosticism refers to knowledge. I, for example, am an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe in a god, but I also think there’s no way to ever really know whether one truly exists or not either.”

    Interesting — this is the first time I remember seeing atheism and agnosticism described as relating to two separate axes, rather than occupying different coordinates along the same axis.

    • They’re different axes, but I would go so far as to say they’re completely orthogonal since there is a relationship between the two. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about atheism is that it’s a belief that there is no god, as opposed to a lack of belief in one. You can also have agnostic theists – believers who will claim that there’s no way to know for sure whether they’re right … but choose to believe anyway. I, personally, would even claim that I think it’s highly unlikely that there is a self-contradictory god of the sort you’d read about in the bible or koran, but without any kind of conclusive proof that one does not exist, I can’t say with any certainty.

      I would probably describe the relatinship between belief and knowledge as some kind of “bell curve”, or normal distribution function … though maybe the peak is biased toward the right as you go from belief to non-belief. The idea is that on both ends, you have “believers” who will claim that they know a God – of any kind – does or does not exist. As you go to more of the “mainstream” believers, the level of agnosticism goes up slowly, reaching a peak around the level of belief associated with indifferent atheists: they don’t believe, they don’t care, they don’t think about it much. As you get to the more vocal atheists, the degree of agosticism goes down somewhat, but still remains substantial enough to compel people like Hitchens, Dawkins, etc., to claim that there’s no way to know for sure. Eventually you get to the far end (and a very small minority) who will claim they know there’s no god, with the same certainty as their fundamentalist counterparts. I can’t buy into that myself, but I’m sure they’re out there.

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