The Dawkins Scale

The blog Unreasonable Faith asked where readers are on the Dawkins Scale (the image describing the scale is from a post on the blog Deity Schmeity):

I just finished teaching a class on the first half of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and one of the things I mentioned as a nice feature of that work’s essentially three-way dialogue is that it highlights that matters such as the existence and nature of God are not a linear spectrum. Where on the above is there room for the modern-day scientific polytheist who thinks there might be (as Dawkins acknowledges that there could be) entities that emerged through evolutionary processes within a universe and became so powerful as to be “godlike”? Where on the above would one place a Deist, or a pantheist, or a panentheist?

I’d be interested in hearing from readers who resonate with the scale and feel that they can pick a number with little or no hesitation. But I am also curious how many feel, as I do, that the linear scale is part of the problem of the contemporary discussion about religion, and needs to be replaced with a different sort of scale with multiple axes, reflecting whether and to what extent there is an ultimate reality at all, whether it is knowable, whether analogy with human beings is appropriate, and other relevant considerations. Because where one fits on the scale may depend on which idea or model of God is in question, and in some cases, the term “theist” might not be felt to be the best fit for that viewpoint.

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  • Bob MacDonald

    A friend is reading the God Delusion and he expressed anger over the simplicity of Dawkins’ arguments. Re the question does God exist, my friend said – why does he not substitute some serious parallel question like ‘does music exist’? Rather than does the Purple People Eater exist?

    A series by Travis O’Brian of St Barnabas this week notes that the question of existence is backwards in the syllogism. He writes: when Christians say that they have faith in God, they are only secondarily making a statement about God’s ‘existence’. Primarily they are speaking about a way of being in relation to something they known themselves to be in relationship with and which they identify as ‘God’. In other words the question of existence does not precede faith, but faith settles the question of existence. That is why Petru Dimitriu in his book ‘the Unknown God’ says that the question of the existence of God is not the most important question; the most important question is how to respond to the experience of transcendent goodness and love – a love which “bids all things to itself” (Denys)

    We must not believe in God: we must love him. We must not believe in God: we must know grace. (Dimitriu)

    In the end, the religious person is not one who has a settled opinion about the existence of God, but rather is one who, in response to God’s presence desires God’s presence. The religious person is one who has accepted grace.

    So – does ‘grace’ exist? does ‘love’ exist? Is ‘presence’ an activity of the brain? Such reductionism has not got the grounds it needs – even on its own terms – for its own claims. For a sensible scientist would not claim such a degree of certainty in these matters.

    Dawkins should have stuck to the Selfish Gene, a rather more carefully constructed book than his recent nonsense. Of course I can cut him some slack since he is arguing against a similar nonsense that many others might make claims about.

    • Beau Quilter

      I would grant that Dawkins is arguing against a particular Christian notion of God. Perhaps it’s not your notion of God.

      However, I don’t quite see how “does music exist” can be construed as a “serious parallel question”.

      Listen, you can believe that God is “transcendence” or “love” or “grace” or “presence” or any other vague, undefinable quality. But to pretend that this is what Dawkins is talking about in the God delusion is nonsense.

  • Rob

    I would be a 4, with a sometimes shift between 3 and 5.

  • Shira Coffee

    My problem with Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris is that they make the common atheist mistake of equating religion with the Abrahamic religions. (To compound the error, they only seem to “see” the most idiotic and the most abstruse versions of these religions.)

    I think that before you can talk about the Dawkins scale you have to agree on what you mean by God. I grew up having problems with God (as taught to me by folks who accepted the Bible) for ethical reasons. Coercing people to join and remain within a religion, whether with threats of hell or with threats of physical violence or with threats of ostracism was completely unacceptable to me by the time I was 10. As a result, I made an attempt to prove to myself (years later!) that the parts of the Bible I liked were original and the other parts were some sort of fraudulent additions.

    I don’t have to explain to you that this attempt failed, right? When I gave up on the Bible as holy writ (I still respect it as the literature of my people), I gave up on the God of the Bible, too.

    So does that make me a 6 on Dawkins’ scale? After all, I have examined the best evidence I could find and it’s unconvincing, so my disbelief is a matter of reason, not faith.

    Well… maybe. I called myself an atheist for years.

    Nowadays, I call myself a Buddhist. I sit in meditation twice a day. And sometimes I experience what I can best describe as doubled perception, as if I’m not the only one using my senses and my consciousness to understand the world. So… maybe that’s just an errant brain state. Or maybe there are other kinds of consciousness in the universe. As a monist and a materialist, I attribute consciousness to some sort of balance of complexity and orderly interaction — it’s not hard to imagine that many structures in the universe, perhaps even the universe as a whole, could possess the requisite balance. So, I hold both possible interpretations of my experience in tension and wait for further data.

    Does that make me a 4 on the scale?

    And really, why do I care which number is supposed to represent my views?

    • Mark Erickson

      Do you really think atheists in general, to say nothing about Harris, Dawkins, et al., don’t know about non-Abrahamic religions? They’ve never heard of Buddhism, for example? Obviously not. They talk about Christians and Muslims because there are over 2 billion of them, and they have tremendous influence in the world. They talk about simple versions of these religions because most of those 2 billion have very simple conceptions of them. Basically a guy (remember God and Jesus are one) in the sky who you can talk to and who you’ll meet when you die.

      Here’s a good test of how well this scenario fits the real world. There are 535 members of Congress. How many of them have publicly said that they have a more nuanced view of God? I know of a handful. Pete Stark is atheist (he attends Unitarian church btw). Rush Holt grew up Quaker, but not sure about now. There are two Buddhists, I think. You can’t list any Jews, as not a single one is secular, and I now of none who even attend a Reform synagogue. Can you add any more? If not, the new atheists are talking about 99%. That seems fair.

      • Shira Coffee

        The basic false idea there is that “most of those 2 billion have very simple conceptions” of their religions. Go talk to some decent religious people (as opposed to the ethical disasters who sometimes rise to leadership roles) and you will find thoughtful and nuanced ideas about religion and ethics.

        As for the Congress, I’ll grant you that the Tea Party has upped the religious idiocy quotient on Capital Hill. I find your comment that “you can’t list any Jews, as not a single one is secular” to be particularly uninformed, since religious Jews have had deeply nuanced views of God for thousands of years. (I know — I used to be one.) And incidentally, Al Franken is pretty secular.

        But your comment about Jewish legislators is also revealing: you are here supporting your conclusion (that religious people have simplistic views) by a statement that assumes your conclusion. Bad form, whether you identify as religious or secular.

        • Mark Erickson

          okay, I was going for broke with the Jewish congress thing. You got me on that. But the basic point, that almost all of congress is “personal god” if not “Jesus is my lord and savior”, still stands. And the GOP 2010 Freshman didn’t change much there.

          You seem to be saying that because some – can you guess a percentage? – have nuanced views of god, my point that the vast majority do not isnt valid. See my links in response to James below.

          Really curious: Why do you think ethical disasters sometimes rise to become religious leaders?

          • Shira Coffee

            You seem to believe that YOU chose your ideas through a process of reasoned inquiry, while those who disagree with you are simplistic thinkers. I hate to break it to you, but everyone thinks that, and everyone is wrong. In my view, the new atheists have fallen for an exalted view of reason that was originally religious — the idea that religion was the mark of the divine image within men (and they did mean men, lol.)

            But we know better, of course. Reason, like emotion and attention to observation, is a product of evolution. It is imperfect — or rather, it’s only as perfect as it needs to be. And what it needs to be is perfect enough to defend our conclusions after we have reached them.

            No one reaches conclusions by reason. We reach conclusions because they are emotionally satisfying. That is why when you scratch an atheist (myself included), you generally find someone wounded by believers. To take my own case, I found the ethics of the Bible intolerable. It was emotionally easiest to reject the Bible. The alternative (which I didn’t even imagine at the time) would have been to stay and do battle with the god-image that I found so hateful. Well, one cannot go backward…and perhaps the conflict that would have engendered with people I care about would not have been productive anyway.

            Given that all of us — including you and me — reach our conclusions based on what is acceptable emotionally, and then defend those conclusions using reason, obviously ethically decent believers have to have a nuanced view of God. They must, after all, make sense of their own sense that God is (at least) as decent as they are at the same time they encounter Biblical images of God that don’t support that view.

            You will want to say that at least YOUR point of view is not self-contradictory. I beg to doubt that. Anyone committed to living in the world with eyes open will find that the world keeps contradicting our certainties. We live with it, and adjust either our ideas or our interpretations of the observations, depending on what seems to be required. (Another decision with an emotional dimension, btw.)

            Of course, some people do NOT keep their eyes open — that is, they deliberately ignore evidence that contradicts their views. (I should say that some people do this much more than average, since we all do it at least sometimes.) You will want to argue that religion causes people to ignore evidence, and it’s true that religions sometimes teach techniques for ignoring contradictory evidence. (“God will test you” springs to mind.)

            But if you look around, you can find plenty of examples of people ignoring evidence in secular realms such as politics, romantic relationships, family quarrels. Here I would take religion to task because (speaking as a Buddhist), I think that religion’s role ought to be to teach techniques for surmounting our emotional conflict, living in peace with our fears, and finding the means to be open to reality as fully as possible.

            As for why we have religious leaders who are ethical disasters, I’d have to say it’s for the same reason that some secular leaders are ethical disasters. There is a part of human nature that elevates people with forceful personalities into positions of power or influence. It’s rare that someone of truly noble character is also forceful enough to rise to power, and of course, power tends to erode nobility of character.

          • Mark Erickson

            Well, thanks for that – I guess. I agree decision making is highly emotional and rationally justified. But we are trying to have a rational debate, not make any personal decisions, so let’s stick to empirical facts, okay?

            The latest Pew poll on p. 79 says 86% of Americans are absolutely or fairly certain that God exists (okay they fudged with universal spirit – damn new agers!). So do you claim that some large portion of these 86% of people don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God?

          • Shira Coffee

            I am a little baffled by your insistence that “believing in an anthropomorphic God” is both 1) simple and 2) (implicitly?) harmful.

            In my view, what is harmful is believing in a vengeful god, a god who substitutes violent retribution for justice and who is obsessed with his (definitely his, lol) own status to the point where he thinks being devoured by bears is a perfect punishment for children who disrespect his spokesmen.

            Now you can get that god-image out of the Bible, but the interesting thing is that most believers in the Abrahamic religions do not imagine their god that way.

          • Mark Erickson

            For simple, how about a personal god that answers prayers? That’s simplistic, right? Got any evidence that most Abrahamic believers don’t think this?

            Harmful? Well, I suppose any theistic belief can be harmful, but where did I imply that and what’s your point?

          • Shira Coffee

            In what way is this “simplistic”? I am still not following your reasoning there.

          • Mark Erickson

            Okay, found the question from Pew 2007 huge poll. 60% of all US believes in personal god. 72% Protestants, 60% Catholics, 25% Jews, 41% Muslims. Lower than I thought, but still a large majority. Given the different sizes of those groups, I have to guess overall Abrahamic number is about 67%.

  • John Pieret

    His definition of “agnostic” (pure or otherwise) in this context is just wrong and, in fact, he contradicted himself in the text. John Wilkins has a good discussion of it:

  • Rob Davis

    Totally! This was my response on Twitter earlier today:

  • Beau Quilter

    I find that progressive Christians too easily dismiss Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins (et alia) for arguing against fundamentalist versions of God that don’t resonate with their (presumably more sophisticated) progressive versions of God.

    In the first place it is clear that Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are primarily concerned about fundamentalists and the effect of their views on society. Dawkins, for example, in the opening of The God Delusion, cites the ridiculous percentage of Americans who don’t “believe” in evolution based on their notions of God. Harris discusses the insidious political repercussions of premillenialist views of the middle east. Hitchens decries the deadly effect of catholic anti-condom campaigns on the rising aids epidemic in Africa.

    These men aren’t (or weren’t in Hitchen’s case) addressing highly finessed philosophical arguments about the nature of God. They were addressing huge populations of Christian (and other religious) groups whose views of God promote or enable pseudoscience in our children’s classrooms, the disenfranchisement of women and other minorities, and dangerous intrusions of religious “prophecy” into international politics and war.

    I don’t think Dawkins is terribly concerned about progressive views of God. Perhaps, in the view of progressive Christians, he and other atheists are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Well, let me suggest that even if there is a baby in the bathwater, the bath is pool-sized, poisonously filthy, and the baby might be better off lying in the yard.

    Progressive views of God are varied and amorphous, and tend to espouse a God who defies definition or argument.

    Fine. Now help us dispense with the God represented by the majority. The homophobic, womanizing, science-denying God that constantly threatens our progressive society.

    • Pseudonym

      I find that progressive Christians too easily dismiss Harris, Hitchens,
      and Dawkins (et alia) for arguing against fundamentalist versions of God
      that don’t resonate with their (presumably more sophisticated)
      progressive versions of God.

      That’s true. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know how to respond to statements like this:

      Given my view of faith, I think that religious “moderation” is basically
      an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a
      legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.
      — Sam Harris

      Or this:

      If subtle, nuanced religion predominated, the world would be a better
      place and I would have written a different book. The melancholy truth is
      that decent, understated religion is numerically negligible. Most
      believers echo Robertson, Falwell or Haggard, Osama bin Laden or
      Ayatollah Khomeini.
      — Richard Dawkins

      Interestingly, I’ve been trying for a while, but I could find no comparable sentiment from Christopher Hitchens. That’s probably because he didn’t agree with it. Remember, at the time that he wrote a book with the subtitle “How Religion Poisons Everything”, he was sending his daughter to a Quaker school.

      So at least in Harris’ and Dawkins’ case, their arguments against fundamentalism are coupled with an unsupported claim, sometimes overt and sometimes implied, that the pretty much all of the rest of religion is indistinguishable from fundamentalism at worst, or hypocritical and dishonest at best.

      • Beau Quilter

        Keep in mind that everybody has a different definition for religious descriptors such as “moderate”, “subtle”, “nuanced”, “progressive”, etc.

        This country is full of self-described moderate and progressive Christians who would ban gay marriage, oppose stem cell research, and think that “Intelligent Design” is as well-vetted a science as evolution, all on religious grounds. And there are far more subtle forces at work. How many of their political biases toward the middle east are colored by vague notions of prophecy and armageddon?

        Perhaps you are right, perhaps Atheists aren’t truly engaging more subtle arguments for God. I can’t speak for Dawkins or Harris, but here is my perspective. There may be subtle and important reasons for Muslims to prefer Sunni beliefs over Shiite beliefs. Perhaps, from the view point of a Sunni, militant Shiites are overlooking the more nuanced theological perspectives of the Sunni. That may be true. But in a world where Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other and causing international turmoil, the point hardly seems relevant.

        Perhaps in Christianity the stakes aren’t this high. In any case, I could grant you the possibility of more subtle, nuanced conception of God; but I have trouble seeing the import or relevance in a world where Christians (maybe not your kind of Christians, but vast numbers of Christians nonetheless) are damaging human progress in education, healthcare, and human rights.

        Incidentally, Hitchens didn’t hide the fact that his daughter went to a Quaker school. He mentioned it, in fact, in the same statement in which he criticizes Quakers. It hardly makes him a hypocrite. Disagreeing with religious people doesn’t mean avoiding them at all costs. The world is too small these days to isolate ourselves.

        • Pseudonym

          For the record, I didn’t accuse Hitchens of being a hypocrite. I was accusing of being a more complex and nuanced individual than most of his fanboys seem to think.

          For the record, I think the same is true Dawkins. Dawkins is often quoted, for example, as saying that religion is a kind of child abuse. His actual argument was that in Northern Ireland, religious identity was used much like a gang symbol, and bringing children up with that kind of identity is child abuse. He further noted that it makes about as much sense to speak of a communist child or a liberal child.

          Interestingly, he didn’t address the related issue of bringing up children
          with ethnic identities, such as “Croatian” or “Serbian”. I would like to
          hear his thoughts on that some time.

          For what it’s worth, I don’t expect Dawkins to address theological niceties. He’s not religious, and therefore doesn’t need to know this stuff. The problem is when he speaks of “religion” as if it’s one thing.

          That’s ignorant. And, as Dawkins would readily point out, I mean that as a compliment. By calling him “ignorant” I’m saying that he’s not “wicked”.

          • Beau Quilter

            Then we’re mostly agreed.

            But what do you mean when you say that it’s ignorant to speak of religion as if it’s one thing?

          • Pseudonym

            Oh, I mean that words like “religion”, or even “Christianity”, are umbrella terms for an extremely diverse set of movements and organisations. Failure to appreciate the diversity is failure to understand the movements.

          • Beau Quilter

            Perhaps. But the diversity of “religion” and “Christianity” certainly doesn’t bode well for it’s claim to truth.

          • Pseudonym

            Perhaps for an unrealistic Platonic ideal notion of “truth”.

            I can see why you’d say it doesn’t bode well for a claim to exclusivity. But as for “truth”, the real world is a messy and partly incoherent place, especially when people get involved. We shouldn’t be surprised if our attempts to understand it are correspondingly messy and incoherent.

          • Beau Quilter

            I agree.

          • Nick Gotts

            There’s nothing unrealistic, Platonic, ideal or complicated about the notion of truth: a statement is true if and only if what it asserts is actually the case.

  • Gary

    Multiple axis, real and imaginary. Like a complex number, a+bi. The real part is what you know. The imaginary part, like the square root of -1, represents what you can’t see or understand. But represents something real like the phase between current and voltage, complex impedance. Try putting a concrete real number on the phase difference of an electromagnetic wave. Human abstract thought ought to be just as complex. Unless Dawkins likes Maxwell’s equations, he shouldn’t try to assign a number to beliefs outside biology.

    • Pseudonym

      It makes more sense if you think of it as a Likert scale.

  • Pseudonym

    Oh, this one is too easy.

    I’m at 1 on the list. I am absolutely, 100% convinced that it makes sense to talk about “God”. There is as much historical and contemporary evidence as you want that mystics all over the world have common experiences. God is a thing, just as surely as a thought is a thing or a dream is a thing.

    What I’m not sure about is what “God” actually is. The amateur neo-orthodox theologian in me points out that talking about “God” makes no sense without talking about humanity and humanness. The amateur progressive theologian in me points out that “God” may be
    an entirely abstract concept, much like “love” or “justice”. The professional scientist in me points out that God may be no more than an artifact of our psychology. And I’m not sure which part of me is pointing out that Hell, the god of the Roman Sol Invictus cult also exists. After all, the Sun exists, right?

    My point being that even being at #1 or #7 on the list doesn’t guarantee the kind of certainty that one might hope for. But hope is what it’s all about.

    • Ian


  • Shannon Heiska

    I am a de-facto atheist by Dawkin’s standards, but that is only concerning the traditional definition of God. I agree that there is a problem with the label of atheism for the more spiritually inclined who are not pure materialists. I find myself describing my spirituality based upon my audience: to those I know believe in a traditional God, I claim to be agnostic atheist. To atheists, I delve more into my interpretation of the usefullness of a God idea. God in my personal life represents the unknown and the constant search of the imagination concerning what science has not yet described. I’ve ruled out several possibilities, but am quite open to others.

  • James F. McGrath

    This on another Patheos blog, about the varieties of god, is of related interest:

    I love how the internet creates these convergences. It’s almost as though it’s a…

  • Mark Erickson

    You wouldn’t put those tiny esoteric groups on this scale at all. That’s not the point. Dawkins main point is that almost no one says 7. Dawkins himself says 6.999, but that’s not 7. Contrary to popular belief, almost all atheists are not dogmatic about the non-existence of gods. Rather they find no evidnece or use for gods.

    You should know that almost all Americans can easily put themselves on this scale, and that the vast majority would say 1 or 2. Where would you place yourself if you had too?

    • James F. McGrath

      About anthropomorphic theism? Maybe around a 5. But those you deem “tiny esoteric” groups include the predominant view in many liberal Protestant seminaries, and among spiritually-minded physicists, not to mention whole religious traditions with vast numbers of adherents historically as well as in the present day.

      I think a major problem is that we tend to make assumptions, whether based on hearing vocal proponents of views or results of opinion polls, about what “almost all” people in a particular nation or religious tradition would say. And then somehow we manage to explain away when we meet exception after exception in surprisingly large numbers.

      • Mark Erickson

        Liberal Protestent sems and spirit minded physicists-like I said tiny. Which religious traditions?

        My 10-second google came up with this from 2006. Look at the last table on this page, which basically mirrors Dawkins’ scale.

      • Mark Erickson

        okay one minute later, here is latest pew poll (one that highlighted nones) on page 79, table of belief in god with follow up how sure. 69% absolutely sure, 17% fairly sure. Call that an opinion poll if you want, but it is empirical evidence that the vast majority of Americans are a 1 or 2.

      • Mark Erickson

        Say, how many seats are there in liberal Protestant seminaries? I’m going to guess between 2,000 and 5,000.

      • Mark Erickson
      • Bernard Muller

        James, did I understand you right? Do you really put you at 5, that is as a “weak atheist”?
        For anyone interested, I put myself at 6.

        • James F. McGrath

          I hope you won’t miss my point, which is that, depending what idea of god we are talking about, the number will differ. I agree with Tillich and Borg and other liberal Protestant thinkers that the Bible’s mythological language about God is not literally true. But if we are talking about other ideas, other meanings of the term “god,” then the number will change – both for myself and for Richard Dawkins.

          • Nick Gotts

            I doubt it would for Dawkins. Certainly doesn’t for me (a 6+), because I wouldn’t use “god” to apply to anything that’s not supernatural. Of course, if you use “god” to mean “cheese on toast” then I’m a 1.

  • John Piermont V. Montilla

    I am uncomfortable of this scale. This scale is a self-assessment and the assessor’s assessment of his position is only true to himself and does not make his position true. unless proven otherwise.

  • Grundy

    Can you credit me for the graphic? Here’s the original post:

    • James F. McGrath

      There doesn’t seem to be a post there. But if you get me the correct link, I will gladly give credit where credit is due. I am always sorry when I don’t know what source to credit for things that have been found circulating on the internet!

      • Grundy The link works for me…

        • James F. McGrath

          Thanks – it works for me too now! I’ll add it to the post!

  • Darrell Schwass

    im a 7