You may have noticed the media recently brewing a firestorm over a conversation between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams.
Headlines such as, “Dawkins Reveals He is an Agnostic”, ” Career atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is in fact agnostic”, ” World’s most notorious atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is agnostic, ” and so forth.
One article from the Christian Post in particular said:
When Richard Dawkins, the world-famous evolutionary biologist, and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, took the stage at the United Kingdom’s University of Oxford for a discussion over the origins of nature on Thursday, almost everyone thought the university had pitted an atheist against a Christian. Almost everyone was wrong.
Dawkins revealed that he is in fact not an atheist as he is not 100 percent sure God doesn’t exist.
For reference, I have transcribed the conversation in question:
Williams: “You I think, Richard, believe you have a disproof of god.”
Dawkins: No, I don’t! you were wrong when you said that. I constructed in The God Delusion a 7-point scale, of which ’1′ was, ‘I know god exists’, ’7′ was ‘I know god doesn’t exist’ and I called myself a ’6′.
Williams: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic then?”
Dawkins: “I do. But I think it’s-”
Williams: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist-”
Dawkins, “Well not by me. Um..
Williams: “Can I ask you to spell out your argument, your Boeing-”
Dawkins: “I’m a 6.9.”
Williams: “But you have your Boeing 747 argument-”
Dawkins: “Yes, I mean-”
Williams: “-to show that this tiny probability-”
Dawkins: “I believe that when you talk about agnosticism, It’s very important to make a distinction between ‘I don’t know whether X is true or not, therefore it’s 50-50 likely or unlikely’ and that’s the kind of agnostic which I don’t-which I’m definitely not. I think one can place estimates of probability on these things and I think the probability of any supernatural creator existing is very very low. So I’m-let’s say I’m a 6.9.
Most of the clips rolling around on the internet cut off at this point. However, the entire debate is online, and one can find it here. The relevant part starts at 1:11:30. Here’s the rest of Dawkins’ statement:
Dawkins: “That still doesn’t mean that I’m absolutely confident, that I absolutely know – because I don’t.”
Williams and Dawkins spent quite a lot of this exchange talking over each other. From what I can tell, Dawkins did not get to finish his point or further elaborate on his position, or perhaps he did not catch that Williams implied Dawkins is not an atheist, and said, “not by me” as a way to humbly explain that he would not call himself “the world’s most famous” atheist.
Dawkins’ position regarding atheism/agnosticism comes as no surprise to people who have read The God Delusion. On pp50-1 of The God Delusion, Dawkins lays out the 7 point scale he referred to in this conversation. Here are points 6 and 7 of the 7-point scale:
6. Very low probability [of the existence of god] but short of zero. De facto atheist: ‘I cannot know for certain, but I think god is very improbable, and live my life on the assumption that he is not there.
7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.
Dawkins goes on to say:
I count myself in category 6, but leaning toward 7 – I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.
I’m convinced that most of the world does not understand what the word, “atheist” means.
A “theist” is a person who believes god(s) exist.
An “atheist” is a person who does not believe god(s) exist.
Some atheists are 100% sure there are no god(s), but most of them fall into category 6. This does not make them non-atheists. It makes them perhaps agnostic atheists.
If I said, “so and so revealed that he is not a theist as he is not 100 percent sure God doesn’t exist” I would be using the word “theist” incorrectly.
A lot of theists are 100% sure god(s) exist. Many of them are not. Having 100% certainty is not necessary for atheism or theism – it’s not implicit in the definition (in the same way that bachelors must be unmarried in order to fit the definition of bachelor.) or even really implied.
Part of understanding science is understanding that we should accept things provisionally, or probabilistically. Meaning, that if the right kind of evidence comes along which gives us good reason to change our minds, we will. That means that nothing can be known with 100% certainty, as all things are subject to change. Even the idea that “nothing can be known with 100% certainty” is an idea which is subject to change and based on prior probabilities. In science, 100% certainty does not exist. We don’t prove things are true using statistics with a p-value of 0.00000000. We prove them with a p-value of 0.0001 (or some other nonzero number).
Science is probabilistic - which is one of the things that separates science from dogma. That’s good. That means science does not close itself off to new information or evidence. A scientist who says, “I don’t care if my data falsify my hypothesis, I am 100% certain my hypothesis is true” needs to hang up hir lab coat, as ze is not doing science. Someone approaching the world rationally is therefore agnostic about everything.
TL:DR – Dawkins is an atheist, So am I. An atheist is someone who does not believe in god, but an atheist does not have to be 100% certain in hir lack of belief in order to be an atheist.