Dawkins v Williams: Debate Conclusions – Is Richard Dawkins really agnostic?

I’ve rather painted myself into a corner here, having said that I expected everyone to judge the debate based on their own prior standpoint and preconceptions. I might have got away with that on its own, but as I also said how I expected the debate to go, I have the choice of admitting that my prediction was wrong, or leaving myself open to a charge of merely confirming my own expectations, as I somewhat critically suggested others would do.

Fortunately, I’ve been saved from having to cover that in too much detail, because there’s one issue that’s dominating discussion of the debate – Richard Dawkins’ self-description as agnostic, putting himself at 6.9 on his Spectrum of Theistic Probability.

Sadly, most of the comment on this has been rather hysterical and misinformed. So let’s clear a few things up: Dawkins is not backsliding on his atheism, and he’s certainly not about to suddenly convert to Christianity. His position has consistently been that he’s confident of the non-existence of God, and although he’s unable to prove that and must hold the possibility of God’s existence open, he does so in much the same way as the tooth fairy or Russell’s Teapot.

In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty, and refusal to admit that he could be wrong. He loses either way – he’s portrayed as arrogant and dogmatic, or else he’s so uncertain in his beliefs that they’re clearly not worth discussing, because even he isn’t really sure and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.

As I’ve previously highlighted, this exposes an obvious weakness in the most commonly used terms to describe beliefs. I suspect Dawkins’ beliefs are getting so much attention not because of his degree of belief (he’s explicitly described himself as a 6 to 6.9 many times before), but because of the label he assigned to that position. It seems natural that an agnostic should be genuinely uncertain, rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of being 100% certain – calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.

Now, I confess that I’m a little interested in his chosen label from a narrow perspective of practical theology, but seeing that his actual degree of belief hasn’t changed, I don’t see that it warrants the attention it’s been getting. Maybe there are more theology geeks than I’d realised.

The reports are half right, though – Dawkins is known for describing agnostics as feeble-minded fence-sitters, or at least partly agreeing with his school preacher who did, so he must have shifted his position. Except he hasn’t – the relevant passage in The God Delusion describes two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Dawkins reserves his scorn for the PAPs, and says:

Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability

So it’s right there in his most famous “atheist” work, actually in a chapter on agnosticism – he strongly believes there is no God, but we are currently unable to answer the question with certainty in either direction. Even there, surely the first place you’d look to find out his views on agnosticism and certainty, it’s clear that he acknowledges a lack of certainty. He’s also unable to be entirely certain about the non-existence of fairies, unicorns or anything else.

So Richard Dawkins is, always has been, and almost certainly always will be confident that there is no God, but he nevertheless remains aware that he is unable to answer the question with absolute certainty. The only news here is that people (especially journalists) jump to conclusions without checking their facts, and that lots of them have never really paid attention to what Dawkins was saying.

Come to think of it, that’s not really news, either.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “Dawkins v Williams: Debate Conclusions – Is Richard Dawkins really agnostic?”

  1. procrastin8or says :

    In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty,

    Bingo. Always want it both ways, don’t they?

    • L. Clark says :

      No, it’s Dawkins and other unreasonable nonthinkers who always want to have as many paths available to back track on. The bottom line is, he admits it’s possible God is real. He has no reasonable reason to throw around such dispicable insults,ridicule, bigotry, and hatred toward believers. Where they go when they die doesn’t affect him the slightest bit.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Okay. So are you saying you can’t express an opinion unless you’re absolutely, incontrovertibly sure of your position? Be careful.

        I’m not going to tackle the “insults, ridicule, bigotry and hatred” thing, because it’s clear that believers regard even the mildest criticism as terrible persecution, and your portrayal of Prof Dawkins as an intellectually dishonest, unreasonable nonthinker speaks volumes. But he’s really not interested in where people go when they die, especially because as far as he’s concerned it’s the difference between 6 feet under a churchyard and 6 feet under some other patch of land. Or scattered on, but that’s not so snappy.

        He’s far more concerned with what people do before they die. I’m sure Dawkins and the vast majority of atheists would be happy to leave people to whatever beliefs make them happy, as long as those beliefs aren’t inflicted on people who don’t share them through illiberal, sectarian legislation and crass, inaccurate argumentum ad populum as we’ve seen recently with government ministers supporting discriminatory policies on the basis that we’re a “Christian country”.

      • procrastin8or says :

        Unreasonable, I presume, because he refuses to pander to the demand for deference and special treatment that religious believers think they are entitled to because of their beliefs?

  2. raintreebranches says :

    Two things I think people usually aren’t clear about or don’t fully realize/understand:

    1. Agnostic can mean you don’t know the answer one way or another, but more accurately it means that you think that the answer can’t be known, ie it is beyond our ability (at least now?) to find out the answer for sure.

    Which means you can be an ‘agnostic atheist’ in the second sense of the word: you think the question of God is something that we can’t prove one way or another, yet personally believe that there is (most likely) no god.

    2. I really like the concept that they discussed in the video about there not being a ‘first human’, because the process is a very gradual one. In other words, it’s a spectrum, not fixed categories! we may label things in a black and white way (ie something is either a species of human or NOT a species of human), but we should remember that these categories are arbitrary and merely a convenient way for us to describe our world.

    And I think the same applies to many other things, including belief! That’s why his scale is a spectrum and not just three categories of ‘theist’ ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’, right? hurhur. oh well.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I try not to harp on about definitions of agnosticism, seeing that I’ve posted quite a lot about it already here, but yes, there are many different definitions of the word, and the trouble is that the typical understanding is pretty much Dawkins’ PAP, with no understanding of TAPs.

      So when Dawkins says he’s agnostic, however much he qualifies it, people tend to hear something entirely different from what he’s actually saying.

  3. Brendan Barber says :

    “calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.”

    This is because Dawkins positioned himself as an atheist rather than an agnostic more for political and financial reasons – he does sell pop science books. Dawkins is agnostic no matter how many atheist revisionists wish to argue the case for atheism.

    It is logically absurd to call Dawkins atheist due to his 6.9 position on the made up “Spectrum of Theistic Probability”. It is absurd as it attempts to apply a measurement or degree on certainty on concepts that themselves make no such claims to objective measurements of certainty (agnosticism).

    How is it that one can measure uncertainty on uncertainty? How do we measure what we do not know about what we do not know?


    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      How is it that one can measure uncertainty on uncertainty? How do we measure what we do not know about what we do not know?

      By attempting to quantify our confidence. Of course there’s no objective standard to appeal to, but it’s hardly a crazy idea – weather forecasters do the same, attempting to put levels of confidence on predictions based on various different models. They don’t know, but they attempt to quantify their confidence because a simple “dunno, might rain, might not” doesn’t tell us anything.

      There’s a difficult question of where we draw the line between atheism and agnosticism. No one can plausibly claim to be certain in their atheism, because no one can prove a negative. That being the case, the definition of atheism has to allow for some degree of uncertainty or it would exclude everyone through its inflexibility.

      Maybe that’s absurd, but I think it’s simple common sense.

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