Dawkins is Agnostic – So What?
I can’t believe that The Telegraph calls this news.
He is regarded as the most famous atheist in the world but last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted he could not be sure that God does not exist.
Right, and if anyone at The Telegraph had bothered to read his book The God Delusion, they’d already know this. In his book he wrote at length about this very topic. The problem comes when we misuse the term “agnostic”, and load it with more meaning than it deserves. It is the antithesis of “gnostic”.
- Of or relating to knowledge, esp. esoteric mystical knowledge
- Of or relating to Gnosticism
This is the claim to knowledge about god and his definite existence in the universe. Since it’s an untestable claim to know for sure that there IS a god, I’d say the term “gnostic” when applied to the existence of god is either one of two things: a disingenuous position of knowledge on an untestable claim, or a delusion about the definitive existence of god based in faith. Neither of these two standpoints are relevant in the proof of a god or gods.
The other thing to keep in mind is that, while Dawkins says he is “agnostic”, he is merely being truthful that when pressed about his knowledge of the existence of a god that there is no certainty either way. He is merely stating a fact of semantics, and NOT coming out of the closet as a “possible believer”. People incorrectly extrapolate the word “agnostic” in this sense as an admitting that there may be some credence to theistic claims of which, as I see it, there is none. Anyone who thinks this weakens Dawkins’ position doesn’t understand the position at all.
As a practical atheist, and a semantic agnostic, I understand completely what Dawkins says here, but it in no way concedes that god might exist. Look at the scale of probability again.
2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
5. Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”
6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I 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 considers himself a “strong 6” in this scale, and this is called “practical atheism”, because in his view there is no reason to live life as if God exists. If one is to be completely honest about their knowledge, then it is the only sensible position to hold. This is because the total possible knowledge that is available in the universe is completely beyond human capabilities of comprehension, and much of this knowledge is yet to be discovered. There is a possibility the much of the knowledge may remain hidden from humanity forever. (We may never know what an alien insect feels as it feeds on the other side of the universe, for example.)
Many people are outraged at the idea of being agnostic, but I think if one is truly genuine about the semantics of the term, the amount of possible knowledge in the universe, the amount of knowledge one person CAN have, and the multiplicity of possibilities in the universe, there is no way for certain to have absolute knowledge of this question. However it is completely possible to live life in practical atheism, and refute claims of knowledge from those who claim to know the unknowable.