Yesterday afternoon (23 February 2012), at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford (a Christopher Wren masterpiece, built 1664-68, named after the Chancellor of Oxford University at the time, Archbishop Sheldon, onetime Archbishop of Canterbury, at whose expense the theatre was built and endowed), Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) had a discussion on the origins of life, human life, and the universe, the existence of god, and the nature of human beings. The discussion was moderated by the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny. It was, everything considered, a very good discussion, very civilised and decorous, which showed both Richard Dawkins and the archbishop as thoughtful, polite, and mutually respectful. Indeed, the Richard Dawkins we regularly see and hear on television and on the net, or in any of his writings, is a very different one from the one so often depicted by (what can only be called) his enemies; for there is little or nothing about Dawkins that is shrill or strident, in the normal acceptation of those words.
Even when confronted by the most obnoxious and dim-witted of creationists he manages to keep his cool, and to address them with respect and consideration. Here he is in conversation with the American creationist Wendy Wright of “Concerned Women for America.” Dawkins is clearly frustrated, but he is courteous and restrained, and he does his best to help this irritating fundamentalist see some sense, but there is simply no way into such a closed mind. She pays no attention to Dawkins’ words, she constantly interrupts, and despite Dawkins’ very clear answers, maintains her insistently irritating manner throughout. However, with respect to Dawkins, it is a study in restraint, and puts the lie to those who speak condescendingly of Richard Dawkins as shrill and strident. You don’t need to watch the whole of it — though if you want to, go here (I warn you beforehand: it is almost impossible to watch the whole of it without having the urge to hurl things across the room): this is just a short clip from around fifty minutes of video.
And we are to suppose that this is the shrill and strident Dawkins of legend! Could have fooled me. Name me one other person who would not have simply given up in despair when faced with such a challenge!
However, this is not what led me to write this (for me) very short post. It is prompted entirely by John Bingham’s piece in today’s Telegraph, responding to something that Dawkins said in his Sheldonian conversation (one can scarcely dare to call it a debate) with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The title of Bingham’s article is: “Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist.” What possible response can one make to this completely idiotic article? For, after all, this is what Dawkins says in his famous book, The God Delusion. He makes it very clear, in that book, that he cannot be sure, for being sure without the evidence to back it up would be very unscientific. Accordingly, Dawkins devises a scale from 1 — 7, where 1 stands for “I’m absolutely certain – I know – that god exists”, and 7 stands for “I’m absolutely certain — I know – that god does not exist.” And then he says, as clearly as can be:
I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. … Hence category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 — I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden. [51; my italics]
Now, surely, it doesn’t get much clearer than that? And the point he makes to Anthony Kenny is simply this: Agnosticism suggests that the person is suspending judgement because the thing is too close to call. It suggests that there is a 50-50 chance of its being true or false, so it is safer to proclaim one’s ignorance — as Sir Anthony does at the beginning of the conversation. But the probabilities are not so nicely balanced. Since there is no evidence at all for the existence of a god, setting aside the convictions of the religious that their very different gods and goddesses exist, and the experiences by which they purport to confirm the existence of varieties of gods and goddesses, there is simply no convincing reason to believe in any such thing. But the odds are not even. There being no convincing evidence — evidence that would convince every religious person of the existence of a well-identified god, and not just the many gods that would be the distillates of their very different myths and legends – is enough to suggest that there is no god at all, but it’s not enough upon which to base a certainty. One is agnostic to the extent of saying that there is no evidence, but atheist to the extent that there is no good reason at all to believe in such a being. Bingham simply hasn’t been paying attention.