During his dialogue-debate with Rowen Williams (the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Church under the Queen of England), Richard Dawkins was asked by the moderator why, if he admits that He cannot disprove God’s existence, he doesn’t just call himself an agnostic.  Dawkins response was, “I do.”

This is interesting, particularly in light of his past identification as an atheist, as well as his remarks that on a scale of 1 to 7, with one being “I know God exists” and seven being “I know God doesn’t exist,”  he ranks himself a 6.9.  He is only 0.1 away from being absolutely certain God does not exist, and yet he thinks that is good reason to adopt the agnostic label.  I disagree.

The presumption here is that to be an atheist one must be 100% sure that God does not exist, and if one is not 100% sure then they are agnostic (Christians often make this same mistake in reasoning).  But since when has atheism described the level of certainty one has regarding the non-existence of God?  Atheism describes the position of those who think the proposition “God exists” is false, regardless of their level of confidence that this is so.  Whether they are 99% or 51% sure the proposition is false, it is the mere fact that they think it is false that makes them an atheist.  While we can debate the exact percentage of certainty one should have before they conclude that a proposition is true or false, it is ludicrous to suggest that one must be 100% certain about the truth-value of some proposition X before they can conclude that X is either true or false.  Reasonable people will agree that if we are not 100% certain that X is true, we should hold our conclusion with an appropriate degree of tentativeness, but there is no reason to suspend judgment.

Those who suspend judgment regarding the truth-value of some proposition X are called agnostics. Two good reasons to suspend judgment is because one does not have enough information to make a judgment, or because the evidence for the truth of proposition X is nearly equal to the evidence for its falsity.  Clearly Dawkins is not suspending judgment, is not lacking in information, and does not see the evidence as evenly divided for and against the proposition “God exists.”  That is why it is intellectually dishonest of him to identify as an agnostic.  This is an improper and confusing use of an established label.

If one must be 100% certain that God does not exist before it is appropriate to designate one’s position as “atheism,” then I think most philosophers would agree that no one could be an atheist.  After all, apart from identifying something that is logically incoherent about the very concept of God, it is impossible to prove a universal negative such as “God does not exist.”  And if it is impossible to prove, then it is impossible to be 100% that God does not exist.  If one must be 100% that God does not exist before they are properly identified as an atheist, and such certainty is impossible, then it is impossible to be an atheist.  Clearly there is something wrong with that line of reasoning, and what’s wrong with it is the false, unrealistic, and historically ignorant definition of what constitutes an atheist.

If we must presuppose that “atheist” is only applicable to someone who is 100% sure that God exists, then presumably it is equally true that “theist” is only applicable to someone who is 100% certain that God does exist.  I would venture to say that the vast majority of theists experience some level of doubt about the existence of God from time to time.  If we were to rate them according to Dawkins’ scale, perhaps we could say they rank a 1.1.  Given Dawkins’ reasoning, because they are not 100% certain that God exists, they should be called agnostics rather than theists.  This means the person who thinks God probably exists, prays, reads the Bible, and thinks Jesus was raised from the dead and the person who thinks God probably does not exist, does not pray, does not read the Bible, and denies that Jesus rose from the dead are both agnostics. As you can see, the range of beliefs represented by the label “agnostic” becomes so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Labels are meant to clarify what someone believes, not be applicable to virtually opposite and incompatible beliefs. That is why we should reject the notion that one is not an atheist unless they are absolutely certain God does not exist, and that is why we should still continue to call Dawkins an atheist.

 

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