Luke Richard Sibbett
Richard Dawkins, biologist, author and self-confessed “militant atheist” is so fervent in his condemnation of religion that he has been branded in New Republic as an “evangelical” advocate of “his own kind of narrow religion”; and this by a fellow atheist. Is there really any difference between Dawkins’ persistent and repeated insistence that there is no god and the theologians arguments that there is one?
Dawkins claims there is. In his eyes there is a crucial difference; he explains “My Passion is based on evidence” in his introduction to The God Delusion. In the book, Dawkins argues that the theory of evolution provides a falsifiable alternative to the Intelligent Design Argument of creationists: “if a single fossil turned up in the wrong geological stratum, the theory [of evolution] would be blown out of the water”. The origin of life was, chemically, a highly unlikely event, however the huge number of planets in the universe where life could have arisen makes it likely to have occurred: he says “the origin of life gap is… easily filled by statistically informed science”.
Essentially his point is that scientific theories suggest that the rise of complex life is probable, whereas “a God capable designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable”: the religious explanation is more complicated than the problem it was trying to solve.
As a fellow scientist (in training at least) this approach seems perfectly reasonable. If it is therefore impossible to directly disprove God’s existence then the only way to judge his existence is to resort to judging the relative probability of the two alternative explanations for our existence: the one scientific, the other religious.
So far, so rational.
Historically Dawkins has often said that he “would, like any other scientist, willingly change [his] mind if the evidence led me to do so”. However, in a recent interview with Peter Boghossian he said that he “couldn’t think what that evidence could be”. He suggests that hearing the booming voice of God or seeing the stars spell out ‘Believe in Me’ would not persuade him. This seems to destroy his entire evidence based approach, making him a closed-minded hypocrite. However, he continued to say “the more probable explanation is a hallucination or a conjuring trick…”, which brings everything back to the balance of probability again. Underlying this seemingly hardline and intractable statement is another statistical calculation along the same lines as before, considering all other possible reasons for some apparently supernatural phenomenon. After all, the unreliability of human senses is the reason we do our best to make objective measurements in science, which also prevents anecdotal accounts of miracles from being credible.
Even though Dawkins’ mind can appear to be closed to any philosophy but his own, the crucial difference is that his stance is based upon the best possible evidence available.