In October 2008 I attended a lecture by the Christian apologist John Lennox. He could hardly contain his excitement because the previous week he had publicly debated Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins had allegedly made two remarks that had ‘stunned’ him because they seemed, Lennox said, to suggest the world’s ‘atheist-in-chief’ was experiencing a major change of heart.
According to Lennox, Dawkins had conceded a) that he had no difficulty with Einstein’s God, in the sense of God being the laws of physics and b) that “a strong case could be made for a deistic God.” And what this meant, declared Lennox, almost bursting a blood vessel in his missionary zeal, was that Dawkins had a sense that there must have been an intelligence to account for the beginning of things; and Lennox went on to insinuate that Dawkins was in the process of abandoning atheism and was well on his way to becoming a deist - at least: “There’s a lot going on with Richard Dawkins at the moment!”, he announced ecstatically, leaving his overwhelmingly Christian audience with high hopes of a full conversion to Jesus at any moment.
To anyone who had actually read "The God Delusion", this was rather amusing, since there was nothing here that wasn’t in the book, so talk of changes of heart was wishful thinking at best; but to anyone who, like me, had heard the earlier debate, it was also an example of egregious quote-mining. What Richard had actually said was:
“The deist God would be one that I think it would be - one could make a reasonably respectable case for that, not a case that I would accept, but I think it is a serious discussion that we could have.” (Emphasis mine.)
He went on to contrast this idea with Christianity, for which, by implication, not even a “reasonably respectable case” could be made. (At the time of writing you can hear the full debate for yourself by clicking here.)
There is absolutely nothing in this or elsewhere in Richard’s debate comments that suggests a conversion to deism - much less Christianity. Indeed, describing arguments for deism as ‘not a case that I would accept’ is pretty categorical. Yet there was John Lennox, practically killing the fatted calf.
The parallels with this week’s press hysteria over Richard’s description of himself as agnostic in his discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury are, I hope, obvious. Religious commentators have become so excited at the thought of his conversion that I almost don’t have the heart to break it to them that he said nothing in Thursday’s discussion that he hadn’t already said six years ago in "The God Delusion". You’ll find the relevant section in Chapter 2, including the seven-point scale where one represents total certainty that there is a God and seven represents total certainty that there is not. Right there Richard writes,
“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.”
And how did he describe himself to the archbishop on Thursday, in his supposedly stunning retreat from atheism? “I’d put myself at 6.9.”
Concession? Conversion? The answer to Christian prayers? Hardly! It was as clear a restatement of the position he took in "The God Delusion" as you could wish for.
So how can this be? How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple. It is the simple acknowledgment that it is possible to be mistaken. An agnostic atheist recognizes that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of deities (agnostic), while also finding arguments for their existence utterly unconvincing (atheist). Likewise, if you are a Christian who finds arguments for God convincing but recognizes that his existence is impossible to prove and that it is at least possible you could be mistaken, then you are an agnostic theist. I strongly suspect that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself would be the first to acknowledge there can be no absolute certainty either way and, if I am right, this would make him an agnostic to precisely the same degree as Richard - yet I doubt anyone would claim this means he is no longer a Christian!
The irony is that all these comments that have been seized on with such glee are actually simple repeats of what was in "The God Delusion" all along. And so we have the delicious comedy of views which until recently were condemned by the religious as arrogant, aggressive and fundamentalist suddenly now being proclaimed by those same religious as signs that Dawkins is unsure of his position and halfway to accepting Jesus as his Lord and Saviour!
It all reveals three things. First, how desperate many people are to impose their own meanings on Dawkins’s words, rather than those that are actually there. Second, how unjustified the hysterical and exaggerated reactions to "The God Delusion" have been. And third, how few people actually read the book before condemning it.
If you have never read "The God Delusion," I really do recommend it. As you might be beginning to realize, much of its contents are not what you have been told. What’s more, it’s absolutely chock-full of things Richard Dawkins really does believe. Which is handy, because it saves everyone the trouble of making them up.
Paula Kirby is an On Faith panelist and a consultant to secular organizations.
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