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Objecting to Big Think’s Dawkins Test

As anyone who knows me is aware, I’m generally a peaceful and diplomatic fellow. I’m not one to pick fights just for the hell of it. But that said, I’m afraid I have to raise some objections to a recent front-page post by Mark Cheney here at Big Think: Are You a Believer? Take The Dawkins Test.

Cheney’s post concerns the seven-point scale that Richard Dawkins introduced in The God Delusion to categorize people’s beliefs about God, ranging from strong theism at one end to strong atheism at the other end. This in itself is fine. As a whimsical intellectual exercise, Cheney then decided to classify some famous individuals by where they fall along the scale. Again, that would be fine, except that some of the people he’s listed are blatantly miscategorized. As Big Think’s resident infidel, I feel I have to lodge a protest.

First of all, there’s Woody Allen. He’s scored as a 3.9, meaning he’s characterized as a “weak theist” leaning toward agnosticism, but inclined to believe in God. This is not correct, to judge by several other well-known quotes attributed to him:

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends.

How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?

Although these quotes are obviously humorous, insofar as they express Allen’s real underlying view they show that he is, by any reasonable definition, an atheist. (Allen’s inclusion at all seems curious, since Cheney’s post claims to list some of “history’s greatest thinkers on the subject of God, religion and faith”. With all due respect to Mr. Allen, this is not exactly how I would characterize him.)

Along the same lines, George Carlin also gets a brief mention, with his name listed among “people who have no problem with God, they just don’t agree with how mankind has chosen to follow Him”. Wrong! Like Woody Allen, George Carlin was emphatically an atheist:

When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time. But He loves you!

Next, Albert Einstein is scored as 4.0, meaning “pure agnostic” – “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable”. This too is incorrect. Einstein most definitely did not believe in a deity, as I’ve written before:

I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

…the word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.

Next, Mark Cheney lists Carl Sagan. Here I don’t take issue with the 5.5 ranking (weak atheist, “inclined to be skeptical” of God’s existence), but I do object to the chosen quote, which portrays Sagan as ridiculing atheism and gives no justification for the number. In his public statements, Sagan sometimes said that an atheist can only be someone who’s absolutely certain of the nonexistence of God – a 7 on the Dawkins scale – but, with all respect to a great man, this just isn’t true.

Although Sagan didn’t use the word “atheist” to describe himself, it seems clear that he was one. His famous essay “The Dragon In My Garage“, from The Demon-Haunted World, lampoons the idea of believing in an entity designed to be immune to any conceivable test. In a 1981 interview with U.S. Catholic, Sagan said, “I don’t know of any compelling evidence for the old man in the sky [type of god]” and said that, based on the evidence, the universe “does not require” either “a traditional Western or Eastern god”. William Poundstone’s biography, Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, contains the following anecdote:

[Joan Brown] Campbell [General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ] once asked Sagan: if you’re so smart, why don’t you believe in God? Sagan simply turned the question on its head: if you’re so smart, why do you believe in God? [p.343; see also]

Lastly, there’s Richard Dawkins himself. Cheney’s post characterizes him as a 6.0 (“de-facto atheist”), but this isn’t quite right. As Dawkins himself made clear in the appropriate passage from The God Delusion, he’s more like a 6.9:

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. [p.51]

Although this test has been misused by some people to claim that Richard Dawkins is “really” an agnostic and not an atheist, when read in context, it’s perfectly clear that Dawkins himself rejects this categorization. He’s not absolutely certain of the nonexistence of God, but only because, like any good scientist, he’s aware of the logical impossibility of proving the nonexistence of anything. That doesn’t mean that he considers God’s existence to be in any way likely. On the contrary, it’s fully compatible with considering God’s existence so vanishingly unlikely as to be worth completely discounting, just as we ordinarily discount the existence of leprechauns, genies, or fire-breathing dragons.

Image credit: Marcus Böckmann, released under CC BY 2.0 license


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