Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury recently entered the Thunderdome of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, and had a rather nice chat. I livetweeted most of it, and there was pleasantly little to get agitated about. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking in it either, and it reminded me that I do like Rowan Williams a good deal.
What’s been most dreary about the whole thing, though, is the aspects that the press have chosen to pick up on. The Telegraph and the Mail, among others, ran headlines with the staggering revelation that Dawkins confessed to feeling – horror of horrors – uncertainty about the non-existence of God.
On the one hand, I suppose it’s understandable why they’d make such a fuss over such an inconsequential restatement of a position he’s been very clear about holding for many years. According to the standard narrative, these militant atheists are dogmatically certain that there’s no God. If they weren’t, they’d call themselves agnostics. They think that they’ve scoured every inch of the universe in which God might be hiding and somehow proved that he’s nowhere to be found.
The fact that this is entirely at odds with mainstream atheism is neither here nor there; ditto the fact that no other truth claims about the world seem to be imbued with the same ideological certainty. If you make the claim that “matter is made of atoms”, for instance, you’re unlikely to meet much resistance from people demanding to know whether you’ve really checked every atom in existence as closely as you possibly can, to make sure they’re definitely not comprised of the classical elements of the Aristotelian tradition.
When I say there’s no such thing as unicorns, this doesn’t cause much controversy; even if uncharted parts of the planet remain where they could exist, they’re generally agreed to be made-up creatures. But if someone showed me a unicorn, and their true existence was determined to a reasonable level of scientific certainty – if it definitely wasn’t an obvious prank, and so forth – then I’d change my mind about them, once the evidence was there.
Why do so many people assume we mean something else when we say there’s no God?
It’s disheartening that the implication “I’m not absolutely certain about this, and I could be wrong” is so alien and bewildering to so many people, and an admission of doubt could cause such a stir. Or perhaps it’s just journalists who are having trouble with it.