Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture given by Lord Rees, OM, PRS, on the subject of his latest book "Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning." Later I asked him whether he believed in God, to which he cheekily quipped; "Well I certainly don't believe in Dawkins!"
Atheism is the new black. For some reason, despite ceasing to be edgy circa 1945, Atheism is currently en vogue with the intelligentsia. Much of this popularity must be attributed to Richard Dawkins. Strange really, when one considers the long list of Atheists that preceded him (Hemingway, Diderot, Sartre, to name but some) all of which had something more interesting to say.
I can't say I like Dawkins. Maybe its his inflated ego. Maybe its because he's a popularist and, as such, must pander to the idiot mass to whom he preaches. Primarily I feel it is because he diminishes the most subtle and thoroughly nuanced debate in human history to something basic and trivial. Dawkins is rather like the student who proclaims that there is no great genius in Shakespeare: one cannot help but feel that when someone rapidly discounts an idea that has captivated brilliant minds for centuries, that person is probably missing something.
The following youtube video is a short example of the inane simplicity to which this debate is reduced:
At least from the youtube comments it seems most people believe that Dawkin's trounces O'Reilley here. I am inclined to think otherwise. Dawkins treats contentious ideas as if they were undisputed (that we have a scientific understanding of how life began; that truth values are universal). Furthermore, he resorts to sophistry to attempt to win the argument (his mustache analogy at the end of the clip). O'Reilley is justified in considering the belief systems of dictators as relevant to their actions. To suggest this is analogous to considering their facial hair for the same purpose is absurd and misleading. The chief point I wish to address however, is Dawkin's assertion that Atheism does not require faith.
Any belief that an individual holds requires either justification or faith. Most beliefs require both. A Christian's 'justification' for a belief in God might come from the Bible, personal experience, or various philosophical arguments. The average person's justification for believing that the world we perceive is real rests on the same things (excluding the Bible in most cases). To whatever extent our sources of justification are 'beyond proof,' faith comes into the argument. Even the most basic propositions require some degree of faith. Descartes believed there was only ONE proposition that didn't; Cogito ergo sum.
Dawkin's tries to avoid faith clinging to his beloved atheism by asserting that faith only applies to positive beliefs; "the onus is on you to say why you believe in something." Otherwise stated: the opposite of a 'belief in something' is not a belief, because if it were a belief it would be a belief with no object. This assertion is false. A belief in a lack of something is still a belief. The object of the belief is not nothing; the object is the data set from which the 'something' is excluded. One either believes in [a,b,c,d,e,f] or [a,b,c,d,e]. Either way the belief requires faith. Harking back to the earlier example; if faith did not equally apply to negative existential propositions our default position regarding the existence of the world would be one of extreme skepticism.
A belief is only free of faith to the extent it is justified. If you ask the average Dawkin's fanboy why he is an atheist he will probably cite science in some way. Evolution will likely be mentioned. First of all, theism is by no means incompatible with science. In attacking creationism, Dawkins and co. give themselves an easy 'straw-man' target hardly worth attacking. Secondly, science is highly specialized and esoteric. As a result, even the beliefs of a world authority on evolution are likely to be heavily dependent on the testimony of others. The average person's belief in scientific theories is likely to be wholly grounded in testimony, often to the point that they don't even understand what they claim to believe. (Just ask someone if they believe in string-theory or quantum mechanics.) Yet somehow these people have the unmitigated arrogance to consider themselves members of some intellectual club.
Richard Dawkins is the Michael Moore of the God Debate. And, like Moore, his dogma spills readily from many lips of his proponents. These people wear Atheism like a badge. They commit the fallacy of equating beliefs with intelligence. Intelligent people are, of course, more likely to believe certain things. The mistake is to think that believing those same things makes one intelligent. It is not what you believe that counts. It is why.
Dawkin's speaks of a need to be humble. The true position of humility is agnosticism. As various religious tenets are successfully challenged the best position is probably agnostic-atheism. Remember the scientific method espoused by Popper! "A hypothesis can never be proved, only disproved." It is reasonable to believe that God most likely does not exist. But one should always have the humility to accept that there are things about the world we do not know, and after all, one could be wrong. Unfortunately this is not a very controversial position. No one writes a best seller called "God Doesn't Exist (Maybe)." This is a pity. The world would be vastly improved if fence-sitting became more popular.