Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams enjoy a polite conversation at Oxford last week.
It’s clear that this latest wave of “new atheism” is on its last legs when its leading proponent, Richard Dawkins, the symbol of the movement, refuses to self-identify as an atheist. He’s merely an agnostic, he tells the Archbishop of Canterbury in this very polite debate last week.
He would say, I’m sure, that he hasn’t changed positions, and that calling himself an agnostic is in keeping with his commitment to science: no one can prove with certainty that God either does or doesn’t exist, and to be an atheist implies certainty.
That seems reasonable, except wasn’t the whole point of new atheism to get people off the fence about God’s existence? After all, Dawkins didn’t write The God Delusion to convince believers to abandon faith—unless he imagined that telling them on nearly every page that they’re morons was a persuasive tactic.
No, the book was for insiders—for those already convinced but who weren’t out of the closet. “Jump in,” he said. “The water’s fine.” I wouldn’t blame some of his fans for feeling betrayed.
Besides, I thought it was O.K. to self-identify as an atheist if you believed that the odds for God’s existence were vanishingly small. When I read Dawkins’s odds against God, 6.9 out of 7, I now understand why he only calls himself an agnostic. (Although I think it’s only fair to ask what peer-reviewed scientific journal these numbers come from!)
Those really aren’t bad odds… a 1.43 chance out of a hundred that God exists. This is from a man, after all, who by his own argument already believes in a lot of luck.
Here’s what I mean: In The God Delusion, he concedes that while it seems very unlikely that we should live on a planet, Earth, which possesses all the necessary conditions to support life, that’s only because we fail to understand that there are billions and billions of planets in the universe. So if the odds of finding one planet that supports life are one in billions, then the odds really aren’t so bad.
O.K., Prof. Dawkins, but what are the odds that we should find ourselves in a universe that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life? Dawkins anticipates this question in his book when he proposes a multiverse.
Yes, it’s true, he would say, that it seems extremely unlikely that we should live in a universe that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life, but that’s only because we fail to understand that there are billions and billions of universes—a multiverse—and we happen to find ourselves in one of them that has billions and billions of planets such that one planet has all the conditions necessary to support life.
What are the odds, then, that we should find ourselves in a multiverse, which has billions and billions of universes, one of which—our own—has billions and billions of planets, such that one of them has all the conditions necessary to support life.
Do you the problem? Dawkins is just playing with large numbers. He’s begging the question. He’s pushing the extreme unlikeliness of our existence further and further out. He would agree that there’s no way around the fact that we’re just really, really lucky to be here.
In fact, I would love for Dawkins to calculate those odds. In which case, even he might concede that while no one knows for sure, God’s existence is more likely than God’s non-existence.