If one wanted any proof of how a person’s position can be misrepresented in a single headline one only had to read the newspapers ‘reporting’, in astonished tones, that Professor Richard Dawkins is, in fact, an Agnostic and not an Atheist. The headlines, and report therein, offered a glimpse into why journalism is being given a bad reputation right now.
To summarise, Professor Dawkins and Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, took part in a debate chaired by Sir Anthony Kenny to discuss the role of religion in public life. It was a gentle discussion that all audiences should have fully expected from two men noted for their gentle and eloquent oratory skills.
The Daily Telegraph’s John Bingham started fairly mildly when he proclaimed “Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist”. But report that followed then suggested that: “There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.”
It’s fairly obvious that there was no “surprise” at all and when the camera panned out to the audience there were no audible gasps or gesticulations about the sudden revelation. This is perhaps because there is no surprise about where Professor Dawkins stands with his theological view. Professor Dawkins is a scientist who works with probabilities and this is something he discussed at length in his book “The God Delusion” written in 2006. In his book he revealed he was 6 on a scale of 1 to 7 concerning the probability of there being a god. In the debate he ratcheted this up to 6.9.
On the face it does seem that Professor Dawkins is “unsure” of his view that “god” does not exist but this only goes to show the length to which the reporter does not understand how probabilities work. What John Bingham should have done is report fairly and state that Professor Dawkins had already clarified his position in 2006 when he wrote about the 1 to 7 scale:
“7. Strong atheist: ‘I know there is no God . . .” [and 6] “Very low probability [of existence of gods] but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there…I’d be surprised to meet many people in category 7 . . . 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.”
The last line is revealing in itself and it’s quite simple; Professor Dawkins aligns his belief with fairies at the bottom of the garden. Anyone reporting the story must concede that Professor Dawkins is more than certain of his beliefs rather than making it seem as if he is advocating a serious argument that there is genuine uncertainty. Dawkins has also written on banality of the headlines on his own website with more eloquence than I can muster. The incredulity shines through.
Across the pond a similar vein of reporting was going on when the Huffington Post’s Al Webb stated: “Richard Dawkins, Famous Atheist, Not Entirely Sure God Doesn’t Exist”.
Professor Dawkins is famous for many things but the headline is designed in such a way to highlight what the reporter believes is a contradiction in Dawkins’ position. The actual report doesn’t really expand on anything useful which, for a sensationalist headline, is a crime in itself. It’s like opening a present wrapped in gold paper and dressed in expensive bows and ribbon only to find a tin of dog food revealed beneath.
The Daily Mail chime in with their usually inspired drivel with “‘I can’t be sure God DOES NOT exist’: World’s most notorious atheist Richard Dawkins admits he is in fact agnostic “
The word “admits” confuses readers; it implies that there is a level of deceit that has been performed by the person in question; almost as if the person has been in denial about something and finally succumbs to the pressure at a telling moment. The Daily Mail is not known for its accuracy and ascribes words by the chairman to the Professor’s “opponent” but we’ll overlook that slight detail simply noting it’s the norm with Daily Mail reporting.
The Daily Mail also resorted to adding weight to its earlier personal attack on Professor Dawkins:
“This latest admission by Professor Dawkins comes after he was left lost for words name the full title of his scientific hero’s most famous work during a radio discussion last week in which he accused Christians of being ignorant of the Bible.”
The Daily Mail plants a seed into its reader’s minds that Dawkins has somehow committed a number of deceits which he is only now being forced to “admit” to. What the other “admissions” were supposed to be is unclear but it only adds weight to the idea that the Daily Mail’s “Christians Under Attack” agenda continues to be pushed through without any fair representation of the facts.
But then “Famous Evolutionary Biologist Repeats The Same Thing He Said Six Years Ago” doesn’t have the same ring to it does it?
Perhaps the most interesting, but moronic, headline comes from Daily Telegraph blogger Dr. Tim Stanley who pulled no punches with his headline:
Stanley does not follow the previous crowd in suggesting that Dawkins’ “admissions” were a “surprise” (and rightly so – perhaps enlightened by the Daily Telegraph’s Tom Chivers earlier piece?) But just when you were beginning to sense that a fair piece of writing was going to be produced he immediately followed up with:
“But what is surprising is that Dawkins can consider that possibility and then so quickly disregard it.”
On one hand we have a person who claims to understand Dawkins position perfectly (the tooth fairy analogy) but then asks why Dawkins’ would disregard such possibilities? I suppose the reason why Dawkins does not follow Stanley’s line of reasoning is because he would have to follow all of the other possibilities such as tooth fairies, the Loch Ness Monster etc let alone Zeus, Thor, Vishnu and Baal.
To add weight to his theological query he states:
“For the possibility of God existing is far more mind-blowing than the likelihood that he does not.”
I imagine that the possibility of there being a real Santa Claus would be equally mind blowing but it is not appropriate that a person spends any time pondering that question any more than it is worth the time of someone as busy as Professor Dawkins.
Stanley then performs one of the more astonishing bouts of mental gymnastics seen for some time when he writes:
“I don’t want to make the case for Pascal’s Wager being a determinant of faith. “Betting on God” is a shallow approach to religion and isn’t what motivates anyone but Pascal to follow one. But it’s also an odd reason to discount the existence of God, too.”
One one hand Stanley acknowledges that the “bet” is a poor reason to motivate a person to follow a religion but then argues it is a poor reason to opt out of the bet too. Stanley misses the glaringly obvious point of the “wager” that the most intellectually sound position is not to “bet” on any outcome and that the precise reason for not “relying” upon the bet is because it is based upon wishful thinking.
If you bet on the Christian god you may well end up with the Islamic brand. Follow the Sikh path and some 12 armed Hindu behemoth might take exception to you rolling the dice. We can, then, discount the thousands of gods consigned to Earth’s past. Any person invoking the wager is instantly fighting a losing battle to convince their opponent. In any event, Dawkins does not use Pascal’s Wager as a reason for discounting the belief in “god” but then Stanley has to fill his word count somehow.
Having already stated that it is wrong to use Pascal’s Wager to buttress the faith card, Stanley then goes onto do exactly that. And considering that Stanley then goes on to make a full case for Pascal’s Wager in favour of not spending time with Richard Dawkins “in hell”, a place which is not referred to in the Bible to which Stanley holds dear, it makes his article seem more than intellectually dishonest and hypocritical. It’s also slightly creepy to see the emotional force of the argument carry so much weight to convince a person to change their view on its usage within a hundred words.
We should expect no less from someone who genuinely believes that Britain could do with “a bit of Rick Santorum’s [American Presidential candidate] religion”; a guy who recently said “I believe and I think that the right approach is to accept this horribly created, in the sense of rape, but nevertheless, in a very broken way, a gift of human life, and accept what God is giving to you.”
Of course! What Britain needs as an antidote to Professor Dawkins’ confused admissions of whether there is a god and failure to consider Pascal’s Wager’s properly is to revert to a second century theological position where rape is still considered, on some damaged level, a “gift” from god.
You’ll find me in hell with Prof. Dawkins.
See you there…