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04 October 2006


Dan Goodman

I've always thought Dawkins was a very bad ambassador for atheism not because his atheism is based on faith (I don't think it is), but because he's such a goddamn fundamentalist about it. His writing is full of invective and rhetoric which is hardly consistent with the principles of rationalism. I doubt any theist would read his book and be converted to atheism by it - he's preaching to the choir (to use a rather tired old expression).

Tony Hatfield

Thanks for your comment.
I'm not happy with the adjective fundamentalist attached to atheist. Atheism isn't like a religion based on a supernatural being where there can be different interpretations of what man in the white beard says. Atheism is a complete denial of God's existence and as such does not really allow for a range of opinions. A bit like being nearly pregnant. Now if you say that Dawkins takes no prisoners I'm with you!
As for preaching to the choir- I know what you mean, but his latest "The God Delusion" is directed to those who believe in a god with little conviction. He shows, with his usual intellectual rigour, that it is possible for them live without their Gods.


Dan Goodman

Dawkins is an atheist fundamentalist not in his attitude towards his beliefs but in his attitude towards the people that don't share them. I suspect he'd be quite happy to see them all dead or neutered ;-). A moderate atheist can have a certain respect for the views of a theist even if he doesn't share them, in much the same way that I can respect the views of right wing libertarians like Robert Nozick (quite intellectually coherent but rather heartless).

I'm not sure that this is "taking no prisoners" so much as treating those who disagree with you as beneath contempt. But, I haven't read this latest book, I'm just basing this on other things of his that I've read. Perhaps the tone is less fundamentalist (although the title suggests otherwise).


"Atheism is a complete denial of God's existence and as such does not really allow for a range of opinions."

I don't think this bears on Dawkins, but I'm not entirely sure about this. I think there's a whole spectrum of atheisms, from the agnostic end to people like me who believe that the question of the existence of god is not even meaningful but just a glitch in our language. There's certainly a wide variety of differences in attitude amongst atheists anyway.

Dan Goodman

Also, thanks for adding my blog to your list, but you've given me a rather mafioso name! Unless it's a reference to the Don Cossacks in line with the samovar theme?

Tony Hatfield

I'm not sure you can be a bit of an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. After all, an agnostic claims the existence of a deity is unknown or inherently unknowable, incoherent and therefore meaningless.
The atheist simply denies the existence of a deity. The views IMO seem mutually exclusive.
Though on reflection I suspect I'm a "bit wrong" when I deny gradations of atheism.
Your "glitch in the language" position opens up a whole new debate. How did such a glitch enter the language or languages?

Dan Goodman

Well I see the spectrum as something like:

Theist (there is a god) --- Agnostic (there may or may not be a god) --- Atheist (there definitely isn't a god

Within each category, strength of conviction pushes them to one side or the other, as well as attitudes towards related questions. For example, an atheist could admit the possibility of the existence of god but deny the actual existence of god; a more extreme atheist might deny the possibility of the existence of god (for example claiming that the notion is self-contradictory).

I don't think it's quite binary because I don't believe that the statement "god exists" is either true or false, but that it is meaningless. An individual's attitude to this statement is more complicated than just agreement or disagreement, and includes their attitude to a whole lot of related concepts.

I think the glitch in the language is related to exactly this. Statements with a propositional form involving quantifiers like "there exists" are so successful in normal usage, and people use these or related forms without difficulty almost all the time, and so we begin the believe that they apply universally. We begin to believe that if we can say something, it must make sense. But it's a very complicated subject.


I agree with t that atheism isn't a "belief" in the same category as a "belief in God". Dawkins, in his wonderful book "The God Delusion", quoted in this post, makes a convincing case that the statement that there is a God is in principle capable of scientific scrutiny and either refutation or confirmation, in the sense that one can conceive of evidence becoming available that might either demonstrate the statement's truth or demonstrate its falsehood. But since such evidence is not so far available either way, and as such evidence seems, on the basis of our common experience, unlikely ever to materialise, we are thrown back on assessing the probability or otherwise of the statement being true. Dawkins demonstrates pretty conclusively that the likelihood of the statement being true is so remote that it is impossible for a rational human being to believe it (and that to make other people, children or adults, feel guilty for not believing it is utterly indefensible).

It seems therefore misleading to describe this position as constituting a 'belief' which is on a par with the opposite 'belief', and still more misleading to describe it as a fundamentalist position, unless the term 'fundamentalist' (and/or the term 'God') is being used in a very special and unusual sense.

It's sad to think that few believers in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, all-creating supernatural being are likely to read Dawkins's book. It would be very difficult, I think, for anyone such to read it without being forced to question the basis for what is very clearly an irrational belief in a proposition for which no valid evidence exists and which is inherently much more improbable than probable.


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