The Gospel According to Richard Dawkins – Atheism, Agnosticism, Skepticism

In modern times, militant Atheists abound. Perhaps one of the most militant, “in-your-face” modern advocates of this position is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is the one who wrote, “… that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” According to Dawkins, “faith – belief that is not based on evidence – is one of the world’s great evils.“

Dawkins has lots of credentials. He is an evolutionary biologist and author. He has taught at such places as the University of California at Berkeley and Oxford University. He has come up with his own theories related to how evolution occurs. He is most well known for his “gene theory” of evolution and has written extensively on this subject.

But these days he is most well known for his advocacy for Atheism and his criticism of religious faith – particularly Christianity. He has written such books as The God Delusion, The Blind Watchmaker, and The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

As a part of his advocacy for Atheism, he is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, served as vice-president of the British Humanist Association, is a Distinguished Supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland, is a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

But Dawkins is not the only high profile atheist around. Some of the more famous modern day atheists include such notables as Woody Allen, Lance Armstrong, Isaac Asimov, Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Larry Flynt, Bill Gates, Richard Leakey, Tom Lehrer, Bill Maher, Jack Nicholson, Andy Rooney, George Soros, and Howard Stern. In modern western society, Atheism has become a fairly respectable position.

Background
As we look at this topic here, we are not limiting ourselves strictly to Atheism in the academic sense. We are going to examine not only Atheism, but Agnosticism and Skepticism, as well. And while there are distinct differences in the three positions, interestingly, they all pretty much come out in the same place.

The first thing we need to be clear on is that all three of the views are firmly in the camp of Naturalism. Because of a broad overlap in the definitions of Atheism, Agnosticism, and Skepticism, it is often difficult to distinguish between the terms. Many people who label themselves with one of these expressions have no clear understanding of the differences or how their own views fit one category or the other. In putting the three terms in proximity this way, we will try to make a distinction between the three beliefs as well as stress where they intersect.

Because of the nature of these philosophical points of view, there is not a distinctive history that can be identified with them. These are basically positions which many people have held over the centuries, but which have no organized expression.

Atheism
The word Atheism literally means “without god.” It derives from the Greek word a which means “not” or “without,” and theos which means “God.” So it literally means, not God or without God. Thus, an Atheist believes that there is actual positive evidence that there is no God. People with this belief assert that all of existence can be explained naturally and that all religious belief in a god is false.

Agnosticism
The word Agnosticism also comes from the Greek. It also begins with the Greek word a and is combined with the word gnosis (knowledge). Thus, the term literally means “without knowledge.” An agnostic believes there is not enough evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God. A true agnostic will criticize both the Theist and the Atheist for their presumption that it is possible to have such knowledge. While this kind of position is very difficult to hold with any kind of consistency, it basically attempts to remain neutral on the topic of the existence of God by trying to remain in a state of suspended judgment.

There are generally two expressions of Agnosticism. One asserts that there is not enough evidence to know with certainty whether or not there is a God, but leaves open the possibility of obtaining that knowledge. The second type believes that it is objectively impossible for anyone to ever know with certainty whether or not there is a god.

Skepticism
The word Skepticism is derived from the Greek word skeptomai meaning “to doubt” or “to consider.” Skeptics believe that a person cannot know any kind of truth with absolute certainty, so one should suspend judgment on all matters which relate to truth. Their skepticism applies not only to knowledge of God, but to everything else in life where a truth claim is asserted.

Basic Beliefs and Practices
While the three approaches to denying God are semantically different, their practical outcomes are exactly the same. They all deny God. But since they do have their various approaches to this denial, there are necessarily different kinds of arguments which will be used by those who hold these positions. These possibilities include:

The Language Argument
This approach asserts that there are only two kinds of meaningful statements: 1) pure definition and 2) what can be empirically verified. Since God cannot be defined or empirically verified, the argument is that it is meaningless to talk about him.

The Knowledge Argument
This argument affirms that we can’t objectively know what is real and not real because our senses are imperfect. We can only know what something is to us.

The Moral Concepts Argument
Those using this argument assert that if there really were a good, all-powerful God, he could not allow evil to exist. The reasoning is that since evil does exist, God cannot.

The Scientific Methods Argument
This argument is essentially psychological. It asserts that what is really at play relates to man’s feelings. Since human beings are not able to deal with all of life’s struggles and tragedies, they feel an inner need to be rescued. Those pushing this argument assert that there really is no transcendent God, and that belief in God simply arises from man’s wishes for someone to exist who is powerful enough to be the rescuer.

The Logic Arguments
There are a couple of different logical arguments that nay-sayers posit to deny the existence of God.

1. God’s all-powerfulness is contradictory. The argument goes that if he were all-powerful he could reconcile contradiction (ex. God would be able to make a square circle.) Since he can’t there must not be a god.

2. God’s attributes contradict each other. For instance, how can he be both love and wrath at the same time?

Essential Beliefs
God
Atheists, Agnostics and Skeptics all assert that there is no such thing as God, or at least there is no possibility that we could ever know it.

Man
Atheists, Agnostics and Skeptics all affirm that man is the chance result of billions of years of natural evolutionary progress.

Salvation
Atheists, Agnostics and Skeptics all assert that there is no life after death, so achieving maximum fulfilment in this life is mankind’s highest aim.

Faith Foundation (How Atheism, Agnosticism, and Skepticism answer the seven worldview questions.)
1. What is the most fundamental reality? (Ultimate reality)
The only thing that exists is matter. There is no such thing as a spiritual reality. Or, if there is, it is impossible for us to know about it.

2. What is the nature of our material reality? (Material reality)
The material world is all that exists. If there is anything else, it is impossible for us to know it.

3. What is a human being? (Humanity)
Human beings are nothing more than complex biological machines. Mankind is basically the same as any other living creature, only having evolved to a level which made it possible to be self-aware. If mankind is composed of something more, it is impossible for us to know about it.

4. What happens to a person at death? (Death)
At death, the individual life form simply ceases to exist. If there is anything after death, there is no way for us to know anything about it.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? (Knowledge)
Knowledge is merely a chance happening because of a high level of human evolution. If there is any other reason for knowledge, we have no way of knowing about it.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong? (Morality)
There is no such thing as morality based on any transcendent reason. Right and wrong are decided by individuals or social groups as they seek to determine what is best for the survival and comfort of society. Even if there is a transcendent morality, it is impossible for us to know anything about it and we are still left to figure out things on our own.

7. What is the meaning of human history? (History)
There is no meaning in history. It is, simply, a linear progression of events moving from the past to the future. If there is some kind of meaning, it is impossible for us to know anything about it.

Authority
All three of these philosophies use human reason as their baseline authority to conclude that there certainly is, or probably is, no such thing as God. They also assert that there is no possibility of a revelation from outside our material existence. Other than the assertions of the individuals who follow these philosophies, though, there is nothing to support their conclusions.

Evidence for the Authority
Even though Atheism, Agnosticism, and Skepticism have different points of emphasis, they all have the same essential root. All arguments which assert that there is no God (whatever its expression) rely strictly on human reason to come to that conclusion. There is no empirical basis for this kind of determination. As such, each of the arguments have their own logical problems. To deal with these problems, we only need examine the five arguments above and evaluate their assumptions.

The Language Argument
The Language Argument asserts that talk about God cannot be meaningful. The only problem with that argument is that to make the assertion that one cannot talk meaningfully about God, one must attempt to talk meaningfully about God. Beyond that, no empirical evidence can be brought to bear that this point of view actually represents the structure of reality. This argument is absurd on its face.

The Knowledge Argument
The Knowledge Argument affirms that it is impossible for humans to objectively know what is real and not real. However, one who claims that we can’t know what is real is, by default, asserting that their own point of view is real. Again, no empirical evidence can be brought to bear to demonstrate the validity of this assertion. Since Naturalism requires this standard, it must meet it for itself. This argument is a self-refuting contention.

The Moral Concepts Argument
The Moral Concepts Argument asserts that a good, all-powerful God, could not allow evil to exist. The problem here is that those who assert this must also affirm that they know all of the implications of all evil. They preclude the possibility that there may be beneficial uses for evil. They also don’t have any way of determining what evil is or of demonstrating how they know this to be true.

The Scientific Methods Argument
The Scientific Methods Argument asserts that man’s belief in God is simply a psychological phenomenon to give man a way to deal with matters that are beyond his control. The problem here is that to say belief in God is only mankind’s wishful thinking requires a transcendent knowledge about the nature of reality which can’t be validated by any empirical means. There is no kind of objective evidence to validate this assertion.

The Logic Arguments
The logical arguments used to try and deny the existence of God are also flawed. First of all, the assertion that the existence of an all-powerful God is impossible simply because there are contradictions in the world indicates a skewed understanding of the nature of reality and of God. All-powerful does not mean that God can do anything we can imagine. It means that he can do anything that is possible. A square circle, for example, is impossible by definition. This same logic applies to God’s character. In fact, love and wrath can be logically reconciled, and are in a Biblical worldview.

Summary
The three philosophies discussed here each have their unique points, but are all attempts to deny the existence of God. None of them are formal religious expressions but each is widely held among the anti-god crowd. The main problem with each of them is that they are merely personal assertions with nothing to back them up.

And this is the problem which emerges with every single expression of Naturalism. They assert that everything must have a natural explanation, yet the foundation they are built upon are purely faith assumptions. This problem makes it very difficult to take these Naturalistic viewpoints seriously. At the beginning of this article we quoted Dawkins’ assertion that “faith – belief that is not based on evidence – is one of the world’s great evils.“ Interestingly, this turns out to apply to his own belief, as well. No expression of Naturalism is supportable by any means other than faith. It certainly does not provide a coherent means of understanding the actual structure of reality.

© 2010 Freddy Davis