By PAULA KIRBY - WASHINGTON POST ON FAITH
Added: Wed, 29 Feb 2012 16:54:26 UTC
In October 2008 I attended a lecture by the Christian apologist John Lennox. He could hardly contain his excitement because the previous week he had publicly debated Richard Dawkins, and Dawkins had allegedly made two remarks that had ‘stunned’ him because they seemed, Lennox said, to suggest the world’s ‘atheist-in-chief’ was experiencing a major change of heart.
According to Lennox, Dawkins had conceded a) that he had no difficulty with Einstein’s God, in the sense of God being the laws of physics and b) that “a strong case could be made for a deistic God.” And what this meant, declared Lennox, almost bursting a blood vessel in his missionary zeal, was that Dawkins had a sense that there must have been an intelligence to account for the beginning of things; and Lennox went on to insinuate that Dawkins was in the process of abandoning atheism and was well on his way to becoming a deist - at least: “There’s a lot going on with Richard Dawkins at the moment!”, he announced ecstatically, leaving his overwhelmingly Christian audience with high hopes of a full conversion to Jesus at any moment.
To anyone who had actually read The God Delusion, this was rather amusing, since there was nothing here that wasn’t in the book, so talk of changes of heart was wishful thinking at best; but to anyone who, like me, had heard the earlier debate, it was also an example of egregious quote-mining. What Richard had actually said was:
“The deist God would be one that I think it would be - one could make a reasonably respectable case for that, not a case that I would accept, but I think it is a serious discussion that we could have.” (Emphasis mine.)
He went on to contrast this idea with Christianity, for which, by implication, not even a “reasonably respectable case” could be made. (At the time of writing you can hear the full debate for yourself by clicking here.)
There is absolutely nothing in this or elsewhere in Richard’s debate comments that suggests a conversion to deism - much less Christianity. Indeed, describing arguments for deism as ‘not a case that I would accept’ is pretty categorical. Yet there was John Lennox, practically killing the fatted calf.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (R) and atheist scholar Richard Dawkins pose for a photograph outside Clarendon House at Oxford University, before their debate in the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, central England, February 23, 2012. (ANDREW WINNING - REUTERS)
The parallels with this week’s press hysteria over Richard’s description of himself as agnostic in his discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury are, I hope, obvious. Religious commentators have become so excited at the thought of his conversion that I almost don’t have the heart to break it to them that he said nothing in Thursday’s discussion that he hadn’t already said six years ago in The God Delusion. You’ll find the relevant section in Chapter 2, including the seven-point scale where one represents total certainty that there is a God and seven represents total certainty that there is not. Right there Richard writes,
“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.”
And how did he describe himself to the archbishop on Thursday, in his supposedly stunning retreat from atheism? “I’d put myself at 6.9.”
Concession? Conversion? The answer to Christian prayers? Hardly! It was as clear a restatement of the position he took in The God Delusion as you could wish for.
So how can this be? How can an atheist also be an agnostic? The answer is simple.
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