As the dialogue continued Dawkins eventually worked around to discuss the sense in which he is an atheist. At this point he referenced the seven point scale he introduced in The God Delusion where a 7 is being absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist. On this scale Dawkins stated that he was about a 6, though he then quipped that he was in fact a 6.9.
At this point Dawkins seemed to be suggesting that he would really be best understood as an agnostic. Anthony Kenny, the moderator, entered the discussion here by noting the irony of Dawkins now linking himself with agnosticism given his reputation for being the world’s leading atheist. Dawkins’ retort was telling. Rather than reply that he really is an atheist after all, he distanced himself from the familiar moniker by asserting that he never chose it for himself. This seemed to imply that Dawkins really is best understood as an agnostic rather than an atheist.
I think that Dawkins is deeply confused. He is confused, first of all, over what it means to believe something. His seven point scale implies that one must be maximally certain of the truth of a proposition in order to assent to its truth and thereby say that one believes it to be true. But this is clearly false. The vast majority of things we believe are not things we believe with certainty. For example, I believe that I am awake right now typing at my computer even though I do not place this at a 7 on Dawkins’ scale given the possiblity that I could be wrong. I assume Dawkins likewise has beliefs about whether he is typing at his computer, and whether the earth is more than five minutes old, and whether there are minds other than his own. Dawkins has beliefs about all these things even if those beliefs rarely if ever attain the lofty status of a 7. So his retreat from belief when it comes to atheism is strange. Indeed, one might interpret it in two ways:
(1) A general confusion over the meaning of “belief”
(2) A tactical retreat from the claims of atheism at opportune moments given that agnosticism is easier to defend
Neither of these is a happy conclusion. If Dawkins is confused about what the word “belief” means and how to apply it then one might wonder how one so learned and articulate in some matters could be so bracingly ignorant in others. But neither is it a happy thing to accuse Dawkins of playing the old switcheroo by bowing to the title of world’s leading atheist and then retreating to the safety of agnosticism when the going gets tough.
Unfortunately Dawkins’ interlocutors didn’t focus on these points and so he got away with flip-flopping around between atheism and agnosticism. (I discuss this common confusion between atheism and agnositicism in “Will the real atheist stand up?” (Chapter 12), in The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails (Intervarsity, 2012).)
Later the discussion turned to the central argument of Dawkins’ bestselling book The God Delusion that God could not be a satisfactory causal explanation for the universe’s existence because any creator of the universe would have to be at least as complex as the universe itself, thereby rendering the explanation itself redundant. This is a bad argument, and Anthony Kenny helpfully deconstructed it from one angle by pointing out that Dawkins was conflating two senses of complexity: complexity of structure and complexity of function. To make his point, Kenny gave the example of an electric razor and a cut-throat razor. The former is a more complex structure than the latter, but the latter has more complex functions than the former.
In the case of God, we have a being that theists have traditionally understood to be a metaphysically simple substance, but one that produces enormously complex effects. So Dawkins is confused to assume that any cause must be as complex in structure as its effect. On the contrary, an entity could be simple in structure and yet have an enormous functional complexity, which is precisely what a metaphysically simple yet omnipotent being would be.
The really surprising thing is that Dawkins seemed not to grasp the elemental point Kenny was making, thereby providing further evidence of Dawkins’ oft repeated refrain “I am not a philosopher.”
Overall this was an illuminating discussion, albeit bereft of those delightful “Gotcha!” moments that one finds in more adversarial debates.