From the Washington Post, here is an interesting column about Richard Dawkins and belief. Some folks are enamored of the idea that the famous atheist might have glimmers of doubt about his atheism. But, as the writer points out, Dawkins has never claimed to be absolutely certain in his atheism — which makes him, strictly speaking, an agnostic. InThe God Delusion, he puts his certainty that there is no God at 6.5 on a 7-point scale he came up with. Elsewhere he goes as high as 6.9, apparently. But he’s not prepared to entirely rule out a deistic sort of God — because he can’t.
And that’s because he’s a scientist, and at the heart of science is doubt. All knowledge is provisional; nothing is absolutely certain; tomorrow’s data may overturn today’s laws. There was an interesting debate on some atheist blogs a while back about whether there could be any evidence that would convince the bloggers that there was a God. It’s a reasonable question. Almost anything you can think of could have a more plausible explanation than an all-powerful, all-knowing God — mass hallucination, intervention by an advanced race of aliens, previously unknown laws of physics…. But even a complete lack of persuasive evidence doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
For many believers, of course, lack of doubt is something to be proud of. But, as the column suggests, I expect that most believers cannot be as certain as they would like to be. A semi-major character in Pontiff has a daughter who was hit by a car when she was a little girl and left severely brain-damaged. As a result, the mother loses her faith — how can she believe in a God who would do this to her child? But then the annoying author sets about trying to test her lack of faith when she begins to think her daughter could be “cured” — by meeting the pope, who has a reputation for being a miracle-worker. If she has faith, maybe God will finally show some mercy….
And of course that is how the battle between faith and doubt is ultimately fought — not in books and debates, but in our needs and hopes and desires. The woman will do anything for her child — even believe in a God she despises.
The annoying author then provides us with a stunning plot twist in which…
But you don’t want me to tell you. You want to rush out and buy the book when it arrives at an ebookstore near you.
For most scientists the God question is just not something they spend any time thinking about. Rather they follow Laplace, the great French mathematician and astronomer who wrote a five volume treatise on Celestial Mechanics. He was once presented to Napoleon and the Emperor asked him why, in all of his works, there was no mention whatsoever of God the Creator. “Sire,” he famously replied, “je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.” I had no need of that hypothesis.
Cosmologists and astronomers may not worry about religion, but evolutionary biologists like Dawkins and Coyne evidently do, because religion keeps people from learning and believing their work.