The Spectator Speculates on Whether Richard Dawkins has Changed his Mind

In a second debate with John Lennox on October 23rd, it's being reported that Dawkins said: "A serious case could be made for a deistic God." Here is the link.

Melanie Phillips saw the live debate and comments:
This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force.
She approached him afterwards and asked him "whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm." She reports: "He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression."

I didn't see the debate. Maybe it'll be posted on the web before long. But how can we reconcile what Dawkins said in his book with this admission? In any case, I agree with Dawkins's recent admission. Glad he said it. It's a much more reasonable position to leave his previously held belief that God "almost certainly doesn't exist." But then I'm an agnostic atheist.

Nonetheless, I don't see why this admission does anything to support the Christian case. The Christian must come to grips with the differences between a full blown Christianity and deism. Moving from deism to Christianity is like trying to fly a plane to the moon. It cannot be done. A distant God is no different than none at all.


Tyro said...

What in his book needs reconciling with this statement? How is this statement inconsistent with the belief that God "almost certainly doesn't exist", especially when you read "The God Delusion" and know what sort of God he's talking about?

mdf1960 said...

"A serious case could be made for a deistic God."

Sure, but it is not a convincing case. A "serious case" can be made for a lot of things I don't agree with.

I absolutely agree with Dawkins that God "almost certainly doesn't esist."

eheffa said...

I had this sent to me by a friend.

A little searching on the Dawkins forum shed a little more light on the subject:

Here's what Dawkins said in response to this article by Phillips

This is what he posted here on a forum
( )

Dawkins: "I had heard rumours of Melanie Phillips before. This ridiculous article confirms that she is poisonous. What I have now also discovered, especially during a long conversation with her at the drinks after the debate, is that she is stupid too. The full video recording of this debate will eventually be made available, on this site and others (not sure when, but I'll try to find out) and everyone can then see what a biased travesty Melanie Phillips's account is.

I hope it's not too presumptuous to ask for a clarification of RD's reported statement, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God." First, did RD really say this, and second, if so, what exactly was meant by it? I'm fairly sure it didn't have the import that Melanie wants to impute to it, but what is it supposed to mean?

As I'm sure Layla has worked out for herself, it is a standard reasoning technique to bend over backwards to concede that a better case can be made for X than for Y, as a prelude to putting the boot in to Y. It does not, of course imply support for X. I have used the following parallel before, and I find it fitting. Sir Arthur Eddington, in extolling the central importance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, said

“If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

The Melanie Phillips tactic, on reading this, would be to say:

Aha! Aha!!! Sir Arthur Eddington has admitted that Maxwell's equations might be wrong. Sir Arthur Eddington accuses experimental physicists of bungling


Another person who attended the debate wrote this:

"I was there as well...this woman has no idea.

I hope it's not too presumptuous to ask for a clarification of RD's reported statement, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God." First, did RD really say this, and second, if so, what exactly was meant by it? I'm fairly sure it didn't have the import that Melanie wants to impute to it, but what is it supposed to mean?

Yes he did say this - although he said immediately afterwards that he would be "unconvinced" by such a case. The nail has already been struck firmly on the head. He was only doing this to outline the true nature of his atheism. He's not an atheist because he KNOWS there is no God - just an atheist because there is no reason to believe in such a God. Such as there is no reason to believe in a Deistic God - although it is possible.

And yes - the statement did arise out of - fine-tuning/development of life - style arguments that Lennox tried to use to prove God's existence. Failed miserably as well. Poor fella was lost for words on more than one occasion.

I don't think Dawkins appears to have changed his position on this issue but was merely misquoted.


zilch said...

This is along the same lines as Ben Stein making fun of Dawkins in Expelled for admitting that panspermia cannot be ruled out. I suspect it's part of the religious mindset, which thinks in absolutes, to not understand the nature of naturalism: sometimes one must admit that one does not know something for sure. The believer sees such an admission as a weakness to be exploited: the naturalist sees it as intellectual honesty.

oli said...

I do seem to recall that Dawkins says in the God Delusion that a deistic god is a much more sensible idea than the standard theistic god but then went on to say that
a) there is no reason to believe that just because it is more sensible such a god actually exists
b) such a god would be so alien and hidden that building a religion to worship it doesn't make sense. It would be like worshipping a nebula.

I'mn paraphrasing heavily of course but i do recall him writing about deistic gods in this way.

Tyro said...

I know Dawkins has said a lot more on this subject in speeches than he has written about but I only have a copy of his book handy, not his transcripts. Here are some quotes:

p. 46: "The deist God is certainly an improvement over the monster of the Bible. Unfortunately it is scarcely more likely that he exists, or ever did. In any of its forms the God Hypothesis is unnecessary."

p. 118: "Atkins's lazy God is even lazier than the deist God of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: deus otiosus - literally God at leisure, unoccupied, unemployed, superfluous, useless. Step by step, Atkins succeeds in reducing the amount of work the lazy God has to do until he finally ends up doing nothing at all: he might as well not bother to exist. My memory vividly hears Woody Allen's perceptive whine: 'If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an under-achiever."

On page 113 he directly addresses the argument from design in one of the most memorable sections:

"The argument from improbability is the big one. In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today's most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing. It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument - but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist's intention. The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit."

It's passages like this which make me want to see the whole context of the speech because I think it's entirely likely that Dawkins did say that a serious case can be made for a deistic god (after all, the cases for a specifically Christian God are laughable on their face). Dawkins has said repeatedly that it is the theory of evolution which allowed him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and that he thinks the argument from design might have convinced him before Darwin.

However if he said this, I think it would have been followed up by an explanation of why this argument fails in the light of modern knowledge and even a deistic God is improbable.

John: I assume you've read the God Delusion and in it Dawkins spends some time on positive attacks against all gods, such as his Ultimate 747 arguments. Given those, why is it more reasonable to say a deistic god is plausible or likely? I'm intellectually honest enough to say that I'll change my mind if evidence comes in, but I'm with Dawkins in that I think the evidence is so sufficiently strong that I think even the deistic gods don't exist and saying so or calling myself "agnostic" or "agnostic atheist" would be dishonest. That doesn't make me dogmatic or unreasonable, I think it just means we've reached different conclusions and I hope we'd both be open to evidence & reason.

John W. Loftus said...

Thanks everyone. I've benefited from reading your comments. Tyro, thanks for the quotes. I see little or no contradiction between them and what Dawkins is reported to have said. And I do not think there is a god either, of any kind. I may be no different than Dawkins on this question. As he said, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God." It's just that we cannot rule out this possibility.

District Supt. Harvey Burnett said...

If he has HALF the brain you think he does HE WILL change his mind!

That's a NO BRAINER!

John said...

You would know, Harvey.

Richard said...

If dawkins was as rational as he believes he is he would believe that God is in the realm of possibilities.

I agree with Michael Shermer on this one. The existance of God can't be proved or disproved.

Tyro said...


If dawkins was as rational as he believes he is he would believe that God is in the realm of possibilities.

Dawkins' "Ultimate 747" is a strong argument that gods are not within the realm of possibilities and no evidence or argument has refuted that. So why should anyone believe that God is in the realm of possibilities?

(Assuming by "possibilities" you mean it in the sense of anything which is even remotely probable rather than in the Gravity Fairy-encompassing "anything's possible".)