Why the Dawkins’ Scale for atheism/theism is…well, basically crap.

Someone recently asked me about the issues I have with the “Dawkins” scale, so I decided to write a blog about it rather than just respond to the comment with my personal issues I have with Dr. Dawkins scale. So I will address each number of the scale and the epistemic issues I have with it at each level.

1) “Strong Theist” – I do not question the existence of God, I know he exist.

The most common understanding of “strong theist” is someone who believes there is at least one God that exists (and I use “God” to include any God, monotheistic or polytheist). Dr. Dawkins introduces conditions of indubitably and “closed mindedness” here to be a “strong theist” where normally when we discuss the question of “Does God exist? “ we are asking a question about ontology, not epistemological knowledge nor about if the person being ask questions the existence of God or not, nor one of epistemological virtues (such as being open minded). #1 seems to assert in some sense a degree of certainty, while knowledge in the strong case of belief which is Kap→ Cap or knowledge implies certainty, but knowledge however is most often not held in the strong case…but to a weak case belief condition or ~(Kap → Cap) ^ (Kap → Bap) which is knowledge doesn’t require certainty, but does require belief (Armstrong 1970). One can be a “strong atheist” who still questions the existence of God, nor does it require knowledge to be a “strong theist”. This use of “strong atheist” often confuses people as the are unsure if “strong atheist” refers to someone who merely believes God does not exits or to the Dawkins scale which includes two other conditions of “unquestioning” and “knowing”.

2) “De facto theist” -”I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God”

“De facto” means “in fact” or “in reality” rather than by law. So then how exactly is this any different than just the word “theist” as someone who merely holds a belief that God exist but doesn’t claim it as certainty or knowledge. A person who strongly believes or even just merely believes God exists is a theist. Having a strong belief or a weak belief is a matter of conviction, but both are convinced God exists. Theism only requires a belief that God exists, it does not require certainty nor even a strong belief, just being convinced is sufficiency to be a theist. It is also confusing as in this case “strongly” is being used as a matter of conviction when “strong atheist” is generally held to be someone who is convinced and believes God does not exist and “strong” does not represent the level of conviction.

3) “Weak Theist” – “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”

Mirroring weak atheist (see #5) the a “weak theist” is someone who merely claims a lack of belief In God’s non-exist or merely they do not accept the claim God does not exist. It is often represented as holding to merely ~B~p where p is the proposition of theism that p=”at least one God exists” (Burgess/Malpass). Having uncertainties of ones position is not constitutive of being a theist or not. Dr. Dawkins is using uncertainty here a matter of conviction…and “inclined” is vague. If someone is convinced God exists then they are a theist, and they could have a “weak conviction” or a “strong conviction” not to equivocate the use of “weak” and “strong” here as Dr. Dawkins uses it in his scale. He isn’t using those terms in logical context of ~B~p (I do not believe p is false or I do not believe God does not exist), but a measure of conviction after someone is convinced assuming “inclined” to mean one is convinced…but again this is ambiguous as one can be “inclined” to believe in God, but doesn’t infer that they actually do believe in God.

4) “Pure Agnostic” – “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable”

This definition of being exactly “equiprobable” (or exactly 50/50) is so limiting as to make agnostic essentially useless and nullfied. It is a very difficult position to justify to say there is exactly (or equiprobable) chance of God existing or not existing. Granting there are only two possible ontological states, God exists or God does not exist)…but our beliefs on that what actually is the case can of course lean more on way or the other without convincing us that God does or does not exist.

Example: If you have a standard deck of 52 playing cards and shuffle them. Then turn up the top card revealing a red card. We can infer that the next card has a marginally greater chance of being a black card as there is one less red card in the deck. However, this small marginal percent chance doesn’t justify us to hold a belief that the next card is black. It is still essentially a guess and a guess is never justified.

5) “Weak Atheist” – “I do not know whether God exits but I’m inclined to be skeptical.”

Dr. Dawkins now introduces a new term “skeptical” here. While skepticism generally refers to epistemic question of can we have knowledge, it can also refer to mere ordinary doubt…which appears to be how Dr. Dawkins is using the word “skeptical”, but doubt merely means one is not convinced. If I doubt p is true it means I am am not convinced p is true. Most people are generally “skeptical” in that they do not accept things to be true unless they have reasons to do. It isn’t often someone says “I believe p is true because why not?” While this can of course can and does happen it sure be clear that person is clearly not justified to hold that belief and would have what is referred to as an irrational belief. This position in the literature is often referred to as “agnostic” in that an agnostic with respect to theism does not hold a position God exists nor holds a belief God does not exist. An agnostic is effectively a weak atheist (~Bp) and a weak theist (~B~p) or specifically an agnostic holds to ~Bp ^ ~B~p. And again, when it comes to the question of God existing we are asking a doxastic question when we ask “Does God exist?”, we are not asking about epistemic knowledge, but merely of belief.


6) “De-Facto atheist” – “I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable.”

For De facto atheism Dr. Dawkins explains it as ”I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God”, but here he makes it a much more probabilistic status. If a person thinks God is very improbable it is likely that they actually believe God does not exist. If you think there is let’s say a 1% chance, that is certainly justification to believe God does not exist. Even 5% chance God does not exist is justifiable. Even maybe anything over 68.27% (2 sigma) would be justifiable to hold the belief God does not exist. What makes this de facto exactly as opposed to just being called “atheist” in philosophy. (Again, having certainty has nothing to do with being atheist, nor theist).

7) “Strong Atheist” – “I am 100% sure that there is no God.”

This is just inane. This arbitrarily makes the bar so high to be a strong atheist to pretty much exclude a vast majority of rational atheist who are pretty convinced that there isn’t a God, but wouldn’t say that they are 100% sure. In philosophy a “strong atheist” is someone who holds the belief God does not exist. This lends to a significant amount of confusion when someone thinks they are not a strong atheist , which is again generally merely “atheism” in philosophy, because they think that they have to be sure there is no God. This is an unreasonable expectation. It is also noted for “strong atheist” Dr. Dawkins removes any knowledge conditions for a requirement as he has for “strong theist”. Why does “strong theism” have a knowledge condition, but “strong atheism” does not?

Author: Steve McRae

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