an atheist or an agnostic? « Why Evolution Is True


As sometimes happens when one is surfing around on YouTube, I came across two videos of David Attenborough discussing his beliefs in God. Although I don’t have a dog in his fight with belief, I was curious to see whether a man who’s spent his life touting the marvels of naturalism (e.g., evolution) had any religious belief at all.

In the first 4.5-minute video, Attenborough professes agnosticism, although firmly rejecting Biblical creationism (or any literalism of sacred texts) on the grounds that there is big conflict between the creation myths of different faiths. But the implication is that he’d have to reject the conflicting factual assertions of different faiths as well: e.g., that Jesus was the son of God or Muhammad was God’s final prophet.

When the interlocutor asks if Attenborough is as sure as Dawkins that there was no God, Sir David raises the metaphor of having seen the inside of a termite nest, with all the busy termites lacking the sense organs to perceive that Attenborough is watching them from above. And so he pleads agnosticism:

I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organ, and I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing, saying that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in this world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position. And Richard, I don’t doubt, would say, well, that that’s rather feeble. That’s not being very brave. And maybe he’s got a case.

Well, first of all Richard is not absolutely sure that there’s no god. Going by the evidence for God—or rather the lack thereof—he places himself at a 6 (or a 6.9) out of 7 on his spectrum of theistic probability: as a “de facto” atheist. I’m not sure why Attenborough doesn’t also argue that he provisionally rejects the idea of God because there’s no evidence for it. While he may lack the sense organs to detect a supreme being, then perhaps he lacks the sense organs to detect leprechauns or fairies! Would he say the same thing when asked about fairies? And, of course, if a god wanted to make himself known to humans, he would have given them the sense organs to detect divinity.

I can’t help but believe, though I don’t of course know for sure, that Attenborough is the kind of agnostic who is really an atheist: the agnostic who says “I don’t know” when he should be saying “I have no evidence so I don’t believe.” To me, agnosticism is a cowardly position—unless you have evidence both for and against god and thus can’t decide. And who is like that?

But then we have this video in which Attenborough is interviewed by Jim Al-Khalili, who describes himself as an atheist and a humanist. After noting that credit for the world’s diversity should go not to a god but to natural selection, Attenborough summons up the image of an African boy with river blindless, caused by a worm whose only host as an adult is the human eye. As Sir David says, “If you’re telling me this god in whom you believe specially created this worm in order that it could do that, than I don’t believe he can be an all-loving God, for a start.”

This is the argument against gods from natural evil (not “moral evil”), and is the same argument Darwin famously used in his letter to Asa Gray in 1860:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin resembles Attenborough in saying that the world doesn’t adduce evidence for a god, at least of the loving sort, but that there still may be “designed laws”. Darwin then pleads that the human mind isn’t capable of apprehending a god. In those days, of course, it wasn’t on to be a strong atheist, and “designed” laws could be taken as an ambiguous or hedged belief. At best Darwin was a deist, but I suspect that today he’d be an atheist.

The argument against god from natural evil was made more strongly by Stephen Fry on Irish television, using “brain cancer in children” as evidence against God. I believe Fry was investigated for blasphemy because of this statement.





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