The other day I had an Astronomy Cast fan send me an email asking where I fall on the Dawkin’s Continuum. He was referring to the belief scale that Richard Dawkins laid out in his new book, The God Delusion. Within this system, individuals are divided by their level of belief that God does or does not exist. On his scale of 1 to 7, a person who is a strong theist, with 100% certainty that God exists, rates a 1. A person who is a firm atheist, who knows with 100% certainty that there is no God, rates a 7. Discussion of both this book and this scale are currently popular within skeptics circles and on atheist websites. Faced with this listener question, I have to admit to being a bit scared, because to many there is a “right answer.” This is a problem both when I deal both with scientists and with theologians (however the correct answer depends on the grader).
Over the years, I have encountered more than one scientist who expressed a belief that anyone with a functional brain can not believe in God. I have had loud tall men get in my face, informing me from uncomfortably close proximity that a belief in a God, especially a Christian God, meant a person had failed at learning reason, at learning logic, and at learning every other skill necessary to be a good scientist. “How can a good astronomer possibly believe in a God?” he asked me in a loud and incredulous voice. This person, and every other evangelical atheist who has ever attacked someone who failed to not believe fervently enough, was a 7 on the Dawkins scale.
Over my life, I have encountered more than one Christian who expressed a belief that anyone with an observant eye can not help but believe in God. I have had fiery matrons get in my personal space, informing me with uncomfortable passion that failing to believe in God, especially a Christian God, meant a person had failed to notice all the improbabilities that defy science, had failed to notice all the times an unnamed need was fulfilled in the 11th hour, and had failed to notice the strength of prayer to change lives. “How can a person truly be observant and fail to believe in God?” these people have asked in a 1000 different forms. These incredulous believers are 1s on the Dawkins scale.
Those 7s had looked at a cross I used to wear around my neck, and they had gone on the attack. I never really got it until one of my kind office mates, after watching me get harassed, asked me why I wore something that was such a symbol of hate. I had never thought of it that way, but…
But those 1s had looked at my love of astronomy and science and had seen me as an enemy without ever asking, “What do you believe?” How often has that happened? How many scientists have been attacked just for stating the principles of science in the wrong company?
Both that cross I used to wear (before realizing some saw it as a symbol of hate) and my constant promotion of science make me an enemy in certain circles.
So, when faced with this listener question, I paused, didn’t answer real fast, and eventually responded, “I’m a 2, why do you ask?”
And I have to wonder, why does anyone ask within the context of science? I am a strong proponent of the scientific method. For something to be called good science, it must explain past observations, and make unique predications that add something to our understanding of the universe. In order for me to say with certainty that something is true and real, it needs to be observable, repeatable, and documentable.
I’m a skeptic.
But, I believe there is room in the universe for a God. And this is an uncomfortable place to be. Between the Romans and Daniel’s lions, I wonder who I should fear more?
This is one of my concerns with the current skeptic’s movement. Just as the Christian’s look at me and assume by my vocation that I need saved (really, I don’t), I fear that many skeptics assume that everyone in their midst is a 6 or a 7 on the Dawkin’s scale. In the land of “I don’t know,” it is a dangerous thing to assume any absolutes. Even Dawkin’s, a self proclaimed 6, leaves room for God. The facts are out, and as a Skeptic, I can say “I believe there is room for a God, and I choose to fall on the ‘I think the odds are more in favor of God than against’ side of the betting pool.” I’m calling odds without having a test for my theory. That’s not science, it’s belief. There are also people who believe in string theory. I suspect that there are even people who believe in string theory and in a God or Gods.
It is in the land of absolute’s where we get ourselves into trouble when discussing non-testable, or not yet tested, theories. This is a tricky dance. I am perfectly comfortable saying with 100% certainty that my human husband can not have his head cut off and survive. (Note, I love him a lot. He just has a head cold and wishes someone would cut his head off). This is a statement based on (someone else’s) past observations and a lot of medical knowledge regarding how the brain and heart must be attached for a person to live. I am not comfortable saying with absolute certainty that if a crazed individual sneaks into our house and cuts off my husband’s head, his ghost won’t periodically race up the stairs after me. I don’t think it will happen, but I leave room for doubt and testing. James Randi style testing. And despite knowing my house is old enough that at some point someone must have died in it, I never worry about what is creaking. There is a place and a time for absolutes. And there is a time to say, the statistics based on prior null results are so far against you that it is close to certain there is nothing there, but there is room to be wrong because we may not have done the right tests (it is just really unlikely!).
Of course statements like this, which leave room for ghosts, drive some skeptics crazy. But, can we say for certain there aren’t? All we can really say is we have no reason to believe there are: no facts, no tests, and no theories that require them, the way the hard to find neutrino was required.
And there are middle grounds where we are a test away from certainty, but those tests, like so many Mythbusters episodes, aren’t believed in the face of Urban Legends that just must be true. For instance, I am allowed to say with certainty that a slotted spoon holds no broth but can catch the potato.* That is a statement based on past data, and a predictive theory with sound science behind it (including some scary fluid mechanics). To say with absolute certainty that the well wishes I have for the sick while making the soup effects the healing powers of the soup is, well, stupid. This is because there is no research showing that if I make soup with well wishes and a specific recipe, and you make soup with hate and the same recipe (and same everything else), that we are effecting the soups ability to aid the human immune system. There are no documented studies on which to base this prediction. (Urban Legends aren’t data.) It would be neat if someone tested it and emotions did effect the soup. I’d even make soup (with warm positive emotions) for any team who carries out this experiment in a well documented statistically significant kind of way that passes peer review and proves the emotions of the chef effect the immune response. It would be hard to maintain warm fuzzy thoughts that long, but I’d do it
Although chicken isn’t cheap this year, I’m not worried about having to pay out.
And that just ticked off some ghost believers, some soul believers. But I believe in equally annoying the absolute believers.
What can I say – I’m a skeptic.
I’m a skeptic who would love to be proven wrong.
And yes, I’m a skeptic who believes in God. I’m a 2. Why must you ask?