An Unbelievable Beginning (Part 1)

Richard Dawkins

Culminating five years of development, Prometheus Books has released The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn. Richard Dawkins provided the work’s foreword, reprinted in part below, which he composed before completing the manuscript of his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. Readers familiar with that work may recognize earlier versions of some of the structures and arguments employed in Dr. Dawkins’s later-written but earlier-published book.—Eds.

Unbelief sounds negative. How can you have an encyclopedia of anything defined as an absence? There are encyclopedias of music, but who would buy an encyclopedia of tone deafness? I have seen and enjoyed an encyclopedia of food, but an encyclopedia of hunger?

The first thing wrong with these comparisons is that music and food have positive associations. Tone deafness is an absence of something valued. So is hunger. Among the many things this Encyclopedia demonstrates is that religious unbelievers are not similarly deprived. For many—and I shall return to this—unbelief comes as a liberating gateway to a more fulfilled life.

The second thing that might give us pause about unbelief is that there exists an all but infinite number of things in which we don’t believe, but we don’t go out of our way to say so. I am an unbeliever in fairies, unicorns, werewolves, Elvis on Mars, spoon bending by mental energy, the Easter Bunny, green kangaroos on Uranus . . . the list could be expanded trivially and without end. We don’t bother to declare ourselves unbelievers in all the millions of things that nobody else believes in. It is only worth bothering to declare unbelief if there is a default assumption that we all must believe in some particular hypothesis unless we positively state the contrary. Manifestly, and in spades, that is the common assumption over the hypothesis of divine intelligence.

Divine intelligences are not the only things that are both widely believed and widely doubted. The word skeptic rather than unbeliever is commonly applied to those who doubt the widespread claims of astrology, homeopathy, telepathy, water divining, clairvoyance, alien sexual abduction, and communication beyond the grave. Skeptics in this sense do not necessarily deny the validity of these claims. Instead, they demand evidence and sometimes go out of their way to set up the rather stringent conditions—much more stringent than supporters usually realize—that proper evidence requires. Supporters of homeopathic medicine, for example, or dowsing, seldom understand the need for statistically analyzed, double-blind controlled experiments to guard against chance effects, placebo effects, and the unwitting suggestibility of the believing mind. It is a matter of convention that skeptic has come to be associated with those matters, while the superficially synonymous unbeliever specifies religious unbelief. The two kinds of skepticism/unbelief often go together, but you can get into trouble if you simply assume that they do.

There is a further ambiguity over whether unbelief signifies positive disbelief or mere lack of belief. The dictionary definition allows either. In the original 1985 Encyclopedia of Unbelief, its editor Gordon Stein interpreted unbelief to mean a definite belief that deities (from now on, for brevity, I shall use “God” to stand for supernatural deities in general) do not exist. Others could easily mean something more agnostic. Within agnosticism there are those who feel that, because we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, existence and nonexistence are therefore completely undecidable hypotheses, on an exactly equal footing with each other and having equal probability. Then, of those agnostics who forswear such “equal probability” impartiality, there is a spectrum of those who lean one way or the other. The following five representative propositions span the spectrum:

  1. Strong Theist. In the words of C.G. Jung, “I do not believe, I know.”
  2. Agnostic, Leaning toward Theism. I cannot know for certain, but I think the existence of God is highly probable.
  3. Truly Impartial Agnostic. It is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, and therefore his existence and his nonexistence constitute equally probable hypotheses.
  4. Agnostic, Leaning toward Atheism. It is impossible to disprove God, but he is just as improbable as fairies or unicorns.
  5. Strong Atheism. I know there is no God with the same conviction Jung “knows” there is one.

I suspect that most contributors to this Encyclopedia, including me, would place themselves somewhere around 4 or 4.5 in the spectrum, while most thinking churchgoers would not stray far beyond position 2 or 1.5 at the other end. Propositions 1 and 5 are too strong for most reasonable people. This really is a spectrum, by the way. A research questionnaire to measure religious belief could sensibly invite participants to place themselves along a continuously scalar graph, with my five propositions serving as guideposts.

Religious belief itself is subject to ambiguity and misunderstanding. Here is another spectrum of statements, all of which might be claimed as “religious” by those who utter them.

  1. Strong theism. God is a personal being whose exact nature is specified in my Holy Book (as opposed to yours!)—an intelligence who created the universe, who can see into your mind, who cares about your vices and virtues, and will punish or reward you for all eternity after you die.
  2. Deism. God is some kind of supernatural intelligence who laid down the laws of physics and started the universe off but then stood back and intervened no more in its subsequent development and evolution.
  3. Einsteinian “religion.”God does not exist as a personal intelligence at all, but the word may be used as a poetic metaphor for the deep laws of the universe that we don’t yet understand.

Once again, the spectrum is continuously distributed, and people who call themselves “religious” might be invited to locate themselves using a pencil mark on a graphical axis with my three propositions as guideposts. My own position would be 3, except that I deplore the use of the word God itself in the Einsteinian sense (or in the sense of Stephen Hawking’s “For then we should know the mind of God”), because I think it has actively confused many people. I prefer to limit the word religious to 1 and 2 but not 3. Einstein called himself “religious,” but if Einstein was religious it is hard to imagine who is not: no sensible person denies that there are deep laws and principles underlying the universe.

An American student asked her professor whether he had a view about me. “Sure,” he replied. “He’s positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!”

But is religion the right word to use? Words are our servants, not our masters, but there are many people out there, passionate believers in supernatural religion, who are only too eager to misunderstand.

There is a tactical, political point to be made here. Maybe Einsteinian “religion” provides a useful way for atheists to euphemize their way into American society and lessen the grip of fundamentalist theocracy. In the twenty-odd years since the original Encyclopedia of Unbelief was published, the expected decline in religiosity has continued apace in Western Europe, but the reverse has happened in North America and the Islamic world. The hapless European sometimes feels cornered in a nightmarish pincer movement between Islamic and Christian jihadists in holy alliance. The United States of America is now suffering an epidemic of religiosity that seems almost medieval in its intensity and positively sinister in its political ascendancy. At various times in history, it has been impossible for a woman, a Jew, a homosexual, a Roman Catholic, or an African American to gain high political office. Today this negative privilege is pretty much restricted to atheists and criminals. The actress Julia Sweeney, in her beautiful theatrical monologue “Letting Go of God,” recounts with black humor her parents’ response to her own gentle atheism.

My first call from my mother was more of a scream. “Atheist? ATHEIST?!?!”

My dad called and said, “You have betrayed your family, your school, your city.” It was like I had sold secrets to the Russians. They both said they weren’t going to talk to me anymore. My dad said, “I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.” After I hung up, I thought, “Just try and stop me.”

I think that my parents had been mildly disappointed when I’d said I didn’t believe in God anymore, but being an atheist was another thing altogether.

Well, that’s just one woman’s parents. But the mischief reaches all the way to the top, as we’ll see in the concluding installment.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, and was the University of Oxford's Professor for Public Understanding of Science from 1995 until 2008.

Culminating five years of development, Prometheus Books has released The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn. Richard Dawkins provided the work’s foreword, reprinted in part below, which he composed before completing the manuscript of his 2006 best-seller The God Delusion. Readers familiar with that work may recognize earlier versions of …

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