The insertion of the word “probably” raised quite a bit of debate when the campaign was first launched.
The BHA gave one explanation to their concerned constituents (who presumably asked with some consternation, “what do you mean just ‘probably?!’”):
[The] Committee of Advertising Practice advised the campaign that “the inclusion of the word ‘probably’ makes it less likely to cause offense, and therefore be in breach of the Advertising Code.”
It is difficult to see how the word “probably” limits offense. Saying “John, you are probably a big idiot!” seems hardly less offensive for its hint of uncertainty. (It may actually make it worse: you don’t have direct evidence that John is an idiot, but giving everything you know about him, he probably is)
My main interest, however, is with the BHA’s next reason:
[I]t means the slogan is more accurate, as even though there’s no scientific evidence at all for God’s existence, it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist (or that anything doesn’t). As Richard Dawkins states in The God Delusion, saying “there’s no God” is taking a “faith” position. He writes: “Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist”.
Despite this seeming intellectual humility, Dawkins goes on to suggest that God “almost certainly” doesn’t exist. Elsewhere, he suggests that on the scale of 1 to 7, seven being absolute certainty, he is a 6.9. It is hard to see how 0.1 uncertainty is the difference between faith and not-faith. But this point aside, the reluctant “probably” reveals the common assumption of many of the most vocal modern atheists that whereas atheism is based on reason, religion (boo! hiss!) is based on (by definition irrational) faith. As Dawkins says above, “Atheists do not have faith.”
Quite simply, this is not true.
All knowledge is based on faith. Take for example Dawkins’s belief that “there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”. This is an assumption of the scientific method, not a conclusion of it. Given that the scientific method only acknowledges as evidence natural processes, how could the observation of these give evidence of something existing outside the natural world?
One of my favourite responses to the atheist ad campaign was the line, “There’s probably no Richard Dawkins. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Of course, our knowledge about Richard Dawkins is different to our knowledge about God. We can perceive Richard Dawkins through our senses. But even for those who have stood next to him, heard his voice, shaken his hand, to say they know Dawkins exists is to assume that our senses can give us certain knowledge. But the fact is, we are given reason to doubt our senses everyday. The side mirrors on a bus (even a bus sporting an atheisit advert!) should clue us to the problem: objects in this mirror are closer than they appear. Even putting optical illusions aside, you and I (probably) have never experienced Richard Dawkins directly, nor have the vast majority of people on this planet. The existence of Richard Dawkins, if not improbable, is at the very least problematic, we must have faith in our senses and the technology that beams Dawkins to us.
All knowledge requires faith, it is always based on certain assumptions. The carte blance distinction between rational atheism and irrational religion is false. This point is well made in two interesting articles I’ve recently come across in the New York Times by Stanley Fish, “Atheism and Evidence” and “God Talk”. Not everyone will be convinced by Fish’s arguments, but his conclusions regarding the interdependence of faith and reason are well accepted by the philosophic community. It is atheistsin the mold of Dawkins who are out of step on this issue.
Of course, none of this is an argument for religious belief. I’m just saying, believers aren’t the only believers. All human knowledge, scientific and religious alike, involves faith.
Richard Dawkins may not exist. But even if he does, he doesn’t worry me too much.