Sometimes journalists are good, sometimes they are just plain lazy.
Richard Dawkins is world-renowned for his staunch atheism; so much that it eclipses his work in the field of evolutionary biology, his long, illustrious career with the University of Oxford, and his creepy, meme-worthy resemblance to Emma Watson. Indeed, if you know anything about Richard Dawkins, it’s probably that he’s an atheist. Maybe it’s a sign of old age (he’s pushing 70), maybe he was genuinely flattered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, his sparring-partner last night, or perhaps he was just feeling generous. Either way, last night Professor Richard Dawkins admitted that he can’t be certain that there is no God.
The insincere shock journalism stems from a conversation between Dawkins and Williams. Specifically the article notes:
Slow down there, we’re not talking conversion. But for the first time, Dawkins is actually admitting that he leans a little agnostic. Sharing an Oxford stage with Dr. Williams, Dawkins said he was “6.9 out of seven” certain of his atheism. “I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very, very low,” he said. Philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, asked: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” to which Dawkins answered that he did.
Slow down there (because phrases like this make a journalist sound classy), this is definitely not “the first time” for any such admission.
In fact, anyone who actually made it through the first two chapters of The God Delusion will find this quote (from page 51 of the hardcover) that defines his position after outlining his scale of 1 (strong theist) to 7 (strong atheist):
…I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7 – I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden. [Emphasis mine]
It’s like the media sees this frank and consistent admission as somehow equivalent to the Pope admitting that maybe Jesus never really existed or that perhaps Mary wasn’t a virgin (of course there was a proper amount of press over revelations of Mother Teresa’s personal doubts). Dawkins, like all new atheists, has admitted that there is a vanishingly small chance that they’re in error. Something the devoutly religious rarely concede.
Finally, we can also dissect the semantics of the words atheist and agnostic to realize they are not really in contradiction. [A]theism deals with beliefs while [a]gnosticism deals with knowledge. So if one knows there is a God, he is a gnostic theist. This has been summarized effectively in a simple chart:
Dawkins admitting the limits of his knowledge is not a change of position. It is not the end of the New Atheism. It is most definitely not a gotcha moment that the pro-religious media seems to think will restore religion’s dominant place in society