My interest in Richard Dawkins has long been kind of on-again, off-again.  Don't get me wrong, I think he's brilliant, and most of his ideas about religion and its value (or lack thereof) are quite sensible.  However, he sometimes strikes me as a bit naive about religion, at least as it is practiced by many people in everyday life. In other words, in interviews I've seen, he adopts an attitude of being completely unable to understand how any sensible person can believe in a god, any more than they can believe in fairies or an invisible pink unicorn (those are examples I've heard Dawkins himself mention). I always think, "Well, c'mon, he must have known intelligent religious people in his life...people he respected, but with whom he strongly disagrees." But I've been reading about his "Scale of Theistic Probability," which makes me think he understands gradations of belief much better than he sometimes lets on. The scale (as Wikipedia presents it) is as follows:

  1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: "I do not believe, I know."
  2. De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. "I don't know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there."
  3. Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. "I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God."
  4. Completely impartial. Exactly 50 per cent. "God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable."
  5. Leaning towards Atheism. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. "I do not know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be skeptical."
  6. De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
  7. Strong atheist. "I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one."

Dawkins has said in interviews that he is a 6 on this scale, or perhaps closer to a 6.9.  These days I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of a 6 as well, although I can tell you that, over the past decade or so, I've gone back and forth between 2 and 6 a lot.  (Today, for some reason, I feel like I'm closer to a 5. Don't ask me why...)

Apparently, an American chemical engineer named Libb Thims expanded the scale out to a 10-point version, as he believed that the 7-point version didn't adequately describe all the gradations of belief. The problem with the Thims version is that he only adds descriptions above the 7 level: 8 is "beyond atheism," 9 is "beyond 110% sure there is no God," and 10 is "Goetheanist," which apparently refers to someone who simply doesn't understand the point of debate.  Levels 8, 9, and 10 seem to me to be different ways of stating the same thing: "I have no need of that hypothesis" essentially means the person is so sure (110%, whatever that means), that they think the debate is meaningless.  Therefore, Thims's 8, 9 and 10 are useless. So I think Dawkins's scale with 7 points will do just fine.

Views: 1159

Tags: atheism, of, probability, scale, theistic

Comment by Dr. Bob on February 12, 2014 at 2:26pm

I think the biggest problem with this scale is that it really doesn't have any meaning on the theist side.  None of us theists really spend any time on the "does God exist?" question.  That's just not central to our day to day life as theists, and nobody ever became a theist because they were convinced by an existence proof of God.  

These conversations really only happen when we encounter atheists, who seem obsessed by the notion.  Within that context, if it has meaning for you, super, but I don't think it captures anything meaningful about theists.

Comment by Dr. Bob on February 12, 2014 at 10:04pm

Actually, @Gallup, if I had to respond within this framework, I would be a "2" I suppose.  The scale just doesn't have any real meaning/validity for me, and I doubt it would pass muster as a valid instrument for any sociologist.

Comment by David Smith on February 12, 2014 at 10:10pm
None of us theists really spend any time on the "does God exist?" question.  
and nobody ever became a theist because they were convinced by an existence proof of God

Speak for everyone else much?

Comment by Dr. Bob on February 13, 2014 at 11:11am

@Gallup, why would you believe that a scale used for sexual identification (one that appears rather unidimensional and simplistic) would have any relevance for a completely different field?  That's not rational.  We design different instruments to measure different things in the sciences.

This is not a discussion, though, so we should let others comment on the blog post.

Comment by David Smith on February 13, 2014 at 5:08pm

and I doubt it would pass muster as a valid instrument for any sociologist.

The use of scales in sociology is common and accepted as a tool.

I respect the view that " it really doesn't have any meaning on the theist side." in that it doesn't have any relation to what kind of theist people are.  But thats not really the point of it, its a scale, not a map.

Comment by scv on February 13, 2014 at 5:51pm

It comes to mind when you mention Richard Dawkins' naivete, that he is naive not so much because he can't understand why a smart person would honestly believe in supernatural phenomenon, but because he doesn't show that he understands that a smart person could make the rational decision to lie about basic reality, in order to gain benefits from a group. I'm a committed atheist, and I'm none spiritual, but I often maintain to people that if my life or comforts where sufficiently threatened, I would lie in favor of the existence of god or spirit, and I would lie about the fact that I was lying. 

Comment by Ed on February 14, 2014 at 1:32pm

Would it be fair to say that the overwhelming majority of all religious believers worldwide have never seriously questioned or contemplated the veracity of supernatural beings? Indoctrination foregoes such thought. For a child the belief in a god is akin to the belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. What's curious is that after realizing the lies about the tooth fairy and Santa they don't automatically challenge the BIG fairy tale.

Comment by James Cox on February 14, 2014 at 7:18pm

I guess I would be like a 9, 'the hypothesis just does not seem very helpful, so I just leave it on the shelf like a bottle with a nice label, but soured contents'.

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