02/29/2012 07:22 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Richard Dawkins' Concession Not Quite Revelatory

In a recent debate with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Richard Dawkins stirred some controversy by conceding that he wasn't completely certain that God doesn't exist.

The archbishop prodded Dawkins by suggesting that the Oxford evolutionary biologist believed he had "disproved God," a claim Dawkins then denied. Dawkins responded by noting he considered himself a "6.9 out of 7" on a scale from "I know God exists" to "I know God doesn't exist," a statement which prompted headlines such as "Richard Dawkins Reveals He is Agnostic" from the Christian Post. In fact, the general reporting of the event seems to give the impression that Dawkins's statement amounts to the world's foremost atheist losing his edge with growing age.

But Dawkins said nothing new in that debate a few nights ago. He has never claimed to be 100 percent certain that God did not exist, and if he did, surely those making much ado about his "concession" would be jumping down his throat for the hubris of that position, instead. Many do, already.

In "The God Delusion," Dawkins lays out his scale for nonbelief. A "six" refers to a de facto atheist who believes that the existence of God is "very improbable," living as though God does not exist. Someone who is a "seven" on Dawkins' scale holds that he "knows there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung 'knows' there is one."

A 6.9 on this scale doesn't meaningfully sound like an agnostic to me. Personally, I'd consider myself somewhat lower on the scale, perhaps a 6.5, but even that feels bizarre to label with "agnosticism."

If only a shred of doubt in one's conviction is necessary to be termed an agnostic, how many Christians would be forced to identify as an agnostic, too? Mother Teresa very famously struggled with doubt. But when this news came to light, there were no headlines announcing that Mother Teresa was really an agnostic all along. It's hard not to feel as if there is some double-standard at play.

This isn't the only instance where Dawkins has been receiving an unfair storm of media attention. The Sunday Telegraph recently reported that Dawkins' ancestors hundreds of years ago owned slaves. The story treated the issue as if it were some grand controversy, but how many of Dawkins' accusers could better fare the Lord jealously "punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation?" It may even be the case that First Lady Michelle Obama's ancestors may have owned slaves. Not that any of this excuses our ancestors, but if our nation was founded by a group of slave owners, then how outraged can we really be?

Prominent atheists such as Dawkins are understandably sources of controversy. But even though I don't quite see eye-to-eye with Dawkins on every issue, I can still recognize that he doesn't deserve to be a needless target for manufactured controversy. Whether you agree with his writings on religion or not, the work he has done as an evolutionary biologist and science educator deserves greater respect from the media than he's been shown.