In his interview with Kirsty Young on last Sundays’ “Desert Island Discs,” David Attenborough, an avowed agnostic, said the following:
Attenborough, who was invited back to Desert Island Discs to mark the 70th anniversary of the radio programme, explains that, while he is still agnostic, he does not rule out the possibility of the existence of a deity.
“I don’t think an understanding and an acceptance of the 4 billion-year-long history of life is any way inconsistent with a belief in a supreme being,” the 85-year-old broadcaster and writer will tell presenter Kirsty Young. “And I am not so confident as to say that I am an atheist.”
This, of course, has caused a field day for accommodationists and the faithful, who use Attenborough’s statement to herald a sea change in New Atheism. Take, for instance, this piece in The Daily Mail, written by THE REVEREND George Pitcher: “From Attenborough to Alain de Botton, the faithless are rejecting the shrill atheism of Dawkins.” The conclusion? That atheists are gradually realizing that there might be a God after all (see Russell Blackford’s analysis of this canard at Metamagician). The Mail exults:
The narrow and rather meaningless argument to which Dawkins confines himself is the incessant charge that there is no “evidence” for God. And evidence, of course, is defined only within the strictures of his own empirical scientism. The problem is that faith isn’t primarily evidential, as he demands it to be, but revelatory—and we would claim no less true for all that in explaining the human condition.
The shrill voice of Dawkins is gradually being marginalised by those of no more faith than him, but who nevertheless perceive mystery in humanity and, while not accepting the presence of God in the world, are prepared to face in the same direction as the rest of us and stand in awe and wonder.
I love the redundancy “empirical scientism” (what other kind of scientism is there?), which reminds me of “Godless communists,” and the claim that everything about the human condition is perforce “revelatory” (really? What about the causes of and cures for disease?). Empirical scientism also tells me that one throwaway statement by Attenborough, and the recent antics of de Buffoon aren’t sufficient evidence for a softening of New Atheism. (For more exultation at Attenborough’s accommodationism, see here, here, and here.)
As a palliative, watch Mark Lawson interview Attenborough about on his beliefs, God, and creationism:
Lawson: Have you at any time had any religious faith?
At 3:30, when asked whether a sense of wonder about nature implies something deeper behind it (i.e., God), Attenborough argues that the existence of pain and suffering in the world does not comport with the existence of a “merciful God that cares about the existence of human beings.” When further asked whether morality reflects the existence of God, Attenborough doesn’t assent, but argues that the Golden Rule is a straightforward moral principle, which I take to mean that it’s an innate feeling that doesn’t need justification via a deity.
Attenborough is known for being nonconfrontational, and his unwillingness to declare overt atheism on Desert Island Discs can hardly be seen as a harbinger that The New Atheism is becoming The New Agnosticism.