News flash: Attenborough proves that shrill New Atheism is on its way out

January 31, 2012 • 5:45 am

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 herehere, 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?

Attenborough: No.

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.

75 thoughts on “News flash: Attenborough proves that shrill New Atheism is on its way out

  1. Still with the shrill. I wish they would drop that word. Nothing Attenborough said was that surprising or that comforting to accomdationists. We are all ‘agnostic’. I’m sure Attenborough is right up to ‘atheist in effect’ on the Dawkin’s scale of belief-to disbelief in TGD (how exactly does it go again?). If this is a victory for faitheists and accomodationists, well, jolly good for them (said in tones of deep sarcasm)

    1. In this sense I agree with you:

      “…an agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists”

      Bertrand Russell

    2. For me, any piece of literature using the word “shrill” has a bizarre archaic quality. It’s much like the use of the word “ejaculation” to mean a loud exclamation, or the use of the word “gay” to mean carefree. They’re both relics from another time, overshadowed by new definitions. Similarly, whenever I hear the word “shrill”, all I can think of is self-righteous whining from idiots like Madeleine Bunting.

    3. Speaking of the accusations of shrillness in general, as opposed to Attenborough specifically,that by repeatedly calling us shrill and us to stop they are actually becoming what they accuse us of.

      shrill |ʃrɪl|
      (of a voice or sound) high-pitched and piercing : a shrill laugh.
      • derogatory (esp. of a complaint or demand) loud and forceful : a concession to their shrill demands.

      They accuse us of being derogatory and demand we stop making criticisms, but shrill is a derogatory word they use to demand we stop criticizing.

      I think every time they use the word “shrill” they really mean “uppity”. Both theists and accomodationists alike agree that uppity atheists need to return to the back of the bus and keep quiet about it.

  2. I think this is a good sign. If faitheists and assorted religious nutters are reduced to citing a polite atheist who simply chooses not to offend, they are losing the battle.

  3. …I meant to add; one of the nastiest things to come out of this in comments seen and heard is the suggestion that Attenborough, at 85, is ‘cramming for his finals’, ‘hedging his bets’ and basically going all Pascal’s Wagery in his last days. Creepy and nasty.

    1. Well put. He’s simply still being a well-loved populizer, too canny to risk alienating a portion of his audience.

  4. The label “atheist” is shunned because of the social backlash. An agnostic is essentially an atheist who is afraid to say so. No one can rule out the possibility that a being of some sort might exist somewhere in the cosmos which possesses “god-like” abilities, but it can be totally ruled out that the Bible represents such a God. All of mankind’s invented gods can be ruled out for lack of evidence. I am such an atheist.

        1. Sorry, was harking back to the previous post on homosexuality. I am agnostic simply because we have no knowledge about ‘gods’ – it is a kind of inherent natural state. But I identify myself as atheist as I simply do not believe in ‘gods’, so I use the label atheist.

    1. Depends on what you mean by “god-like.”

      An iPhone would be pure sorcery to virtually all humans who have ever lived, and we are all as gods to those.

      But the gods people have worshipped for quite some time have been omnimax gods, and that very notion is as incoherent as “the largest number,” and for exactly the same reason.

      Besides, a god must be capable of miracles, and a miracle is nothing if not an occurance of the impossible. But if a miracle occurs, we have proof it’s not impossible; the evidence that it’s possible is right there in the occurance. Sure, it might be something no human could possibly do…but, for 100% (with rounding) of human history, no human could possibly talk to another on the other side of the planet. Does that make the telephone network a miracle and all of us gods?

      I should think not.



    2. I think that most of atheists are agnostic, and vice versa. Atheist because they don’t believe in any gods. Agnostic because they can not prove the negative. It’s kind of a matter of emphasis when you rely on one instead of the other.

        1. Well, I think drenn1077 is correct in that many who will accept “agnostic” but not “atheist” are doing so for social reasons. It’s kind of a half-out-of-the-closet position that allows you to avoid appearing childish while still being polite. None of that strident gnu-ish taint.

        2. Most would look puzzled if you asked, “So, are you an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist.”

          Apart from the emphasis and social attitudes, “atheist” means “strong atheist” to many (theist and atheist alike), and many really-atheists self-identify as “agnostic” because they’re not aware of the “weak” sense. And others do equate “atheist” with those awful “gnu/new atheists” …

          Given his comments in the interview, I’d say that Attenborough is strongly atheistic re the Abrahamic God and likely any theistic one (as I noted in the DID thread); the god that he allows the possibility of would, I think, be a deistic one.

          Such nuances, of course, are beyond the ken of tabloid journalism.


        3. Most whom I’ve encountered who strongly self-identify as agnostic seem to have a religious believe that the gods (in whom they assure you they don’t believe) have some sort of magic faery dust they sprinkle to hide their tracks whenever somebody gets near. Therefore, knowledge of them is impossible because the gods like it that way.

          These same agnostics also tend to get rather upset when I ask why it should be that, of all subjects humans might wish to subject to rational inquiry, only the divine should be held strictly off-limits.

          And then they get really upset when I point out that, if the gods have this magic invisiblity faery dust, then, Shirley, there must be Super-Gods with Hyper Invisibility Dust that they use to stay hidden from the garden-variety gods…and, so, why, again, are we to think that there’s something special about these favored gods of the agnostic that she insists she doesn’t believe in?



          1. When I was a much younger man, I identified as an agnostic because of the tidiness of “just don’t know.” One of my longest-known friends (since we were ten) told me, no, he was an atheist, no room for any deity, when we were in our thirties. When upon self-examination, I felt, honestly, there was no god, period, I felt this weight of the culture, a blast of coldness upon exiting the majority/popular Weltanschauung. I am certain many have felt it, and shuddering, anxious, returned to the comfort of agnosticism.

            And, then, on to “What’s for supper?” and away with all that metaphysical stuff.

            I stayed with the cold, outside view, and eventually found my comfort in it all.

            Now, I take the physical evidence approach: when we die, our nose and eyes and other body parts don’t disappear, and neither do those vast billions of calcium and sodium ions so essential to memory. Without a functioning memory, how would you meet a deity in the afterlife? Those ions don’t transmigrate to another realm…they remain in the brain.

            If such a deity cannot be experienced, its hypothetical existence is moot…as was the existence of Antarctica to Medieval man. What one cannot confirm, one can do without.

  5. Thoughtful people often have a hard time digesting the idea that they “feel” the dualism in living day to day. This naive dualism is that state of consciousness we all share that makes us feel like our mind is separate from our brain and body.

    Monism just doesn’t explain how we feel for many people so they hang onto this concept that there must be something we really don’t understand… some kind of universal mystery.

    My daughter calls herself agnostic (despite my wife and I being atheist). She just feels I must not know enough to discount her tiny bit of mysticism.

    I don’t think my daughter is afraid to say she is an atheist. I really think she has openly pondered the idea and found herself unsatisfied by atheism.

    and I always say… if the world were full of agnostics it would be a much better place. (but… atheist temples I can do without)

  6. Wait, wait, wait…if Attenborough presently does not deny the POSSIBILITY that a supernatural creator God exists but presently LACKS theistic BELIEF in the existence of a POSSIBLY existential supernatural creator God, does that not render Attenborough a de facto atheist whether he acknowledges that or not (the way his lack of symmetry renders him asymmetrical whether he acknowledge that or not)? An agnostic atheist?

    While all gnostic nonbelievers are atheists, not all atheists are gnostic nonbelievers, many (most? All who are 6’s on the Dawkins’ 1-7 scale, like me, heck, like Dawkins himself) are agnostic atheists. Or so it sure seems to me…

    1. He is an atheist, but I suspect he thinks atheism is the statement “There are no gods” instead of “I do not believe in gods”.

      By that defintion, he is an atheist agnostic, as are most atheists. “I do not know, but I do not believe”.

  7. Really fascinating that they’re saying ‘look, this celebrity, this /authority/ is saying something, therefore it’s true’. For all the criticism of science, if nothing else it’s great because it reminds us that authorities are not so authoritative, that just because some idea has a Big Swinging Temple dedicated to it hardly means we should accept or respect it.

  8. A current headline over at the Uncommon Descent Blog: Nature broadcaster David Attenborough definitely renounces atheism? Thinks Darwinism is only a theory?

    Things must be looking pretty bleak for theists, if they have to add that much spin.

    1. The question mark makes it all ok. They could have printed “Attenborough is a devil-worshipper?” and they’re just asking, not saying.

      1. And should any UD-IDits come around–no, the incomparable Attenborough doesn’t think evolution “is only a theory.” And there is no such thing as “Darwinism”, just as physics is not Newtonism or Maxwellism or Einsteinism. Morons.

        And….Creationists/IDists, for all your shrillness, you have no-one in your camp of the calibre of David Attenborough. And you never will.

  9. Believers exulting over Attenborough’s statement seems at best a pyrrhic victory. I’d be perfectly fine if science education, atheists billboards, etc… lead to more people with beliefs like Attenborough’s, regardless of what he calls them. I suspect most unbelievers would agree with me. And despite this crowing, I can’t see believers being happy with that result.

  10. The Sunday Times spun the same line which is why I did not listen to it on Sunday morning. His view seems to be that of quite a few ‘non-believers’ (Jonathan Miller?) – they do not define themselves by what they do NOT believe. Which is fair enough.

    I will get shrill however & say that the Daily Mail, conservative garbage that it is, is so low in my estimation that I would not use it under the straw at the bottom of a rabbit hutch.

  11. These people who call Dawkins “shrill.” Have they ever listened to Dawkins or read him? Shrill? I will accept “blunt,” but Dawkins has never spoken shrilly in his life.

  12. The photographs of Dawkins and de Botton in the Mail article are hilarious. The latter is smiling confidently in a relaxed attitude while Dawkins looks grumpy.

    I don’t have the strength to read the comments on that Mail article.

  13. “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,”

    To me, this is actually a fairly strong statement. It seems that in order to make such a claim, David must have in mind some kind of a definition of a supreme being and an idea of what kind of evidence WOULD be inconsistent with such a being.

    That would have been a really interesting line of questioning for the interviewer to pursue. Either David offers a coherent definition of a supreme being and uses that definition to explain what kind of observational evidence is consistent with that being and what is not, or he modifies his statement to the much weaker “we can’t rule out the possibility of a supreme being that is beyond our ability to comprehend”, or put another way, “we can’t say that anything about the universe is inconsistent with a belief in a supreme being because it is impossible to generate expectations of this incomprehensible supreme being.”

  14. The problem is that faith isn’t primarily evidential, as he demands it to be, but revelatory

    Yes. Yes, that is the problem. That’s why faith is dangerous nonsense, and that’s why we criticize it mercilessly.

    1. Can faith be evidential? I don’t mean the results that you see in the world; for instance, tests on the efficacy or otherwise of prayer.

      I mean evidential in the sense of my observation of you experiencing, say, pain, love, compassion etc. The evidence I have for it would be in your body language, behaviour and your admission that you feel that emotion.

      Could religionists not say that their feeling of faith is analagous to our own evidence for our emotions? I am thinking of Francis Collins’ well-known waterfall revelation; the awe he felt at that sight confirmed his faith – and we have no reason to doubt his word – whereas the rest of us would feel something which we would not call ‘faith’.

      In both cases, the natural world is involved, and I mean the brain. Couldn’t a neurological experiment be devised to analyse the differences between the faithful and the non-religious reaction to the same event? I heard this morning on Radio 4 that neurologists can now translate into words a firing in the brain; the implication of which is that those in a coma may be enabled to communicate. From this, I can imagine that you could get evidence for ‘faith’ from the brain itself.

  15. To call Richard Dawkins “shrill” is absurd. Gilbert Gottfried, the whistle on a steam tractor, the teenagers next door, yee yes and yes. But the softspoken, eloquent, elegant-voiced Richard Dawkins? Absurd.

  16. “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.”

    Faith is revelatory? What the hell does that even mean?

    A. “I believe it because I believe it”
    B. “Your faith is revelatory.”
    A. “Yes: I believe it because I believe it.”

    They can’t mean – can they? – that God reveals Himself to those who have faith (and not to us who don’t), so they have direct evidence of a kind that we can never appreciate? If that were true, well, it would be true. (And if/since it is false, false.) But there is no possible way it could ever be tested. Or (and this is why they like it so much) challenged.

  17. “There are no gods” instead of “I do not believe in gods”.”

    I don’t even see the first statement as unreasonable. There is no, and has never been, evidence of *any* gods, including the 10,000 that have come before the current top 3.

    There is no God-shaped hole in the Universe, no explanatory need for a god or creator.

    Most definitions of a god are incoherent.

    Why bother to concede that there is even a remote possibility of one of those incoherent, unneeded, unseen concepts actually existing? It is not reasonable to expect that an impossible, unneeded, unseen thing exists. Why be gracious about it?

    Are there purple unicorns that can draw square circles?

    Simply aver that there are no gods, and if challenged, ask for proof of even one, let alone 10,000. It should not be our burden to concede the possibility of the impossible; it is the burden of the believer to provide proof of his ridiculous assertion.

    1. Whilst I find the idea of gods too ludicrous to mention, I cannot say, with absolute certainty, that such a thing does not exist.

      To say that would be to make a claim to knowledge that I do not have.

      If on the other hand, you consider (as I do) that any given god is just one of an infinite number of untestable hypotheses, then discussion of it is largely pointless.

      1. Absolute certainty is an unattainable standard. You can’t say with absolute certainty that there are no blue unicorns standing behind you, or that the sun will come up tomorrow, or that other people exist. Do you couch every assertion, no matter how probable, in terms of belief?

        1. I have absolute certaintyy that there are no married bachelors, that “the largest prime number” is an incoherent and meaningless jumble of words, and that all of the omni-properties of the popular gods of today are equally meaningless for much the same sorts of reasons. As is the whole concept of a “miracle” — a square circle by definition if ever there were one.

          Blue unicorns are plausible in many ways, from plush dolls to a half-de-horned oryx with a dye job to outlandish genetic manipulation. And the sun will not, in fact, come up tomorrow for thoe in the Arctic or those in the right (rather, worng) weather conditions. I’d recommend against using those examples.



      2. “I cannot say, with absolute certainty, that such a thing does not exist.’

        How about a purple unicorn who can draw square circles, whilst reciting Shakespeare and passing gas to the tune of La Marseillaise? No?

        There is very little in this world, if anything, about which we have “absolute certainty”. It is pretty much a useless standard. It certainly is not a scientific standard.

        In fact, it seems to be reserved for atheists’ unwillingness to rule out something they think is absurd and impossible.

        Say it after me… “There are no gods.” That wasn’t so bad, was it? ;>D

        1. I wonder why so many atheists who wouldn’t bat an eye at saying “there are no sentient Ming vases orbiting Jupiter” or “there are no cubical cats” will bend over backward to allow the possible existence of poorly defined and internally inconsistent entities, to the point of twisting a mundane linguistic shortcut, “there are no gods”, into an unreasonable claim requiring infinite knowledge.

          It’s the inconsistency that bothers me most. It’s special pleading, and we get enough of that from the theists, thanks.

          1. “Jesus can do anything!

            “Oh, yeah? Well, Jesus can’t create a rock too heavy for him to lift.”

            “Oh, that’s okay. Jesus’s onmipotence only extends to the physical realm — he’s not obligated to deal with logical absurdities.”

            “Fine, then. Here’s a pencil, a piece of paper, and a ruler. But even Jesus can’t use them to draw a closed three-sided figure with two right angles. What’s stoping him?*”

            “Stop being so shrill!”



            * In uniform Euclidean space. Please, no jokes about white bears on a thremal gradient. b&

            1. You and I agree on the use of words to demonstrate that meaning is important. Simply because one can construct a string of words to sound plausible (e.g. north of the north pole) doesn’t adhere meaning to that word string. “Absolute certainty” is another of those good-sounding phrases but ummeasurable, and so without usefulness. “Certain” means zero uncertainty. Pick any spot on planet Earth. I can predict with certainty, the acceleration of gravity for that spot (within acceptable error). Can you be certain about unseeable/unmeasurable objects/deities? Yes. I am certain they do not exist. If the sum of the descriptions you give for a deity have, in sum, no coherent meaning, then I am certain that your described deity does not exist in our universe. And zero uncertainty.

    2. I honestly, truly, have no more idea what a god is supposed to be than a married bachelor or the largest prime number.

      When somebody can give me a coherent definition of the term, then I’ll concede the theoretical possiblity that one might exist. Until then, we might as well be discussing greeblefraxen for all the sense it makes.

      And, of course, the actual gods worshipped by almost all those in the pews are nothing more than “grown-up” versions of Santa and Superman. Were it not for the numbers of adherents, they deserve no more than hysticerical laughter.



      1. One of the common questions asked of atheists on forums like this is the hoary “What would convince you that God/gods exist?” It is often met with hemming and hawing about super-powerful aliens and hallucinations and the like, but it always seems like it’s the atheists struggling to define what gods even are, rather than demanding that the questioner define her terms. How would I distinguish a god from an alien with advanced technology and telepathy?

        1. That’s not the question to ask.

          What you really want to know, is how does the “god” itself know that it’s really divine, and not merely a brain in a vat or somehow otherwise less than the n’est plus ultra?



        2. Return that question with this: I list the continents of the planet Earth: Africa, South America, North America, Asia, Europe, Australia, Antarctica. Seven.

          Now, what would convince you that there are actually TEN continents? What would it take?? Crisscrossing the oceans 99 times, or . . . c’mon, there HAS TO BE SOMETHING!!!

          What, you cannot be convinced? Mebbe a new numbering system, or…

          Once again, just because a string of words SOUND reasonable, they may well be without meaning. That old “What would it take..” as PZ Myers points out, is absurd, really.

        3. What would it take to convince me? I’m not exactly sure, but it would have to begin with a coherent definition of a/the deity. As far as I can tell, such a definition is as rare as those invisible pink unicorns.

        4. I have thought about this question. What would convince me? The only answer I can come up with is:

          A very great deal. Even more if it was a specific God.

  18. Atta’borough!

    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.

    The way I heard it* the Golden Rule is not christian but adopted with rewritten history from way back. Most religions would have something to that effect, as would old moral schools. (Well, maybe not Machiavelli.)

    Seeing that tit-for-tat with slight forgiveness is a winning interaction option among non or slightly social animals**, seeing that morality was firmly established in animals way before any tentative signs of religion, the parsimonious hypothesis would be that tit-for-tat developed way earlier.

    * I.e. no refs at this time.

    ** Itt takes a, not particularly robust strategy of, mafia to compete. Of course, the ref says the TFTWSF labors under the same weakness.

  19. I get really pissed off when any sign of politeness or courtesy on the part of a prominent figure like David Attenborough, is twisted by these a**holes into alleged support of their position. Has David Attenborough ever said Richard Dawkins is factually wrong? I doubt it.

    I would hesitate to call Attenborough an ‘accommodationist’ simply because he prefers to avoid confrontation. So far as I can tell, and contra the ravings of George Pitcher, Attenborough hasn’t changed his approach one bit.

  20. Is there a ‘controlling device’ out there?
    Most people have the thought that there is something behind it all, but this is because humans think!
    It certainly isn’t anything to do with Christian teachings or the teachings of Islam or the teachings of the Rabbi or any other religious body. The sooner human kind stops passing on this rubbish to each successive generation, the more time we will have for exploring our universe and finding out why we are here and how it came about.
    Sure, the whole thing might have been set up by a controlling device within an unseen dimension but when/if we discover that, it will just lead to more questions.
    One thing for sure, it has nothing to do with the various religions which are preached here on earth and their hang-ups over food, clothing, hairstyles and genital mutilation!
    Yes Mr. Attenborough, I too am 99.9% certain that there is no controlling device.

  21. Good for Attenborough for not being pulled into the fray. Lots of atheists will accept the term agnostic to show that they are not closed minded. While he is whiling to make concessions to semantics he still has no problem with unleashing a full assault on the countless baseless claims put forth by the faithful.

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