David Attenborough: an atheist or an agnostic?

September 23, 2019 • 10:15 am

As sometimes happens when one is surfing around on YouTube, I came across two videos of David Attenborough discussing his beliefs in God. Although I don’t have a dog in his fight with belief, I was curious to see whether a man who’s spent his life touting the marvels of naturalism (e.g., evolution) had any religious belief at all.

In the first 4.5-minute video, Attenborough professes agnosticism, although firmly rejecting Biblical creationism (or any literalism of sacred texts) on the grounds that there is big conflict between the creation myths of different faiths. But the implication is that he’d have to reject the conflicting factual assertions of different faiths as well: e.g., that Jesus was the son of God or Muhammad was God’s final prophet.

When the interlocutor asks if Attenborough is as sure as Dawkins that there was no God, Sir David raises the metaphor of having seen the inside of a termite nest, with all the busy termites lacking the sense organs to perceive that Attenborough is watching them from above. And so he pleads agnosticism:

I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organ, and I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved in all this sort of thing. And it’s a very confident thing, saying that you’re absolutely sure that there’s nothing in this world that I don’t have the sense organs to appreciate. That would be my position. And Richard, I don’t doubt, would say, well, that that’s rather feeble. That’s not being very brave. And maybe he’s got a case.

Well, first of all Richard is not absolutely sure that there’s no god. Going by the evidence for God—or rather the lack thereof—he places himself at a 6 (or a 6.9) out of 7 on his spectrum of theistic probability: as a “de facto” atheist. I’m not sure why Attenborough doesn’t also argue that he provisionally rejects the idea of God because there’s no evidence for it. While he may lack the sense organs to detect a supreme being, then perhaps he lacks the sense organs to detect leprechauns or fairies! Would he say the same thing when asked about fairies? And, of course, if a god wanted to make himself known to humans, he would have given them the sense organs to detect divinity.

I can’t help but believe, though I don’t of course know for sure, that Attenborough is the kind of agnostic who is really an atheist: the agnostic who says “I don’t know” when he should be saying “I have no evidence so I don’t believe.” To me, agnosticism is a cowardly position—unless you have evidence both for and against god and thus can’t decide. And who is like that?

But then we have this video in which Attenborough is interviewed by Jim Al-Khalili, who describes himself as an atheist and a humanist. After noting that credit for the world’s diversity should go not to a god but to natural selection, Attenborough summons up the image of an African boy with river blindless, caused by a worm whose only host as an adult is the human eye. As Sir David says, “If you’re telling me this god in whom you believe specially created this worm in order that it could do that, than I don’t believe he can be an all-loving God, for a start.”

This is the argument against gods from natural evil (not “moral evil”), and is the same argument Darwin famously used in his letter to Asa Gray in 1860:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin resembles Attenborough in saying that the world doesn’t adduce evidence for a god, at least of the loving sort, but that there still may be “designed laws”. Darwin then pleads that the human mind isn’t capable of apprehending a god. In those days, of course, it wasn’t on to be a strong atheist, and “designed” laws could be taken as an ambiguous or hedged belief. At best Darwin was a deist, but I suspect that today he’d be an atheist.

The argument against god from natural evil was made more strongly by Stephen Fry on Irish television, using “brain cancer in children” as evidence against God. I believe Fry was investigated for blasphemy because of this statement.

55 thoughts on “David Attenborough: an atheist or an agnostic?

  1. Attenborough is a great communicator, but in this instance, on this issue, he’s evasive and unclear. He doesn’t want to tell us exactly what he thinks. Maybe he’s just very unsure.

    1. Maybe he’s being sincere. Maybe his sense of humility about the extent of our knowledge leads him to waffle on the subject. That may be cowardice but as moral failings go, it’s a minor one.

      1. Yes. Why does one have to be a hard-liner or an extremist to be given any credit? It smacks of ‘purity testing’ IMO.


    2. He knows religious people, particularly Christians in US and UK can hold a lot of clout for helping environmental and ecological efforts and he feels that we should all hold that above what we call ourselves as believers or non-believers.

      I think he’s unnecessarily evasive. And ‘accommodating one’s stance on faith’ to Christians is shortsighted, since Creationism flies in the face of everything Attenborough has ever fought for.

      1. “He knows religious people, particularly Christians in US and UK can hold a lot of clout for helping environmental and ecological efforts and he feels that we should all hold that above what we call ourselves as believers or non-believers.”

        If that is indeed his belief I think he’s right. The Amazon rainforests and the rest of the natural world are far more important than whether somebody thinks G*d is merely highly unlikely or proven non-existent.

        And he is and always has been explicitly non-Creationist. I think he’s probably done more for the evolutionary viewpoint through his documentaries than any other single public figure.

        He is entitled to say where he stands and second-guessing him or calling him ‘cowardly’ is completely out of order, IMO.


  2. I suppose he is anxious to avoid walking into controversy, given his sainted position. I consider myself a 10! I am not sure there is any meaningful evidence anyone could give that would prove a god that created the universe(s) as opposed to a mere ‘super-being’.

    The idea of a god is to me incoherent & meaningless. However, to repeat a line I have used on WEIT before, form the satirical music combo Alberto Y Los trios Paranoias back in the 1970s, in a spoof Devo-style song,

    “If there is a god,
    Why should he be sane,
    He’s probably a raving fruitcake,
    Out of his tiny brain.
    God is Mad…”

    I suppose my point is why do people have to suppose a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ god – why could a god not be indifferent to humans? “we are like flies” in god’s zoo…

  3. Neil deGrasse Tyson when asked, responded that he didn’t like to be labeled, but if he had to choose, he would say agnostic because there is still as chance!!!!!!!!! I wonder what he believes his chances are of resurrection. GROG

    1. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one over-rated whatevertheheck he is.

      “… because there is still a chance”

      A chance of what, Mr Tyson? That Zeus exists? Or Ganesha (my favorite god among the 330 MILLION Hindu gods)exists? Or is it Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction?

  4. Sir David Attenborough’s magnificent nature documentaries have elicited some very funny responses, at:





    Attachments area
    Preview YouTube video The Amazing Lyrebird of Australia – Unseen Footage

    Preview YouTube video The day the lyrebird met David Attenborough – Attenborough at 90 – BBC

    Preview YouTube video Amazing! Bird sounds from the liar bird – David Sproutenborough – SBS wildlife

    Preview YouTube video Lyrebird mimicks Star Wars and Simpsons (Funny Version)

    Preview YouTube video Hilarious Attenborough parody on Australia’s unique ‘bin chicken’

  5. Our household joke:
    Flo [the philosopher] is an accommodationist atheist. She has to be as a conscientious teacher.

    I [the biologist] am a hard-core agnostic.

    Of course, we both agree that any kind of Abrahamic personal god is ridiculously unlikely.

    My take is that this is a universe that is supremely uninterested in humans or other conscious beings. And if a deists’ creative sprit is somewhere at the bottom, I’m sure it doesn’t spend its time worrying about us or our choice of underwear. Nor should we worry about it.

  6. When he was imprisoned as a CO, Bertrand Russell was asked for his religion by the warden. Russell replied “Agnostic.” The warden replied “Never heard of it, but I suppose we all worship the same God.”

    1. As I’ve recounted hereabouts before, my experience of being admitted to hospital suggests there are a lot of agnostic theists out there. On the admissions ward I overheard many other, mostly older, patients being checked in: “Religion?” “Church of England. I suppose.”

      (I’d answered “Humanist”. Which had drawn a blank from the nurse.)

      🐜 / UK

  7. If someone asks if you are a democrat or republican you don’t hear one say well maybe, I’m just not sure. Now if you are standing in a large group of republicans are you going to pronounce to be democrat? Probably not, although I would. If standing in the middle of a church full of evangelicals would you say I am an atheist? Of course but I wouldn’t be in there in the first place. Saying I am agnostic is the chicken way out. You somehow think atheist is a dirty word or offensive. It is not and it is stupid to think so.

    1. You can be both atheist and agnostic, you know. That is how I would describe myself. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because we do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because we claim that the existence of a deity is unknowable in principle. About a Biblical god I am an atheist. About whether God can exist in principle, I am agnostic. Nothing chicken about it.

      1. When you start parsing the difference between a biblical g*d and a g*d in principle I would say you are lost. You can sit on the fence if you wish but you should probably jump. If you have no evidence of something it only makes sense to say you don’t believe in it.

        1. In the nineteenth century there was no evidence for atoms. Some scientists made the fateful and wrong step of saying therefore they do not exist. Of course they did and do exist. If something could exist in the sense it is not ruled out by logic or what is already known, the correct ontological statement to make is simply that there is no evidence, not that it does not exist.

          1. Exactly. Saying you are an atheist is saying you do not believe. It is not saying it does not exist. It is not that other thing – agnostic which is simply saying nothing. If g*d should show up some day, then you change your view, right? Just like science.

            1. ” … agnostic which is simply saying nothing.”

              As originally coined by Huxley, “agnostic” means an absence of *revealed* knowledge (in contrast to those who claimed a personal revelation of God’s existence). Huxley thus felt the had to consider the matter on the evidence. Agnosticism is thus a *process*, a way of approaching the issue, it is not a *conclusion*.

              Thus agnosticism (lacking for-sure knowledge, seeing what the evidence says) is entirely compatible with atheism (arriving at the conclusion that the evidence does not point to any gods).

            2. “Saying you are an atheist is saying you do not believe. It is not saying it does not exist.”

              Well there you’re wrong, I think. ‘Atheist’ is often taken to mean absolute belief that there is no god. As with Richard Dawkins 0-7 scale.

              Like so many words, ‘atheist’ has more than one shade of meaning.


      2. I call myself agnostic and atheist at the same time too, but not for the same reasons:
        Atheist in the sense that what any religion has on offer is piffle (and often pious piffle at that) . A mind without even a substrate, let alone without a long evolution? Complete codswallop! I know what is not.
        I’m agnostic about what we don’t know. The directionality of time, and who knows, some hyper-evolved alien created our universe. Not likely, but I like to be agnostic there.
        One thing I’m not agnostic about: if this alien that is indistinguishable from a God (a la Clarke and Shermer) actually exists, it must have evolved along lines comparable to evolution by natural selection.

  8. I am a coward apparently. This of course is a nonsense.

    The agnostic/atheist debacle is purely a semantic battle for the high ground.

    Russell described himself as a philosophical agnostic … Is Jerry arguing Russell is a coward?

    Frankly … a “cowardly position” I find is a poorly thought out point of view. I don’t find this one of Jerry’s better positions.

    Here’s a link to my take on agnosticism …

      1. Jerry … I would give it some further thought.

        If people do not want to be ostracized by their friends and family is that truly cowardly. Or something that is not worth the fight?

        Science is the ultimate PAP (Dawkins’ speak). Agnosticism is not sitting up on some fence, it is digging in the dirt looking for the truth. Strong atheism and theism think they have the truth.

        Clarence Darrow Chase after the truth like all hell and you’ll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat tails.

        1. I have given it further thought; you needn’t hector me to think more. I think if you pretend to believe something you don’t it is cowardly. Whether that’s tactically a good thing to do is another issue. But I think YOU should rethink your claim that “strong atheists” think they have the truth. If your definition of “strong atheist” is “someone who thinks they know God doesn’t exist”, then that’s a tautology. If you mean vociferous atheists who are well to the right on the anti-theism scale, like Dawkins and me, then no, we accept a provisional truth of nontheism, but don’t think it’s an absolute never-changeable truth. In fact, in Faith Versus Fact I lay out some scenarios that would convince me of a god. I wouldn’t have done that if I thought I already had the absolute truth.

          1. Yes I have a signed copy of your book. It is not hectoring but advice or a suggestion. It is up to you whether you take it or not.

            here is Dawkins saying he is an agnostic … several years after the God Delusion.

        2. You are just playing with words. Looking for the perfect politically correct. If a person 30 years old still had a strong believe in Santa he would be laughed at. Or he might be taken in for a check up. It would not occur to someone to call him a coward. However, to hold doubt as your conclusion on anything for which you have no evidence can easily be called the cowardly position. Sorry if that upsets you.

          1. That is sort of what I said … this is a semantic battle for the high ground.

            If someone actually claimed they were agnostic regarding Santa I would be curious as to what evidence they held that would make them sufficiently unsure.

            Russell claimed he was agnostic regarding Homeric gods. Is that cowardly? It’s actually a philosophical position.

            1. That’s enough; you’ve had your say on this. And yes, Russell was either cowardly or confused. It’s just stupid to say “well, I don’t know if Zeus exists, so I’m keeping an open mind.” Atheism is THE LACK OF BELIEF IN A GOD OR GODS. If you’re an agnostic, you have some evidence for God, and I don’t mean that “my dad told me” or “I had a revelation.”

              I wonder what evidence Russell had in favor of god to make him an “unsure” agnostic. LOL.

              1. I think Russell was just being very rigorous.

                “As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.”

                ― Bertrand Russell, “Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? A Plea For Tolerance In The Face Of New Dogmas” (1947 or 1949)


              2. @ Ant

                Agreed. I don’t think it’s any more ‘cowardly’ to be careful about stating a position on this, than it would be to specify confidence limits or error bars on a scientific result.

                ‘Agnostic’ for precise debate, ‘atheist’ for the man-in-the-street; they mean pretty much the same thing, as Russell pointed out in your quote.


  9. The whole issue of agnosticism vs atheism has become a great talking point on religious blogs, resulting in huge discussions that seem interminable. My take is that the two concepts are intertwined. Even the most passive atheist (doesn’t believe in god for the same reason as not believing in leprechauns) would believe if there was evidence, and evidence is something that falls into the agnosticism camp as it is something that leads to knowledge. A ‘sit on the fence’ agnostic, one who really isn’t sure, is usually heavily planted in the religion camp, but reckons using ‘agnostic’ lends credibility.

  10. Is there a point to parsing someone’s statement of being non-theistic? It looks like a purity test. Is there an implication that unless you’re a militant Athiest, then you’re giving aid and comfort to domionists?

  11. Perhaps he’s talking about the “still small voice within” phenomenon, which to my mind is quite compelling. That’s not to say a subjective experience of God necessarily has to be true, just that, again, it’s compelling to the person having it. We are hugely programmed, I think, to trust our own experience first. For whatever reason his description of “lacking some sense organ” puts me in mind of this subjective experience. Such feelings can be very hard to describe or place in the usual terms and so the vague feeling of “sensing something without being able to place how exactly it’s sensed” fits, to my mind. I think meditators have probably developed the best descriptive lexicon for these types of phenomenon, although even there, there is an ethereal element.

  12. To me, agnosticism is a coward’s position.

    A bit harsh, I think. Many use the term merely to express a form of intellectual humility. I used to do it myself once upon a time, but gave it up (the term, not the humility — but then, to cop a line about Clement Attlee by the fella whose biography you’re now reading, I have much to be humble about). 🙂

    1. I don’t know if it is humility or not, but the way I think about it is that our closest animal relative cannot comprehend the real number system, so it is entirely possible there are things beyond human comprehension.

  13. Gore Vidal was once asked in an interview if he was an agnostic or an atheist. “We’re all agnostic, nobody knows” was his answer. That is an honest answer. But you can still be “without god” or atheist by how you choose to live, a functional atheist if you will.

  14. It strikes me that arguing about beliefs and non-beliefs is to sucked into word games – which cannot be generally resolved.

    But… if you behave without a thought about the existence of god(s) then you are an empirical atheist. There are perhaps some people who hold religious beliefs but don’t practice them too.

    The world is messy. Words change their meanings over time and according to context. But 6.9 on the Dawkins scale is good enough for me.

  15. My sense is that people say they are agnostic when it seems more polite than saying they are atheists. I am okay with that; religion is not a subject that needs to be litigated at every opportunity. When someone on facebook posts a comment about a celebrity that has passed away, wishing them well on their “next journey,” I am inclined to let it slide.

  16. I don’t know that there is a dime’s worth of difference between an 18th century Deist and a 21st century fire-breathing atheist. . . which leads me to believe the problem isn’t so much God as his entourage.

    Anthony Flew talked himself into belief in God at the end of his life, but did it change anything?

  17. A frequent topic in atheist discussion groups (usually rekindled by a newbie) is that of where “agnostic” falls on the theist-atheist spectrum. Most theists, and some atheists who haven’t thought too deeply about the matter, seem to be under the impression that “agnostic” is some sort of wishy-washy non-position in which the agnostic tries to sit on a fence between “theist” and “atheist”, unwilling to jump either way.

    This view is erroneous: the two terms address different issues. “Athiesm” is a statement about -belief- ; “agnosticism” is a statement about -knowledge-.

    A theist believes there is a god; an atheist does not believe there is a god.

    A gnostic claims /knowledge/ about god; an agnostic does not claim such knowledge, and nay feel that such certain knowledge is impossible.

    It is possible to be both atheist and agnostic; it is also possible to be both theist and agnostic.

    An agnostic theist /beleives/ there is a god, but doubts that it is possible to ever /know/ whether that belief is correct.

    Likewise, an agnostic atheist /does not believe/ there is a god, but doubts that it is possible to /know/ with certainty that belief is correct.

    Knowledge, if it exists, is something which may be acquired. Belief is more fundamental: either you have it, or you don’t.

    I know a considerable number of agnostic atheists, and they regard themselves — and are regarded by atheist communities in which they participate — as atheists.

    There is no inconsistency in Attenborough’s position.

  18. Perhaps the religious apologetics of the BBC to whom DA has long links has coloured his thinking. Reserve and conserve his audience.? Bash em all with the soft glow of natural history in VIVID COLOUR and in an ever increasing resolution and camera angles.

  19. “I believe Fry was investigated for blasphemy because of this statement.”

    I seem to recall reading that Stephen Fry’s diatribe (which I thoroughly enjoy) was a set-up to test the Irish blasphemy laws.


  20. There are at least four issues that arise in discussion of “agnostic” vs. “atheist”:
    1. definitions and differences in definitions
    2. degrees of pedantry
    3. the object of [dis]belief
    4. for an individual, changes in belief over time
    On the first point, in philosophy and polling, “atheist” is generally taken to be one who takes the position that no deity exists, whereas “agnostic” is taken to be a noncommittal position; in polling (e.g. Pew Research polls) one can pick one or the other (or other alternatives), but not both. In some other contexts, the two terms are not mutually exclusive (but they are related by the definition of “knowledge” as justified true belief (assuming that one accepts that definition)); the distinction between gnostic and agnostic being whether or not one has justification for the truth (correspondence with reality; another definition) of the belief. The differing definitions might be used in different contexts.
    If one insists on absolute ironclad “proof” of a proposition, one is certain to find that none exists; even logic and mathematics depend on unproven axioms, and should those axioms turn out to be less than certain, the entire house of cards falls. On the other hand, as a practical matter, one can accept that a proposition is highly [un]likely to be true, subject of course to revision in light of additional evidence; such is the case in science, which is always tentatively subject to revision.
    One might be certain of the nonexistence of a hypothetical deity which is claimed to have contradictory or incoherent attributes; the “problem of evil” disproves beyond doubt a certain class of hypothetical deities (provided that one accepts the axioms of logic). Falsifiable claims about a hypothetical deity are subject to experiment, such as the [lack of] efficacy of intercessory prayer; failure of predicted experimental outcome renders such a falsifiable hypothesis untenable. Unfalsifiable claims are another matter, but from a scientific point of view, those claims are “not even wrong”; they can be tentatively dismissed unless there is relevant, credible, verifiable, publicly-accessible evidence to support the claim, albeit with less certainty than for rejection of logically contradictory or falsified claims. Deistic, pantheistic, and panentheistic claims have no explanatory or predictive power and no implications, and can be dismissed as unlikely per Occam’s Razor and Hitchens’ Razor; again without absolute certainty.
    In addition to holding different degrees of [dis]belief in different theistic claims, one might change degree of [dis]belief in a particular claim or set of claims over time, as new evidence warrants, e.g. as falsifiable claims are falsified.
    So it shouldn’t be surprising that a person can describe his beliefs differently at different times, in different contexts, etc.

  21. I am glad that I live in the place and time that I do. I like being able to question and consider different views without fear of a “religious” court.

  22. “I can’t help but believe, though I don’t of course know for sure, that Attenborough is the kind of agnostic who is really an atheist: the agnostic who says “I don’t know” when he should be saying “I have no evidence so I don’t believe.” To me, agnosticism is a cowardly position—unless you have evidence both for and against god and thus can’t decide. And who is like that?”

    Agnosticism is indeed the refuge of the coward! I suspect for at least some Agnostics their fear to espouse their true Atheist thoughts might be due to the prospect of public scorn and possible damage to their character from friends and family. As for other Agnostics, I suppose they have their reasons for turning a blind eye to the overwhelming scientific evidence against the existence of a God.

    It seems to me that advocating the position that one just doesn’t know one way or the other about the existence of God, can certainly be said about the existence of the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot. The evidence against the existence of the aforementioned is as convincing as the evidence against the existence of a God, yet some continue to say, maybe there is a Bigfoot, or a sea serpentine like creature lurking in the depths of the Loch Ness, I just don’t know!

    I say, look at the evidence and take a stand one way or the other. For me, science holds the answers to all questions relative to all life and the Homo sapiens’ rise, existence, and purpose on this planet and our place in the universe.

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