Is Richard Dawkins a dick?

Dawkins1So here’s my quandary. I think Richard Dawkins has a lot of good stuff  to say, and I think his message is an important one: Facts are important – we’d all be better off if we cared more about what was demonstrably true. However, at times, I catch myself thinking: “Don’t be a Dick, Dick” (couldn’t help myself).

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, so it makes sense that he chooses to focus on defending his area of expertise. I’m sure it infuriates anyone with expertise and passion to see the things they love, so cruelly abused and misrepresented. I certainly get very passionate about apostrophe abuse (cue apostrophe-related error in 3…2…1…).

If I was to describe the approach that Dawkins takes to his adopted raison d’etre, it would be “confrontational”, “robust”, but generally “measured”. He’ll tell you he thinks that religious belief is unfounded – he will even call some beliefs silly, but usually he’ll tell you so in a calm and quiet manner.

So where does the “militant” atheist label come from? Why is the soft spoken academic being lumped with an epithet that would be used to describe, in any other context, someone with a predilection for violence?

It could be argued that he’s a bit too much of a self-promoter. But it seems to me that a big part of the problem is that Dawkins is attacking something that, until recently, went unchallenged in the wider public context. Yes, there have been outspoken atheists in the past – religious apologists take strong offence to Russell’s Teapot – but the internet has provided a means for us to bypass the old fashioned “don’t talk about religion, politics or… sex?”

Personally, I’d love to be able to have more conversations about things that matter. Unfortunately, the way that “tolerance” is applied in some circles makes this impossible. And you can see why for many, belief is fundamental to their identity, so any robust examination of their beliefs can feel like a robust examination of… them.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting we should wander up to people in the street and start telling them about how great it is to be free of the shackles of religion – that would be dickish right? Except that happens. Every day. Except I’m not doing it, people are doing it to me. About how I need to accept god into my life so I can avoid hell.

Proselytising in the street is a big thing here in London. Are they dicks? Probably not, no. They genuinely believe that they’re helping. I may not agree with them, and I’m not particularly impressed with the morality of “worship me or suffer for eternity”, but I don’t think they’re either militant, or particularly bad people.

So why is Dawkins so bad for doing the same thing (in what appears to me to be a far more polite manner)? He’s just as passionate as your average street proselytiser and he sees a real harm in the spread of disinformation and misrepresentation of natural processes.

winged horseDon’t get me wrong. Dawkins can be a dick. Recently he called out Medhi Hasan (an English Muslim who writes for New Statesman) for his literal belief in the story of Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse. Personally, I think he was justified in his incredulity that a serious journalist holds such a view (surely not dissimilar to a serious journalist believing that the earth is only 6000 years old). But I drew the line at Dawkins tweeting that Hasan couldn’t be taken seriously as a journalist because of this belief. It was a dick play, and one I’d prefer he drop from the repertoire.

That outburst was met with a sizeable backlash from all corners, leading to some further ‘clarification’ from Dawkins. He followed up with this:

When it comes to religion, Dawkins has a tendency for simplification – anything religion-related is the fault of religion, while any attempts to blame atheism for Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao etc  are swiftly dismissed (and rightfully so – since there can be no imperative in the lack of a belief) with the response that their atheism was incidental to their crimes. While there is much to criticise in organised religion – I’m no fan of this inconsistency. A more nuanced approach might help, but I think Dawkins is a little torn between “gadfly” and “statesman”.

On the face of it, one of the more legitimate criticisms of Dawkins’ approach is that he knows little of Theology. Alister McGrath, Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education at Kings College London and Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion and Culture has described Dawkins as “embarrassingly ignorant of Christian theology.” I think Dawkins nailed the response to this:

“Yes, I have, of course, met this point [that I’m “missing” something about Christian theology] before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about.

The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject. It is empty. Vacuous. Devoid of coherence or content.

“I imagine that McGrath would join me in expressing disbelief in fairies, astrology and Thor’s hammer. How would he respond if a fairyologist, astrologer or Viking accused him of ignorance of their respective subjects?”

Though, to be fair, I’d prefer it if Dawkins used different examples, such as Hinduism, Scientology, or Mormonism – purely because it would frustrate attempts to dismiss his argument on the basis that “no-one really believes that stuff anymore…”

The fundamental difference between the study of Evolutionary Biology, and the study of Theology, is that you can apply the scientific method to both, and yet only one of these disciplines is open to that sort of approach. I’m firmly of the opinion that as soon as you argue that your god can’t be defined or measured in a material way, your god is indistinguishable from no god at all. As the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk, the places for god to hide have followed.

Fundamentally, I think we need more people like Richard Dawkins who are prepared to challenge the establishment view that everything will be okay if we just don’t talk about it. For me, the more we talk about it, the more likely we are to understand the motivations of our opponents and perhaps find some sensible middle ground. I’d much rather we treated religion more like politics, where people feel free to state an opinion and have a proper discussion/debate/argument about what we believe and why.

Utopian? I don’t think so, I think of it as a more grown up approach to life. But then again, maybe I’m just a dick.

 

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19 Comments

  1. Agree.
    Except I quite like when he likens it to fairyology or astrology to make his point about relevance (and plenty of ppl do still believe, otherwise why daily horoscopes & tv shows of mediums communing with spririts, ‘Sensing Murder’?…).
    The wonderful joy that is the scientific method, and so much yet to explore in our world….why waste time continuing to live as people did thousands of years ago? Think how much we could know if so many people didn’t spend good time praying or arguing over things that are so irrelevant to our times.

    • I personally like your approach there Whio, I find Dawkins acerbic which can actually further entrench people’s views who disagree with him (I read a great paper on Mother Jones recently about why people go the other way when faced with evidence: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney)

    • Giri Ramgopal says:

      @Whio.

      I agree. I think all atheists should describe themselves as ‘atheists once removed’ as Dawkin’s argued in relations to religious who Don’t believe in Thor, Zeus, Fairies any of the competing religions.

      @ Lobby Lud

      I doubt Dawkins hasn’t read the main authorative texts of the Bible, Tora, Mahabarat, Greek and Buddhist philosophies.

      His equation of Koran and Mein Kampf, as well as his unappologetic stance that Islam is Evil suggests to me that he does not categorise it with the aforementioned texts.

      Dawkin’s ridiculing of Medhi Hasan highlights the fact that Islam is unreformed and prohibits any attempt to contextualise it.

      Suppose the only facts you knew were:

      1. the New Statesmen presents as a ‘thinking man’s’ periodical
      2. one of it’s writer’s stated unashamedly that horses once flew and he would personally offended by any reader he derided him for this.

      If the entire editorial either through silence or support proudly claimed solidarity with this journalists outlook would you respect the intelligence of the publication?

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that comparing the Koran to ‘the Book of Mormon’ would have been more apt and effective. Since it might’ve got more coverage from the islamaphobia-phobia-phobic media.

      Googling this story all reports state that Dawkin’s has been silent on this issue when it’s clear the Mein Kampf analogy is his response.

      So Dawkin’s argument is defendable. He could be more dilomatic but I actually applaud the Professor for being unappologetic.

  2. Jennifer O'Sullivan says:

    My opinion on Dawkins is sadly influenced by his apparent dickishness to women. Tres disappointing.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/david-allen-green/2011/07/richard-dawkins-chewing-gum

    • I concur. That and his apparent belief that there’s something magical about Islam that makes its adherents into a less diverse group than other religions.

      This here: http://plover.net/~bonds/nolongeraskeptic.html sums up my problems with the whole scene (and the problems caused by it *being* a scene, I think…)

    • I don’t see the different treatment that he supposedly applies to Islam. In fact, the other day (1 July) he tweeted the following:
      “Won private bet that, if I attacked Islam & Christianity on successive days, devotees of each would accuse me of favouring the other.”
      Sure, a little dickish, but evidence that both Christians and Muslims both feel that he unfairly targets them and takes it easy on the other.

      And that “no longer a skeptic” article just makes me despair. That was almost 7,500 words of: “I’m a skeptic, but there are lot of skeptics that are dicks, so I’m going to redefine skeptic so it describes only the bad parts and pretend I’m not part of it.” Is that a reverse “no true Scotsman”? Just awful.

      Why not accept that there are a lot of dicks out there, and that agreeing on some things doesn’t tar you with the “being a dick” brush?

      I’ve said dick too much.

    • Giri Ramgopal says:

      @Jennifer

      please could you explain to me something i cannot fathom.

      Did you understand why Rebecca Watson felt ‘in danger’. Shortly after having no doubt a lively debate with a group of fellow atheists including Richard Dawkins. All of whom had been invited as experts on a panel of atheists. One of whom asked her if she would like a coffee.

      http://youtu.be/uKHwduG1Frk?t=2m19s

      my confusion is the consensus of the youtube comments on her blog. including the two of the highest rated comments both female which are heavilly critical of Rebecca without any mention of Dawkins.

  3. I wonder what Dawkins’ take on Lloyd Geering would be.

  4. If telling people that believing in supernatural worldviews unsupported by any scientific is being a dick, then I’m an absolute arsehole.

    Thankfully, I’m an arsehole with science on my side.

  5. Josh Metcalfe says:

    He is a dick. He’s more interested in denigrating than educating. He thinks that if don’t subscribe to scientific theory then you’re an idiot, like you’ve actively decided to turn your back on science, when in fact most people who literally believe the stories of religion are failed by their parents and by their education. They are people who have never been encouraged to ask “why?” and I don’t hate them, I feel sorry for them.

    Professor Dawkins isn’t interested in opening their minds and to get them asking questions, if anything he slams shut any crack by name calling and ridiculing.

    • You’re wrong about this: maybe it’s true that literal believers have never been challenged by, say, their parents to be sceptical. But when you’re over 20 years old, pointing at your old folks simply won’t do anymore. At some point, you’re responsible for yourself, and if someone continues to refuse to think for themselves, that’s no one’s fault but theirs.
      Dawkins doesn’t ridicule them, he invites them to be sceptical by showing them evidence for things they are wrong about. If that’s not an attempt to open minds then what is?

  6. Professor Dawkins’ opposition to organised religion seems to driven by two observations:

    1) The existence of God cannot be definitively established by scientific method

    2) Adherents of the major faiths can be cruel and stupid.

    I am a Christian. Professor Dawkins is 100% correct on both points, but neither challenge my faith.

    Re 1) The Christian faith primarily concerns the relationship between the individual believer and Jesus Christ. This phenomenon cannot be measured with scientific methods. This is very frustrating but that’s the bottom line I’m afraid. In comparison with many mainstream historical texts (Herodotus, Julius Caesar), the Bible passes many of the standard historiographical tests with high marks but it will still not get you ‘over the line’ of really believing the Christian claim. It is only an encounter with the Holy Spirit that can get you there. All very weird for non-believers no doubt, but there it is!

    Re 2) Thankfully the behaviour of individual followers is no guide to the veracity of their faith claims. To think otherwise is the same as listening to me speaking Italian badly and concluding that Italian is a crap language. People are cruel and stupid (to varying degrees), and belonging to a religion doesn’t magically change that fact. At the heart of Christianity is the basic proposition that we are all ‘broken’ but saved by grace. Anyone who successfully lives out that truth will be changed towards loving, compassionate, sacrificial living but it’s not an overnight transformation and never complete.

    I would be interested to Professor Dawkins make an informed assessment of the claims of Jesus Christ, based on the available evidence: as CS Lewis wrote, Christ was either a madman, a huge liar or actually the son of God….the ‘good teacher but not divine’ definition may be comfortable but is not available. Here’s a thought: the individuals closest to Christ during his life were all brutally murdered rather than recant their view that he was in fact the son of God. As I heard someone say the other day, first century Jews were about the least likely people in human history to believe that God could become a man. Unlike all other martyrs who have died for an idea; the disciples died because of a person they had known. Interesting circumstantial evidence at least.

    I saw the Professor’s TV programme on Christianity on British TV a year or two ago; it was pretty disappointing, as he interviewed a small sample of pretty eccentric Christians to make his case that we are all dangerous loonies. I understand there are constraints in making a relatively short television programme but the overall experience diminished him in my eyes.

    The bottom line is that my belief in God is either true or it isn’t. The Professor’s Twitter feed account is a litany of reports of horrible things done by apparently religious types. He is right to highlight barbarism by any faith group, and I share his sense of outrage at any assault on young women, but he makes a false equivalence between sometimes shocking behaviour by followers and the reality of any faith itself.

    Religious faith is clearly problematic in a post-Enlightenment, tech-scientific world; I get it! Doesn’t mean it isn’t true though.

  7. One cannot have a ‘relationship’ with someone who existed (if they did at all) thousands of wars before. Unless of course we speak of an affinity or liking for said historical figure’s work, including ideology (e.g. Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky, etc.). In the case of Jesus, he himself did not leave any written work.In fact, written accounts of what he allegedly said and did appeared a century and more after his death. Said accounts were written by different people and covered different aspects and chronological parts of his life. Not all accounts have indeed been included in the Bible and advertised as ‘true’. Now let’s leave aside the God question and instead focus on the ‘evidence’ of his word, directly through the Moses story and then through his ‘son”s alleged record – these should be possible to subject to analysis with the Scientific Method, surely? Since they are human made accounts and all, and so not unlike other historical accounts? Therein lies the issue though since what is being claimed to have happened and to be factual is not, or at least cannot be corroborated to be so. Now, you say the deeds of some followers of a religion cannot be held equivalent with the religion itself? Certainly except the religion in question does suggest, and in some cases (homophobia) requires, of its followers to behave/do what is being protested against. Whose responsibility are the propagation of beliefs that lead to/require of those subscribing to them to be doing or upholding unethical things/views? And back to the ultimate, God question, and by default to the question of faith in a God – no evidence, of any kind, has been presented in more than 2,000 years for it. None. Believers are expected to simply believe without proof. This is the bottom line, yes? In what other contexts of life would anyone simply believe without proof? And what would that mean for societal mechanisms like the law, etc.? We all know plenty of examples of the outcome when religion constitutes the basis of norms upon which societies function. Personally, I hope for the sake of humanity that faith (any) is proven to be unfounded and stripped further of any influence it has on the rules of life for our species.

    • Thanks Antony

      ‘One cannot have a ‘relationship’ with someone who existed (if they did at all) thousands of wars before’

      Of course you don’t believe it is possible to have a relationship with Jesus Christ, otherwise you’d probably be a Christian. Remember that in terms of our faith you are talking about the creator of time and space; BY DEFINITION the normal rules do not apply. Sorry.

      ‘ In the case of Jesus, he himself did not leave any written work. In fact, written accounts of what he allegedly said and did appeared a century and more after his death’

      There is substantial scholarship pointing towards the gospels having been written 50 years or less after the crucifixion. In addition, the approximate gap between the original writing and the earliest extant copies is regarded as an important test of a document’s dependability. For the gospels this gap is 100 years. This compares with 1300 years for Herodotus, 1200 years for Plato and 1400 years for Aristotle and Sophocles. Noone questions the validity of those other documents.

      There is another interesting angle on the likely veracity of the gospels: if you were going to fabricate some accounts in order to propagate a fake religion in 1st Century Palestine, you wouldn’t have written it like this! For example the first witness to the resurrection is a woman (whose testimony was inadmissible in court at the time) and the disciples come across as pretty dim-witted throughout the account: even Peter (the rock of the church)denied Christ three times for goodness’ sake!

      ‘And back to the ultimate, God question, and by default to the question of faith in a God – no evidence, of any kind, has been presented in more than 2,000 years for it.’

      The only evidence for the truth of the gospels is the changed lives of Christians. Why don’t you ask one?

    • Well, I am confused, where does the Bible, aka ‘word of God’ say that Jesus created anything, e.g. time & space? I thought he was son of God but not God itself. Then again, all you can offer is the ‘faith’ angle, and the addition that ‘normal’ rules don’t apply. You see, those ‘normal’ rules by your own assertion re. God being the creator of time & space should apply since God created them also, and hence it should take just ‘faith’ to prove the assertion. No need to apologise for the lack of proof though. I get it, one chooses to ‘believe’ in unprovable and, by all accounts, non-existing ‘phenomena’ because one wants to, much like choosing a book in a bookshop. What I don’t get is why enter in to a debate about the purported existence of said phenomenon if one cannot offer a shred of proof for it?
      Your explanation for the gospels and the fact not one was written by Jesus (who likely was illiterate – interesting this, how often illiterates get ‘chosen’ to ‘hear’ ‘God’), or any of his disciples is, unfortunately, spurious. The extent of proximity to the events a document is said to record does neither prove the veracity of those events nor of the the record. I am particularly fascinated by your idea that the record in question must be true because it does not read as an attempt at fabricating a ‘false’ religion. As if any such records – called myths by the way since there is no proof of their veracity – of religions preceding Christianity must by your logic have also been ‘true’ (from the ‘fabricating a false religion’ paradigm), which creates the peculiar question, if those earlier religions (and their assertions) were true then how can those following after be true as well if the latter’s assertions are different (which they are, e.g. poly- vs. monotheistic views of the world, etc.). Also, there is enough evidence there were religious beliefs significantly different from the Christian, that existed thousands of years before Christianity. There is no conceivable reason (except if one relies on good old ‘faith’ alone) for why the divine revelations, etc. of the Christian God would take place so late in human evolution, and would be preceded no less by much different revelations, of different Gods? What distinguishes your God from the rest that were before it? How could your God have created time & space if both had already been created many times over by other(‘s)Gods? I am afraid faith is not enough to explain any of this. Once again only complete suspension of rational thinking – one which in principle humans and many animals are capable of, and hence must have come from God (if it exists) – can account for treating all this as true. Which leads to your last sentence, about the ‘correlation’ between the veracity of the Gospels with the ‘changed’ lives of the Christians: this is an excellent example of the aforementioned suspension of rational thought – I cannot comprehend what else it can be.
      I probably sound harsh in places, and if so I apologise for it.

  8. That Richard Dawkins is able to not be a dick 100% of the time is amazing to me. If I found myself having to argue with religious people all the time, I DO NOT know how I’d cope. I think he actually holds his tongue a lot more than he wants to. If I were in his position, I’d be flailing all over the place and calling people stupid – all the time. ALL OF THE TIME.

  9. By the way, Hitle was not an atheist :

    “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison! To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before, the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross.”

    Adolf Hitler (Munich speech, 12th April 1922)

  10. I acknowledge that it is ignorant to claim to know anything. If we knew, it would be impossible to be wrong. I do not know if the Gospel is true. However, I find that the evidence for it being true to be sufficient. Some do not. So it becomes necessary to search for more evidence and more and more and more until people are satisfied. Fortunately, people are thinking rationally abut it and are finding more evidence a lot of the time. One more thing is that the megaverse has no evidence to support it, and he God hypothesis does have some. When determining which of two possibilities is true, it becomes necessary to pick the possibility that requires the least amount of speculation and far-fetched claims. Being a Christian does not require thinking and living as ancient people did, just like being an atheist doesn’t require being rational. There are plenty of ignorant, irrational atheists, and there are plenty of rational, open minded, deeply thinking Christians like myself. Now, if it is true that Christianity is factually true, it is not a waste of time to pray or read the Bible. Even so, there are plenty of Christians like my father who do not believe prayer to be necessary. No, my Christianity has nothing to do with how I was raised. My point is that although Dawkins is a dick, and he is he and his New Atheist movement have prompted, if not, required Christians like myself to question things and seek out support for biblical claims and to seek out ample evidence to say that the Gospel is true. As for the Old Testament, I do not feel it is necessary for that to be factually true. I see the mythos truth in that. However, even though Dawkins has unwillingly caused people to seek evidence for Christianity and find it, that does not mean he is right or that he is right in continuing to belittle people when the majority of his belittling comes from generalizations, and without knowledge of people like myself, or at least ignorance of us. In fact, religion served its time and place. It is no longer necessary. New Atheism and anti theism served their time and place, and are no longer needed. It is a new era of people actively becoming Christians for reasons of their own, and without being bound to any religion. This hasn’t become prominent yet, and the second era I mentioned is still where we are. However, this new era is strengthening severely.

  11. One small remark; you cannot dismiss atheis as a forceful play in the resultant atrocities committed by Hitler, etc, on the basis that it is a “non-belief” and therefor cannot be imperically evaluates. Atheism is not a “non-belief” – it is a belief. Not believing in God is believing there isn’t a God. And there are resultant impacts to that belief, just as there are results to every and any world view. I have no interest in diving into an argument on any other point than that: Atheism is a belief, plain and simple- it is a belief system that believes in the non-existence of God; therefore, being a belief system- it has an impact on human action. The question is, what is the impact?

    Oh and Richard Dawkins merely mocking another’s beliefs, calling them stupid, proves he is a dick- he always says things like “no rational person would believe that” or “anyone who believes that cannot be taken seriously.” He’s not a philosopher, he is a poster child of a culture that wants to dismiss intellectual arguments on the basis of opinion.

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