Posts Tagged ‘dawkins’

So, I’ve done another one of these.



The camera quality’s still so-so, and I’m still not exactly Cyriak, but I’m having fun.

Let me know if this is something you think it’s worth keeping up with.

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Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury recently entered the Thunderdome of Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, and had a rather nice chat. I livetweeted most of it, and there was pleasantly little to get agitated about. There was nothing particularly groundbreaking in it either, and it reminded me that I do like Rowan Williams a good deal.

What’s been most dreary about the whole thing, though, is the aspects that the press have chosen to pick up on. The Telegraph and the Mail, among others, ran headlines with the staggering revelation that Dawkins confessed to feeling – horror of horrors – uncertainty about the non-existence of God.

On the one hand, I suppose it’s understandable why they’d make such a fuss over such an inconsequential restatement of a position he’s been very clear about holding for many years. According to the standard narrative, these militant atheists are dogmatically certain that there’s no God. If they weren’t, they’d call themselves agnostics. They think that they’ve scoured every inch of the universe in which God might be hiding and somehow proved that he’s nowhere to be found.

The fact that this is entirely at odds with mainstream atheism is neither here nor there; ditto the fact that no other truth claims about the world seem to be imbued with the same ideological certainty. If you make the claim that “matter is made of atoms”, for instance, you’re unlikely to meet much resistance from people demanding to know whether you’ve really checked every atom in existence as closely as you possibly can, to make sure they’re definitely not comprised of the classical elements of the Aristotelian tradition.

When I say there’s no such thing as unicorns, this doesn’t cause much controversy; even if uncharted parts of the planet remain where they could exist, they’re generally agreed to be made-up creatures. But if someone showed me a unicorn, and their true existence was determined to a reasonable level of scientific certainty – if it definitely wasn’t an obvious prank, and so forth – then I’d change my mind about them, once the evidence was there.

Why do so many people assume we mean something else when we say there’s no God?

It’s disheartening that the implication “I’m not absolutely certain about this, and I could be wrong” is so alien and bewildering to so many people, and an admission of doubt could cause such a stir. Or perhaps it’s just journalists who are having trouble with it.

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Following up from yesterday’s thing, the Daily Mail also joined in with visiting the sins of 18th century slave owners upon Richard Dawkins.

They included a charming picture of a white guy whipping some black slaves, as if this were a concept that required illustrating, so that you can understand the full impact this revelation has on the argument for non-theistic evolution.

Their caption for the picture of Dawkins himself read:

Richard Dawkins has condemned slavery despite his ancestors making their money through forced labour.

I had some fun on Twitter thinking of some other breaking news stories the paper might uncover:

“Many modern Germans decry Nazism, even though their grandparents let Hitler run the entire country for years.” #dailymailhotscoop

“Many black Americans nowadays expect equality with whites, despite their ancestors’ status as owned property.” #dailymailhotscoop

“Pope Benedict sticking with Christianity even though the founder of his church was a Jew.” #dailymailhotscoop

That sort of thing. Feel free to come up with some of your own in the comments below.

And apparently the Times also had a feature on Dawkins yesterday, though “feature” in this case appears to translate to “several paragraphs of personal insults”.

Bravo, Camilla Long. You really caught the indignancy of Richard Dawkins’s hair and the nibbliness of his voice, and in so doing made a valuable contribution to the noble field of journalism.

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I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins, but the only people who think his role in the atheist movement is a messianic one are those who don’t pay any attention to the atheist movement. I’m not always on his side, and I feel no obligation to be.

But some of his critics are scraping the bottom of the barrel for reasons to bash him, until they run out of barrel. Then they find another barrel underneath, full of the dregs and mud that have sloughed off the first barrel, and are busily scraping down to the bottom of that as well.

Yesterday, Richard Dawkins described a phone call he’d had from a journalist for The Telegraph. This journalist had some frankly bizarre things to say, beginning with:

We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?

From there, Dawkins was asked about the guilt he felt for his ancestors’ actions, the origins of the “estate” partly owned by his family, and whether or not he might have “inherited a gene for supporting slavery” from his several-greats grandfather.

And sure enough, the next day the Telegraph runs an article about how Dawkins’s family “built their fortune using slaves”, using what seems like exactly the same thread of arguments as had been decided upon before Adam Lusher even contacted Dawkins, but with a few quotes from their conversation thrown in there to give the impression of balance and well rounded reporting.

The “estate” that remains of this “fortune,” as Dawkins describes it, is a small working farm, which has nothing to do with the personal wealth he’s amassed through substantial book sales, among other things. And quite why the horrifying truth that people centuries ago made a living through practices we now find abhorrent is supposed to surprise us, or reflect badly on Richard Dawkins in particular, is unexplained.

Nothing Dawkins has ever said or done has suggested that he has any sympathies toward the concept of slave-ownership. It seems odd to even ask him to clarify his position on the matter. Is this a line of questioning that Thomas Jefferson’s descendants still have to face? He owned slaves more recently than Henry Dawkins. How do we know what his great-great-great-great-grandchildren are up to?

But, even if Dawkins isn’t a special case and doesn’t deserve to be picked on specifically, maybe there’s something to the reparations argument anyway. Perhaps he and others like him, whose families are known to have profited from slavery in the past, do owe some sort of apology or remuneration to those whose families have suffered from this barbarism.

Of course, you don’t need to look any further than The Telegraph to find a rebuttal to this “intolerant side of the anti-racism movement”, and an explanation of why there is no reason for people today to feel personally responsible for the injustices of the past.

Anyway, there’s someone else I can think of whose ancestor was responsible for even more atrocities than Henry Dawkins. Murder, destruction of property, germ warfare, famine, and yes, slavery, were among his legacy. He was responsible for the deaths of millions as his bloodthirsty regime sought endless conquest.

And by “someone else”, I mean 0.5% of the population of the planet.

Hop to it, Mr Lusher. You’ve got a lot more historical injustice to right.

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The Rev. George Pitcher has opinions about Richard Dawkins. Particularly, he takes issue with an offhand and somewhat informal remark about “destroying Christianity”.

I daresay that’s the pithiest turn of phrase Dawkins could immediately bring to mind, to describe the grandest of atheistic endeavours, in the context of whether secular attempts to undermine Christianity might somehow result in an even less desirable resurgence of Islam to take its place. He’s often written about this in more depth, and with more nuance, but he was snatching for a snappy set of words, and assumed his crowd would basically know what he meant.

I can understand the Reverend’s discomfort with the phrasing of this idea, of course. But he manages to turn a simple standing up for his belief system into something utterly objectionable. To illustrate why Dawkins’s comment is so atrocious, he suggests:

Try ‘If we win and, so to speak, kill all the Jews’ as an alternative. Doesn’t really work, does it?

I have real trouble imagining that Pitcher is so idiotic as to have believed that Dawkins was calling for genocide as the loftiest of all godless goals. It’s entirely obvious that actual mass murder of believers isn’t anywhere near the agenda of even so-called militant atheists. Instead, it appears to be a shameless intellectual dishonesty by which he equates the rationalists’ attacks on religion – a war of ideas, based on speaking persistently against the privilege of religious thought – with genocidal slaughter.

In decrying the totalitarianism that seeks to “destroy Christianity”, Pitcher ignores his religion’s own history of worldwide death, destruction, and conquest, and rather pitiably tries to pin the “brutality” label on someone who is simply not too shy to defy his worldview.

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Owen Jones writes about social contempt and the continued demonisation of the poor, and a sad proportion of the comments bring out the same old rationalisations about how the chavs and scroungers they love to hate aren’t really that badly off.

– Somewhere in Europe, a government realised that their policy of drug criminalisation was making things worse, and actually did something about it based on the evidence. Blimey.

– Does Richard Dawkins want to have his Christmas pudding and eat it too? Nelson Jones is a consistently excellent writer, but although he no doubt has a point here, I’m not sure what he thinks we should be doing about it. It’s possible indeed that the aggressively religious aspects of Christmas are given power, at least in part, by the enjoyably secularised cultural aspects. But I don’t see this as an argument in favour of embracing the religiosity (which I realise isn’t being suggested), or of abandoning the idea of having a nice sing-song about a manger and a star.

No, Glenn Beck, nobody needs to “set up” Michele Bachmann to look like “a homophobe or whatever”. She does that herself just fine. If accusing her of being bigoted is “the nuclear bomb of politics”, Michele Bachmann is Major Kong.

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Okay, there was another thing.

The group headache that is elevatorgate trundles on. And I read a couple of things worth reading about it.

For a start, ryawesome is embarrassed for the skeptical/atheist movement. And it’s not hard to see why. I do take issue with his “don’t throw a tantrum” dodge by which he sort of avoids generalising against all skeptics and atheists – there’s a reason I try not to harangue “Christians” as a monolithic group when discussing homophobic bigotry, not least because I’d alienate every single one of my Christian friends – but there’s no point pretending there isn’t a substantial problem that he’s addressing.

I’ve always been annoyed by the ease and readiness with which “smug” is hurled as invective against atheists in general, partly because it doesn’t match my experience of many atheists, and partly because it’s a pretty limp accusation next to anything you’d use to describe religious fanatics. But I’m grudgingly having to admit that that stereotypical arrogance is exactly what great swathes of the skeptical community exhibited when they decided that a woman was wrong to make an offhand comment about feeling uncomfortable in an interaction with a man she didn’t know.

And perhaps more to the point, there’s been distressingly little humanity on display from a lot of people who I suspect would identify as humanists. This includes some of Rebecca’s critics, and also some of those defending her, such as the lady who looks forward “to watching [Richard Dawkins’] legacy crash and burn”.

I know I’m veering close to just shouting at everyone to stop being shit again, and I know how self-defeating this would be. But… but… gah.

However, Keir Liddle also makes a point that’s bugged me for a while now.

Namely, other skeptics acting like twats or being perceived as twats does precisely zero to undermine the importance of a skeptical worldview. Being an atheist is about not believing in God. Whether or not you’re an atheist has absolutely fuck all to do with how much you enjoy the company of the kind of people who post on atheist message boards and write anti-religious blogs.

And I think the ideas in these two posts are entirely complementary. There’s no contradiction there; in fact, there’s no reason they can’t work well together. If anything, people who do still identify strongly with the skeptical or atheist movement should be the most vocal in rebuffing those serving to give it an embarrassing reputation. I wouldn’t get embroiled in these things so much, albeit often inarticulately and sometimes inconsistently, if it didn’t matter to me how people with whom I share a “skeptic” label behave.

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Right. I wasn’t going to talk about this, but I’ve unexpectedly had an opinion, so what the hell.

Brief summary of what’s been going on, in case your Twitterstream and RSS feed haven’t been exploding over this in the same way that mine have. Skip the next four paragraphs if you know what I’m talking about and it’s already given you a headache.

Rebecca Watson. Cool lady, Skepchick, atheist activist. She’s at a conference a while ago, giving a talk on religion and feminism and stuff, mingling with other critical thinkers. Hangs out in the bar afterward, decides she’s done and announces her plans to go to bed at around 4am. Is followed into the lift by some guy, who invites her to his hotel room for coffee.

Rebecca makes a video, describing this encounter and why it made her really uncomfortable and was not an okay thing to do, and offers this advice to any men in a similar situation: “Don’t do that.”

You know how YouTube comment threads can get. Some people went a little over-the-top in castigating this guy as a sick sleazy creep deserving of nothing short of contempt and disgust. Others went a little crazy in slamming Rebecca for speaking out about something that made her uncomfortable, and for daring to criticise a man for what they – from their expert witness position of not being there and not really knowing a thing about what happened – deemed totally innocuous and nothing to get worked up about.

PZ Myers offers some advice, regarding just when it is and isn’t okay to make sexualised comments at a stranger in a confined space in the middle of the night. Hemant, in the friendly manner that earned his blog its name, calls for calm. Richard Dawkins weighs in on a comments thread, and Jen McCreight picks him apart. PZ has another go at explaining things with a calm civility that many wouldn’t expect from him.

And here we are. You’re up to speed.


To get to my Opinion wot I has had, we need to take a bit of a detour. I’ll try not to ramble.

Who remembers Dr Laura? She’s been a talk-show host and self-help guru type in America, and was the inspiration for the character at whom a famous Jed Bartlet rant was directed. She’s kind of a dick.

Last year, she was fielding a call on her phone-in radio show, from a black lady wanting some advice on dealing with her white husband’s friends, who would sometimes casually use racial slurs that she found offensive. Dr Laura questioned whether the n-word was really something to be offended by, and said it herself eleven times over the course of the conversation.

She repeatedly said arguably the most objectionable word in the language, in a rather confrontational manner, to a black woman who’d come to her for help, after the woman expressed some surprise that Dr Laura would say it at all in such a blasé fashion. Dr Laura was widely criticised for being insensitive, and apologised the next day, but completely undermined this later by saying some bullshit about her First Amendment rights.

Here’s where I think much of the problem lies:

One thing I suspect Dr Laura knows, with considerable certainty, is that she’s not a racist.

Racists are other people. Racists hate black people, or at the very least think less of them just because of the colour of their skin. That’s a horrible way to treat people. Dr Laura would never act like that. She doesn’t have a problem with black people just because they’re black.

So when this black woman comes along, and starts implying that Dr Laura is racist – as if it’s somehow offensive when she, Dr Laura the non-racist, utters a perfectly harmless word that she hears black people using all the time – well, that’s just rude. This black woman needs to calm down and get some perspective and stop making these horrible accusations.

Because Dr Laura knows that she’s not a racist.

And, goes my thesis, one thing that a lot of men know is that they’re not sexist.

A number of people have been indignant and quite angry that Rebecca found the behaviour of Elevator Guy (as he’s come to be known) at all creepy. One thing that I think motivates this is that he wasn’t doing anything that far off what many of them might find themselves doing: approaching someone they find interesting and attractive with an invitation to further discourse. They’ve tried to chat up women before, maybe under similar-ish circumstances, and they’re not all chauvinist pigs.

So how dare this woman come along and start implying that we men, because of perfectly innocent behaviour like this, are all sexist? She’s obviously making a fuss about nothing. Sexists are other people who hate women and only think of them as objects. We’re not like that.

The problem being, of course, that people are quite capable of getting things wrong, offending others, revealing hidden prejudices, and otherwise failing to be perfectly politically correct and socially acceptable, even without being some horrible sexist racist monster, and without meaning any harm at all.

What Dr Laura didn’t appreciate was that racism is a much bigger deal for some people than it is for her, and that even if her intentions weren’t actively to disparage any person or any race, there’s a wider culture of racial tension and abuse out there, and she can’t claim to be apart from all that simply by knowing, as I suspect she does, that she’s just better than all those horrible racists out there. (And also that her bruised ego at being accused of racial insensitivity isn’t the most important part of the conversation.)

Similarly: what some of Rebecca’s critics might not appreciate is that gender politics is complicated and difficult, and even “nice guys” can misjudge things, or make faulty assumptions, or just get it wrong, and should really consider accepting the mild rebuke when it’s offered, rather than passionately insisting that they didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re not sexist. (And their offense at having their “nice guy” status called into question isn’t the most important part of this conversation either. Rebecca didn’t even call anyone sexist. Nobody’s been written off as a horrible monster because of what they did. Just learn from this.)

And I think I’m done.

I like having opinions. I should try it more often. Feel free to tell me why this one’s a load of bollocks, though.

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I started writing this when I was still going on about the Protest The Pope campaign, and the resulting backlash against Dawkins’s few minutes of speaking to a small crowd, which for some people who weren’t there was the only important thing about the 12,000-strong day of campaigning. But then I forgot to get it finished.

And actually, this post is a return to another prominent bugbear of mine from recent weeks. This article was written in response to the Koran book-burning that didn’t go ahead last month. What would be the global reaction to a similar “attack” against a demographic who were not religious?

Atheists, who hadn’t been expected to come out in pick-up trucks with gun racks on their rear windows and circle his church with their engines revving like goaded Rottweilers, didn’t.

In Britain and France, countries that remember the Enlightenment, and in Russia, with her seven decades of secularism still befuddling her, nobody burnt Uncle Sam in effigy and mobs of unbelievers didn’t riot and burn churches, nor were believers flogged or beaten. So far the body count is nil. Atheists have turned the other cheek. Christians have called this a nasty plagiarism.

All sounds about right. And makes me wonder, in fact, whether we shouldn’t consider encouraging such an event ourselves, as a chance to demonstrate the value of chilling the hell out about shit that doesn’t matter.

So, maybe the next time some Koran-burning or similar kerfuffle makes it into the news (and you know it’s only a matter of time), this would be a way of showing what we’re about. Sure, buy up some Dawkins, Hitchens, Darwin, and the rest of them, and consign them to the fire. So long as they’re your property and you’re not contravening fire safety laws, you will find no objection from the atheist quarter. We’re proud of our message, but we don’t feel driven to indignant fury and unjustifiable personal attacks, over nothing more than an impersonal and unobtrusive sign of disrespect.

Ooh, I’ve just had a thought: Bonfire Night’s in a month. Maybe this would be a good time to make a point with a selection of literature.

(h/t The Friendly Atheist)

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Russell Blackford sums up the problems I had with that piece by Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, about the state and direction of New Atheism.

Which is handy, because it means now I don’t have to.

Well, okay, just a bit. Here’s one bit which resonated with me:

Melville seems to think there is something “dangerous” about any degree of solidarity among people who are “critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation”.

This is what’s annoyed me before about certain anti-Dawkins atheists, who not only like to describe him as some sort of frothing fundamentalist, but pick up on any instance of more than one person agreeing with him simultaneously, and paint it as some kind of sinister rally.

Many of Dawkins’s fans are sensible people. When they agree with him, it’s because they agree with him, not because he is the Leader Who Must Not Be Questioned. He can be fairly criticised, and often is even by those within “the Dawkins camp”.

Of course, not every member of every demographic will always succeed in acting rationally, or arguing without resorting to misplaced emotion and fallacy. No doubt he has supporters who are more fanatical than most of us would see as entirely healthy, and for whom fair criticism might not always get through and be taken on board as it should. But that doesn’t make us all a rabble of fundamentalist sheep.

Caspar wasn’t going that far, certainly. But he seems to be on the verge of siding with those who call it dangerous groupthink whenever there’s a group of people who, well, think the same. The fact that a crowd have gathered to foster a sense of community and express their shared views is not, in itself, antithetical to rational thinking. People are capable of holding onto themselves, even in the midst of other people shouting. Give us some credit.

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