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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