Posts Tagged ‘richard dawkins’

I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.

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Richard Dawkins has a new series going on at the moment, about Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life. The sex and death episodes have been interesting so far. You can watch them online at that link if you’re in the UK.

It has a godless leaning to it, but it’s not all about arguing with religious claims. Instead, it’s covered some useful thinking on how to live well once you’ve done the relatively easy bit, and progressed far enough intellectually to give up on the failed God hypothesis.

One idea in particular was crystallised for me when he met with a couple whose child had died in infancy. During pregnancy, the scans had shown that the developing fetus had no kidneys. It was an uncommon, horrible medical condition. There was nothing that could be done for it, and it had absolutely no chance of survival. The standard medical advice in these situations, I gather, when it’s detected early enough, is to terminate the pregnancy.

This couple didn’t do that. They allowed the child to come to term, prayed for a miracle, and decided to make the most of what time they had with it. They got to spend about half an hour with their baby before it died, as had always been inevitable. They felt sure that this was the right thing to do, and those few minutes they had as a family were incredibly precious to them.

What this crystallised for me is that there are two things in this world which are absolutely vital.

The first thing is reality. If this couple’s decision was based on a hope that things might somehow turn out okay for this child, then it was misguided. Miracles do not happen. Infants developing with such severe problems cannot, with our current level of medical science, survive in the world. A developing embryo is different in a number of crucial ways from a fully developed human. The world is a certain way, and the extent to which our beliefs match up with the way the world is matters.

There’s no god to help make things better when babies die unfairly. None of us will ever meet our departed loved ones again in some other world.

The second thing is each other. These two people were facing a terrible situation, and they deserve powerful, continuous compassion from anyone analysing and discussing that situation and their decisions. I don’t know what it’s like to love a child the way they loved theirs. The closest I can come to that feeling is for the cat, who’s only been around a month or so. If the love people have for actual human children scales up from cats as much as some people say it does, then, well, I don’t think I understand how other people aren’t all crying all the time.

Everyone deserves all the compassion you can possibly spare for them.

The important thing – or perhaps I mean, the thing it took me longer to realise, and which I need to keep reminding myself of – is that it’s an and, not a but. Kindness and skepticism.

Not: “Yes, it’s important to feel for these people and their difficult situation, and not judge them for the decisions they’ve made, but…”

Not: “Yes, it’s important to believe things based on evidence, and not be swayed into irrationality by emotions or other cognitive biases, but…”

Humanism isn’t about but. At least, mine isn’t. Care about reality, and care about people. Both these things are vital, and there’s no reason they can’t complement each other.

Picture related:

(via Indexed)

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I recently mentioned that I happen to rather like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most prominent theologe of this country’s established church. I’ve been wondering if I should expand on that a bit.

Obviously there’s no single factor that determines whether or not I like someone. My approval isn’t a binary state; there are all sorts of things that will make me more or less interested in or impressed by a person. All told, Rowan Williams ranks fairly well.

The one thing you might suppose most seriously lets him down is that he does take the whole Jesus business quite seriously. Which is a shame, I’ll admit, and does have to count as a mark against him to some degree.

But there’s a lot he gets right. There are other things he values that are entirely secular in nature, even if he might not wholly agree with that description. While some use religion to justify indulging their own hatred and prejudice with the language of a loving god, he genuinely values kindness, love, understanding, compassion, tolerance, sympathy, and various other qualities associated with basically being a decent person. These were evident in his recent debate with Richard Dawkins, which was an entirely amiable and pleasant affair.

He’s also hardly anti-science. He understands enough about several different fields to have had an epistemologically interesting conversation with a professional biologist about the origins of life and the nuances of evolutionary theory. He was sincerely curious, and he listened with interest when he had the chance to learn something new.

I think he’s drastically wrong about God, of course. It’s a major blind spot that’s not to be glossed over. But there are atheists around whose own blind spot is “not giving a shit about other people’s feelings”. And I think I’ll take a vague, kind, well-meaning, misguided theist like Williams over a correct but cruel nonbeliever.

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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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Anyone remember William Lane Craig, the religious apologist who Richard Dawkins is sensibly refusing to get too involved with and which the Guardian is apparently deeply ambivalent about?

Here’s a fine example of why he’s not worth any serious thinkers frittering away their time on him:

If we insist on a historical, evidential foundation for faith, then we consign most of the world’s population to unbelief and thus deny them the privilege and joy of knowing God in Christ. To me this is unconscionable.

Translation: I don’t have any historical, evidential foundation for the things I’m saying, but it’s unfair for you not to just believe me anyway. It’s unconscionable, in fact, that you prevent people from knowing God, by pointing out the lack of evidence for the particular kind of God that I want them to know.

This is the most explicit abandonment of reason in the name of blind dogma that I’ve seen in some time.

Also, John Loftus is totally up for the debate that Craig seems to have his heart set on, but has repeatedly been refused. Is this an act of cowardice on Craig’s part? Or is nobody obliged to defend themselves in such a specific, rhetoric-based public forum chosen by their opponents if they don’t want to? Pick a side, Will.

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Greetings, people of Earth. I am no longer in Scotland.

Posting is still going to be a bit irregular for a while, but there’s a lot to discuss when I find the time. Here’s Richard Dawkins talking about magic.



The title of his new book, The Magic Of Reality, is an excellent summation of an approach that deserves to be pushed more by skeptics, scientists, atheists, and reality-based thinkers generally. It’s an important myth to bust, that of the skeptic as the humourless spoiler of all things fun. We might insist on pointing out the non-existence of things which don’t exist, but there’s so much that’s really going on in the world, which is thrilling for all the same reasons.

In the above video, he’s discussing what he means by the word “magic”, by breaking it down into three separate categories of event to which the word usually refers. Because of how I’m such a wild and unrestrained free spirit, I’m going to characterise his point as outlined in the title of this post.

Harry Potter. Actual witches and wizards doing actual spells, subverting natural laws and invoking supernatural forces. This kind of magic doesn’t exist. (Boo, party-pooper, etc.) If it did, it would be fascinating – but mostly in the context of a rigorous scientific study of it. Everyone would be dying to know how it works. What are the factors that affect how the magic actually functions? Can certain potion ingredients be substituted while maintaining the effect? Do you get more power if you shout the magic words louder?

Fiction can explore hundreds of questions like this in fascinating detail, and weave wonderful worlds around such ideas. I don’t know of any skeptics who are against the idea of enjoying made-up stories. But they are made-up.

Paul Daniels. Tricks, conjuring, illusions. Stage magic. Rabbits out of hats, coins behind ears. It clearly exists, but only creates a façade of the Harry Potter kind of magic by means of deception. This can also be very entertaining and uncontroversial, so long as you don’t get the two kinds confused. You don’t have to believe that David Copperfield can really fly in order to have a good time being fooled.

Scotland. It might not seem obvious why I’m bringing this up for the third example. But have a look at this.

I’ve just spent a week on the Isle of Skye, looking at stuff like that.

Now, I’m sure you’re all worldly people. You’re more well travelled than me, and have no doubt basked personally in such glorious vistas that my holiday snaps seem dull and meagre. But I’d never been before, so let me revel a bit.

The point is, there are things in the world which can be experienced, and which are just amazing. Scotland is gorgeous, and you don’t need to sit through my slide show to remember or imagine views of the world that fill you with awe and which are worth trekking across the globe to experience.

That right there is the magic of reality.

And one of many reasons why it’s superior to Expecto Patronum is that there are extra layers of wonder beneath the experience itself. There are some views of nature which people almost universally find pleasing to look at – and science can tell us why.

With reality, you get to delve further and find out about things like the evolutionary pressures that have led our species to feel a sense of pleasure or comfort from the presence of bodies of water, which historically has been a positive sign for our survival. You get to find out so much about what’s going on in the magical world around you, and so much of it is truly extraordinary.

…This totally isn’t just a post about how amazing and life-changing my trip to a secluded and unblemished part of the countryside was. It’s totally not. I’m making a serious point here. Shut up.

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Catching up: John Dawkins

While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

Richard Dawkins’s father died last month. This was the first time I really ever learned anything about the man, but he was 95 when he died, had been married for over 70 years, and his obituary by his son is worth a read.

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Christianity: The one with the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.

You’re right, it is an excellent slogan which merits more than the cursory dismissals I received from all the bishops and archbishops I submitted it to, or the torrent of abusive language which I can only hope is not representative of the diocese of Lincoln as a whole.

But the complete unreasonableness and inability of the Church of England to recognise the chance for a re-branding campaign when it’s staring them in the face is not the subject of this particular rant.

No, I’m here to talk to you today about Jesus.

In particular, about that religion he started, Christy-something, and the never-ending debate as to whether it’s supposed to be about being nice to each other or conquering the world.

The Bible contains, as Ned Flanders so cleverly pointed out, a lot of contradictory stuff. Sometimes it disagrees with itself on simple facts, and sometimes it espouses universal principles which just don’t seem to mesh: love everyone, but murder your children if they don’t do what they’re told, that kind of thing. You’ve got no chance of holding true to all of it, even if you are an especially devout animated yellow caricature.

Anyone following the Bible, then, must necessarily pick and choose which bits to treat as the inviolate word of God, and which to rationalise away as not being that important. Some people think it’s all about being nice, and that stuff about slavery and stoning adulterers may have made sense in a more primitive age. Some are much more into the wrathful bits with all the smiting, and dismiss any idea that God might not want them to be a complete dick to other people as liberal propaganda.

And if they’re going to pick and choose anyway, we might as well let them decide which bits are important and worth choosing. It’s their fantasy, after all.

What this means, then, is that people sensible enough not to believe any of this rubbish probably shouldn’t fret over trying to decide what’s “true” Christianity and what isn’t.

Richard Dawkins wrote about this some time back, and was very damning of so-called “moderate” Christians. In particular, he had no truck with their criticisms of the more extremist Christian spokespeople, such as Pat Robertson, who reads the same Bible they do but chooses to take to heart its passages espousing bigotry and intolerance.

And it’s true that there’s often something a little unconvincing about any Christian telling another that they’re not doing it right, on the grounds that they’re ignoring the wrong part of the divinely inspired word of God. But it’s not irrelevant which parts they choose. Some people are obnoxious dicks, and their god tends to turn out the same way. Some people are generally nice and compassionate, and they also usually imagine a creator pretty much like them.

The part of Dawkins’s conclusion that I disagree with is the idea that the ones being dicks are the ones being the most true to what Christianity is really about.

Yes, the Bible is littered with atrocity and injustice, and we shouldn’t stop pointing out the barbarism that’s being glossed over by the nice, “moderate” religious types. All that appallingly immoral guidance really is in their holy book, and it’s for them to rationalise if they choose to disregard it.

But the nice stuff about love and charity and forgiveness and compassion? That’s in there too. And I don’t really think that focusing exclusively on the nice stuff is any further from a “true” practice of Christianity than ignoring it completely.

It’s still completely fictitious either way, obviously.

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Yep. It doesn’t say anything deep or profound, it doesn’t have a title, and it doesn’t make it as clear as it could when I’m being ironic. But it fits to a rather nice meter. And I’ve already written it now, so it’s too late to do anything about it.

Incidentally, if you know what the meter is called – possibly dactylic heptameter, or something along those lines – or can think of a name for the poem itself, leave me a comment.

Update 15/10/10: The meter is slightly inconsistent between double dactyl and double amphibrach. Thanks, NFQ!



Militant atheists
Writing and lecturing
Speeches and articles
Pressing their case
And permanent smugness
Is what you see written
All over their face

Violent diatribes
Secular bigotry
Bashing religion
They can’t leave it be
Their faith is as strong
As the strongest believer’s
Their hate fills the pages
Of Comment is Free

Muslims and Christians
Have their fanatics whose
Fervours and drives
Smother compassion
Convince them that God thinks
Their zeal is more vital
Than mere human lives

In their eyes it’s noble
To kill and to torture
To punish the heathens
They’ll cross any line
Nothing could make them
Believe for a moment
Their mission’s unholy
Their cause not divine

But oh these New Atheists
Don’t they so smugly
Deride any thinkers
Not on the same page
Isn’t that basically
Just as destructive
As Islamist fury
And Taliban rage

Dawkins is hostile
And antagonistic
He says there’s no god
He’s just too in-your-face
It’s daft to suppose
He’ll convince the believers
By so unabashedly
Stating his case

Instead we should try to
Appease the fanatics
And ask them to lay off
Their heavenly war
Respecting religion
Is surely the answer
Just look at how well
It’s always worked before

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