• Winged Horses and Respect


    Yesterday, on the academic symposium Twitter, there was a bit of drama when Richard Dawkins (with his characteristic commitment to dispassionate inquiry) started questioning our treatment of weird beliefs.

    I think the question he asked is an interesting and reasonable one, even though I think it was gratuitously personal, and so a little out of line*:


    So the question is this: why is it that if a journalist was to say “I believe in fairies” their credibility would be destroyed, but if they were to say “I believed in winged horses” we ‘respect’ their belief?

    Consider this paradox:

    1. Those who believe in winged horses ought not be taken seriously.
    2. Mehdi Hasan ought to be taken seriously.
    3. Mehdi Hasan believes in winged horses.

    If we want to deny the first statement, then we have two options. One is that we make some arbitrary exception for winged horses, perhaps based on the fact that a winged horse features in the plotline of a major Abrahamic religion. But why is that? Isn’t that a sort of ‘tyranny of the majority’, oppressing those with less common but equally implausible weird beliefs, such as fairies? Consider the paradox with Arthur Conan Doyle and fairies. There seems to be no meaningful difference, and I don’t see a reason why ‘mainstream’ religion is special. What about 9-11 ‘truthers’? In that case, statement 2) would be false (substituting in the ‘truther’ for Hasan). Why? I don’t have an answer.

    The second option is to bite the bullet and say that statement 1) is false for any weird belief. In order to be consistent, we need to respect journalists who are creationists, who deny the moon landings, who deny global warming… you get the idea. Perhaps this is the ‘correct’ one, but it seems rather unpalatable.

    Denial of the second statement will depend on personal preference, but note that it should apply to anyone who holds a weird belief, not just Hasan. I doubt many would be consistent on this. I like Hasan generally, so I take this statement to be true.

    Dawkins himself considered denying the third statement:

    If this really is the case, then it might solve our problem with Hasan, but there are presumably some who really do believe it, and still ought to be taken seriously.


    What’s the solution? I think the reason we are so inconsistent on this point is that religion still holds a kind of ‘sacred exemption from ridicule’ as a result of its powerful history. Once that’s gone we can treat all weird beliefs with the dirision afforded by their weirdness, and people will feel less inclined to prop up what they know deep down isn’t true.


    * I think it was a bit of a mix-up. Hasan had just tweeted this:

    Presumably Dawkins saw it and thought it was a new article. So Hasan tweeted about an article in which he (apparently) ‘beat up’ Dawkins, and Dawkins’ personal tweet about Hasan was a response to the idea that he was intellectually ‘beaten up’ in an article in which the author admits to believing in winged horses.

    Things escalated quickly and many seemed to think, wrongly, that he was claiming that Muslims should be unemployable:

    This uncharitable reading prompted some rather sour replies:

    …and so on.

    Nuance and thought is often lost on Twitter, among people who really should know better.


    Category: AtheismEthicsReligion

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.