An article on Religion News Service by Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer) asks whether Richard Dawkins is an asset or a liability to atheism. Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. Of the eight people who were interviewed, seven said that he’s a liability (though Hemant Mehta’s statement appears to have been misrepresented), and only one (Dennett) said that he’s an asset.
It’s a very biased article, and I left my comment on it explaining why I feel this it is biased, and so I won’t discuss that here. Rather, I will outline what I would have answered had I been asked for my opinion.
My Relationship to Dawkins’ Work
I’ve always been non-religious – my family is non-religious and though I went to a Church of England school and the Sea Scouts (a Christian organisation), I never really believed that God existed, save for a bit of wishful thinking here and there. My view of religion was that it was fairly benign (a result of the tea and scones, friendly Anglican community flavour of religion I’d been exposed to), but unfortunately not true.
After being told by an (intelligent) college friend that I was going to Hell for not believing, and later on having a conversation with a couple of Muslim friends in which they informed me that evolution had been ‘disproven’ (my first encounter with, and discovery of creationism), my disposition towards religion altered. How can a decent and intelligent person sincerely tell me (without even seeming that bothered by it) that I’m destined for Hell? Shouldn’t we be worried that people’s religion is interfering with their acceptance of science?
I went to the Internet to make sure that I hadn’t missed a big story about evolution getting disproven. I’m delighted to have re-found the first article I read on creationism (in all its dated web-design glory): this one! I eventually found James Randi’s site and videos and wonderful as he is, it didn’t scratch the anti-religion itch I had (though I continued to learn from him about skepticism). From Randi I discovered this site (at the time it only listed Dawkins, Randi, Shermer, and Pinker), and then after being thoroughly impressed with Dawkins disdain for religion and deep love for science, I read The Selfish Gene, followed by most of his other books.
I was transformed from a musician dedicated to music, to a musician dedicated to music and with a deep desire to learn more about myself and the world around me. It was this transformation that led to me studying philosophy, both informally and later formally. As I child I used to read children’s science books, and I remember having (childish) philosophical discussions with my friends (“Do we all see the same colours? How could we know?”). This curiosity what reading Dawkins helped me rediscover, and my life has been enriched as a result.
Dawkins the Atheist, Dawkins the Twitterer
As almost everyone (even some of his most ardent detractors) agrees, Dawkins has written wonderfully on science, both on specific scientific facts and on the general wonder of scientific discovery. It is often said that he should stick to doing only this. If he’s not talking about evolutionary biology then he should just keep his mouth shut. This criticism is twofold: his criticism of religion is thought to be amateurish, and his Twitter output is portrayed as an absolute disaster.
Religion first. I read The God Delusion on its release day and liked it a great deal, though I haven’t read it since. Between now and then I’ve studied Philosophy of Religion (which has bafflingly become a controversial topic these last few weeks), and read and listened to various atheist philosophers. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I do feel that my criticism of religion has “moved on” from the days of reading TGD. A non-philosopher, Dawkins’ arguments often lack robustness and care. However, that doesn’t mean that TGD and Dawkins’ other criticism of religion don’t have a place at the table. For starters, his points can spark discussion. Even if they are under-developed, others can take on the mantle and develop them further, as right or wrong they’re almost always interesting. He’s a non-philosopher writing philosophically about philosophical issues, without the usual rigour expected of philosophers, but with a lucidity that makes it accessible to to those who are just getting started, or merely curious. I don’t see TGD as addressed to philosophers of religion, but rather to the layperson who might be wondering about their own faith, or who want some well-written literature on atheism to whet their appetite. It’s changed plenty of minds about religion, and I’m confident that’s all Dawkins really aimed for when he wrote it.
When he became active on Twitter, I was delighted. I loved A Devil’s Chaplain, a collection of thoughts on various different issues not all relating to religion or evolution, and Twitter allows for a sort of stream of consciousness that we don’t usually get. It’s usually impossible to develop ideas properly on Twitter but if we’re sensible enough to keep this in mind, we should always apply the principle of charity to tweets; indeed more so than usual due to Twitter’s imposed limits. For people like me who are interested in what Dawkins has to say, Twitter is a great tool; for those who aren’t, they don’t have to follow him. What a wonderful arrangement!
This then sets the scene. I’m a big admirer of Dawkins, though I disagree with him from time to time. I’m interested in what he has to say, as I owe my own curiosity to his (especially his willingness to question and challenge received wisdom and taboos), and Twitter is a great way of staying in touch.
The Culture of “Shut Up, Dawkins!”
Whenever Richard Dawkins tweets something contentious or controversial, we get what could be referred to as a culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” (appropriating Jon Lovett’s coinage). The idea that Dawkins “can’t do Twitter” or frequently “puts his foot in his mouth” is a now tired cliché, so much so that there’s an air of “oh, not again!” whenever he tweets something that people might dislike. I know of nobody else on Twitter that meets with this kind of resistance. Even Ann Coulter and her British counterpart, Katie Hopkins do not seem to have the same chorus of outrage whenever they tweet, and they regularly come out with some pretty horrifically immoral stuff.
Dawkins is being singled out. If you don’t think this is the case, then try a thought experiment. Transplant his exact tweets onto the timeline of any other commentator, author, or scientist on Twitter. Take Matt Ridley as an example. He’s written popular books on evolution, and writes regular opinion columns for the newspaper. Most informed people who have heard of Dawkins have also heard of Ridley. Can you honestly imagine the same reaction to Ridley if he tweeted the exact same things? I don’t mean that people will suddenly agree with him – I mean that there won’t be the same old “oh look – Ridley’s put his foot in his mouth again! He should really stay off Twitter. We should stage an intervention!”. What would probably happen is that there would be a bit of disagreement, but just the usual “person offers controversial opinion on Twitter”-style disagreement. I’m not sure why Dawkins is singled out, but he is singled out.
The culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” is anti-intellectual. Many of his controversial tweets bring up serious and difficult questions in moral philosophy. Take one that happened today; his claim was that aborting Down Syndrome fetuses should be acceptable (in addition to an offhand remark in a reply to someone else that he thinks not aborting a Down Syndrome fetus is immoral). These are the sorts of questions and opinions that moral philosophers like Peter Singer are famous for. I agree the latter claim is contentious even to a liberal, but I myself think that there are good arguments for supposing it to be true. It’s at least defensible.
I’ll quickly outline one of them:
P1: It is immoral to give birth to a child (when you have the choice of an abortion) who is likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.
P2: Children with Down Syndrome are likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.
C: Therefore, it is immoral to give birth to a child with Down Syndrome (when you have the choice of an abortion).
The conclusion is distasteful to some, but to deny it you have to deny either P1 or P2. Are they as distasteful? Perhaps you can deny one or both of them, but it isn’t clear to me that either premise is obviously false, downright absurd, or distasteful. Now, this isn’t an argument that Dawkins used, but it reaches the same conclusion; it is his conclusion that people are red-faced about (and I don’t see that any of his angry critics have bothered to find out what his actual argument is). The outrage at Dawkins here reminds me of the outrage that got Peter Singer banned in Germany. It is saying not (just) that he is wrong, but that he shouldn’t have ever said it in the first place. From the same cut as science denialists, these people are discourse-denialists; anti-intellectuals who would rather the debates just didn’t happen; that the question just doesn’t get asked.
I’m not claiming that people shouldn’t disagree with Dawkins. Of course they should if they don’t think his claims stand up to scrutiny – I do this myself from time to time. What I’m complaining about is the attempt to get him to stop giving his opinions or asking questions. If anyone doesn’t want to hear his opinions, they can unfollow him. Trying to stop him tweeting these things at all is an attempt to prevent other people from reading them, and to my mind that’s selfish and immoral.
I like having Dawkins on Twitter, and it would be very unfortunate if after all the nonsense he decides to pack it in. If he does, it will be a sad indictment of the online world; a world that has shown itself to cope badly with taboo and difficult moral questions. Academics are often told to get down from their ivory tower. Dawkins is getting pushed back upon his by his zealous detractors, who would rather surround themselves with Buzzfeed and Salon than Mind and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. What a shame.