Enough Richard Dawkins bashing: Let us praise a hero of science and atheism

Unfollow him on Twitter if you must. But for his courage on faith and brilliance with genetics, we owe him praise

By Jeffrey Tayler
Published October 4, 2015 10:00AM (EDT)
  (AP/Fiona Hanson)
(AP/Fiona Hanson)

The religious and their apologists have no fury more ardent than that which they reserve for those who would expose the truth about their faith-generated delusions. Abrahamic scripture justifies, even sanctifies, such fury, ordaining hellfire and damnation for those who diss their make-believe divine master – aka Yahweh, God, Allah, the Lord, and so on. Thus it has ever been with that consummate bane, monotheism – the innately totalitarian (as the late Christopher Hitchens put it) ideology concentrating all power in the hands of one (jealous, wrathful, and entirely imaginary) “Big Brother in the Sky.”

It cannot be otherwise: one master, many slaves (or dupes, given that said master does not exist). Those who believe in this bogus despot far too frequently shall not suffer truth-tellers to live -- at least figuratively, but all too tragically literally as well, of course, as history and current events show.

Time and again this has proven true with Richard Dawkins, at least in the figurative sense. The groundbreaking British evolutionary biologist and New Atheist icon has long suffered the slings and arrows of the faith-deranged and those sad-sack apologists eager to assassinate his character, all often servants of political correctness, working in cahoots with them. Dawkins has made (delicious) light of the former, selecting NSFW excerpts from their mail to him and reading them aloud for Internet videos that attract millions of viewers (see here and here, but religion is involved, so make sure no minors are around). The perception persists, as The Guardian put it in a lengthy piece, that “his controversial positions” – on, e.g., sexism and abortion of fetuses with disabilities, as expressed on Twitter – “have started to undermine both his reputation as a scientist and his own anti-religious crusade.”

This is pissant flapdoodle presented as concerned commentary on a noted public figure. Dawkins established his reputation with singular scientific achievements, not as a modern-day Mencken. We owe to him (and his 1976 opus, “The Selfish Gene”) the idea that genes are central to evolution, for instance, and much else that was revolutionary about the phenotypic effects of genes I cannot begin to parse. Such achievements will keep him safely housed, for all time, in the Pantheon of Great Thinkers.

If we look back in time, it’s easy to imagine an analogy. If, say, Einstein had, after formulating the general theory of relativity, suddenly converted to Mormonism, donned Mormon magic underwear, and set off on a quest to recover Joseph Smith’s magic “seer stone” and canonical golden plates, he would not have tarnished his reputation as a scientist, for his theory of relativity would become no less true. His achievement would stand.

And what about purported damage Dawkins may be doing to his “anti-religious crusade”? Here again, Dawkins has established himself with another singular achievement, “The God Delusion,” his masterly, highly entertaining 2006 takedown of the Lord Almighty and the various strains of adulation that have accompanied Him since ignorant, frightened, primitive humans dreamed Him up in a barbarous age long ago. Having sold in excess of two million copies and been translated into thirty-one languages, “The God Delusion” remains one of the go-to texts for all those interested in just why, in the age of the Higgs Boson and Pluto probe, some reject science and persist in venerating the outlandish, often macabre fictions that are the Abrahamic creed’s “holy” books, and just why not one of these dismal tomes (or the pathetic convictions they generate among their dupes) deserves “respect.”

(One nonbeliever who defies Dawkins and makes a case for respecting faith on cultural grounds is the literary critic Camille Paglia. Paglia has condemned Dawkins as “an obsessive on some sort of personal vendetta” against faith, and “someone who has never taken the time to do the necessary research into religion.” The text of “The God Delusion” belies such a statement, as does a glance at its footnotes and list of books cited. Dawkins has done more than his fair share of research into religion. And his life attests to a “vendetta,” yes – a vendetta against faith-inspired falsehood.)

Creating such a go-to text as “The God Delusion” served a vital purpose: it gave atheists solid backing for their views, and helped the doubting faithful see the light. The religious have their canon, and so do nonbelievers. Dawkins’ book followed (neuroscientist) Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith” but preceded a new addition to the godless shelf, the recently published “Fact Versus Faith,” by the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. We needed (and need still) to hear from scientists on religion; their deployment of their knowledge and intellect against faith and its wild conceits renders them untenable in an age when quite possibly only science will save our species (from global warming and the “coming bacterial apocalypse”).

Concerning religion, Dawkins has been accused of “stridency,” a quality some might consider unbefitting a scientist. The charge stems from some of “The God Delusion’s” most flamboyant passages. Try this: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Christopher Hitchens cautioned Dawkins against worrying about stridency, and as a result he came to terms with it. In any case, “stridency” is just what we need these days, given the crises humanity faces and the role religion plays in retarding the search for solutions.

Dawkins' anti-religion crusade did not begin and end with “The God Delusion.” In 2006 he founded the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science which works to promote secularism and scientific literacy and, among other things, awards a highly regarded annual prize to the best of those devoting their lives to doing the same. There are other secular organizations, but far too few, and they are far too lightly funded; this, as rationalists strive to counter the work of well-heeled, politically influential faith institutions – think the Vatican, any number of evangelical megachurches, the Family Research Council, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Saudi government, and so on.

Dawkins lectures and debates frequently, and the resulting ensemble of videos posted on YouTube serves, in an age when generations are growing up less inclined to read books than before, as a library of eloquent expositions of atheism and how to counter the mendacious drivel spewed out by the faith-deranged whenever they argue their case. As the videos show, even when confronted with overwhelming (creationist) stupidity, Dawkins retains his calm and displays considerable patience. At other, far rarer times, as with Deepak Chopra, he comes close to losing his cool. On the whole, in any case, these videos will do a lot to help convince those waffling on their faith to come over to the side of truth. They constitute a virtual vade mecum for rationalists that will long outlive its protagonist.

For these reasons (and more), Richard Dawkins is not about to lose his standing in the scientific or secularist communities. But we live in the age of instant, potentially worldwide chitchat and viral videos, and lemming-like banding together for the purposes of vituperation, no-holds-barred Internet-shaming, and the dissemination of rabid nonsense. Dawkins has been an avid aficionado of Twitter. For some, at least in the media, this combination has not gone down well.

The most recent example (of many) concerns Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old resident of Irving, Texas, who recently rocketed to national fame when he brought a homemade (or home-assembled, or, most accurately, disassembled and then re-assembled) clock of some sort to school, aroused suspicion, and was briefly arrested for possessing a “hoax bomb.”

(For the record, if you had given me three guesses as to what the mess of wire and circuitry pictured in the media was, I would not have said clock, nor would I have said bomb, since it was connected to no explosives.)

Dawkins started out by tweeting #standwithahmed and said the boy should not have been arrested. But later, he tweeted the following, in relation to a video purporting to show how easy it would be to “invent” (really, throw together) such a clock:

If this is true, what was his motive? Whether or not he wanted the police to arrest him, they shouldn’t have done so.

Note that Dawkins accused Ahmed of nothing here. He tweeted a question and seemed sincerely to be seeking an answer. (He has done this often.) And of course he stated that Ahmed should not have been arrested. Yet he provoked a media stampede against him, involving wild exaggeration and accusations of “Islamophobia.”

Dawkins sent forth two more (Ahmed-sympathetic) tweets: "If the authorities really thought it might be a bomb, why did they not evacuate the building? Casts doubt on their motive for arresting him,” and "My mistake. He was arrested on (v implausible) suspicion of a bomb HOAX. Like people at airports arrested for making jokes about bombs."

The Twittersphere’s (over-) reaction to all this revealed nothing but the deep-rooted confusion we languish in when confronting Islam, and how unfairly hostile the social media are to Slayer-of-Faith Dawkins when he opines on it. About the only other media personalities to proffer words of common sense in the Ahmed-clock brouhaha were Sam Harris (who would not rush to judgment) and Bill Maher, who reminded us that the school staff had reason to err on the side of caution when confronted with a suspicious-looking contraption, especially given that Irving sits about twenty miles to the southwest of Garland, where ISIS sympathizers attacked Pamela Geller’s “Draw Muhammad” contest earlier in the year. That Ahmed is Muslim surely played into their decision to call the police; after all, Islam is the leading cause of terrorism worldwide.

(Maher also, for perspective, brought to our attention the plight of the young Saudi, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is scheduled for beheading and crucifixion for having attended a pro-democracy rally in 2012, when he was seventeen years old. “If you haven’t used up all your heroism hashtagging for the clock kid,” Maher suggested, “maybe do it for [al-Nimr].”

The media has also accused Dawkins of sexism on the basis of various tweets. Yet he is a professed feminist who advocated allowing the admission of women to the New College at Oxford, where he taught.

I won’t delve into this and other mini-scandals. We turn to Dawkins not for his views on sundry social topics, but for clarity on religion and nonbelief. Confusing matters by dragging extraneous remarks he makes on other matters into a discussion of his legacy as an atheist firebrand or as a scientist has the effect of creating an air of controversy around him when none should exist. If he were to suddenly embrace Islam or announce he had been all wrong about genes – now that would be cause for controversy. But he hasn’t.

Dawkins has shown a lifelong capacity for wonder and a passion for the truth, with the essential, overarching truth being the falsity of religious faith, its worthlessness as a means of comprehending the origins of our universe and our species, and its deleterious influence on our personal lives, politics, and the making of public policy.

Just the other day, Dawkins crystalized the above points in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, declaring the United States the leading scientific country “of all time,” but bemoaning that it is being “dragged down” by the “uncultured, ignorant almost majority” of religious folks. “You can’t help wondering what it would be like if it didn’t have that burden.”

Dawkins has already done a huge amount to eliminate that burden. For the sake of our country’s future, and that of humanity, that is what counts.

We should not forget this.

Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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