Dawkins and his critics

August 16, 2013 at 7:57 pm (atheism, Catholicism, Champagne Charlie, humanism, intellectuals, Islam, Racism, relativism, religion, secularism)

Above: Dawkins interviewed by devout Muslim Mehdi Hasan earlier this year

In case you missed it, Richard Dawkins caused a minor row last week with some comments he tweeted about Muslims, viz:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Noble Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

The twitter storm that followed included comparisons between Dawkins and David Irving and the suggestion that he be ‘no platformed’ as a racist.

Dawkins defended himself by pointing out that his comments about Muslims’ lack of (recent) scientific achievement is simply a statement of fact, and that Islamism is a belief, not a form of ethnicity. Both those points are plainly true and the suggestion that Dawkins is any kind of racist is plainly nonsense.

Nevertheless, his comments about Muslims (as opposed to other religious people) are worrying, and the reason isn’t difficult to fathom:

* Dawkins states some ‘outrageous things’ about Catholics – in a vacuum, objectively more provocative than about Muslims.
E.g. Dawkins (defending himself against Mehdi Hasan when challenged on an earlier statement that growing up Catholic is a form of child abuse worse than sexual abuse) states: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”
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But, there is no significant anti-Catholic bigotry / racism in mainland British society at present. The Left is – on the whole – fine with a critique of Catholicism, and can tolerate negative generalisations of Catholics, Catholic priests, etc.
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* Dawkins states some ‘outrageous things’ about Muslims – in a vacuum, objectively less provocative than what he says about Catholics.
E.g. “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Noble Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”
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But, there is significant bigotry and racism specifically targeted at Muslims in the UK right now. Partly for that reason (there are other, less honourable reasons as well) the Left isn’t fine with a critique of Islam (it has a knee-jerk reaction to such a thing being racist), and cannot tolerate negative generalisations about Islam, Muslims, etc.
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Dawkins is a splendid polemicist and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest he tones down his attacks on religion, including Islam. But he can makes those attacks while making it clear that he opposes bigotry and racism directed against Muslims – something he doesn’t do, or at least doesn’t do clearly or outspokenly enough.
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None of which should be taken as siding in any way with many of the critics of Dawkins, one of the most egregious being Owen Jones, whose column in the Independent of 9 August is so bad as to be not even wrong. Amongst the many insults to the intelligence in his wretched piece is this:
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“What is really meant [by those who point out that religion isn't race] is that while skin colour is not optional, religious conviction is. This is a claim I simply cannot subscribe to. It understates just how powerful and life-consuming beliefs can be — ironically, something that is simultaneously used as a criticism against religion by anti-theists. Personally, I cannot imagine being me without my atheism or my socialism. For those brought up all their lives in a religious environment, who are strongly emotionally welded to their beliefs, their faith is not something that can be switched off. It is beyond unrealistic to describe religious belief as a “choice” like, say, what clothes you should wear to a friends’s party or whether to have a ham or chicken sandwich for lunch.”
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In other words, atheism is appropriate for a sophisticated western intellectual like Owen Jones, but not for poor, uneducated simple folk bought up in “a religious environment.” Dawkins himself  has an answer to this sort of thing:
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“What patronizing condescension! ‘You and I, of course, are much too intelligent and well educated to need religion. But ordinary people, hoi polloi, the Orwellian proles, the Huxlian Deltas and Episilon semi-morons need religion.’
“… Obviously there are exceptions, but I suspect that for many people the main reason they cling to religion is not that it is consoling, but that they have been let down by our education system and don’t realize that non-belief is even an option. This is certainly true of most people who think they are creationists. They have simply not been properly taught Darwin’s astounding alternative. probably the same is true of the belittling myth that people ‘need’ religion. At a recent conference in 2006, an anthropologist (and prize specimen of I’m-an-atheist-buttery) quoted Golda Meir when asked whether she believed in God: ‘I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.’ I prefer to say that I believe in people, and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied — indeed, liberated — lives.”

19 Comments

  1. Clive said,

    I am generally ‘with’ the New Atheists against their critics. It seems to me clear that in this case, though, Dawkins and his defenders just doesn’t understand how social context relates to ideology. And that is a more general underlying problem…

    Or, to put it another way: it’s striking to me how the Dawkins camp (probably with some exceptions, though I think they tend to be qualified exceptions), in the name of trenchant materialist criticism of religion are profoundly *non*-materialist in how they understand religious belief. They treat it, invariably, as simply bewildering ignorance, a failure of understanding, etc – they have (Dawkins has) literally no understanding at all of how people’s social conditions might affect their belief system, of how the experience of racism, for instance, might affect a Muslim’s sense of their Muslim identity (though the point holds for other religions).

    • Rosie B said,

      Dawkins isn’t bad on the attractions of religion – music, King James Bible, Church architecture the kind of spirituality and joy he gets from contemplating the Tree of Life etc but, as you say, he hasn’t got much sense of what it’s like belonging to a community saturated with religious observance.

      I don’t know about his religious upbringing, but it’s no big deal for an English CofE type to shake off the tenets of religion. It was during the nineteenth century that it had real penalties and real agonies as it did for, say, George Eliot.

  2. Sue R said,

    Does Clive think that that Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (as well as al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and et al) are devoutly Muslim because of racism and we should therefore support their politics? Anyway, the Catholic Church is not mounting a sustained attack on evolution, it gave that up years ago.

    • jimmy glesga said,

      Sue R. I thought the brutal perverts that invented the Papist Church invented evolution as a matter of course.

    • Clive said,

      Of course not. Though actually the question is so absurd I’m not sure I should have dignified it with an answer.

  3. Mike Killingworth said,

    I find all characterisations of Catholicism as monolithic at odds with my life experience – what is said here corresponds to the Catholicism of the Irish (and I daresay the Poles) but what I think of as “Mediterranean Catholicism” seems to lead as often as not to happy, generous people who feel that they gain more than they lose from their cultural identification.

    If there should be a similar split in the effect of Islam on the personality I shouldn’t be at all surprised.

  4. Sue r said,

    Jimmy: I know it says in the Boble that Jesus said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’, but as far as I know that is not considered to be an instruction by any Church (except for those that go in for exorcisms).

    Clive: Do you support the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria? How has Islam mutated when it appears within another context? Do you think it has changed in esse? If so, in what way? If you don’t support the actions of the MB in the Middle East, why not?

    • Clive said,

      Sue – of course I can’t expect you to know my views, though shiraz has published stuff by me in the past. No I do not support the MB. As a matter of fact I’ve had a fair few head bangs with those who do. This is not the same issue as the one under discussion here, which is whether racism in the UK, for instance, has some bearing on how Muslims perceive a certain kind of criticism of Islam. And it has even less bearing on the point I was making about Dawkins.

      • Mike Killingworth said,

        Surely the difficulty is in defining “racism”. Some Muslims may chose to see any criticism of their devotional practices as such – and indeed, so long as the critic is white, it is hard to see what they have to lose by doing so.

        It’s the old problem – defining racism by perpetrators’ intentions is too restrictive, defining it by (alleged) victims’ feelings is, surely, too broad. Unless of course you want a world without white people in it, which is my own definition of ethnic radicalism, whether cloaked in Islam, Afro-centrism or anything else.

        I leave you with this thought. If I prefer my own children to anyone else’s, I am a racist – but if I don’t, I’m not fit to be a parent.

  5. Sue r said,

    Typo, seventh word in first line should be ‘Bible’.

  6. s4r4hbrown said,

    I agree with the post but do not fully agree with the bit about Owen Jones. Of course many people do change their position WRT religion, but I think both theism and atheism are difficult simply to shake off and be argued out of. What this does not mean is that religion or individual religions should be protected from criticism, particularly where religious practices go against human rights (as opposed to just being, in one’s opinion, silly).

  7. R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    But, there is no significant anti-Catholic bigotry / racism in mainland British society at present

    Last time I checked Scotland was still part of mainland British society and still has significant problems with sectarianism.

    As for Dawkins his secularism is part of his general bourgeois elitism – in that tweet he is exalting Trinity College (which incidentally has also produced Nobel laureates in science than the entire female gender) as much as he is denigrating Islam.

    And this blogpost to my mind is a far better answer than anything I can write:

    Marx contra Dawkins

    “Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. (…) Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. (…) The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. (…) Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

    (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843)

    That would be Karl Marx, being smarter about religion than Richard Dawkins will ever be, 170 years ago. The same text include the line about religion as ‘the opium of the masses’, which is probably the most wildly misused line from Marx. Opium was a medicine and comfort while also being a potent drug – when the phrase is used to mean “LOL religious people are so dumb it’s like they’re on smack LOL I am the great rationalist”, it misses precisely Marx’s recognition of the *social function* of religion, as well as its contradictory content, as both protest against suffering and a consolation that often enables its perpetuation.

    On that consolatory function, this: I was raised Catholic. When my grandfather was in the weeks where he was dying, I found myself in Soho Square – for non-Londoners, the heart of London’s historical gay district – reading in the sun. To the east of the square is a Catholic church, one of first built after Catholics were allowed to build churches in England again. I received a phonecall telling me to come to the hospital this evening, because the time was coming near.

    I found myself walking into the church and sitting down on one of the back pews. I genuflected, because muscle memory is hard to overcome, even when you haven’t been in a church for many years. I didn’t pray. But I thought about the instinctive Catholicism, deep-rooted, of my grandfather’s generation. I thought of his early jobs, of which he was so proud, hauling flour on the docks at the age of 14 (“earning a man’s wage so young.”) I thought of his war service and its horrors. I thought of his hands, back and knees giving out because he had worked all the flex out of them. I thought of his particular stubbornness. I thought of him lying in a bed a few miles away on a drip, all the weight gone out of him. I thought of him ill-treated by the state, unwilling to provide in his last years a small measure of justice for what he had done for decades. The impossible inequality of that never-agreed contract. I thought we do struggle with the powers of this world, princes and potentates – Ephesians – and I thought about redemption. What would redeem the endless work, the stress, the privation and the loss of over eighty years. How to give thanks, also, that to be born in a tenement in Bermondsey was not always to die there. How to finally understand the attraction of the promise of redemption and the horizon of a new world, in which the manifest injustices – the things left unfinished – shall have passed away.

    I don’t believe the New Jerusalem is waiting for us. And I could see, walking out of that church, how such a promise might be an inducement to inaction. But I also thought how all the old stories and psalms had a better way of naming and giving shape to the – very normal – suffering of a boy losing his grandfather, the sense of a pain shared and repeated many thousands of times over the generations, and a sharpening rage for the quotidian misery that made up so much of his daily work. I don’t think this is an easy fable. In some way it restates the obvious, about pain and knowledge and reflection. Heart of a heartless world indeed.

    http://piercepenniless.tumblr.com/post/57779541776/marx-contra-dawkins

    • Mike Killingworth said,

      A wonderful post, RFM, truly wonderful.

      Among other things it demonstrates the truth of Jung’s claim that there are Protestant souls and Catholic souls. (And why would Marx – or even Freud – have known about that?)

      I dig with the other foot, I suppose – brought up as a “social” Anglican and after many years of agnosticism turned to Unitarianism after I stopped drinking. Indeed I was an itinerant lay preacher for a few years (until my open-heart surgery) and you have gently reminded me that “the heart of a heartless world” is the address I never did write. Oh well, maybe one day…

  8. Sue r said,

    What Roger writes is a true description of many people’s mental condition, but however, that does not mean that Marxists should not (at appropriate moments) challenge superstitious or religious belief. Yes, opium was a ‘legal’ medicine and pain reliever, but it did not cure. Opium and morphine are given to patients who are about to die and require incredibly strong painrelief. How much better would it be to cut the cancer out before it reaches that stage? Marx polemicized against the Dawkins-type scientists of his day, who took a crude materialist approach, and yes that is right, it only alienates religious people to continually tell them they are wrong., however, I don’t think it does any good to shy away from defending non-religious belief.

    Adult-onset religiousness is often a sign of emotional problems in urban, industrial society in my opinion. I think the piece above demonstrates that. I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but Roger himself acknowledges that religious language and concepts give form to inexpressible thoughts. I have often wished that there was a God because I would love there to be Diving Justice. But, unfortunately, it looks like any justice will have to be dealt out in this world.

    • R F McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      That was not my blog post BTW

      I just thought it expressed very well an attitude I have a lot of sympathy with.

      For me Marx’s opium simile is more powerful than he himself probably realised as he penned it.

      In his age there was literally no other useful medicine for most serious ailments but the relief it gave brought with it addiction, lassitude and ultimately death.

      Even now it is still the last recourse of the terminally and chronically ill (which is what in the end all but the luckiest or unluckiest of us will become) and most of us reading this will one day bless it.

      At my age this is how I now see religion.

      Of course we would be better to have no need for such a thing and as a secularist I will do everything I can to keep theocrats at bay – but without it so many lives would be even more unendurable not just because of ‘social problems’ but because of the human condition itself.

      Andre Malraux (who actually wrote a terrible novel called Le Condition Humaine) recounted how he once lectured a PCF cell and pointed out that even under socialism the human condition would still be a tragic one as people would for instance still on occasion fall under a train – the Stalinist stalwarts replied that in a scientifically organised socialist transport system there would be no accidents….

      So as long as humans remain humans and are born, suffer and die so we will seek out gods and transcendance.

  9. Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

    shitsquirts from Roger here. and other fuckwitts. Feuerbach, and Marx and the other giant Hegel would like to shit in your faces for the utter cretinist blergghh spurts in this white space youse have deposited. the human mind is capable of much more than we are lead to believe. As Feuerbach puts it: “Could I perceive the beauty of a fine picture if my mind were aesthetically an absolute piece of perversion?”

    Lenin: “The party of the proletariat demands that the state should declare religion a private matter, but does not regard the fight against the opium of the people, the fight against religious superstitions, etc., as a “private matter”. The opportunists distort the question to mean that the Social-Democratic Party regards religion as a private matter!

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1909/may/13.htm

  10. Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

    fuck all the Dawkins haters as well. Uncle Bill Burroughs said that paranoia was being in possession of all of the facts. Dawkins haters are in possession of facts covered in shit.

  11. Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

  12. Monsuer Jelly More Bounce to the Ounce (Much More Bounce) said,

    i have just watched that youtube — after watching it i am even more fuckking amazed that roger and other fuckkers have left cooments like they did. FuCk. doomed

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