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.”
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.
* 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.”
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
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:
“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.”