Professor Richard Dawkins is an incredibly clever man. He is a pre-eminent evolutionary biologist, with a gift for speaking and a gift for the written word. He is erudite, can be very funny and, as I have already said, he is very, very clever. He is perhaps the world’s most famous atheist and probably has made more money from his atheism than anyone. He has a pretty impressive temper and doesn’t mind going into a frothing rage in front of a television camera.
He can also be vile, abrasive, unpleasant and rude. This week he was firing away on a reasonably prominent science blog (I don’t read these things, so I am relying on the internet to tell me it is so), ripping into Rebecca Watson
who calls themselves Scepchick.
Scepchick had complained about somebody asking her to his hotel room at 4am after a party. She thought it was creepy and fair enough. Dawkins didn’t think it was enough to complain about, so posted this:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn … don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
It isn’t particularly witty or funny and despite me not being a fan of his at all (well, I wouldn’t be, he thinks I’m an idiot), I consider it beneath his usual level of communication. The patronising inverted commas are his as is the irritating correction to ‘proper’ spelling.The post is unpleasant, cranky and hyperbolic. At no point in Watson’s complaint did she compare herself to anybody in such circumstances. Empathy doesn’t appear to be Dawkins’ strong point, as though this is something that we hadn’t already worked out. Even some of his fans will accept his rhetoric is a teensy bit overblown.
Well. It kicked off something of a storm of protest across Sceptic and Atheist websites. There have been calls for boycotts of his books (no differentiation was made between his scientific texts and his ranty atheist ones), speaking engagements (again, no differentiation) and television programs.
It seems the Sceptic/Atheist community does the same thing to itself that it does to the religious community. There is some assignation of blame to reprehensible behaviour to the religion itself rather than the people in it. Dawkins was ripping into Islam, as though all Muslim women suffer the awful fate he outlined above.
It’s fascinating, I think, that any member of a particular school of thought, can be surprised about the views and approaches of someone in that same school of thought. Like the Christian church, Atheism is a, ahem, a broad church and is full of just as interesting and wide a range of characters as any religion. Dawkins is a leading light in New Atheist thinking. It also turns out he’s sarcastic and weirdly sexist.
Some Atheists paint themselves as holding a monopoly on clear and rational thinking, as Dawkins only just stops short of doing himself. The mortal pain with which some of his followers have felt over the past few days is exceptionally strange – the guy hasn’t lived up to a set of ideals they have set for him and so he must be cast in the pit of pariah, his every spoken word now derided as invalid because of his indiscretion in a blog comment.
Was he drunk? Was he high? Was he in a bad mood after a fight with Lalla? Was it jealousy or a professional disagreement with a prominent blogger who isn’t a professor at an English university so shouldn’t be as famous as she is?
Who knows? It’s not really the point.
You see, it’s interesting how we build people up to be something they aren’t. Julia Gillard was expected to deliver much in the way of what the Left were expecting from her, and she hasn’t. The asylum seeker policy is probably worse than even the Liberals, she’s still holding out on same-sex marriage and she has so far failed to soften many of the hard edges filed onto Australia under the Howard Government. Whether you agree with those agendas or not, there is much howling from the groups who wanted them and derision from the other side when they don’t happen and cries that go something along the lines of the pearler Charlie Pickering tweeted on the same-sex marriage.
‘How an atheist can be anti-gay marriage is beyond me’
Well, Charlie, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out there. The Atheist community has climate-change sceptics, racists, rapists, misogynists, any prejudice and criminality you want to name. Atheists, just because they choose not to believe in God, do not automatically become left-leaning beams of sweetness and light. They remain human and susceptible to human foibles and frailty. And in Gillard’s case, political realities. Just like people who call themselves Christians. Funny, isn’t it, how we’re all the same when you peel back the labels.
Dawkins is a product of his time and place. He has entered his eighth decade on planet Earth, lives in the rarified atmosphere of academia and has a truckload of adoring fans who praise his every move. He thought he could get away with being a bit of a jerk (because, in my opinion, he has done so for years) and has paid the price. He’s probably slightly bewildered how he managed to get it so wrong.
Dawkins has done what most heroes do – he’s trodden in it good and proper and then, to make it worse, refused to listen to why people are upset with him. It hasn’t changed my opinion of him – I think he’s abrasive, uncouth and generally unpleasant. What it doesn’t make him is a scientist we should ignore. Christians shouldn’t be afraid of his science and even less afraid of his anti-religious dogma. Mao and Stalin with their armies and reigns of terror couldn’t stop religion, he can’t either.
(N.B . I am not comparing Dawkins to Stalin or Mao – the point I am making here is that they had far more power and might and tried to stamp out religion with violence and repression. They failed – China’s pre-Communist Era Christian population was tens of thousands, by the time of his death it was nearing a reported 50 million. Dawkins has words, books and television and apart from his terrifying temper, is otherwise a reasonable chap when not talking religion. As in not a murderous psychopath.)
I was surprised that he was so offhand about Scepchick’s incident but I was more surprised about the reaction. I think people are tiring of his constant, greying monotone about how religion is terrible. He hasn’t produced anything new on the matter, just said the same thing, over and over. I should imagine following the Dawkins tour is like touring around behind a stand-up comedian – it’s the same jokes, the same stories and the same old thing. You can go to a good church for ten years and not hear the same sermon twice.
Dawkins probably isn’t finished – the cosy, self-congratulatory atmosphere of University life will see to that, and his dedicated acolytes will return because they have nothing else to believe in. I will say I’m mightily impressed with the Atheist and sceptic communities – they treat their own like they treat those with whom they disagree. That’s the sort of consistency I can respect.