Can a Religious Believer Be a Serious Journalist? Richard Dawkins and the Unbearable Smugness of Tweeting

Dawkins' views on religion are by now extremely well-known, to the point of cultural saturation thanks to the media's fixation with him. But the dogmatic assertions and withering dismissals that made Dawkins a media-darling lend themselves particularly well to the anarchic medium of Twitter, where his unjustifiable claims can shrug off any residual requirement for justification.
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Originally appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics.

For some time I've been expecting to see a particular secularist conceit expressed in a particular way -- and over the weekend, Richard Dawkins finally came through. Without any direct provocation that I can see, apart from whatever bad feelings remain from a bruising encounter late last year on al-Jazeera, Dawkins tweeted: "Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist."

Dawkins' views on religion are by now extremely well-known, to the point of cultural saturation thanks to the media's fixation with him. Dawkins makes for good copy -- that's why journalists love him. But the dogmatic assertions and withering dismissals that made Dawkins a media-darling, and "The God Delusion" an international bestseller, lend themselves particularly well to the anarchic medium of Twitter, where his unjustifiable claims can shrug off any residual requirement for justification. At the hand of his hundreds of thousands of followers, who rehash and #hashtag with a well-nigh evangelical fervour, Dawkins's tweets take on the force of a Delphic pronouncement.

This echo-chamber seems to have had a peculiar effect on Dawkins, however. His Twitter stream has become increasingly septic of late; it is almost as if, egged on by his acolytes, he has become a caricature of his own public persona. The chink in the amour of Dawkins's rhetorical brilliance and aggression -- as his critics have long pointed out -- is his theological illiteracy, but he now seems to have fully embraced a brazen ignorance of anything beyond the basest (mis)understanding of religious belief, as though being thus ignorant was intellectually virtuous or the self-evident manifestation of a superior mind. Take, for instance, his smug quip: "Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter & verse like I can for Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today." And again: "Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about nazism."

The wilful ignorance capable of making such statements is not just dangerously uncritical, to the point that it can nestle comfortably alongside the vilest forms of bigotry and anti-Islamic sentiment; it is also inexcusably ahistorical. It evinces a deliberate effacement of the role played by Islam in the formation of modern science and the intellectual foundations of western civilisation as a whole. Moreover, it ignores the productive dynamism evident throughout the development of Islamic jurisprudence, as well as the complexity, and even beauty, of its formulations concerning gender and the constitution of a good and just society.

But acknowledging the history and profound humanism of the Islamic tradition -- the belief that the realisation of goodness, beauty and peace on earth is indissociable from the true worship of God -- is not a way of side-stepping the actual evil so often committed in the name of Islam. It is, rather, the only way of grasping where the real struggle lies today: not between devout Muslims and the sneering secularism of Dawkins and his atheist confreres, but between those supremacist idolaters who have arrogated to themselves the authority to speak in the name of God, and those Muslims who humbly remain on al-sirat al-mustaqim, the righteous path. In other words, the real struggle today lies within Islam itself. And as Khaled Abou El Fadl has repeatedly demonstrated, the resources for self-criticism inherent to Islam are far more radical, and efficacious, than anything on offer from the imperious pseudo-humanism of the militant atheists. As he writes in "The Great Theft":

"Only by knowing oneself, which is achieved by self-critical reflection and struggling against one's base and selfish desires, can a person know who or what one honestly and truly worships. A person might believe that he/she worships and has submitted to God, but through critical self-reflection and by engaging in persistent inner jihad such a person will come to realise that in reality he/she worships and has submitted to no one but himself/herself ... [T]he worst self-deception is for one to slip in the pitfall of self-idolatry while pretending, or while deceiving oneself into believing, that he/she has submitted to God. The ego (al-nafs), if not disciplined by critical introspection, can easily deceive human beings into believing that they worship God, while in truth their real god and genuine source of guidance are self-centered desires such as a sense of self-promotion, the love of material gain, the intoxications of power and dominance over others, or, in extreme cases, it is possible to become enslaved and submit oneself to the unadulterated epitome of evil and true source of ugliness and corruption on the earth, Satan himself."

Ironically, by repudiating the way that revelation and reason and humility and self-criticism pull together in harness within the theological and jurisprudential traditions of Islam, Richard Dawkins places himself on the same side as those puritanical supremacists who uncritically read the Quran and claim to thereby have access to the will of God.

And this brings me back to Dawkins's haughty slur against Mehdi Hasan. After the initial, rather ferocious backlash to his tweet -- from fellow atheists, no less -- Dawkins tried to clarify his intent, not altogether successfully. So, first he tweeted: "Oh for goodness sake, I didn't say Muslims can't be journalists. I questioned the credibility of a man who believes in winged horses." And then: "OK, when I was sarcastic about [New Statesman] printing 'him' it was of course shorthand for 'printing his winged horse avowal'. He's usually v sensible." And then: "It's true, Mehdi Hasan talks a remarkable amount of good sense on most issues. But he believes in a winged horse. A winged horse!" This, finally, elicited a blunt query from Hasan: "thanks Richard. Now, can you pls clarify, should [New Statesman] stop publishing me because of my Islamic religious beliefs? Yes or no?"To which Dawkins replied: "No. But why are religious beliefs uniquely exempt from the critical eye which you deploy everywhere else in your journalism?"

Never mind that, within Sufi tradition, this creature Dawkins crassly characterises as a "winged horse" -- al-Buraq, that which transports the Prophet Muhammad through the veils of revelation -- is most often identified with divine love; or that, for the medieval Muslim philosopher Avicenna, the buraq is the intellect itself. What Dawkins cannot grasp is that reference to the supernatural in Judaism, Christianity and Islam suggests neither a kind of infantile credulity (of the sort that professes belief in fairies or unicorns or Santa Claus) nor an unhealthy fixation with the miraculous per se. Rather, the supernatural points to the origin of the natural in divine love and the orientation of the natural beyond itself, and toward goodness, beauty, justice and peace. To put this another way, the supernatural is what refuses to permit the natural from becoming autonomous and nihilistically self-referential, serving nothing greater than its own limited ends.

This is why Dawkins's haughty concession that Hasan "talks a remarkable amount of good sense" despite his Islamic beliefs compounds his initial offense and exposes the core of his delusion. The genius of the Judaism, Christianity and Islam in particular is their insistence on relativising every claim to self-sufficiency, as well as every attempt to establish political legitimacy by the bare exercise of power or by the refusal of any greater moral obligation. Whether it be the relentless critique of idolatry in Judaism, or the humble insistence on the ineffability of the will of God in Islam, or the manifestation of divine transcendence through self-giving love in Christianity, religious belief sharpens the polemical edge of political critique.

Even Christopher Hitchens admitted as much toward the end of his life. When asked what was the greatest contribution made by Christianity to his life, he said it was

the reminder of the complete ephemerality of human power, and indeed human existence -- the transience of all states, empires, heroes, grandiose claims, and so forth. That's always with me, and I daresay I could have got that from Einstein ... and from Darwin. But the way I got it and the way it is implanted in me is certainly by Christianity.

Far from being a suspicious or self-discrediting form of credulity, religious belief can be one of the most important ways resisting the nihilistic "cult of savviness" that predominates in journalism today. As counterintuitive as it may seem, I would even suggest that the more pressing question, pace Richard Dawkins, is not whether a religious believer can be a serious journalist, but whether it is possible to resist the suffocating cynicism and self-satisfied irony of modern journalism without some reference to the supernatural.

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