Challenging Richard Dawkins

The damage Dawkins has done is cultural rather than personal.

Trash-talking celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins was back in the news recently when Berkeley public radio station KPFA cancelled a sponsored interview with him. The station pulled out of the event because of what it called Dawkins’ history of “hurtful” and “abusive” tweets and comments about Islam.

Critics of KPFA’s decision are calling this another example of politically correct snowflakes muffling any voice they find offensive.

Although I deplore their harsh language, I agree with those who regret the cancellation of Dawkins’ event, because I think it vital for a healthy society that a plurality of voices, even those we find offensive, be heard. One of the more distressing trends in American society today is the knee-jerk revilement, indulged in by both the right and the left, of dissenting voices.

Having said this, however, I also agree with KPFA: Dawkins’ remarks about religion, Christianity as well as Islam, have indeed been abusive, contributing to the coarsening and polarization of our culture. And lest you think, “Well, of course a priest would say that,” let me assure you that my objection has nothing to do with my faith and everything to do with my regard for reasoned and civil discourse.

When I say that Dawkins is abusive, I don’t simply mean that his harsh remarks about religion have hurt this or that person’s feelings. Feelings get hurt all the time in this world, a sad but inescapable fact. Better to grow a slightly thickened skin than to petulantly nurse an attitude of permanent grievance.

No, the damage Dawkins has done is cultural rather than personal. Dawkins has basement-lowered the tone of discourse when it comes to religion, thereby giving his adoring fan base permission to do likewise.

People who have read my books and articles know how greatly I admire and learn from atheists who do the hard work of familiarizing themselves with the religious beliefs to which they object so that they can offer rigorous arguments against them.

But Dawkins does neither. Instead, he gut-punches intelligence right out of the discussion.

To begin with, he demonstrates no real familiarity with scripture, instead cherry-picking passages from the Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim holy texts that, because they’re ripped out of context, easily make religion look stupid and cruel.

A representatively screechy passage from his best-selling The God Delusion gives some idea of what I mean. The “God of the Old Testament,” Dawkins sputters, is “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

No one who’s actually taken the time to read the Wisdom books, prophets, or large sections of the Pentateuch could possibly write such nonsense. This is the sort of wild exaggeration you hear only from people with huge chips-on-their-shoulders.

Additionally, Dawkins trashes religious faith by inevitably conflating it with gullibility and superstition—it’s “weird,” “brainless,” “a crutch for consolation,” and a “cop-out.” These are soundbites that people who’ve never really bothered to listen to what serious students of religion say about faith typically toss around.

But it gets even sloppier. As an alternative to faith, Dawkins recommends reason. (Never mind that this is a tiresomely false dichotomy.) But he dubiously identifies reason with the scientific method, which he appears not to understand. Science’s methodology is specifically fitted to examine the physical world and generate hypotheses about it. As any good scientist will readily concede, science oversteps its mark and betrays its own methodology when it makes untestable metaphysical pronouncements. But Dawkins, in the name of science, does precisely this, claiming that science proves the through-and-through physical nature of reality—a metaphysical rather than scientific assertion.

Dawkins is also a master of outrageously unjustified moral claims about religion: religious education, he says, is child abuse, religion is responsible for most terrorism (a claim, by the way, that’s time and again proved to be not at all self-evident), and faith makes people “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.”

Finally, he’s less familiar than a first-year college student with centuries-old philosophical analyses, pro and con, of religious claims. Consequently, he misunderstands and misrepresents pro-God arguments from thinkers like Anselm or Thomas Aquinas and then, quite predictably, tilts at windmills in responding to them.

The long and short of it is that when it comes to religion, Dawkins is a master of distortion, straw-manning, snarky one-lining, and sloppiness. Rage rather than reason guides his pen. Like a white-knuckled driver seething with road rage, this makes him a high risk.

A few years ago, when Dawkins and his fellow “Horsemen” were galloping roughshod over civil and cogent discussions of religion, I became so disgusted that I wrote a book, Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, in which I tried to show that belief and disbelief are a lot more complex than Dawkins allowed. As a professor of philosophy for over three decades, I felt obliged to offer an alternative to his sloppy polemics. I did this not because I’m a religious skeptic, but because I value rational argumentation.

Back then, I merely considered Dawkins a parvenu and a nuisance. But over the past few perilous months, with the rise of an “alternative” facts and “fake news” ethos in which truth is ignored and bluster reigns supreme, I’ve changed my mind. I now think Dawkins and his ilk are downright dangerous—not because they say nasty things about religion, but because they feed, in their own small way, our increasingly toxic culture of vituperation, distrust, and ignorance.

Voices like Dawkins’ oughtn’t to be silenced, as KPFA chose to do. But they definitely need to be called out and challenged.