Religious Self-Definition a Major Issue in Dawkins's Poor Debate Performance

"For once, Richard Dawkins is lost for words," Stephen Pollard crowed recently in a widely read column in Britain's Daily Telegraph. "Atheists' arrogance is their Achilles' heel, as cringe-making radio performance has proved."

The performance in question has Dawkins stumbling, uncharacteristically, when pressed to give the full title to Darwin's major treatise "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" (1859). His awkward attempt quickly lit up the Internet, not least because it took place on national radio, with millions of Britons listening. Not that many people off-the-cuff would likely recall the full title of Darwin's book, including its contentious subtitle: "or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." But it is surprising that Dawkins, of all people, would forget the part of the title that captures Darwin's key argument, his emphasis on "natural selection."

The transcript of the interview -- which quickly went viral -- has Dawkins floundering: "On the Origin of Species...Uh... with ..., oh, God, On the Origin of Species. Um. There is a sub-title ... Um ... with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

On his website, Dawkins declared that he'd been "ambushed" by the question. And, granted, the full title is a lot more difficult to recall than the name "Matthew" for the opening Gospel to the New Testament, as Dawkins was trying to convey. He was seeking more broadly to imply, from the fact that so many Britons call themselves "Christian" without remembering that author or consistently attending church, that their self-description shouldn't be thought very meaningful. Certainly, not enough to warrant their being called "Christian" in the first place.

You can see how that could quickly become contentious, not least with Dawkins seeming to set himself up as judge and juror over who gets to call themselves devout at all. Even Dawkins's supporters winced online over the awkward, unforgettable moment on digital radio, especially when he invoked "God" in struggling to remember the title to Darwin's book. Granted not in a devout way, but it's not quite the word you expect to hear from the man who gave us "The God Delusion" or who regularly calls believers "faith-heads."

While Dawkins wrestles with the fall-out from that fumble, he might venture to revisit Darwin's "Autobiography," including the famous passages where Darwin writes eloquently, with great humility, about his own blind spots. It's also the place, we should note, where Darwin talks about the "beauty" of "New Testament morality," even as he adds that "its perfection," for him at least, "depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories."

"I cannot presume to throw the least light on such abstruse problems" as the "First Cause," Darwin writes late in life, including whether the evolution of humanity was "the result of blind chance or necessity.... The mystery of the beginnings of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic."

Dawkins, of course, is far from content about others adopting such positions -- he's strongly implied that that they're tantamount to "wishy-washy fence-sitting." The problem is, he then assumes a position of certainty from which to judge and alas sneer at everyone else further along the continuum. It's a deeply unattractive position, not least because it's wholly unconducive to the aims of genuine secularism, for which liberty of belief, including for religious self-definition, is actually -- and very properly -- considered a key principle.

Granted, that doesn't always settle the power and often-unwanted effects of religion in the public sphere. Nor does it resolve the determination by many Christians to evangelize -- and the fact that in doing so they too are presuming to judge others.

But as Julian Baggini correctly pointed out in The Guardian, after Dawkins's disastrous interview, "allowing the free expression and discussion of religion is as much a non-negotiable tenet of secularism as maintaining the neutrality of the core institutions of civil society. It may be unfair to criticise secularists for being 'militant' or 'aggressive,' but we are often ham-fisted and heavy-handed. If secularism has come to be seen as the enemy of the religious when it should be its best friend, then we secularists must share at least some of the blame."