I suppose it was inevitable that the author of The God Delusion would face charges of blasphemy, but one would never have guessed, in 2006, that they would come from his own side.
First, I should declare an interest. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I believe that Professor Richard Dawkins’s tweets are some of the greatest cultural monuments of the 21st Century. Combining a natural gift for surrealism with a blissful indifference to how people will react to him, they inspire both amusement and outrage — as strange and yet perfectly formed as diamonds falling from the Heavens.
“Saw a down-and-out in Seattle last night,” the great science writer told his followers once. “His sign said not ‘I need food’ or ‘I need a job’ but ‘I need a fat bitch’. What could this mean?” What indeed? The funniest aspect of this was the thought that a vagrant’s love of women on the curvier side had troubled an Oxford don all night.
“Good idea to beam erotic videos to theocracies?” Professor Dawkins asked on another occasion, “NOT violent, woman-hating porn but loving, gentle, woman-respecting eroticism.” It’s the “woman-respecting” that elevated this already mad proposal to the heights of genius, as if a male performer would be rattling off the names of women who had received Nobel Prizes mid-coitus.
Yet not everyone is a fan. The American Humanist Association has decided to withdraw its 1996 “Humanist of the Year” award to the ethologist. Dawkins, the AHA claim, “is no longer deserving of being honoured by the AHA”. His crime? A tweet which asked about the difference between “transracial” people like the infamous activist Rachel Dolezal and transgendered individuals.
Provocative? Of course. But did the tweet deserve such a pearl-clutching public disavowal? Not in the slightest. If anything, the most striking thing about the whole saga is the AHA’s own hysteria, which, somehow, is reminiscent of fundamentalist religion.
Dawkins, the AHA claim, implied that “the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent”. But this is wrong. Professor Dawkins asked if identifying as X means one can be said to be X — which is surely a valid question. Even if the answer to it is “no”, that does not imply that one’s identity is deceptive in the sense of being dishonest. But apparently one’s innate sense of gender is sacred, disqualifying scepticism. Again, there are echoes of religious absolutism.
Even if one thinks Dawkins’s question was insensitive, one has to marvel at the scale of the AHA’s overreaction. Why, for example, should the possession of a Humanist of the Year award be contingent on one’s future behaviour? Have they forgotten what the word year means? If Michael Owen was footballer of the year in 2001, that was not made less true by his sub-par performance for Newcastle in 2009.
It is also interesting to consider who has not had their title revoked. Alice Walker won Humanist of the Year in 1997, a year after Dawkins, and has spent much of the time between then and now promoting David Icke and speculating about whether Jews plan to subjugate “the goyim”. I do not think Ms Walker should be subjected to this sort of handwringing denunciation either. But it is curious to see which questions prompt a hysterical backlash and which do not.
In the case of Dawkins, his abandonment certainly seems a fitting postscript to the new atheist project. In the noughties, believers found it obnoxious that he compared a religious education to child abuse — going so far as to suggest that “physical abuse of children by priests… may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.” Combined with stonking ignorance of the philosophical arguments that underpin religious belief — such as mistaking summaries of Aquinas’s Five Ways for the real thing — this made for an unwholesome stew of undeserved pomposity.
Back then, though, there was a lot of sunny optimism that books like Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell and Christopher Hitchens’s god is Not Great were heralding a rational, peaceful areligious time. The term “Brights” was invented to bring together a “community of reason”. Buses zipped around bearing the message, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Fewer people believe in God now but if there has been a decline in worry then it has been imperceptible. If someone were looking for a word to describe our age, I doubt their contenders would include “relaxed” or “carefree”.
Indeed, it was always destined to be a fad. There are only so many times you can debate the existence of God without getting bored, especially if you are not interested in the actual arguments involved. But to the extent that a “community of reason” ever existed it was also destined to fracture because it had no shared moral language. “I f**king love science” is not the stuff on which a substantive, inspiring worldview is built — and new atheists began to fight about foreign policy, sexual equality, trans issues and a variety of other subjects where “there’s probably no God” did not make it much easier to stop worrying about life.
The first major schism in the atheist movement took place almost ten years ago, when Rebecca Watson, a prominent atheist blogger, was propositioned in a lift at the World Atheist Conference in Dublin. After she posted a video about her experience, highlighting how atheists should care about “social justice”, Dawkins poured petrol on to the flames by sarcastically comparing her plight with those of an oppressed Muslim woman.
Cultural Anglicans, like Dawkins, and hawkish Enlightenment liberals, like Sam Harris, who essentially admire Western culture except for its few religious holdouts, soon found themselves in heated conflict with radical progressives. The latter, such as PZ Myers, came to advocate something they called “Atheism Plus”, which held: “We are… Atheists plus we care about social justice; Atheists plus we support women’s rights; Atheists plus we protest racism; Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia; Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.”
In time, the “atheism” part grew less important compared to the other values. Advocates of “Atheism Plus” became more or less indistinguishable from other fiery advocates of cultural egalitarianism, just as in some cases right-leaning new atheists became indistinguishable from conservative Republicans. Each side, naturally, insisted that they were still representing truth and reason, though an elementary point is that a worldview demands more than that.
However, the bigger problem Dawkins faces is that our religious instincts are not reducible to the question of whether God exists. We hunger for community. We thirst for meaning. We celebrate idealised concepts and lash out when people question them. Even problems which are not explicitly religious — those of borders, and families, and resource allocation et cetera — cannot be solved by pure scientific reasoning. You can take God and the church out of the equation but people will imbue other concepts and communities with the hope of transcendence.
Well, people certainly found their tribes, and their hopes for transcendence, and many of them have none of the tolerant and curious spirit of the clerics and theologians who engaged Professor Dawkins in debate 15 years ago. Heresy must not stand. It demands public denunciation and disavowal — removal from the public space and from the bounds of civilised inquiry. The likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens could sell millions of copies but the likes of Ryan Anderson and Abigail Shrier cannot have their books sold. Richard Dawkins cannot even hold onto an award that he won 25 years go.
In such a world, Professor, keep posting your tweets. Keep asking us why we do not treat spider webs with the astonishment that we would treat “lions…weaving antelope-catching nets ten lion-lengths wide.” Keep declaring that “Bin Laden has won” because of the confiscation of your little jars of honey. Keep asking unpopular questions. There is surreal comedy in being so blind to social convention. But there can be dogma-busting value in it as well.