I received an invitation to provide comment on a piece that was going up in Religion News about whether or not Richard Dawkins is an ‘asset’ or a ‘liability’ to ‘movement atheism’. The author chose not to use any of my comments (or to ask me any follow-up questions), which was her prerogative, albeit a decision I am personally disappointed by. What follows is what I wrote in response to the invitation, with slight edits that I will explain as a post scriptum.
As I said in my earlier e-mail, the answer to your question is “no”. Richard Dawkins is not an asset or a liability to movement atheism. The question makes a number of presumptions that I think are ultimately misguided.
First, movement atheism doesn’t have a single set of goals. Unlike pro-choice activism or civil rights activism, the atheism movement has several goals, some of which are in direct contradiction to others. Many within the movement are working for church/state separation, others are looking to establish atheist communities as an alternative to the religious monopoly on communal organization. Still others simply want to be able to openly be atheist without having to hide their nonbelief, while others are actively involved in developing counterapologetic arguments to ensure that religious claims do not go unchallenged. These are all activities of “movement atheism” that are not aimed at an overarching shared goal. “Movement atheism” therefore cannot and should not be thought of as a unified group that any individual could be an asset or liability to.
Second, Richard Dawkins‘ work accomplishes a specific set of objectives – a list that is in no way comprehensive for all atheists. Many atheists will cite Dr. Dawkins‘ work as being a seminal component of their initial questioning of faith claims, and part of their process of deconversion. Dr. Dawkins is quite adept at writing plain-language polemic, as well as describing evolutionary processes. In that sense he is undoubtedly an asset to bringing in new atheists who are beginning to question their religious upbringing. However, once that process is more or less complete, Dr.Dawkins‘ work is ostensibly done – he has very little of substance to say about humanist ethics or legal issues or community building, and that’s fine. He can’t be expected to be all things to all people. The hard work of building a nonreligious society must be passed off to people who have expertise in those matters. In other words, Richard Dawkins is great at opening the front door, but he’s not the guy you want giving the guided tour.
Third, if there is one thing that an atheist movement should stand against (or at least be reflexively suspicious of), it is the erection of cults of personality around individual voices. Most movement atheists will be able to, without breaking stride, list a number of specific examples of religious movements that have gone terribly awry when a single person is placed at their zenith. Atheistic communities are no exception, or at least should not be. If Richard Dawkins is ‘a liability’, it is because we atheists have failed to resist the urge toward celebrity worship. In a perfect world, Dr.Dawkins‘ opinions on evolution would be evaluated and lauded when accurate, and his opinions on other matters would be seen as irrelevant when they are false. The fact that he regularly repeats fairly common bromides about rape culture and xenophobia would be seen, in this better world, as reflective of an incurious mind that speaks more than it thinks. To the extent that this is not the case (many atheists I know have no interest in Dr. Dawkins‘ opinions), it should be seen as a failing of the community to live up to its principles. When people continue to write articles as though it was still 2007 and The God Delusion was still one of the only popular sources for atheist advocacy, it cements the perception that Richard Dawkins is reflective of the atheist movement rather than being simply one voice among many.
Fourth, while I can certainly understand the journalistic temptation to cast someone as ‘hero or villain’, the truth is quite a bit more nuanced. Any person who has any opinion will be both an asset and a liability, depending on what goal you are trying to achieve. For example: atheists who strongly and consistently agitate for feminist goals are both “an asset” and “a liability” to movement atheism – they help broaden the relevance and inclusivity of the atheist movement(s), but alienate those people who believe that the focus should be entirely on secularism and that discussions of human rights are a “distraction”. You may as well write a companion piece about whether Greta Christina is an asset or a liability, because you will undoubtedly be able to find people who will give you strong opinions supporting both of those contentions. This is not to suggest an equivalence between the positions that people like Greta are advocating for (more inclusivity, more thoughtfulness, more perspectives) and those that anti-feminists advocate for (pretty much the opposite of all that). I am merely saying that the fact of having a strong opinion on any topic will alienate some people, making everyone a potential “liability”, which is why I reject this framing.
I am happy to discuss any of these points with you further if you so desire. I look forward to reading your article when it is available.
I removed a fifth point which was about the way the author framed the problem. It’s not relevant to the point. The two sentences at the end of the 4th point are a condensed version of something I said in a follow-up e-mail:
In my 4th point about “asset or liability” being in the eye of the beholder, I think my phrasing invites a false equivalence between people who are exasperated with the things that Dr. Dawkins has said, and those who regularly harass and abuse feminist atheist bloggers. These two groups of people are not, in any meaningful way, sides of the same coin. The personal abuse that Greta (among numerous others) has received from anti-feminist atheists is deplorable, full stop. She has done nothing to invite or justify such abuse, other than being a woman who is unashamed and unafraid of her opinion in a misogynistic society. There is nothing equivalent that I have ever seen any critic of Dr. Dawkins put forward. The motivations and tactics of anti-feminists vs. anti-Dawkinsites (if you wanted to characterize them that way) are starkly different – anti-Dawkinsites attack his statements and arguments, while anti-feminists attack feminists’ very existence
A comment in closing: perhaps Richard Dawkins’ biggest contribution to this community is being a living illustration of the problems that arise when individuals are allowed to stand in for an entire movement.
Hmm. I think it’s fair for me to say that Richard Dawkins is a liability to my atheism. But, as you said, whether or not he is a liability to “the atheist movement” isn’t something anyone can answer.
Dawkins has all kinds of problems, but I’d agree with what you have here, there’s no real atheist movement in the classical sense and Dawkins, well, he’s Dawkins.
Taking that thought a bit further I’d say Dawkins is sort of a symptom, or symbol, if you will, of the kind of atheism that brings in people who have issues with religion and come from a certain demographic. If you’re raised in a less science-friendly place, and if the local landscape doesn’t offer the kind of social benefits that a lot of churches — primarily in minority communities — offer.
That said, Dawkins to me is the kind of atheism that shares a lot with Arthur C. Clarke. The two aren’t contemporaries but they share a common culture, not just being from the UK but being the product of “public school” educations and values. (I am not sure if the grammar school Clarke attended would count there strictly speaking but you know what I mean). Anyhow, both men took the position that being an atheist automatically makes you smarter than the average bear. It’s a seductive notion because if gods aren’t real then yes, by definition you’re smarter because you are engaging with reality rather than un-reality. Clarke called religion a kind of insanity and Dawkins did as well (heck, the very title of his book).
Problem is, being an atheist doesn’t make you smarter, it just makes you an atheist. And there’s a very, very ugly undercurrent in that kind of atheism when it comes to dealing with non-Western cultures especially. I see it all the time when I hang out at FtB — “Muslims be crazy” is the sense that you get there sometimes, and it leads to completely ahistorical kinds of analysis. It’s also an attempt to evade responsibility as Westerners for the continual depredations on African and Asian peoples that really does have an effect on local politics. (ISIS-like groups would not exist if the US and UK hadn’t worked so hard to foreclose any possibility of democracy Every. Single. Time.).
With respect to Dawkins, the other problem is that the guy has a particular view of biology which gives primacy to genes, and short shrift to systemic ways of looking at things. It’s a bit like the libertarian view of economics. And I think that is what can blind him to issues of institutionalized racism and sexism. Coupled with his idea that he’s an atheist and therefore the smartest guy in the room, well…
I don’t think that it is exclusively atheists that have put Dawkins where he is (as a sort of representative of our “movement”). He wrote a book with a rather confrontational title and then became somewhat of a celebrity for atheists, but also rather notorious for non-atheists. And of course the media (which is certainly not controlled by atheists) loves confrontation so Dawkins gets called regularly for interviews, debates, etc.
Maybe we should be doing a bit of hero worship and really selecting for ourselves someone (not Dawkins please) who is really worthy of representing atheists. I don’t agree that atheism should be an occupy-Wall-street-like movement with no organization. We should endeavour to get together, defend our interests and talk about an eventual future without religion. To do that, we need leaders and spokespeople.
As I said in my first point of the piece, “the atheism movement” doesn’t have a unified set of goals where a single leader (no matter how righteous – more on that in a bit) would be useful. Atheists don’t have a common cause – not even the eradication of religion. There are organizations with specific goals (JREF, CFI, AA, etc.) and those absolutely need to have a leader, but atheists are too diverse a group with too diverse a set of objectives for any leader to be useful or valuable.
But I also think that ‘hero worship’ is a bad thing, regardless of how good the hero is. All people have flaws, all people have shortcomings and blindspots. Those have a tendency to get amplified when people have power. Atheists in particular will also, I think, rankle at the idea of appointed leaders of movements (as opposed to specific organizations) because, absent a supernatural will, from where do they derive their authority? The principle that OWS was looking to develop was not to make a movement with “no organization” or “no leaders”. The idea was for those with skills to teach those without skills, so that anyone could become a leader. I think that’s a powerful idea, and I am not so quick to dismiss it.
Thanks for your comment!