Dawkins controversy

In Opinion on August 13, 2013 at 6:14 PM

I know the Richard Dawkins controversy has now, arguably, been blogged about to death, but the rubbish that comes his way from even respected and well-paid thinkers refuses to abate and still confounds common sense – most egregiously, I find, from lefties (although I often think the ‘right’ are ironically more left on this issue). N.B. I realised after writing this Dawkins has recently addressed criticisms similarly but I’m still publishing this because it addresses many general issues I have with the hyper-sensitivity from Islam – and perhaps importantly, towards it (at least Muslims get offended and defensive over something they actually believe in).

For example, Owen Jones, who launched a Twitter diatribe in the wake of Dawkins comments, and a subsequent Independent article, in which he performed a strange contortionist act of simultaneously claiming to be a secular atheist in favour of critiquing religion and calling Dawkins’ stating of fact ‘bigoted’ – an act which would seem logically impossible (because it is, to all but the wettest ‘liberal’ apologists). As a slight aside, I always find it darkly comic how defensive some passionate advocates of gay rights, often strong leftists, are of Islam. I saw one bloke, who presumably feels similarly, tweeted Jones, who is gay, a video of gay teenage men getting executed in Iran, which highlights the absurdity of this confluence of ‘left/liberal’ Westerners (I parenthesise with reason) and censorious Muslims. (I recognise by no means all Muslims are, and by definition the many Muslims who haven’t seen or given a shit about Dawkins’ comment won’t have come to my attention, but several have, and it’s hard to deny Islam has previous in this area.)

The telling fact about this (confected) controversy is that, at least as far as I have seen, no one has really disputed the brunt of what Dawkins said. The immediate reason for this is that it is, well, true (and neither have I seen anyone dispute his implication – which I share – that the Nobel Prize is a worthy benchmark of achievement). Yet we could have seen impassioned defences of Islam’s/Muslims’ gifts to literature, language, art, mathematics and – historically at least, as Dawkins himself admits – its advance of science. Or we could have had arguments for how ‘narrow’ and ‘unsatisfying’ a scientific worldview is compared to that offered by Islam (and/or religion in general). I’m not convinced by the latter, but it can be argued.

But all there was was obfuscation, irrelevance and false analogy, leading to suggestions – some overt, some covert – that Dawkins shouldn’t have even tweeted it, as if there’s a list of banned facts no-one is allowed to quote from in socio-political debate. Among the bluster and bunkum I saw was the following attempts at refuting Dawkins, which I’ll address with as much attention as they merit, sometimes not much…

He’s arrogant and rude – To some people yes, and it may explain why little fuss was made when Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it. But it’s an ad hominem argument. Even if one thinks this, it in no way makes him wrong.

The comment was irresponsible – What responsibility does anyone have to be responsible?! Besides he was only tweeting it. People can choose not even to listen, let alone agree with the implication Islam is not a positive force in the world. After all, Dawkins is a secularist, which doesn’t mean making everyone atheist but advocating societies in which religion is personal choice, not imposed by the machinery of state and/or church. As such, he clearly wasn’t advocating a moral imperative for everyone to agree with, like some Muslims. And as for the idea he didn’t make a balanced inference from fact, god knows how many political commentators would be out of a job if this wasn’t allowed, not least Leftier-than-thou Owen Jones.

He’s singling out Islam – Only if the ‘liberal’ thought police, in connection with the chosen minority du jour, insist people must be balanced (fair is not necessarily the same) to everyone within individual tweets – which, in 140 characters, is pretty hard, even for an Oxford professor. Even if this criticism was valid – which it’s not –  it’s not even applicable to Dawkins, who’s spent years, probably more time, campaigning against Christianity, and addresses many logical points against Abrahamic religions as a whole, as they have somewhat similar origins, and to a lesser extent religious belief in general.

I know ‘Muslim’ isn’t technically a ‘race’ but his implication is obvious – Leading on from the above, this piece of rubbish suggests Dawkins is hiding behind ‘Islam’ to actually denigrate races – Pakistanis, people from the Middle East and such – some even suggesting it has connotations for UK immigration policy. It is of course true the areas with high prevalence of Islam are the Middle East and Africa, but it doesn’t change the fact that Islam is a religion, involving a choice (at least in theory), meaning people have a choice to continue believing it or renounce it, unlike with race, sex and – probably – sexuality. In fact, sadly, believing Islam isn’t a very free choice in several Islamic countries, where there is popular support, and even state sanction, for apostasy or encouraging others to leave Islam. So in practice, Islam does largely align along racial lines, but surely there’s some dark irony in left-liberals using this as a stick with which to beat ‘Islamophobes’ (a pretty meaningless tag, personally).

He knows better than to use cheap soundbites – Maybe he does usually, but surely he’s best to decide what is beneath him and not. He chose to tweet it and defend himself, so surely the best person to speak for him is him, not commentators imposing their own views on him. He has written books, speeches, lectures and had debates on how religion stifles the advancement of knowledge. Why should he be constrained to these ‘sensible’ forums. God knows journalists aren’t.

He’s got a really narrow version of history; Islam has done great things for knowledge in the past – He mentions this. And for fuck’s sake we live in the present. It’s impossible not to.

He’s being mischievous and deliberately provocative… – So was Rosa Parks. Was that wrong?!

…especially by saying it on Eid – So what? If, like Dawkins (and me, and all non-Muslims), you don’t believe in the central goal of Ramadan (service and obedience to Allah), the logical consequence is that it is a pointless exercise – as food is, you know, good for humans. Sure it’s impressive, but logically only in the same way someone hopping around on one leg during daylight hours is impressive.

The fact was technically true but he could replace Islam in the fact with many groups and thus imply they are intellectually inferior, like footballers or women – True, but this doesn’t really address the issue; just shifts the buck. For example, it is true of footballers, but they don’t make nearly the same professions to ultimate truth as Islam does. And as for women, well that just demonstrates exactly the influence beliefs and societal structures can have on groups. Take Islam in theory and practice. The first pillar of Islam, the shahada, roughly translates as “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger.” And, in practice, Islam is invoked in, among other things, calling for death for those responsible for apostasy, novels and cartoons and, earlier this year with Malala Yousafzai, advocating education for girls. Is it really such a stretch to suggest all this retards the advancement of knowledge? I don’t think so.

I think many people, including me, see Muslims, friends or strangers, fitting in well to British society despite difficult issues and far-right groups opposing multi-culturalism on reactionary grounds. So there’s a predisposition to defend Muslims, which in itself is probably a good thing. But having a few nice Muslim friends in Britain is pretty irrelevant to big questions about freedom of expression and global Islam in theory and practice, and the extremes people take the defence to can prove paradoxical. When you’re perpetually defending various groups, it becomes increasingly hard to actually stand for anything. (Interestingly Christianity isn’t defended very often. Take Mormonism; how many liberals jumped to the defence of Romney’s much-mocked Mormonism?! And, as Sam Harris notes, can you imagine Trey Parker and Matt Stone making The Book Of Islam with no controversy and near universal acclaim?!). As journalist Nick Cohen notes, ”liberal muliticulturalism contains the seeds of its own negation. It can either be liberal or multicultural but it can’t be both.”

Joel Durston

  1. Completely agree with this. People have a habit of presuming that people who talk critically of anything Islamic have terrible motivations; if they think Dawkins is rude then just say so. This “racist” rubbish is getting annoying.

  2. You’ve written a convincing argument. As a Muslim, I feel that my community often objects vehemently to criticism of – not Islam but Muslims. The Nobel Prize statistic is yet another example. A fact is a fact. As you said, a better contention could’ve been that Nobel Prize is not the best metric in this case. But even that would’ve been unconvincing (even if it were true). The truth is Muslim nations have fallen behind in education, knowledge and technology – and become embroiled in war, conflict and poverty. It saddens me deeply.

    On a different note, I DO think that the constant criticism and mockery of Islam isn’t nice. And I don’t feel ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom to offend’ are essentially the same. But if that’s what the majority of atheists, secularists, Christians, Jews and Hindus feel they absolutely need to do – then so be it. Still doesn’t make it nice 🙂 Peace be upon you.

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