Richard Dawkins Informs Us: He’s Gentle on Religion

funny-cat-monkey-funny-fightThat strikes me as the sort of thing that, if you have to say it, it isn’t true.

But Dawkins is saying it anyway–in an interview last week. Usually, I don’t think of the kinds of things that Dawkins says as news (or anything like it), but to hear that his words have been gentle was definitely news to me.  Personally, I seem to recall Dawkins telling his fans to mock theists, saying that religion needs to be “ridiculed with contempt”.

But perhaps this idea of mine: that ridiculing someone with contempt is something less than gentle, is simply part of my “God Delusion”?

Speaking of The God Delusion, whether or not Dawkins thinks it appropriate to open the book with a rant about how repulsive he finds the Judeo-Christian God, his grasp of the English language is very weak if he thinks he can call his words “gentle”.

Part of me suspects that what’s going on here is an attempt at damage control. Dawkins and the New Atheists have received a great deal of attention by being as vocal, controversial, and ungentle as possible. Now, it seems that they are trying to avoid some of the negative consequences of that attention. It’s not hard to imagine that Dawkins and others are getting tired of being accused of taking a shrill, mean-spirited approach.

But if he really wants to set the record straight about this, he should start by telling his fans that he was wrong to say that we should mock religious people, then go on by admitting that it was hypocritical to claim that raising a child Catholic is abuse based purely on hearsay. He may even want to consider admitting that throwing around the term “child abuse” isn’t exactly gentle speech in the first place.

Dawkins confesses that it was “a bit mischievous” of him to use the term “faithheads” in reference to religious people, and that he was deliberately trying to evoke images of crackheads. But, apparently, he wants us to please keep in mind that this comparison of religious people to crackheads was “gentle”.

It’s hard to imagine what would not be considered “gentle” by Professor Dawkins. It’s also hard not to wonder if there’s a bit of a double standard here. If a theist claimed that raising children as atheists was child abuse, referred to atheists as “nothingheads”, and claimed that the label of “atheist” was as deadly as any tribal division, would Dawkins take offense? Or, would he simply say “Well, I obviously disagree, but I appreciate that he’s being gentle.”?

Somehow, I doubt it.

But it’s possible that what Dawkins thinks he’s saying is not so much that he’s actually been gentle, but that he’s been more gentle than religion deserves. Given his (ignorant  and prejudicial) understanding of what religion is, this makes much more sense. The main problem here is that he’s not remotely backed the claim that religion really is so terrible as he thinks. And, in any case, that’s not what he said. “I’ve been more gentle than I might have been” would have been a very different statement.

But what makes this significant isn’t that theists should be particularly bothered by Dawkins’ ignorant rants. We should care because mockery is the recourse of the weak-minded. It needs to be made clear that these statements are uncivil, not so much because of hurt feelings, but for this reason:

When Dawkins and his fans try to put their statements into civil language, the lack of angry rhetoric makes it obvious how shallow the content really is.

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8 responses to “Richard Dawkins Informs Us: He’s Gentle on Religion

  • journeymanskeptic

    >It’s hard to imagine what would not be considered “gentle” by Professor Dawkins.

    Good question, and it’s really just speculation. I’ll give it the good college try though, just for fun, okay?

    Perhaps murdering people who weren’t atheists. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/man-found-guilty-of-murdering-atheist-friend-in-argument-over-existence-of-god-8800132.html)

    Perhaps not allowing someone to serve in office for their religious beliefs.( West, Ellis M. (2006). “Religious Tests of Office-Holding”. In Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. CRC Press. pp. 1314–5. ISBN 978-0-415-94342-0.)

    Perhaps institutionalizing atheism (http://www.godless.biz/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/InGodWeTrust.jpg, Baer, John W. (2007). The Pledge of Allegiance: A Revised History and Analysis, 1892-2007. Annapolis, MD: Free State Press.)

    I think Professor Dawkins is gentle. In the field of religion, with the atrocious history that has from the Crusades to the persecution of Anabaptists, to the burning of witches, to the atrocities almost constantly being committed in the Middle east, to the cruelties under Stalin to religious people for their beliefs, I would argue that talk is gentle. Very gentle. He could have more tact, but I would defend his right to the word “gentle.”

    • Debilis

      Feel free, here’s my response:

      This definitely strikes me as more rhetoric without much content. I don’t see how this vindicates Dawkins or his fans, or counters anything I said.

      To run through those points:
      “Perhaps murdering people who weren’t atheists.”
      If it takes murder for him to call a thing ungentle, then he really needs to take a refresher course on the basics of English–or at least crack open a dictionary.

      Rather this seems less like an attempt to address my question and more like taking the opportunity to slip in a rhetorical comment by referencing murder.

      Yes, murder is awful. But what is the point here? Are you trying to argue that religious people are evil? That we are more likely to murder? If so, an anthropological study would be more relevant than an anecdote (even if it comes from the news).

      If not, I really don’t see the point here other than to say that murder isn’t gentle. But I suppose we can all agree on that.

      Similar comments would go for your second suggestion. I don’t see any real content relating to the actual topic I was discussing.

      You’re free to think Dawkins is gentle in his speech. But, if you want to offer a rational reason why anyone else should believe you, then we need a reason why “ridiculed with contempt” is a gentle approach.

      So, you are free to defend his right to that word, but defend it, rather than simply saying you agree with it and offering a very distorted version of history (which, in addition to the errors, has nothing to do with whether or not Dawkins has been gentle).

      And that was the point I’d built toward in my original post: If we sweep aside the rhetorical/emotional jabs at theists, there really isn’t any content here.

      • journeymanskeptic

        He said, “I’ve never been the sort of firebrand that I’ve been made out to be. I’m actually quite a mild person.” My point wasn’t that his words were gentle, it was that words themselves are gentle when taking in context of the sorts of things that have been done in the name of religion throughout history. I was giving examples of some of the things that have been to persecute atheists and religious people in the name of religion, so that you could compare the people who did those sorts of things with Dr. Dawkins. You can argue that Dawkins could be more gentle in his words, but resorting to just words is gentle in and of itself, when you take history into consideration.

        If you read my last paragraph, I actually said this pretty explicitly, “I think Professor Dawkins is gentle. In the field of religion, with the atrocious history that has from the Crusades to the persecution of Anabaptists, to the burning of witches, to the atrocities almost constantly being committed in the Middle east, to the cruelties under Stalin to religious people for their beliefs, I would argue that talk is gentle. Very gentle. He could have more tact, but I would defend his right to the word “gentle.””

        >Are you trying to argue that religious people are evil?
        Of course not. I’m arguing that Dawkins could have done much worse in the name of atheism, by pointing to examples.

        >You’re free to think Dawkins is gentle in his speech.
        I wouldn’t argue that. He could be worse, he could be better. I don’t think many people would say he’s very gentle in “his speech.”

        >So, you are free to defend his right to that word, but defend it, rather than simply saying you agree with it and offering a very distorted version of history (which, in addition to the errors, has nothing to do with whether or not Dawkins has been gentle).
        Okay, now I’m totally flummoxed. Even if you don’t respond to any of my other points, I’m really curious about this part. When did I ever say that I agreed with ANYTHING he said? Also, where did I offer a “distorted version of history?” I’m very very curious.

    • Debilis

      Okay, greetings to you!
      And otherwise diving right in:

      “My point wasn’t that his words were gentle, it was that words themselves are gentle when taking in context of the sorts of things that have been done in the name of religion throughout history.”
      I agree that this is more reasonable. In fact, that was the last point I discussed in the original post.

      So, apologies for misunderstanding that point. It’s been taken.

      I partially agree with it. Whether or not the things Dawkins has said are gentle, I completely agree that there are times when distinctly “ungentle” speech is called for. My only disagreement here is with Dawkins’ notion that this is one of those times.

      The trouble is fourfold:
      First, most of the particular “evils” done in the name of religion are based more on historical caricatures than a real understanding of the events, peoples, and cultures of the past. This is simply not good history (more on this below).
      Second (and similarly), this is a cherry-picked version of history. Goods, as well as evils have been done in the name of religions. Yes, the crusades make for a far more entertaining story than the invention of the hospital, but I don’t yet see any good argument for the idea that the bad outweighs the good.
      Third, we aren’t living in the eighth century. If we had a time-machine, it might do some good to pronounce the evils of past centuries. But we are (or ought to be) discussing religion as it is in our era.

      Last, and I feel that this is the most significant point, there is absolutely no evidence that the materialist view of reality Dawkins is promoting is at all superior to the religions he decries. He claims that religious labels can create tribalism, but his fans have used the label “atheist” to unite as a group. And I see no reason to think that his “tribe” will possess only the good aspects of unity, and none of the others.

      In fact, I see some of the negative aspects in much of the disinformation (say, about religious history) this group is spreading.

      But, getting back to the issue of history, I do not object to the idea that the particular things you mentioned happened. Rather, I object to the idea that blame for these acts can really be laid at the feet of “religion”.

      First, this is because “religion” isn’t really a “thing”. The religions of the world are, if one studies them, so diverse that this is almost like claiming that “beliefs” are bad because of atrocities done in the name of them.

      Well, some beliefs are bad. Some are not. Some understandings of the Bible or the Koran are horribly bigoted. Some are not.

      I don’t understand Dawkins’ insistence that it was belief in a God that was the cause of all this–as if he has a way of knowing that human history would be less bloody if it weren’t for religion.

      Even more than that, he needs to know that it would be the religious beliefs which are to blame. I genuinely don’t understand how the suffering of religious people under Stalin (that you mentioned earlier) could be a point against religious belief. Perhaps that was not your meaning. But, if not, I have no idea what it was.

      People divide into groups. People kill each other over their differences (almost always in conflicts over land, money, and power–even in the conflicts you’ve named). But “we should rid ourselves of this particular category of labeling people” seems like a feeble gesture at best. At worst, it is an attempt at scapegoating.

      Dawkins’ narrative about religion is very simple, very tidy. What it is not, however, is either fair-minded or well-informed.

      Okay, I think that one is quite long enough.
      Everything else aside, I hope all is well with you out there.

  • William Ockham

    As you indicate, Dawkins and his band of “New Atheists” are somewhat ironically the best proponents of Christianity. The combination of their inflammatory tone, shallow content and nihilistic vision is so at odds with human intellect and the human experience that Christianity, with its emphasize on reason and hope has a tremendous opportunity to make inroads among honest seekers.

    I recently did a piece on this opportunity for Christianity using Laura Keynes as the poster-person.

    http://wp.me/p3pJsV-nP

    Peace,
    W. Ockham

    • Debilis

      That sounds interesting; I’ll definitely have a look.

      And I certainly agree that the New Atheism should be seen by Christians as an opportunity. In fact, I’ve been excited to see how many have taken it as a challenge to explore and proclaim the philosophical depths of Christianity.

      I do hope that continues.

  • jdedeusbrasil

    Many things he says are untrue! Maybe he doesn’t realize he does it.

    • Debilis

      He really seems to have this strange way of shifting gears between polite and rude–and seems genuinely not to realize that the “other Dawkins” exists.

      As far as I can tell, he does the same shift between “religion is false” and “religion is harmful”. At least, when someone counters his argument for one, he often responds that it is the other that actually interests him.

      From what I can tell, it’s sincere (if frustrating).

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