Dawkins v Williams: Pre-Debate Analysis – Why the hate for Dawkins?
In the blue corner, all the way from Kenya, the meme-tastic Richard Dawkins! And in the pinko corner, from Wales, the Bearded Wonder – Rowan Williams! Right, gentlemen – I want a good clean fight. No begging the question, no false dichotomies, and no beard-pulling.
Yes, Messrs Dawkins and Williams are going to have a debate on Thursday, on the subject of “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”, and I promise to ease up on the boxing metaphors now. I plan to watch it, and will probably blog about it afterwards (yes, I really live on the edge), but I expect it to be a rather damp squib.
Dawkins will most likely land some weighty blows, and Williams will dodge many more with some liberal and almost meaningless redefinitions of what Christianity is. The Archbishop in turn will almost certainly advance arguments that the enduring nature of religion is evidence in its favour, which Dawkins will bat away.
What prompts me to write about this now is that I wonder if there’s any point in having the debate, because just about everyone has already decided who’s going to win. In atheist circles, it’s a question of how stupid the beardy bloke in the dress is made to look. Among Christians, there’s widespread agreement that if Dawkins makes any arguments, they’ll be low blows, because he doesn’t fight fair or even understand religion, and his criticisms are always rather shrill.
In fact, this supposed shrillness has become a common theme in any criticism of Dawkins, along with stridency, being trotted out with startling regularity. But I’ve never noticed him to be at all shrill, and when asked for evidence of this quality, there’s rarely any offered at all, certainly not the mountain of quotes you’d expect to support such a widespread belief.
It’s true that Dawkins has occasionally said things which have caused a media storm far beyond the context in which they were said, but he’s hardly alone in that, as Williams himself would attest. A frequently-(mis)quoted example expressed the view that imposing beliefs on a child, and identifying that child by the religion in which it has been brought up (not a choice it has made), is a form of mental abuse. You may agree, you may not. You may even find such a view shrill or strident, although in the context I think it’s a fair, if provocative, point to make. But it’s surely not sufficient to explain this widespread belief.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we acknowledge that Richard Dawkins is (or can be) shrill, strident or any other negative description you might care to use, why does that matter to his opponents? I can understand that his supporters might feel frustrated if these qualities were deterring potential converts (although this criticism always seems to come from the “other side”), but surely his opponents should be quite happy to knock his arguments down and let his unpleasant manner (if indeed it is unpleasant) alienate waverers?
I suspect this criticism betrays a fear of Richard Dawkins and what he stands for – anything that challenges the dominant and privileged position held by religion is seen as a threat. So Dawkins is set up as an “Atheist Pope” so that the entire movement can be attacked by attempting to discredit him as the messenger. The accusations of shrillness are a part of this, as are other, stranger smears.
I think there’s also an element of special pleading and defensiveness on the part of believers – they often seem to view any criticism, rather than mere silent disbelief, as an unconscionable and aggressive assault on them personally. As with the secularism debate, the people in the position of power, or at least cultural dominance, do everything they can to shut down challenges to the status quo which suits them so well.
Bear this in mind when the debate is reported, and ask yourself whether you’d expect anything else from the source. I’ll be surprised if there’s a single case in which you couldn’t predict the verdict just by checking where it appeared.