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.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “Dawkins v Williams: Pre-Debate Analysis – Why the hate for Dawkins?”

  1. procrastin8or says :

    I’ve never understoof the focus on Dawkins as a primary target for the perpetually offended elements of the religious amongst us. I always found Christopher Hitchens far more intense, far more caustic yet he didn’t (at least on our side of the Atlantic) attract anywhere near level of hostility that Dawkins does.

    I think, partly, it has to do with his scientific background. Religious people are still generally mistrusting of scientists – and I think there are two mean reasons for this:
    * Scientists are a form of the elite that are not elected and don’t claim divine guidance. So they are neither chosen by the people nor by any spiritual entity
    * They challenge deeply held beliefs and privileges and people do not like to be made to see that what they believe is wrong, especially if it has become so fundamental to their being. Shooting the messenger I suppose

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t know if the science thing has anything to do with it, but it may play a part. I think it’s more likely that a combination of the God Delusion and the Simonyi Professorship meant he was in the spotlight quite a bit with some dangerously honest, uncompromising views, with no concession to religious sensibilities. As a result, he became synonymous with “New Atheism” and was an obvious target for abuse.

  2. unklee says :

    Here in Australia, no-one seems to care all that much. But on the internet I think there is some negative feeling against Dawkins. Many christians wouldn’t care, or even know very much about him, while some christians seem to go in for hate towards anyone they disagree with, whether atheists or fellow christians.

    But among thoughtful christians, I think the negative feeling is based on Dawkins’ strong claims being seen as very poorly based. His “arguments” in The God Delusion have been dissected and found to be feeble (e.g. atheist philosopher Michael Ruse says Dawkins’ book made him ashamed to be an atheist). He makes statements about christians faith and evidence that seem to me to be quite silly and uninformed, certainly not based on rigorous study but perhaps based on his own peculiar definition of faith.

    And when a real philosopher (William Lane Craig) challenges him to debate his claims, he refuses, for what seem to many like spurious reasons. I think he should be free to decide who he does and does not debate without having his integrity impugned, but Rowan Williams is clearly a softer target than Craig, and many draw the obvious conclusion.

    For myself, I think christians should treat him more charitably, but I think his day as a powerful force may be past.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      In your opinion his arguments have been “dissected and found to be feeble”. Don’t claim opinion as fact. The scare quotes around “arguments” aren’t exactly fair-minded or balanced, either.

      And disagreement between people with different beliefs under more-or-less identical labels means what, exactly? People disagree about all sorts of things all the time. It just proves that people disagree. Or would you say Rowan Williams is a pathetic, third-rate theologian because Fred Phelps would disagree with him? Mind you, I find it very amusing that an atheist’s opinion is suddenly beyond reproach when he criticises Bogeyman Dawkins.

      “And when a real philosopher (William Lane Craig) challenges him to debate his claims, he refuses, for what seem to many like spurious reasons”

      No, I’m not letting you have that. No “what seem to many” crap – do you agree, or not? Don’t hide behind “people are saying” obfuscation. In any case, Craig is the one making the claims, not Dawkins, Dawkins isn’t obliged to waste his life in stupid debates, and Craig’s quite happy to duck challenges himself.

  3. unklee says :

    G’day, have I offended you? If so, I’m sorry.

    “In your opinion his arguments have been “dissected and found to be feeble”. Don’t claim opinion as fact. The scare quotes around “arguments” aren’t exactly fair-minded or balanced, either.”
    All those comments were an explanation of my previous statement: “I think the negative feeling is based on Dawkins’ strong claims being seen as very poorly based.” So I wasn’t claiming any more than how his arguments are seen.

    “I find it very amusing that an atheist’s opinion is suddenly beyond reproach when he criticises Bogeyman Dawkins.”
    Not at all. It’s just a brief example – how can I say more in a blog comment? But do you think his arguments are strong? If so, I’d be interested to see you set one of his arguments out in a formal manner and see how it stacks up.

    “No, I’m not letting you have that. No “what seem to many” crap – do you agree, or not? “
    I’m sorry, but I seem to have riled you. But you have misunderstood me. Your post asked “Why the hate for Dawkins?” My post was explaining why I thought “hate” was too strong, and what I thought were the views of thoughtful christians about him. That was why I said “what seem to many” – it wasn’t crap but answering your question.

    But I did give my own views, when I said “For myself, I think christians should treat him more charitably”. And if you want check whether I am weaseling out here, you can read my blog post on the same topic at Craig vs Dawkins.

    So I feel you have misinterpreted what I wrote. Would you prefer I stopped commenting? It seems I aggravate you and I have no wish to do that. Just let me know, I have no wish to be unwelcome.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m reading and re-reading that post of yours, and I can see no clear indication of where your opinion meets your perception of others’ opinions. It reads to me like you’re perfectly happy to use the “some say” form to hide behind the coattails of other nameless people. If you simply want to explore why other people think the way they do, you don’t put scare quotes round “arguments”, you don’t say that they “have been dissected and found to be feeble”, and you don’t say his opinions “seem to me to be quite silly and uninformed”.

      If you want to discuss, do so. If you have a different opinion, fine. But if I’m not impressed, I’ll say so, and I won’t necessarily be entirely polite about it, especially when your arguments more or less amount to “you’re wrong, here’s a link to my blog and some copypasta of yet another apologetic (of the sort you’ve seen 100 times before) explaining why”. It’s up to you.

      • unklee says :

        “I’m reading and re-reading that post of yours, and I can see no clear indication of where your opinion meets your perception of others’ opinions.”
        You’re probably right, I didn’t indicate that clearly, I’m sorry. I guess I include myself as one person in the “thoughtful christian” category.

        But the main point of my post was not to comment on Dawkins myself (I’m not really all that interested in him) but to answer your question by explaining what I think thoughtful christians generally think, and it is not “hatred” but criticism. I am a member of a small forum where most members are thoughtful christians and I was reflecting what they tend to say.

        I’m not sure why you say ““you’re wrong, here’s a link to my blog and some copypasta of yet another apologetic (of the sort you’ve seen 100 times before) explaining why”” when I only linked to show you that my own view was a little different to the common christian response.

        But it seems we are not having a meeting of minds (to say the least), so I will withdraw gracefully. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Best wishes.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Thanks. Let’s draw a line under it.

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