Richard Dawkins, winged horses, Islamophobia and a hierarchy of nonsense
I’m going to assume that anyone who’s interested in Richard Dawkins’ latest spat on Twitter already knows all about it, but in summary, he mocked Mehdi Hasan as a journalist (and the New Statesman for publishing him) over Hasan’s belief (common among Muslims) that Mohammed was carried up to heaven on a winged horse.
This caused a lot of fuss, with reactions to it ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, before Dawkins posted a more thorough explanation of what he meant by his tweet, without the constraint of a 140-character limit.
I don’t see any benefit in revisiting this in detail, but the question that’s been on my mind, given that there have been various accusations of atheist Islamophobia recently, is how atheists, particularly Western atheists in broadly Christian societies, should handle Islam and the beliefs of Muslims, and when rational criticism becomes prejudice and bigotry.
My position isn’t fully formed, but I take it as a given that all people are equal, and the existence of a different culture shouldn’t, in itself, be a reason for turning a blind eye to dangerous, wrong or unjust things that are going on in that culture. I won’t have any patronising relativistic crap about respecting the brown people’s religion/culture because they don’t know any better. But nor is it helpful or reasonable to criticise an entire religion/culture for the actions of a small minority of its members.
I say religion/culture like that because while they’re clearly different things, in practice they’re pretty much inseparable. Religion drives culture, and to a large extent, culture also drives religion. To accurately and reasonably separate them is a complicated business, so you can probably assume here that any mention of either religion or culture includes the other.
Dawkins is well within his rights to criticise nonsensical beliefs, and he rightly observes that:
If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot” … The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege.
But this is only half the story. Nor would he be called a vile racist bigot if he commented on the views of a Christian journalist who believes in Jesus’ virgin birth, resurrection or ascension, but he didn’t do that. The difference, rightly or wrongly, is that criticising a typical belief of a completely different culture makes the charge plausible, at least.
If Dawkins wanted to discuss the double standards that see irrational non-religious beliefs mocked while equally bizarre religious ideas are respected, as he says, there were better ways to do it – as a scientist, he should understand the importance of eliminating confounding factors. A similar example of a Christian could have served perfectly well to make the same point without bringing the distraction of cultural difference and charges of Islamophobia, justified or not, into the equation.
This is where I think Dawkins gets it wrong. A belief may well be utterly nonsensical and worthy of criticism, but if you reserve your most scathing criticism for beliefs which are foreign to you, in any sense, you may be allowing your unfamiliarity to colour your views, and run the risk of being perceived as prejudiced, whether you are or not.
The difficulty is that we all have cultural expectations. However much I reject my previous beliefs, there’s a sense in which I’m still Christian, Protestant and low church in descending order of importance. That’s my background, what I suppose I’m arguing against, and it influences me in all sorts of subtle ways. In particular, the further an idea is from my former beliefs and experience, the more ludicrous it seems.
It’s easy for me to dismiss transubstantiation, because I never believed it and always regarded it as an alien belief, something “they” believe. Even easier is to mock beliefs that no one I know has ever held, like (for example) winged horses carrying people up to heaven. But from an objective point of view, they’re no more ridiculous than some of the things I once believed, and some of my friends and family still do. The difference is my exposure to the beliefs, and my degree of empathy for people who believe them.
My rule of thumb, as far as I have one, is that specific live issues relating to “foreign” religions like Islam (such as the burqa or Sharia Law) should be addressed on their merits, but general statements about the nature of those religions, something which has become increasingly commonplace with regard to Islam, not least from Dawkins and Sam Harris, are dangerous because of the “foreignness” of the beliefs and the risk of the criticism being misinformed, prejudiced or perceived through the lens of an ongoing culture war.
Islamophobia isn’t a word I like to use, because of its chilling effect on any criticism of Islam. It’s clearly inappropriate in this case, and I’d say that it should only ever be used in the most extreme cases of bigotry, if at all. But mockery isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind, and flame wars are rarely good ways of raising issues for discussion. It’s a matter of pragmatism.
However satisfying it may be to lay into beliefs you consider ridiculous or dangerous, aggressive criticism from outside a group is very likely to strengthen those beliefs and make them more extreme. Ironically, strong criticism of Islam prompted by Islamic extremism may itself be responsible for breeding a new generation of extremists.
The one thing I’d like western atheists to do in relation to Islam is to maintain the scepticism they apply to the beliefs, but also turn that same scepticism on their criticisms, and ask whether they’re effective, balanced and helpful.