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.

PegasusI 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.

Minaret 2If 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.

BurqaMy 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.

Images courtesy of eschu1952, aljabak and yanboechat, used with permission

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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.

17 responses to “Richard Dawkins, winged horses, Islamophobia and a hierarchy of nonsense”

  1. Arkenaten says :

    Well thought out. Enjoyable read.
    Let’s find out how many journalists working for the Times or Daily Express believe in the Virgin Birth.
    This would be a very interesting exercise.

  2. mgm75 says :

    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.

    You seem to be suggesting that Islam deserves to be treated with extra delicacy? The fact that Muslims are hypersensitive compared to others is no reason to tread delicately around nonsense beliefs. If we did this, you are creating a multi-tier system where it is more acceptable to criticise some beliefs more than others – and that is feeding into the hands of Christian extremists such as the BNP or Christian Voice.

    Where will it end? Don’t criticise the Scots because they are a bit sensitive, but it is slightly less offensive to criticise the Welsh?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      If I seem to be saying that, it’s probably because I phrased it badly. I don’t think it’s as simple as “Don’t be nasty to the Muslims, they get upset really easily”, and in fact, any atheist criticising any religion is guaranteed to get abuse, either for criticising Islam (and being accused of racism and Islamophobia) or for not criticising it (and getting the “you wouldn’t say that about Muslims/Islam/Mohammed” complaint thrown at them).

      What concerns me is how to persuade people to change their minds and become more rational, which I assume is something any atheist would be aiming for. I don’t think that’s going to be achieved by mockery, for any religion, but I also think that when you’re criticising a religion that’s foreign to you in some way, it’s very difficult ground. It’s not so much about not criticising Islam as not having a go at people from an entirely different culture and background. If Dawkins was from Saudi, I’d suggest that he should be cautious about criticising Christianity, for the same reasons.

      • mgm75 says :

        Great, thanks for clarifying. I still disagree in that it creates a tiered system – though I do feel that Dawkins’ tone sometimes is unhelpful. He should stick to what he does best which is the power of his argument.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Not exactly a tiered system, more a preference (on grounds of pragmatism and familiarity) for people to focus close to home in general. If it looks tiered, it’s because high-profile atheists tend to be white, western “Christian” atheists. But as I said, that’s about general criticisms, and specific complaints are a different matter.

  3. Wen Scott says :

    Very thoughtful — upon reading Dawkins’ apology, it demonstrates how misleading twitter can be, doesn’t it. I do find it puzzling, though, how much it seems to matter what other people believe and how we seem compelled to respond to it.

    I maintain that religion and state need complete and clear separation; without that, religion of any ilk cannot thrive or provide for the positivity it has also given us over the millennia, especially in our modern cosmopolitan societies.

  4. Adam Call Roberts says :

    I don’t think Dawkins *was* engaging in rational criticism with his initial tweet. He was just being a jerk and trying to get attention. When someone phrases an argument in a mocking and condescending manner, thoughtful debate is not their goal.

    Whether religion, politics or anything else, I’ve found that most people are more than willing to engage in discussion and debate about their beliefs if you meet them with respect instead of insults.

  5. unkleE says :

    I don’t think the main objection to the Tweet was that it criticised a supernatural belief, but that it suggested that a supernatural belief should disqualify someone from being a “serious journalist”. He doesn’t say why that should be, and his comment assumes that his own opinion (that supernatural beliefs are silly) is certainly correct. But in our pluralist society that is just one opinion among many.

    A good test of fairness in a pluralist society is to see if we would agree if the argument is reversed. So what if someone said Dawkins couldn’t be a good scientists because he is an atheist? It’s a silly argument and an offensive, bigoted one. And the same is true of Dawkins’ comment. It would have been better left unsaid, and only makes you wonder what things would be like if he had his way.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      If you think that’s what the tweet was about, you either haven’t read or don’t believe his later explanation, and you probably haven’t ever tried to condense a thought into 140 characters. His following tweets, minutes later, clarified that he wasn’t saying a Muslim couldn’t be a journalist.

      Sorry, not convinced by the reversal argument either, unless you can suggest a single thing that atheists believe that’s as bizarre and unevidenced as flying horses.

      • unkleE says :

        “If you think that’s what the tweet was about, you either haven’t read or don’t believe his later explanation”
        I wasn’t making any comment on what the tweet was all about, I was commenting on what people objected to – and I saw several blog posts that were “offended” by the matter I raised.

        “Sorry, not convinced by the reversal argument either, unless you can suggest a single thing that atheists believe that’s as bizarre and unevidenced as flying horses.”
        Again, I think you have misunderstood. I wasn’t suggesting the “reversal argument” was based on equivalence in fact or evidence, but on how people felt about things. To repeat: some people felt that because Dawkins holds an opinion that this person’s beliefs are silly doesn’t give him justification to say the person is unqualified to be a serious journalist.

        Do you disagree with that? (Not that it matters if you do, I was just reporting what I’d found several people found problematic, but I’d be interested to know.)

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        One of the primary motivations for writing this was to put a lot of silly misinterpretations to bed and examine the meat of it. Given that Dawkins very clearly wasn’t saying that a certain belief or membership of a religion disqualified anyone from anything (going by both his immediately following tweets and his later, lengthier explanation), I see no reason to bring that up.

  6. Bewildered says :

    I agree with most of this, but disagree on when we should use the word islamophobia. I think like racism there are both seripously nasty examples ‘I hate niggers, they should fuck off back to africa’ and softer (though perhaps more insidious) forms ‘black people struggle in school and take up extra resources’ and some that are even well meaning ‘ we need to help black people because they are so disadvantaged’ but they are all racist becasue they are generalisations which often indicate unhelpful lumping of all people who happen to be black together. We are not drawing an equivalence between the three, nor saying ‘they are all like hitler because hitler was racist ‘init’, we are simply trying to highlight that this kind of thinking is never helpful.

    It’s the same for Islamophobia and it is particularly important IMO to challenge the milder forms that are getting spread by respectable figures because this is what is creating a worringly mainstream culture where it is OK to be islamophobic and mock muslims.

    Also I think the flying horse thing is a lesser issue given that he later clarified his intended meaning. If Dawkins is doing anything there other than a slip up in communication, it is just trolling. But he does repeatedly call islam evil without qualification or reference to specific practices (of some) or to a particular interpretatioin of the ‘holy’ texts, which can then quite understandbly be intepreted as saying 1.6 billion muslims believe in evil.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      There’s a balance to be struck, but I’d far rather be cautious about using the word Islamophobia, because overuse tends to weaken the criticism when it’s truly accurate, and (as I said) to have a chilling effect on any criticism of Islam. To extend your example of racism, it would be very dangerous if people were called racist for publishing official statistics showing that certain ethnic groups were responsible for more crimes, for example.

      The question is where to draw the line between obvious bigotry and innocuous factual statements. As there’s no objective basis for drawing that line, I’d prefer to avoid crying “wolf”, and find other terms if there’s any doubt.

      • Bewildered says :

        Well I draw the line at generalizations. It is never necessary within legitimate criticism.

        And there is no smooth variation between bigotry and innocuous factual statements. They are just very different things.

  7. Bewildered says :

    Ah looks like there is no edit option, whuch means I can’t fix spelling nor rephrase to clarify that when I say I say ‘mock muslims’ of course belief and believers can be laughed at for believing in silly things, but I mean the contemptuous mockerey devoid from relevant beliefs that dehumanises. Like at it’s more extreme “haha look at the muslim getting attacked/raped/humiliated” see how they like it”.

  8. unkleE says :

    Given that Dawkins very clearly wasn’t saying that a certain belief or membership of a religion disqualified anyone from anything (going by both his immediately following tweets and his later, lengthier explanation), I see no reason to bring that up.

    I don’t use Twitter and I only have your post to go on, but in your post Dawkins said: “And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist”.

    I cannot see any other interpretation on that statement than that Dawkins felt New Statesman was wrong to print him as a serious journalist. Now I haven’t read Dawkins’ later “damage control” explanation, nor have I commented on it. I simply expressed what some people had said was what they objected to in the original tweet. I haven’t accused Dawkins of sticking to that view.

    So I think it was quite reasonable to bring that point up, but I agree with what I infer from your comment that it isn’t worth spending more time on. I’m happy to drop it. Best wishes.

  9. sudhan says :

    Sense and Nonsense

    The discussion between the two is a non-starter because they are speaking from two different and totally opposite premisses. Mehdi Hasan, a journalist, is arguing on the basis of his ‘Islamic faith’. Therefore he feels comfortable to justify his belief in the flying horse of the Prophet Muhammad because many Muslims believe so. He doesn’t have to offer any rational explanation; his claims to his religion seem to work wonders for him, exonerating him of responsibility to offer any rational explanation in support of his standpoint. His manner of speaking and his populist assertiveness before the young audience shows he feels he has some superior knowledge which a scientist like Richard Dawkins doesn’t have!

    Apparently there is little ground for Dawkins to use any reasonable argument with someone who is a traditional believer in supernatural beings and miracles and has no inhibition that his beliefs run counter to all common sense and rational understanding of natural phenomenon. Here we have a clear instance of a religious person who rejects scientifc viewpoint and is immune to any rational view of the things the two were supposed to discuss.

    —–Peace and Justice Post

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