In Defence of Richard Dawkins

Richard Elliott August 10, 2013 9
In Defence of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has been getting a lot of unnecessary flack for his own ‘Tweetgate’ in the last 24 hours, writes Richard Elliott.

It was a great coincidence that on the same day that I finished a long overdue re-read of Richard Dawkins’ best-selling The God Delusion, he makes it into the headlines of the British press over an off-the-cuff e-remark he made on his Twitter  page regarding the number of Muslim Nobel Prize recipients totalling less than that of just one of the colleges of Cambridge University. The flurry of fury that Dawkins has had directed at him was predictable; if the accusations levelled against him are to be taken at face value he is promoting a ‘far-rightist’ view a la Dutch politician Geert Wilders; he has made a racist comment; he is tactless; he equates Islam with immigration; and (it is subtly suggested) that he thinks Muslims are equivalent to Nazis. And all that was just from Owen Jones for the Independent and Martin Robbins for the New Statesman.

We also wouldn’t have needed Mystic Meg (although I’m sure Dawkins would have discarded her predictions anyway) to foresee the run-of-the-mill racism charges, as if Muslims are a racial category (you’d have thought all of these ‘crusaders’, drawing sword from scabbard at the smallest mention of something critical of Islam, would have realised this by now). Owen Jones notices this, saying “Another defence goes along these lines: Muslims are not a race, so how is it possible to be racist against them? If someone was ranting “I hate Muslims” or “Muslims are scum”, is this really a defence that would be used? It is a poor argument for allowing or undermining the seriousness of bigotry against hundreds of millions of people.” Well, Mr Jones, it might be bigotry, but it sure ain’t racism.

What we probably couldn’t have predicted, however, is the charge that Dawkins’ tweet lacks tact. This is an absurdity; would those critics have preferred Dawkins to write a prosaic version of his original tweet in 140 characters? I’d doubt many could do that. The charge of tactlessness is an absurdity reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch where a group of contestants have to condense Proust’s mammoth In Search of Lost Time into a 15 second summary.

I cannot speak for the Professor himself. But were Dawkins’ tweet to be expanded into long hand, you can be sure it would look something a bit like this:

“Islam has not had an enlightenment period in the same way that what was once distastefully called ‘Christendom’ i.e. Western European countries, has had. Islam’s period of inquiry is truly fascinating; without the works of the intellectual giants of the Islamic world such as Al-Razi and Averroes, we would be much worse off (the philosopher Peter Adamson of King’s College, London is particularly enjoyable to read on Islamic philosophy). One personal favourite speculation regarding the ancient Islamic scholars is whether we would have the works of Aristotle today if not for them; if this is true, we are all greatly indebted.

The problem with this argument is that Islam stagnated in its once great investigations; where it was once the jewel of medieval inquiry, it hasn’t gotten any better since then. Indeed, in many cases, it is far worse. Can you imagine a figure such as Averroes saying in modern Iran that reason is more important than faith, and that when reason clashes with Islamic scripture, we should drop the literal truth of scripture?

The ‘Western’ enlightenment produced philosophical figures such as Immanuel Kant, who posited agnosticism towards all questions of God’s existence, and David Hume, whose own rhetorical mouthpiece of Philo in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion posits every possible argument against the existence of an all-good God. It also produced great men of science such as Newton, Galileo, and Maxwell, and the fathers of modern democracy, such as Paine, Jefferson, Locke, etc.

The reason why my tweet is important is to show how privileged the science students and professors of Trinity College, Cambridge are in that they carry on working with the ethos of that enlightenment period, much to the pleasure of those who award the Nobel Prize for Science. It should also raise the consciousness of those who follow Islam as a religion to engage in science and learning, and perhaps aspire to the great heights of human inquiry that their religion once boasted.”

Or something like that.

Perhaps Dawkins will in time provide his own clarification of his own 140-character statement which he has received much criticism from for us all, and it may differ to what I have suggested could be my own expanded version on his tweeted claim (which, despite both arguments against it and indeed the way it is being employed, is a fact). But for now, give it a rest.

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