Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update

My title is intentionally misleading, as there are aspects of both the cases mentioned therein that are not a free speech issue at all.

As I pointed out in my previous post on the Gareth Cliff saga, M-Net are, to my mind, perfectly entitled to promote a certain brand image, and this entitlement is compatible with saying that Cliff doesn’t fit that image, and that they are therefore not renewing his contract. Continue reading “Free speech issues: NECSS disinvites Dawkins; Gareth Cliff update”

On “quitting” activist (atheist) communities (or maybe, just changing strategy?)

Late last year, my friend Martin Pribble blogged – in a piece that was later adapted for Slate,

I’m through with being an “activist atheist”. That’s right, I no longer want to troll Facebook and Twitter for theists and tell them why they are wrong, I no longer want to make fun of theists for their unreasonable beliefs, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community”.

I’m very sympathetic with much of what he expresses there, which by and large indicates a significant change of focus rather than a literal “quitting” of the community. After all, he’s still on the Internet, and he still talks about religion. Instead, what he was attempting to convey was a shift in strategy – less simply pointing out when and where religious folk say something that sounds silly, and more focusing on what we need to do to fill the spaces that religion seems to fill in people’s lives.

In defining and arguing for the priority of what he calls “methodological humanism” over fact-checking and refuting religious utterances, Pribble isn’t saying that you – as a hypothetical “firebrand” atheist – are doing something wrong. But some of the reactions (“The evident lack of self-awareness in this piece is awesome. Is it satire or is he really this dense?”) made it clear that to some, Pribble was having forbidden thoughts. If you’re an atheist, some twitterers seemed to be saying, it’s compulsory to call religious folk out on their every logical error, and to ignore any common ground you might find.

The quote above was from an atheist, but he received plenty of flack from religious people too (regardless of the fact that they seem to not have read, or carefully read, the piece in question. “Why in the world atheists feel the need to proselytize their beliefs is beyond me” hardly seems a fitting response to a piece that argues against proselytising, and “Impressive writing to fit so much hubris, bigotry, hatred, stereotyping, & intellectual bankruptcy into a short essay” just seems like someone, well, parodying exactly what Pribble is trying to steer away from.

We’ve got to try harder to see, and talk about, the nuance that’s available between the extremes. It’s difficult, yes, but that’s also where much of the truth lies. One size doesn’t fit all, and there’s no reason to reject someone else’s strategy simply because you – or one of your intellectual heroes – chooses a different path. And even if there are a number of errors or misrepresentations in a piece, that doesn’t always mean you can’t learn something from it.

Take, for example, this piece on Dawkins with the inflammatory title of “Richard Dawkins, shut up and listen“. There’s lots in there to find fault with, in particular, the consistently negative interpretation of Dawkins’ intentions in the Twitter exchange documented there. Dawkins is framed as an oppressor – never given the benefit of the doubt. As I’ve argued before, he adopts a particular tone and strategy on Twitter, and to my mind, it sometimes fails, and he’s sometimes wilfully misread.

But if you only focus on how Dawkins has been misrepresented in that piece, or if you only focus on what one commentator described “liberalism attempting to eat itself”, you might stand less of a chance of recognising whatever good might exist in the argument you’re addressing.

The last two paragraphs of the “shut up and listen” piece present a totalitarian and judgemental summary of an imagined Richard Dawkins, and are uncharitable to the extreme. But between the extreme of the (misrepresented) Dawkins and Dawkins’ misrepresentation (to my mind, at least) of Salya Shaban AlHamdi, we can find (via Dawkins) a reminder that identity politics are an easy (but lazy) shield against fair critique, and via AlHamdi, that the reminder in question often won’t be heard, if it’s said with a sneer.


Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins

Originally published on SkepticInk.

Don't try this one: Professor Peter Higgs with a description of the Higgs model.Alok Jha, a science correspondent at The Guardian, has a column in which he reports that celebrated theoretical physicist Peter Higgs agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to criticising religion “embarrassing”. But in what should be embarrassing to a publication of The Guardian‘s reputation, Jha seems to simply swallow the fake controversy generated by the Daily Mail in the course of describing Higgs’ views.

Jha refers to the recent Al Jazeera interview with Dawkins, in which he’s (again) asked to clarify his remarks on the relative harms to children of sexual abuse versus the mental trauma of being led to believe in hell, eternal damnation and all that stuff. Well, Dawkins has posted the relevant extract from The God Delusion on his website, and anyone interested in the facts of the matter (rather than merely supporting their prejudices), can confirm that he uses an example to make the case that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.

Now you might think even this insensitive or overstated. But it’s simply not true that he ever claimed that being taught about hell was always worse than all child abuse. As is often the case for all of us, he could have been clearer about what he meant and didn’t mean. At a time when the principle of charity seems forbidden to us, he probably should have been. But Jha demonstrates his prejudice in simply reporting the child abuse canard as fact in this column, and it’s thus little surprise to me that he doesn’t seem to bother to enquire as to whether Higgs backs his “fundamentalism” charge up with any evidence.

Higgs is quoted as saying:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.

In what way, and of what sort of kind? We aren’t told, but I imagine that this is simply an instance of the propaganda campaign against so-called new atheism having met with another success. The claim that Dawkins is strident, shrill and so forth has become axiomatic through simple repetition, with few people bothering to make the distinction between “being discomfited by robust challenge” on the one hand and “those strident new atheists” on the other.

I do sometimes find the direct and robust challenge, as favoured by Dawkins, to sometimes be less effective than other approaches. As I argued in my review of Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, my preference is for the more subtle approach. But this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is doing anything wrong in being more assertive with his criticism of religion – and it certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist for doing so.

What Higgs gets right in the quote above is that those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists. As Dawkins’ own research shows, the typical believer is nothing like a fundamentalist – in fact, she isn’t even much of a believer. But, until these believers who are not fundamentalists actually raise their voices to start saying “not in my name” to the nutjobs like Fred Phelps, can we really blame a Dawkins or whomever for stepping in to say what needs to be said?

Elevatorgate and the power of words

As published in The Daily Maverick

Comment facilities on blog posts and online newspapers can be enormously valuable to both readers and writers, in that they allow for prompt corrections and clarifications of points of view. As all readers will know, they can also conduce to venting of spleen or expressions of odious viewpoints, as I’ve discussed in a previous column. But what they also allow for is a detachment from the arguments of the piece in question, where the comment thread rapidly takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the ideas the author intended to explore. Continue reading “Elevatorgate and the power of words”

Devils in the City of Angels

I was planning to write up the first day of the Council for Secular Humanism conference, which I’m pleased to be attending in LA. But events (in the form of a late night, and Johnnie Walker) intervened. It was, however, a very good day. The afternoon session was particularly interesting, as Chris Mooney confirmed that he’s somewhat smug and superficial, Eugenie Scott showed how it’s possible to make accommodationist politics sound sensible (to audiences who aren’t paying attention), while PZ Myers and and Victor Stenger demonstrated saintly patience in the face of serious provocation. Those of you (South Africans) planning to be awake at 05h30 tomorrow can watch what’s sure to be one of the highlights live, when Sam Harris and Robert Wright debate where secular folk should stand on questions of religion and belief.

After the afternoon session we lurked in a courtyard for 90 minutes or so, before the “Gala Banquet”. The food was pretty good for a buffet, although no beverages were served (besides water and coffee). What was impressive, though, was the spectacle of Americans eating. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but it never ceases to impress. Food is there to be dominated, as if it might leap off the plate and escape if you don’t show it who’s boss. At my table of 8, three of the contestants wielded their cutlery as if engaged in mortal combat – forks and knives held in fists, and food hacked at in savage intent, before being deposited in mid-sentence mouths. All very strange, and slightly unsettling. Another thing (that two of them did) was to place their side-plates containing dessert onto their dinner plates, with food remnants in place, before re-commencing battle.

Once this refuelling was complete, Dawkins took the stage to accept an award (a $45 000 contribution to the Dawkins Foundation), and gave a wonderful speech. Funny, eloquent and insightful – will post a link when it hits the intertubes.