• Richard Dawkins is Not a Liability


    An article on Religion News Service by Catholic journalist Kimberly Winston (an expert in the effects of different prayer beads on prayer) asks whether Richard Dawkins is an asset or a liability to atheism. Actually it tells us: he’s a liability. Of the eight people who were interviewed, seven said that he’s a liability (though Hemant Mehta’s statement appears to have been misrepresented), and only one (Dennett) said that he’s an asset.

    It’s a very biased article, and I left my comment on it explaining why I feel this it is biased, and so I won’t discuss that here. Rather, I will outline what I would have answered had I been asked for my opinion.


    My Relationship to Dawkins’ Work

    I’ve always been non-religious – my family is non-religious and though I went to a Church of England school and the Sea Scouts (a Christian organisation), I never really believed that God existed, save for a bit of wishful thinking here and there. My view of religion was that it was fairly benign (a result of the tea and scones, friendly Anglican community flavour of religion I’d been exposed to), but unfortunately not true.

    After being told by an (intelligent) college friend that I was going to Hell for not believing, and later on having a conversation with a couple of Muslim friends in which they informed me that evolution had been ‘disproven’ (my first encounter with, and discovery of creationism), my disposition towards religion altered. How can a decent and intelligent person sincerely tell me (without even seeming that bothered by it) that I’m destined for Hell? Shouldn’t we be worried that people’s religion is interfering with their acceptance of science?

    I went to the Internet to make sure that I hadn’t missed a big story about evolution getting disproven. I’m delighted to have re-found the first article I read on creationism (in all its dated web-design glory): this one! I eventually found James Randi’s site and videos and wonderful as he is, it didn’t scratch the anti-religion itch I had (though I continued to learn from him about skepticism). From Randi I discovered this site (at the time it only listed Dawkins, Randi, Shermer, and Pinker), and then after being thoroughly impressed with Dawkins disdain for religion and deep love for science, I read The Selfish Gene, followed by most of his other books.

    I was transformed from a musician dedicated to music, to a musician dedicated to music and with a deep desire to learn more about myself and the world around me. It was this transformation that led to me studying philosophy, both informally and later formally. As I child I used to read children’s science books, and I remember having (childish) philosophical discussions with my friends (“Do we all see the same colours? How could we know?”). This curiosity what reading Dawkins helped me rediscover, and my life has been enriched as a result.


    Dawkins the Atheist, Dawkins the Twitterer

    As almost everyone (even some of his most ardent detractors) agrees, Dawkins has written wonderfully on science, both on specific scientific facts and on the general wonder of scientific discovery. It is often said that he should stick to doing only this. If he’s not talking about evolutionary biology then he should just keep his mouth shut. This criticism is twofold: his criticism of religion is thought to be amateurish, and his Twitter output is portrayed as an absolute disaster.

    Religion first. I read The God Delusion on its release day and liked it a great deal, though I haven’t read it since. Between now and then I’ve studied Philosophy of Religion (which has bafflingly become a controversial topic these last few weeks), and read and listened to various atheist philosophers. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I do feel that my criticism of religion has “moved on” from the days of reading TGD. A non-philosopher, Dawkins’ arguments often lack robustness and care. However, that doesn’t mean that TGD and Dawkins’ other criticism of religion don’t have a place at the table. For starters, his points can spark discussion. Even if they are under-developed, others can take on the mantle and develop them further, as right or wrong they’re almost always interesting. He’s a non-philosopher writing philosophically about philosophical issues, without the usual rigour expected of philosophers, but with a lucidity that makes it accessible to to those who are just getting started, or merely curious. I don’t see TGD as addressed to philosophers of religion, but rather to the layperson who might be wondering about their own faith, or who want some well-written literature on atheism to whet their appetite. It’s changed plenty of minds about religion, and I’m confident that’s all Dawkins really aimed for when he wrote it.

    When he became active on Twitter, I was delighted. I loved A Devil’s Chaplain, a collection of thoughts on various different issues not all relating to religion or evolution, and Twitter allows for a sort of stream of consciousness that we don’t usually get. It’s usually impossible to develop ideas properly on Twitter but if we’re sensible enough to keep this in mind, we should always apply the principle of charity to tweets; indeed more so than usual due to Twitter’s imposed limits. For people like me who are interested in what Dawkins has to say, Twitter is a great tool; for those who aren’t, they don’t have to follow him. What a wonderful arrangement!

    This then sets the scene. I’m a big admirer of Dawkins, though I disagree with him from time to time. I’m interested in what he has to say, as I owe my own curiosity to his (especially his willingness to question and challenge received wisdom and taboos), and Twitter is a great way of staying in touch.


    The Culture of “Shut Up, Dawkins!”

    Whenever Richard Dawkins tweets something contentious or controversial, we get what could be referred to as a culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” (appropriating Jon Lovett’s coinage). The idea that Dawkins “can’t do Twitter” or frequently “puts his foot in his mouth” is a now tired cliché, so much so that there’s an air of “oh, not again!” whenever he tweets something that people might dislike. I know of nobody else on Twitter that meets with this kind of resistance. Even Ann Coulter and her British counterpart, Katie Hopkins do not seem to have the same chorus of outrage whenever they tweet, and they regularly come out with some pretty horrifically immoral stuff.

    Dawkins is being singled out. If you don’t think this is the case, then try a thought experiment. Transplant his exact tweets onto the timeline of any other commentator, author, or scientist on Twitter. Take Matt Ridley as an example. He’s written popular books on evolution, and writes regular opinion columns for the newspaper. Most informed people who have heard of Dawkins have also heard of Ridley. Can you honestly imagine the same reaction to Ridley if he tweeted the exact same things? I don’t mean that people will suddenly agree with him – I mean that there won’t be the same old “oh look – Ridley’s put his foot in his mouth again! He should really stay off Twitter. We should stage an intervention!”. What would probably happen is that there would be a bit of disagreement, but just the usual “person offers controversial opinion on Twitter”-style disagreement. I’m not sure why Dawkins is singled out, but he is singled out.

    The culture of “shut up, Dawkins!” is anti-intellectual. Many of his controversial tweets bring up serious and difficult questions in moral philosophy. Take one that happened today; his claim was that aborting Down Syndrome fetuses should be acceptable (in addition to an offhand remark in a reply to someone else that he thinks not aborting a Down Syndrome fetus is immoral). These are the sorts of questions and opinions that moral philosophers like Peter Singer are famous for. I agree the latter claim is contentious even to a liberal, but I myself think that there are good arguments for supposing it to be true. It’s at least defensible.

    I’ll quickly outline one of them:

    P1: It is immoral to give birth to a child (when you have the choice of an abortion) who is likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.

    P2: Children with Down Syndrome are likely to experience significantly more suffering than the usual amount for a child born in the same environment.

    C: Therefore, it is immoral to give birth to a child with Down Syndrome (when you have the choice of an abortion).


    The conclusion is distasteful to some, but to deny it you have to deny either P1 or P2. Are they as distasteful? Perhaps you can deny one or both of them, but it isn’t clear to me that either premise is obviously false, downright absurd, or distasteful. Now, this isn’t an argument that Dawkins used, but it reaches the same conclusion; it is his conclusion that people are red-faced about (and I don’t see that any of his angry critics have bothered to find out what his actual argument is). The outrage at Dawkins here reminds me of the outrage that got Peter Singer banned in Germany. It is saying not (just) that he is wrong, but that he shouldn’t have ever said it in the first place. From the same cut as science denialists, these people are discourse-denialists; anti-intellectuals who would rather the debates just didn’t happen; that the question just doesn’t get asked.

    I’m not claiming that people shouldn’t disagree with Dawkins. Of course they should if they don’t think his claims stand up to scrutiny – I do this myself from time to time. What I’m complaining about is the attempt to get him to stop giving his opinions or asking questions. If anyone doesn’t want to hear his opinions, they can unfollow him. Trying to stop him tweeting these things at all is an attempt to prevent other people from reading them, and to my mind that’s selfish and immoral.

    I like having Dawkins on Twitter, and it would be very unfortunate if after all the nonsense he decides to pack it in. If he does, it will be a sad indictment of the online world; a world that has shown itself to cope badly with taboo and difficult moral questions. Academics are often told to get down from their ivory tower. Dawkins is getting pushed back upon his by his zealous detractors, who would rather surround themselves with Buzzfeed and Salon than Mind and Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. What a shame.


    Category: AtheismFeaturedReason and Argument

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • Skepsheik

      Good piece. The one thing I would take issue with is the idea that Dawkins leaving Twitter, or at least avoiding contentious moral subjects there, would be akin to silencing him. It can be argued that he faces a unique challenge on Twitter due to being the target of SJWs who are competing between themselves over who can find the most uncharitable interpretation of his tweets.

      Is it not a reasonable point to suggest that he should use longer blog posts to expound on these particular issues rather than 140 character tweets? In that way he can have his say (and perhaps even link to the longer article on twitter) while denying the twitter SJW fleas the opportunity to make easy scores in their ‘interpret Dawkins uncharitably’ contests.

      At present he often resorts to long blog posts to clarify issues that have become controversial after a SJW attack on short unclarified points he has made on twitter.

      Why not just cut out the middle men (or, rather, the middle outraged SJW’s)?

      As for reasons why he may be mistaken in the current controversy my opinion is pretty much the same as Strawkins’ comment at the pit:


    • Yes, that makes sense. That’s definitely better than Twitter – but perhaps he might think “I don’t really have time/haven’t developed the idea fully enough for a post on this”, and just not say anything. In that case I’d rather he tweeted his opinion rather than kept schtum.

    • SmilodonsRetreat

      I’d just like to point out that I follow RD on twitter as well. I’ve searched high and low ever since that Telegraph article came out and cannot find the tweet where Dawkins said it’s immoral to give birth to a child with Down’s.

      Maybe I missed something, but that whole thing seems to be blown way out.

    • Most of the outrage comes from this tweet.


      I can certainly see why it is controversial, but these sorts of tricky questions/conclusions are quite common in moral philosophy and the outrage (not the disagreement, but the outrage) is philistine.

    • I could get behind P1 if it was clear that the child would suffer more than she would thrive and enjoy life, thereby driving the balance of joy to suffering down. That is far from clear in the case of trisomy 21, but it is quite clearly the case for other congenital conditions.

      My problem with Dawkins (this time) is that he presumes to tell other people the moral course of action for their own wombs and lives, and doesn’t bother to make a defensible argument instead leaving it to us to formulate our own.

      Points for starting a discussion, no doubt, but it’s still poor form to make the moral claim but not the moral argument. I’m not saying he should shut up, of course, I’m saying he should follow up.

    • Yes, P1 didn’t take joy/value/other into account so it’s only really an outline. Still, I don’t think it’s far from the mark even if it is incomplete, and my point was to show that such premises in a valid argument such as that aren’t in themselves so distasteful as the conclusion sounds on its own.

      Re: telling other people… Well, in this case he told one person, and that one person asked him, and that same person agreed with his judgement. So I don’t really think this is, in context, so problematic.

    • An Ardent Skeptic

      Armchair wrote this blogpost years ago:


      So here’s my opinion about the backlash against Dawkins for what’s it’s worth (which isn’t much):

      “The God Delusion” hit the streets at a time which was politically ripe for a backlash against religion. People like Bill Maher, who previous to the release of “TGD”, were fence sitters about their belief in God, became very vocal atheists. (Before “TGD” Bill Maher did not express a disbelief in gods but merely a disbelief in religious texts. His comeback to the religious was, “God doesn’t write books.”)

      So The Four Horsemen’s books were published, anti-religious rebel became acceptable and popular, and a whole lot of people joined the anti-religious movement. But, you’re correct that “TGD” isn’t an in-depth, philosophical takedown of God and religious belief. So for many, who signed up to the ‘atheist cause’ because it was a cool and politically progressive thing to do, Dawkins’s ‘not politically correct statements’ are unacceptable.

      “The God Delusion” became the Atheist Bible, and Dawkins was the Messiah who would lead people to the promised land. But, too many of the people who were lead to the promised land are now disappointed that their Messiah makes statements which seem inconsistent with their other cherished beliefs. And, just like the religious, these followers don’t want their cherished beliefs challenged.

      Dawkins gets into trouble because he expects that all of his followers are capable of engaging in nuanced thinking about all issues because they must share his love of scientific inquiry. He’s wrong. Way too many atheists have been too easily lead to atheism by books like “TGD”. Sheep aren’t philosophers, scientists, or skeptics.

    • Justforgiveme

      “The God Delusion” has sold over 2 million copies, In English alone, since 2006. The facts settle the question. Richard Dawkins has probably brought more people to Atheism than all his Atheist critics combined. You may not like what he says and how he challenges you, but he is the living monument to Atheism.

      I am sure the situations and behavior outside of Atheism is far worse on all the issues over which Atheist critics attack Dawkins and other Atheist. It really begs the question of why does certain atheist spend time to write a blog to attack Dawkins over sexism and other issues when there are literally hundreds of religious icons and spokesmen that are far worse? The reason for the incessant attacks from his own side is that they resent him to such a degree that they damage the movement they care about.

      I’ll entertain another explanation but be sure to explain why this behavior justifies damaging the movement and why it is so important that when he apologizes for the benefit of the movement, they refuse to accept it by their very actions.

    • jg29a

      “I could get behind P1 if it was clear that the child would suffer more than she would thrive and enjoy life, thereby driving the balance of joy to suffering down. That is far from clear in the case of trisomy 21”

      I’m not saying that consequential considerations are all that there is, but it seems to me that in a consequentialist argument about aborting a child with Down’s Syndrome, considerable weight would have to be put not only on the child’s own happiness or suffering, but on likely productivity relative to the large costs of raising any child to a productive age. Your genetically normal child could become a surgeon who saves thousands or an agricultural scientist who saves millions; even without unusual intelligence they might be an EMT or firefighter. Such jobs would be extraordinarily rare for someone with Down’s.

    • hardlyever

      I say that P1 could be arguably true, but only with some significant effort put into defining most of the words used to express it. As someone who knows many people with Downs Syndrome, and who is also the parent of a child with DS – a child we chose to adopt specifically because she had DS – I will charitably assume that Dawkins’ assertion of P2 is the product of plain ignorance. I think you would be hard pressed to find a person with DS who would describe their life as being defined by “significant suffering”, at least not because of their extra chromosome.
      In this particular instance, then, I think Dawkins is seriously off the mark, philosophically and morally. I don’t, however, believe – based on that – that he should “just shut up” or refrain from contributing his 140 characters in the future. I think his subsequent clarification/apology was really just an expansion of his original thoughts and showed no evidence of his having learned anything in the interim. I also believe someone with the power he has should feel a moral responsibility – when controversy caused by his remarks presents an opportunity for him to educate himself – to make a sincere attempt at bringing his views into line with reality. However, this controversy cannot with any sincerity be taken as representative of his contribution to the world – not even to the world of online write-bites. I think the “Richard Dawkins is a liability” cliche is manufactured and maintained by people who dislike him for other reasons.

    • NoCrossNoCrescent

      A child with Down’s syndrome has a 20 fold increased risk for leukemia. And that is just one of countless nasty things in store for them. For those who make it to adulthood early Alzheimer’s is guaranteed. And Dawkins is torn to pieces for what he said-tactless as it may have been? Worse, the “argumentum ad Hitlerum”: this is what the Nazis did. No, it is not. Dawkins is not recommending the gassing of people with Down’s after they are born.

    • NoCrossNoCrescent

      Excellent post by the way.

    • Pingback: What Richard Dawkins really meant | Avant Garde()

    • bluharmony

      “Do we all see the same colors?” was one of my earliest “philosophical” questions too. I asked my mom when we were back in Russia, so I was very young. She told me I was being ridiculous. It was much later on I found out that I really wasn’t. It’s amazing how common that question is among children.

    • But you are OK with aborting kids who show signs of Down Syndrome before they are born?

    • NoCrossNoCrescent

      That would decrease the total amount of suffering in the world. And no, not “kids” please, depending on when you look at them they may look like a sheet of cells, or a fish.

    • Jesus sucked gay penis

      In England over 90% of pregnancies with the diagnosis of DS are aborted. It possibly didn’t even seem like a contentious issue to him. Most doctors in England agree with him as advise such action.

    • Marius Bancila

      What a fake world in which people can’t speak their mind in the name of politically correctness. Dawkins doesn’t care much about that and I greatly appreciate him for that.

    • Zytigon

      I think Richard Dawkins is one of the world’s greatest assets. TGD is a directory to so many other interesting books – just read through the list of books cited or recommended p 427- p 435. I find the religious scriptures much more interesting now that I have read the skeptical opinion about them. Science turns religious scripture into a joke book. [ pity that it has so many negative effects though ]

    • ThePrussian

      Great post. The people hating Dawkins tend to be resentful mediocrities.

    • Chris Winstead

      “My problem with Dawkins (this time) is that he presumes to tell other
      people the moral course of action for their own wombs and lives, and doesn’t bother to make a defensible argument instead leaving it to us to formulate our own.”

      A. Making a claim on moral theory is not the same as moralizing. People have widely differing views on moral alternatives, and many of us are able to discuss these differences without taking it as a personal authoritarian demand. For example, I’m somehow able to tolerate conversations with vegetarians even though they think eating meat is immoral. As a meat eater, I don’t need to take their moral opinion personally; we can all state our incompatible moral opinions without it turning into a bitter fight. As notung observed, the opinion was solicited by someone who wanted to know Richard’s thoughts on the subject.

      B. He did make a concise defensible argument very quickly after receiving critical feedback on the tweet.

    • A) You are the first one to mention “moralizing” in this thread, but the tweet was indeed phrased in an authoritarian and demanding way.

      B) As I said earlier, “…he should follow up.” Better yet, make the argument first, before making moral proclamations.

    • Chris Winstead

      A) Sorry, I thought “presumes to tell other people the moral course of action for their own wombs and lives” is the same as “moralizing”. Actually I still think that, but I’ll let you consult your own dictionary.

      The tweet was phrased as a statement of moral opinion phrased in 140 characters or less. There’s no basis for perceiving authoritarian or demanding undertones from context-stripped tweets regardless of their source. It is one or two sentences, disembodied and floating. I think everyone needs to chill out about tweets regardless of what they say.

      B) Most people who are know their opinions are prepared to state them directly when asked. That’s what he did. And when asked to follow up (by the angry internet mob) he did.

      By the way, studies have been done on the actual moral reasoning used by people who are faced with this decision. The majority of people in this position do choose to abort the fetus (the numbers vary from 60–90% depending on how they are measured), but Dawkins’ argument is cited by a minority of respondents. Most people who choose to abort cite an egoistic consequentialist basis, i.e. “this will have bad consequences for my life as a parent”. I’m not sure if you’d think one of these arguments is superior to the other; the point is that people are faced with this choice, they engage in moral reasoning to inform their decisions, and I’m sure they’d benefit from a more open and public dialog on the subject instead of a parade of outrage.

    • Chris Winstead

      Funny, I got hit with the “ad Hitlerum” reply almost instantly when I defended Dawkins in a leftist Facebook thread. I try to explain to people that I have a hereditary disease in my family, and there are pro-lifers who want to block prenatal genetic testing for that disease. The debate surrounding my family’s disease has about 90% overlap with Down’s syndrome (one key difference being that DS is not hereditary). When it comes to my family’s disease, my view echoes Dawkins’: I don’t think it would be moral to perpetuate this disease if I have the choice.

      The response: Hitler.

      We get this non sequitur from both the left and the right. On the left, it comes relentlessly from disability activists (they say my family’s genetic inheritance is not a disease, it’s a disability, and therefore the activists are entitled to speak for our interests instead of us speaking for ourselves). They can’t tolerate abortion of “imperfect persons” because of the supposed implications it would have for persons currently living. I think the only fair solution is to completely separate our reasoning about potential persons from our reasoning about actual living members of society.

    • I’m sure they’d benefit from a more open and public dialog on the subject instead of a parade of outrage.

      Agreed. Do you have an opinion on whether stating controversial moral opinions on Twitter without at least linking to a more lengthy and substantial moral argument, is more likely to lead to an open dialog or a parade of outrage?

      I think everyone needs to chill out about tweets regardless of what they say.

      I think chocolate should be free and non-fattening.

    • Chris Winstead

      Do you have an opinion on whether stating controversial moral opinions on Twitter without at least linking to a more lengthy and substantial moral argument, is more likely to lead to an open dialog or a parade of outrage?

      I empirically agree that this is more likely to lead to an outraged response. I also have a normative opinion that tweet-rage is unjustified without a lengthy and substantial evaluation of a person’s words and actions. I would not criticize a person for failing to manage an unruly mob; I would criticize the mob.

      On a deeper level, I don’t understand why Twitter even exists or why people use it at all, but since it does exist we need appropriate social adaptations. I think “deferment of judgement” is a necessary adaptation for societies to be a functional and just in the new era of gross public displays of our private lives via social networks. In the US, we have a situation where virtually all HR departments comb the online activities of potential hires, and they simultaneously complain that nobody is employable. I’d suggest they need to roll back their prejudices and refrain from drawing too many conclusions about people based on their internet presence. As do we all.

      I think chocolate should be free and non-fattening.

      If you take the appropriate steps to cultivate an intestinal absorptive deficiency, or perhaps select an appropriate parasite, then your chocolate can be non-fattening, for you. It’s all up to each individual to make this happen, one decision at a time. As we’ve learned (again) from centralized big-data services, nothing is ever truly free (as in beer). But perhaps with your parasite properly installed you can eat your chocolate freely (as in speech). Then you’ll have your justice.

    • I don’t view these atheists who hate Dawkins as real atheists. They are most likely fickle Millennials who rode the rising tide of atheism because it’s trendy to be unaffiliated with organised religions. But whenever people like Dawkins say things that are nuanced and require real thought, followers of SJW doctrines can be counted on to bravely defend hurt feelings through their Twitter accounts.