Richard Dawkins is under fire (again) for something he tweeted (again).
First, let me be presumptuous and explain what I think he tried to do.
On Monday, sitting outside a cathedral, Dawkins wanted to say that the music emanating from the church was beautiful. He’s done this many times before. He even said in a 2013 interview that he had a lot of appreciation for religious music, especially from his own Anglican background:
‘I’m kind of grateful to the Anglican tradition,’ he admits, ‘for its benign tolerance. I sort of suspect that many who profess Anglicanism probably don’t believe any of it at all in any case but vaguely enjoy, as I do… I suppose I’m a cultural Anglican and I see evensong [a religious service] in a country church through much the same eyes as I see a village cricket match on the village green. I have a certain love for it.’
He added that he would “feel an aesthetic loss” if churches went away. “I would miss church bells, that kind of thing,” he said.
I think that’s what he was going for in the tweet. But this is what spewed out instead:
Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar.” Or is that just my cultural upbringing? pic.twitter.com/TpCkq9EGpw
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 16, 2018
Nothing like a cheap dig at Muslims while discussing the sound of church bells…
Also, yes, it is just his cultural upbringing. I have no doubt Muslims (perhaps even some ex-Muslims) feel a sense of comfort and beauty when they hear their own religious words and music. Dawkins equates those two words with suicide bombers — and only them — when devout Muslims would tell you their familiarity with the phrase comes in a very different context:
Sir, I don't think it's your cultural upbringing. I think you genuinely have no clue what the azaan is or how it sounds. Fine to me if you don't like it but to qualify this as sounding "agressive" is just really, really silly. pic.twitter.com/CgKbfFdLCI
— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) July 17, 2018
Part of what bothers me about the tweet is Dawkins’ inability to just say something nice about a church without trashing religion. As if people would accidentally think he found God if he only said the bells sounded nice.
But the more pressing issue is that his comment destroys the very narrative prominent atheists like himself have been telling us for years.
Atheists (myself included) often say we condemn religion, but not the religious. We criticize faith, but not the faithful. People deserve respect, but their irrational ideas do not.
It’s not just rhetoric. There are a lot of incredible religious people fighting on behalf of LGBTQ equality, and women’s rights, and against racism. Many church/state separation groups are happy to join forces with them on issues of common concern. We may disagree about God, but we can still work together on our shared goals. Ask anyone who works with those organizations, and they’ll rattle off a long list of faith-based groups who do amazing work on their issues.
It can also be strategic. If you insult religious people, you’re going to have a really hard time convincing them to listen to you when you’re criticizing their religion.
Dawkins himself made this point during the 2012 Reason Rally (17:16):
I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don’t despise religious people; I despise what they stand for. I like to quote the British journalist Johann Hari, who said, “I have so much respect for you that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas.”
So back to this tweet.
What’s Dawkins doing? He’s criticizing the way Muslims pray. The words they use. The tone in which they speak.
He’s not criticizing radical Islam; he’s criticizing peaceful Muslims.
The media, of course, has picked up on this with some critics accusing Dawkins of “Islamophobia.” That’s a loaded term, often used to stifle legitimate criticisms of Islam itself, and it’s arguably unfair here in the sense that Dawkins has spoken out against moves to curtail the civil rights of Muslims:
Donald Trump's proposal to discriminate against Muslims in America is an outrage. Muslims are the main VICTIMS of the evil of Islamism.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) December 8, 2015
I don’t see it as “Islamophobia,” or anti-Muslim bigotry, or racism. It’s ignorance masquerading as a value judgment. It’s an uninformed opinion. He’s entitled to that, of course, but the comment comes off as completely uncalled for in that context. It makes me want to scream, “Just enjoy the damn weather and music and stop complaining!”
Dawkins’ attempt to defend himself didn’t help. In comments to The Independent, this is what he said in response to claims that he was being intolerant:
“Church bells are beautiful. The muezzin’s call to prayer can also be very beautiful if recited in a good voice.
“But also, ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is the last thing you hear before the suicide bomb goes off.”
That’s… not helping. That phrase may be the go-to line for suicide bombers, but it also has a completely different context for most Muslims. If he doesn’t understand or appreciate that, he’s playing right into his critics’ hands.
He doesn’t have to like the prayers, but what purpose does it serve to essentially say, “My irrational tradition is better than your irrational tradition”?
Look: I like Dawkins. I’ve said that before. His science books are incredible, I’ve met lots of people who tell me he changed their lives for the better by helping them break out of the religion bubble, and I genuinely think he means well. But there’s no denying his long list of social media self-owns. There was a while, after his 2016 stroke, when he avoided social media altogether (at least saying anything potentially controversial) on his doctor’s orders. Yet here we are again.
It’s not just upsetting because he comes off as a curmudgeonly grandfather. It’s upsetting because the most famous atheist in the world is better known, at least to a lot of young people, for things like this tweet than any of his books. It’s upsetting because an atheist who believes himself to be a voice of reason is once again putting himself in a position where it’s easy for critics to say he’s not.
I’m not bothered by peaceful Muslims praying however they want to even if it’s all unfamiliar to me.
I am bothered by ignorant tweets that serve no purpose other than making Muslims feel bad about themselves.
(Screenshot via YouTube)