In recent weeks, biologist and best-known public figure of the atheist movement, Richard Dawkins, has come under wide public criticism for spectacularly ignorant comments. One utterly despicable tweet read, “Exactly. If you want to drive, don’t get drunk. If you want to be in a position to testify and jail a man, don’t get drunk.” Being the foremost public figure of atheism, Dawkins’ remarks have damaged the reputation of atheism as a philosophical position.
To be candid, Dawkins has embarrassed the atheist community at large. Dr Jonathan Miller, polymath and atheist himself, has described Dawkins as “a fundamentalist”. However, this description has the danger of painting the fundamentals of atheism as inherently sexist.
This is simply not the case. The blogger PZ Myers described Dawkins’ comments as “a tragedy”, adding that it was particularly saddening to see that such a significant figure in the movement had “enthusiastically expressed such a regressive attitude”. Sadly, Dawkins is not the only individual within the movement to have espoused such regressive attitudes, with thinkers such as Sam Harris describing the atheist movement as “intrinsically male” He is right – the atheist movement for too long has been dominated by men whose egos are pathetically oversized, and who believe that their arguments need no examination. Ironically, they see their words as gospel. It seems very strange that a group that criticise the long history of church censorship should fail to value the importance of reasoned debate.
Yet this is precisely the problem of the atheist ‘movement’ allegedly representing the fundamentals of atheist philosophy. It seems strange that a position of non-belief should require a regular ‘sermon’, or a conference confirming disbelief. Moreover, such a collective movement inevitably allows for prominent individuals to espouse archaic and regressive attitudes, and for this to be assumed to be reflective of the whole. Simply, the movement should not be judged collectively, but individually, as Dawkins has been.
Richard Dawkins has struck back at his critics, accusing them of being like a mob in a “feeding frenzy”. However, this is the typical response of a privileged white man, whose wide success has made him believe his views are infallible. The freedom of speech is something that cannot be under-valued in times such as these, especially whilst the grounds of our civil liberties continue to be regressed and rolled back further. However, the accusation of ‘thought police’ against one’s critics is simply a misuse of this freedom. Dawkins is highlighting his rights, yet blocking his ears to the others who, themselves, are practicing theirs. To borrow from Thomas Paine, “he who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it”.
It seems that Dawkins needs to be reminded of this. The wider atheist community must now decide whether we will allow such comments to go unexamined, and whether public intellectuals who espouse such pathetically misinformed views should be permitted to represent the values we believe in.