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Dawkins hides his benevolence

16 August 2013


SOMETHING silly ought to happen in August, and this year it was Professor Richard Dawkins. He really was made for Twitter, the way faces were made for custard pies. Oops! Teleology. I am going to have to be really careful writing this so that I do not press any of the buttons of the Dawkins cultists, but, after five years reading at least some of the comments on The Guardian's website, I have a pretty good idea of what they are.

So let me put this scientifically. Faces are images constructed by our genes to attract the faces constructed by other genes. Custard pies are material; so they must exist, but humiliation is an illusion. So no one ever laughed at Professor Dawkins on Twitter. Craig Brown's parody in Private Eye was a meaningless coincidence, just part of a blind pitiless universe that only a religionist would suppose had it in for Professor Dawkins.

But, still, it looked to an unscientific eye like pitch-perfect mimicry: "Faith apologists: you can tell they're desperate because instead of counter-arguments they produce personal insults. Utter morons and ugly too."

"Chairman Mao deeply religious, as evidenced by his violence, arrogance, and utter contempt for humanity."

"Was Hitler a Buddhist? Probably not, but it is a question worth asking."

"Hard to overstate how deeply I despise St Bernadette."

"Just contacted by Radio 4 Today prog, to talk on Hitler's possible Buddhism. Unbelievably they ask a Buddhist with no scientific background along too. Typically craven."

"Hear me on R4 World at One today raising several very interesting points about myself."

"Guardian prints piece by Archbishop of Canterbury on Christianity. What has hap-pened to once-great newspaper?"

"Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter & verse like I can for the Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today."

"All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though."

Actually, the last two are things that the real Professor Dawkins really has put on Twitter, and the last one - last week - seems to have been the last straw for many people. What made the rash of comments interesting was that so many of them were written as the regrets of former fans. Take Tom Chivers, in the Telegraph:

"Dawkins has gone from criticising the religion itself to criticising Muslims, as a vast bloc. They're not individuals with names, they're 'these Muslims, or 'some Muslim or other', undifferentiated, without personhood. They haven't managed to get very many Nobel prizes, presumably because they're stupid, or brainwashed into zombiehood by their religion.

"Yes, it's only a 'fact', but in different contexts, the same fact can have different meanings. For instance, would Dawkins have tweeted another fact, which is that Trinity also has twice as many Nobel prizes as all black people put together? It's just as true, but presumably he doesn't believe that it's because black people aren't as clever. Yet he is willing to make the equivalent inference about Muslims, without further evidence.

"Is he being racist? Maybe not, depending on how narrowly you define it. But whatever he's being, it's not nice, and it certainly isn't advancing the various causes of secularism, atheism or everyone just bloody getting along."

I think this matters because Professor Dawkins's appeal has always depended on his being a Church of England kind of fanatic, like a vicar with strong views on the need to castrate stray cats: you know that outside a particular subject, he is a benevolent scholar. But that side of his personality makes no appearance in his Twitter feed.

THE other story of the week was even more delightful. The Revd Alice Goodman was denounced by an anonymous parishioner to the Cambridge News for a sticker on her car that reads "wtfwjd".

Even more shocking, there were reports that this shockingly stickered Subaru had been touched by an archiepiscopal bottom: she is a friend of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, who has accepted a lift in the car. Well, as a Harvard-educated theologian and librettist, the wife of a professor of poetry, she would have to be a friend of his.

Harvard-educated theologians are not the solution to the problems of the parishes. But parishioners who denounce their priests for honest jokes are a huge part of the problem. So, too, is the attitude in the Sun's coverage: "A woman vicar who drives around with an obscene bumper sticker on her car last night insisted she was not a sinner or blasphemer."

There was a story missed there. If she had seriously claimed not to be a sinner, that would be much more of a breach of her duties.

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