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Scorn, an overrated commodity

12 June 2015

JUST at the moment when Evangelical paranoia about being excluded from decent society is rising to a fever pitch, there are some interesting signs that the Left is beginning to miss Christianity, at least in this country.

Some of this is, of course, driven by the natural contrariness of the intellectual. Some simply by the swings of fashion: it was inevitable that Professor Richard Dawkins would not for ever be treated with the reverence that he enjoyed between 2005 and 2010, as this week's Guardian profile showed.

There is also a sense that the progressive and secularist ideal is now as bankrupt and as empty of resonance as the imperialist one became. In that light, you might see the New Atheists as the UKIP of the Left - a bewildered and atavistic demand that everything return to the decent simplicities of the 1950s, when foreigners knew their place, and the world was run by people like us.

This is, of course, much more applicable to the American wing of the movement; and just as "Brussels" becomes the synecdoche for the whole hostile and powerful world out there, so "religion" comes to stand for all human imperfection and inadequacy. It's grim work, growing up.

The Guardian published a very long profile of Professor Dawkins by Sophie Elmhirst, which was a testament to the extraordinary amount of damage he has done to his own reputation: "Friends who vigorously defend both his cause and his character worry that Dawkins might be at risk of self-sabotage. 'He could be seriously damaging his long-term legacy,' the philosopher Daniel Dennett said of Dawkins's public skirmishes."

What seems to have caused the damage was the same quality of lucid scorn which won him so much admiration in the first place. In a competitive global market, one of the advantages of traditional English elite universities is that they do teach the assumption of superiority better than almost anywhere else, so that Professor Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens brought to the US atheist movement a model of how to look down on the religious.

Only after some years did it become apparent that he might look down on lots of other people, too, among them some who thought themselves on his side. His disdainful comments about date rape did him a great deal of harm among his natural constituency, so much so that the piece quotes Lawrence Krauss, one of his collaborators in an atheist roadshow, as saying that "For all the intelligentsia and all the people who are offended, I see a much larger audience that I hadn't appreciated for whom these issues are brand new." So now it is atheism that appeals to the uneducated, while sophisticates can see all the flaws in it. How the wheel turns!

There was some new stuff in this. Elmhirst had talked to a number of people about Professor Dawkins's attitude to animals, and unearthed the fact that he doesn't much like them. This is fairly unusual - not unknown - among theoretical biologists. But it's not what the public expects.

"He remembers, as a young child, being taken in a safari car to watch a pride of lions gnawing at a carcass. While the rest of the group stared in fascination, he stayed on the floor playing with his toy cars.

"As a postgraduate, Dawkins excelled at the early stages of the research process, mulling theoretical questions and coming up with hypotheses. But he lacked patience with the laborious hours of data collection or methodical lab work. His interest in zoology was philosophical, not naturalistic: animals were simply the language he'd chosen to learn in order to interpret the world.

"'Everybody knew that if Richard asked you why you were interested in zoology,' said Kate Lessells, a former student of Dawkins in the 1970s and now a field biologist, '"Because I like animals," was not an answer that was going to go down well.'"

But the most memorable line comes closer to the end: "For his part, Dawkins has always maintained that he is not in the business of conversion." How wonderful it would be to have the simple faith that let you believe that.


NO ONE in our trade is ever going to change the world, but there are still small pieces of skill which light up a crabbed heart. Take John Bingham's reaction to a completely meaningless piece of PR drivel: a survey from a hotel booking company which was meant to drive more wedding traffic to hotels.

He spotted a line about the rising popularity of cupcakes, instead of wedding cakes, and at once a trend was born: "It is the matrimonial equivalent of the arrival of the grey squirrel.

"The traditional British wedding cake could be on the verge of extinction, after being driven out of its natural habitat by an invasion of American-style cupcakes."

This is how religious journalism needs to be done.

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