Friday, August 9, 2013

Richard Dawkins's Islamophobic Tweets and the Root Problem of the New Atheism

Continuing a sad descent to Internet trolldom, British biologist and outspoken New Atheist Richard Dawkins decided to wish the world's Muslim population an unhappy Eid yesterday by tweeting the following:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
I want to go through some of the glaring problems here and then get at the heart of the matter. First, someone of Dawkins's intellectual background should not be comparing items from unlike categories. Trinity College is an institution of higher education.  "All the world's Muslims" are the adherents of a religious faith. They are not proper items for comparison. Nesrine Malik notes in The Guardian,
To wearily engage with his logic briefly: yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of "Muslims", and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world's Chinese, all the world's Indians, all the world's lefthanded people, all the world's cyclists.
Dawkins also clumps together "all the world's Muslims" as though they were a homogeneous population, devoid of any other identities such as nationality or class. Jakarta, Tehran, Baghdad, Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Istanbul, and Lahore are seemingly not separate cities with their own cultures and histories to Mr. Dawkins. They are just places filled with Muslims.

Moreover, Dawkins has a very narrow understanding of what it means to do "great things" if only those who won Nobel Prizes can be said to have done "great things." No single award is the be-all, end-all of either category specified--whether an institution of higher learning or a religious faith.

The Nobel Prize has only been around since 1901, and Dawkins doesn't address the wide time frame between (circa) 1500 and 1901. A lot of stuff happened between those periods, including a fair amount of violence against the "world's Muslims" by Europeans. (Remember a thing called colonialism?) And that violence continued past 1901 as well.

He also ignores the Eurocentrism of the Nobel Prize Committee that enabled individuals like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to receive Peace Prizes despite the War in the Philippines and the occupation of Haiti, respectively.

There's also, of course, the irony of Dawkins's invoking a university with such a blatantly Christian name. One Twitter commenter pointed this out to him: "The full name of Trinity College is 'The College of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity'."

But engaging with such comments often amounts to naught, and it doesn't get at the heart of the problem with New Atheists like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

The problem with the New Atheists is that they are atheists without being humanists. And the denigration of the humanistic values of pluralism, appreciation (rather than just tolerance), and the respect for the equal dignity of all are what make New Atheism as hostile, obsessive, and genuinely unpleasant as it so often is.

And there are plenty of individuals who are both atheists (or non-theists) and humanists. For instance, you could look at Ethical Culture or the New Humanism. Non-theists who are also humanists are often among the strongest champions of social justice and progressive change, and they find common ground with liberal, humanistic believers from various faiths. New Atheists, on the other hand, find common ground with the neo-cons and the xenophobes opposed to pluralism and mutual respect.

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