Defending Dawkins

Haha. I think that that title’s a bit ironic, him being a defender of reason.

When I first read Skeptical Inquirer magazine, it was in the library at the University of Denver. I had been attending a summer program there for gifted students, and started reading the magazine for an article on quantum mechanics… and then kept reading. I instantly loved it, but it wasn’t until the Fall of my 8th grade year that I finally bothered myself to get a subscription to it. This was probably sparked by my discovery of the infamous website, Answers in Genesis. Through the Center for Inquiry, I began to become exposed to even more new ideas, and a whole new world of skepticism, which held such names as Joe Nickell, Daniel Dennet, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and others… But as much as I greatly admire these names, I think that the person I most admire is Richard Dawkins.

The first time I was exposed to him was listening to an episode of Point of Inquiry, and it really was quite nice listening to a voice that I could so whole-heartedly agree with. I hadn’t read any of his books, and wouldn’t get one of them for several more months because I’m just lazy like that, but I already knew that I admired him. He delivered quite a devastating blow to religion, and I liked that…

But, at the same time, I was hearing criticisms of him. Criticisms from fellow skeptics, criticisms from the media…

What really got me writing this blog entry was the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer which had an article on him that, though I’m not quite sure it was exactly criticizing him, still used words such as “hostile” and “militant atheist” to describe him. I couldn’t help but start thinking about all those criticisms (I’m getting really sick of the word now) that I had heard before.

I have heard “militant atheist” used to describe him dozens of times, I have heard fellow skeptics say that he comes across as arrogant and pompous, and I have heard theists say that he must be a twisted, lonely man. Also prominent in my mind, the episode of South Park in which Richard Dawkins has sex with Mrs. Garrison, finds out that she’s (it’s?) a trans-sexual, is disgusted, and says “How could I have been so stupid?!?”

Having read many of his articles, and books, and seen videos, and heard him on radio shows, and met him, I have never really been able to know what they were talking about. I suppose I can see how some of the things he has said can be seen to be arrogant, especially when not read in context, but I would like to use this blog entry to argue otherwise.

I think that one need only read one of his books to know that that is far from the truth, and the well-known quote in the beginning of Unweaving the Rainbow, I think, should effectively shut up people who say the man is a twisted, arrogant, pompous ass.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you, and I, in our ordinariness that are here.”

That entire paragraph is laced with a sort of… spirituality… for lack of a better word. But, I put that last part in bold to point out Dawkins’ lesser-known humbleness. I don’t think that he really does think that he’s better than all of us, though I do admittedly think that he is the coolest person ever (might not take too kindly to reading that if he ever stumbles across this blog), he is nowhere near as egotistic as I am and he could probably justify being egotistic if he was.

Well, I should clear up that last part… I don’t actually think that I am that great. I think that I was lucky enough to have parents who cared about me, who shared their knowledge of the world with me, who encouraged me to gain more knowledge of the world, and sent me to a charter school. Any precociousness that I may seem to demonstrate is not because of a destiny, or my genes, but because of the learning-rich environment in which I was brought up.

Which brings me to something else. Like I said, I don’t think that I’m really that special. I’m just motivated to learn, and this is because I was lucky to be brought up that way (I blame public school for not exposing students to a love of learning like the one I have but that’s a entry for another time…). But if you’ll see my first entry, “I Am Great”, it contains an excerpt from an e-mail that Richard Dawkins sent me shortly after he met me. He told me that I had bowled him over.

Would a pompous ass really be greatly impressed with a 14-year old girl like me? I am not trying to brag at all (for once), but when one of the world’s greatest minds can be bowled over by something so simple as a 14-year old girl who stood up in an Irish pub to give a 5-minute speech about a skepticism club she’s starting at her high school, I think that that has to be one of the most humbling things possible. Would a man who said “How could I be so stupid?” after having sex with a trans-sexual (by the way, I have reasons to doubt that he’d be disgusted by that anyway) say that? I doubt it.

I have often heard fellow skeptics longing for “another Carl Sagan”. I admittedly haven’t read as much of Carl Sagan’s books as I should, though I have seen Cosmos a few times, but I think that Richard Dawkins is another Carl Sagan. Passionate about science and the truth. Utterly fascinated by the world. A remarkable ability to share science with the general public. Highly moral. Eloquent. All one has to do to know this is true is listen to him talk, or read one of his books. He always manages to bring a smile to my face. Richard Dawkins is a defender of reason, and another Carl Sagan, but nominating him for the “Bad Faith” award and supporting the South-Park-Richard-Dawkins impression on the general public is not going to help get the message across.

So, to those who think that Richard Dawkins is ineffective/bad for the cause of skepticism, if you want him to be effective, stop supporting the media’s impression a person that he’s not.

Ok, so I don’t like how I ended that… Let me word it a different way…

Richard Dawkins’ message is beautiful, and persuasive. However, when the theists keep hearing the words “militant”, “hostile”, and “arrogant”, that’s just already biasing them against him. The media does it enough, and it doesn’t help when we do it either.

Mm… no. I don’t like how I ended that either…

I’ll just end with these thought-provoking words…



6 responses to this post.

  1. Hey Elles. Nice post. Couldnt agree more. Reading Dawkins’ God Delusion altered the way I thought about religion and belief in general. He is a very inspiring person (I’m going to have to disagree with you though on him being the best contender for being the new Sagan, Tyson is the obvious choice for that).

    btw, I am stupendously jealous of you actually receiving an email from Dawkins.

  2. Yes, Elles – great post. I agree with your assessment. I was someone who really didn’t like Dawkins for 30 years! But only read a book of his about 11 months ago! (I relate this in ♦ Putting Dawkins in his place). So, after reading The God Delusion I am now going back to those other books and have recently read The Selfish Gene. (I had been turned against that book 30 years ago because of the way it was reviewed and used to justify selfishness – which it doesn’t do at all).
    I think people often form such prejudices. This happens a lot with Dawkins from people who feel he challenges their beliefs. Bit the attitudes of some atheists is interesting. I think there may be something of what Dennett calls “belief in belief” – even some atheists think belief in a god by others is important. A very patronising attitude.

  3. Dawkins > Tyson

  4. Posted by splendidelles on December 15, 2007 at 4:52 am



    But that doesn’t mean that they can’t both be Carl Sagan… Does that make sense?

  5. Posted by Jim on December 22, 2007 at 2:12 am

    Why do you consider Dawkins “one of the world’s greatest minds?” What has the guy contributed to science?

  6. Posted by splendidelles on December 22, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    A book called The Selfish Gene… wrote the occasional paper. I understand that there’s a book called “Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think” if you’re interested.

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