Friday, August 22, 2014


There have been a couple of moments of late where I considered adding a footnote so one of the many Richard Dawkins/Twitter/foot/mouth incidents, and then never quite got round to it. The only time I did get round to it what pushed me over the edge was only partly imagining I had something interesting to say, and partly the fact that I'd just knocked up an amateurish image mashup of Professor Yaffle in a Gestapo hat, so I wanted an excuse to use it.

In addition to the usual immediate hoopla in the wake of the last couple of incidents, there has also been a bit of more general discussion about whether Dawkins is an asset or a liability to the atheism "movement" (inasmuch as there is one) in general.

Just in case you missed them, the last couple of major twittersplosions have related to:
  • Dawkins' attempt to explain the fairly basic point that saying "X is worse than Y" doesn't imply approval for Y. Unfortunately (after warming up with a few innocuous ones) he chose the horribly inappropriate examples of being raped by an acquaintance or a stranger as X and Y, and then when people went: whoah, that's not cool, he threw his virtual hands up in faux-innocence and said, look, you can swap the order if you like, that's not my point. 
  • Then, this week, Dawkins got involved in a conversation about the horribly oppressive Irish laws regarding abortion, in the wake of some minor tinkering to make them slightly less horrible. It all started well, with Dawkins upholding the primacy of the woman's right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not, but then (possibly after some well-placed provocation) went spectacularly off the rails with Dawkins saying that the only moral choice in the event of discovering your foetus had Down Syndrome would be to abort. 
The tragedy here is that in both cases he had a semblance of a point. You visit any internet discussion of, say, female "circumcision", and there will be some clot on there complaining that no-one's mentioned male circumcision yet and that therefore WELL I GUESS YOU FEMINAZIS MUST THINK THAT'S JUST DANDY. The trouble is that quite apart from the foolish (or possibly deliberately provocative, depending on your viewpoint) choice of example, Dawkins himself was guilty of exactly the behaviour he was seeking to criticise with his behaviour at the time of Elevatorgate back in 2011. Possibly prompted by, ooh, about a million people pointing this out, he later issued a sort of mumbly half-apology to Rebecca Watson (though without mentioning her by name), which I guess we should take as progress of a sort, Dawkins not generally being big on admitting being wrong about anything.

Equally clearly there's nothing whatsoever wrong about defending reproductive choice; the whole point, though, is the word "choice". You can't on the one hand say yes, of course a woman should have full autonomy in matters relating to her own body, including terminating a pregnancy on demand if that's what she wants, without having to satisfy anyone that her reasons are acceptable, or, worse, undergo some unnecessary and humiliating invasive procedure beforehand, and then say, but, actually, this particular choice would be immoral and I disapprove.

Just to be absolutely clear, my position on this is that if a woman is pregnant with a foetus that she discovers, after the relevant tests, has Down Syndrome, and she wants to abort it, that's what she should do. Conversely, if a woman is pregnant with a foetus that she discovers, after the relevant tests, has Down Syndrome, and she wants to continue the pregnancy, that's what she should do. That's what "choice" means, no moral judgment implied or necessary.

One interesting corollary of that (moving away from the Dawkins discussion for a moment) is that I don't therefore see a rational argument for legislating against sex-specific abortion. That's not to say that I don't find the whole religious and cultural framework that dictates a lot of these decisions distasteful (although there is some evidence that its prevalence is overstated anyway), but the solution to that is to change the culture, not restrict reproductive freedom.

To answer the question posed in the second paragraph, which probably seems like months ago, there's no doubt that Dawkins has, in the past, been an exceptionally powerful advocate for atheism, mainly through The God Delusion - which, regardless of your opinion of its literary merits, has been the catalyst for large numbers of people to "come out" as atheist - but also through his just being a high-profile person, who was already independently famous for other things, who was also an atheist and not afraid to say so.

I suppose there's an argument that he has, in a way, been the victim of his own success - because the godless community is now so large and so vocal (though still a tiny minority compared to the religious one), particularly online, it's become more inclusive as well, and the previous stereotype of an atheist as an oldish, academic straight white guy no longer applies as much as it did. Add to that the widening of the "atheism" movement to incorporate a whole bunch of other social justice issues like feminism, gay rights, etc., all of which fit nicely under the banner of more general "rationalism", and Dawkins seems more and more like a representative of the past. A bit like that beloved old grandparent who you love having round for Sunday lunch, but you've got to watch him because he will eventually come out with something phenomenally racist.

The problem, though, is that out in the wider world Dawkins is still the public face of atheism for a lot of people, and because a lot of these people are knee-jerk authoritarians there will be an assumption that his pronouncements reflect the opinions of atheists generally. And those who have an interest in maintaining the religious status quo will say: see, told you all that God Delusion stuff was rubbish, now let us all bow our heads in prayer. To ease the frustration of all this, here's a handy infographic (from here) to allow you to navigate these incidents more easily:

No comments: