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Will Richard Dawkins Drive A Stake Through The Heart Of The 'Reason Rally'?

by BARBARA J KING

2/16/12

NPR

Richard Dawkins in 2009


This March 24th on the National Mall in Washington, thousands of secular humanists will come together at The Reason Rally. The Rally is billed as "the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history," a sort of "Woodstock for non-belief."

According to a press release, the rally is to be a celebration, and its chief mission is to "combat negative stereotypes about nonreligious Americans."

The keynote speaker is the famous scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. I can't help but wonder if he's the best man for the job.

I am taking up this question for a specific reason, a concern that echoes one I felt when Dawkins held (1995 - 2008) Oxford University's Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science.

But first, an admiring note: Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary scientist. His many books include The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion and The Ancestor's Tale. Like nearly every other scientist or follower-of-science whom I know, I have read and marveled at Dawkins' own scholarship, and at his ability to convey facts and theories in biology (and other evolutionary sciences) to a wide readership.

His book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution is a personal favorite of mine. In it, Dawkins regales his readers with the molecular as well as fossil evidence for the action of evolutionary forces in the world. In illustrating his points, he makes use of everything from intra-species variation in Great Danes and Chihuahuas to stunning experiments showing natural selection in generations of lab-grown bacteria to the anatomical evidence for humans' common ancestry with fish.

On the other hand, I dislike the passages in that book where Dawkins jeers at the "fools" who don't accept the facts of evolution. And here we get to the core of the problem.

I'm no saint of patience when it comes to interacting with evolution-deniers. When I picture the thousands of schoolchildren who are paraded through Kentucky's Creation Museum to gaze at the exhibit showing human ancestors and dinosaurs playing together, I get as frustrated as anyone.

Yet each person who denies or struggles with evolution is not a militant creationist who goes so far as to teach kids that our Earth is only 6,000 years old. And Dawkins — considering his stated willingness to engage with a broad public — goes too far in expressing his frustration.

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, "there's something very evil about faith."

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

Will Dawkins rally The Reason Rally's secular pilgrims with the same scorn towards the faithful that he's shown to date? We'll have to wait and see. If he does, he'll drive a stake in the heart of the Rally's stated goal. He will confirm that some of the negative stereotypes associated with the nonreligious — intolerance of the faithful, first and foremost — are at times aligned with reality.

In the meantime, the rest of us, scientists, science writers, and followers-of-science alike, can opt to rally around a different principle. Whatever our position on the continuum from deep faith to ardent atheism, we can lose the sneers. We can explain and, when necessary, defend science with rigor and passion and genuine civility.

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Great, the wimps are coming out of the woodwork. I don't know who the "rest of us" are, but it is definitely not me. 

People don't like to be told that there is no afterlife - however you cut it to them. And that is faith's greatest evil: it doesn't really matter what happens in this short span of your life, it's what comes after that that counts. You need to use that unique lifetime of yours to prepare for the hereafter. A WASTE OF LIFE, no less.

Some would like to wrap this message in candy?

Exactly. Theists live for death, atheists live for life. Barbara should turn on the tv this morning and listen to a few baptist fucks preaching; yeah, they're yelling and screaming and frothing at the mouth, then crying and sobbing, and none of it done with any respect for those who disagree.

You can't respect those who have no understanding of the word.

This is the respect Dawkins gets:

Yesterday evening I was telephoned by a reporter who announced himself as Adam Lusher from the Sunday Telegraph. At the end of a week of successfully rattling cages, I was ready for yet another smear or diversionary tactic of some kind, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined the surreal form this one was to take. I obviously can’t repeat what was said word-for-word (my poor recall of long strings of words has this week been highly advertised), and I may get the order of the points wrong, but this is approximately how the conversation went.
“We’ve been researching the history of the Dawkins family, and have discovered that your ancestors owned slaves in Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. What have you got to say about that?”

I replied, “Your ancestors probably did too. It’s just that we happen to know who my ancestors were and perhaps we don’t know yours.”

He persisted by reeling off several of my forebears including, I think, Henry Dawkins (b 1698) and his father Colonel Richard Dawkins (d.o.b. unknown to me), giving gruesome (and indeed deplorable) figures about the numbers of slaves they owned, asking me whether I felt any guilt about it.

I replied by quoting Numbers 14:18 (from memory so – oh, calamity – I may not have been quite word-perfect), that charming little verse about the Lord “visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”: a nice example, incidentally, of biblical morality.

RDF.

I generally like Barbara King who writes very good anthropology blogs, but I think this time she is barking up the wrong tree. I do not get the whole bit with Dawkins being "sneering." He sure does not walk on eggshells around the über-religious and I personally thank him for that. Instead, he has been subject to various abuses, threatening emails, etc. The vast majority of the uncivil behavior is coming from the other side, not from Dawkins. I guess now that Hitchens is dead, people who criticize "stridency" need another target and it's Dawkins' s turn.

I pride myself on being very civil and respectful of all human beings as much as I can, but there are occasions where scorn is an appropriate response, for example towards creationists, not to mention toward the fundamentalists who constantly try to erode other people's rights.

I'm thinking of taking a bus to DC and going to The Reason Rally. Anyone else from AU thinking of going? we could potentially have a meet-up.

I have been thinking of going, I leave FL on the tenth, guess I can wander around the country until the 24th. Depends on Jo.

I would love to meet up with you there! Unfortunately, I won't be travelling far from home in the near future. You will have to represent AU. 

Dawkins and most other atheists go out of their way to be respectful toward the religious. But truthfully, the only respect religion deserves is that accorded a rabid dog. The religious have power in numbers, and their silly ideas about gods and eternal live are dangerous, to say the least. If these silly superstitions were limited to kneeling on the sidelines of football games that would be one thing. But they are not. Silly Christian beliefs are directing America, the most powerful country in the world, to ignore the threats of climate change, overpopulation, environmental destruction, and the list goes on. I heard Sarah Palin the day before yesterday say, "we need to use our God-Given resources" referring to off-shore drilling. Her attitude epitomizes the Christian disconnect with reality.

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