(Images: Twitter Screenshot, and Wikipedia Commons)
Once again, Dawkins is facing scrutiny online. This time, however, it is not for a badly interpreted Tweet or a potentially off-color remark. It is, unbelievably, for behaving precisely as atheists have justifiably been behaving for some time.
In an interview with Emad Ahmed of The New Statesmen, it is reported that:
The furious academic walked out of an interview when a Muslim journalist confirmed he personally believed the prophet Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse. Dawkins, 74, author of best-seller The God Delusion, told the New Statesmen’s Emad Ahmed that his belief was “pathetic” before angrily storming off. Jason Taylor, Express
After the outrage that followed, and Ahmed’s accusation that Dawkins is Islamophobic, Dawkins found it necessary to take to Twitter to defend himself. Despite that platform usually creating more confusion for Dawkins than clarity in the past, his statements were perfectly cogent:
Note: Islamic holy texts do not actually mentioned a winged horse, specifically. Merely one that could fly.
I’m not precisely taking to the Web to voice my support for Dawkins and reassert that he is correct (which he obviously is). Rather, I feel that the outrage expressed about Dawkins’s response is a symptom of a kind of regressive atheism which is currently in vogue — frankly, with a sort of tepid popularity that has congealed since the death of Hitchens: angry atheism lost its most charismatic champion. Call it what you like: New Atheism, fire-brand atheism, etc., had a surge with the Four Horsemen in the middle of the last decade and in the last four years has generally peetered out to a kind that is more docile, politically correct, and even apologetic.
Naturally these are broad observations of the atheist Zeitgeist. As I wrote in my chapter on the philosophy of atheism for the upcoming book 666, one of the brilliant things about the “atheist community” is that, paradoxically, it is a community rather defined by its individualism. With the advent of New Atheism, however, atheism has become a distinctly political force: the rise of activists en masse in the United States and elsewhere has created a dialectic that says: “We’re here”, and no longer passively allows the teaching of nonsense in schools, the iconography of gods in our courts and on our police cruisers, and generally seeks to strengthen the wall of separation between church and state. Such endeavors have, naturally, required those activists to call faith precisely what it is: a lie, and in the voices of some people such as Yours Truly — a dangerous lie.
For Dawkins to dismiss the claims that a horse can fly used to be par for the course in terms of outspoken atheism; it was a standard of dialectic that sought to move the discussion forward by no longer pretending such claims had validity. (Whether he should have left the interview is a question, I believe, for another article.) Many atheists (some of whom are treasured colleagues) would fervently disagree with such a stance, saying that there is no possible way such a tactic can change minds. In the case of Dawkins, though, it seems that changing minds — at least the mind of Ahmed — was not necessarily an objective. For the hundreds of thousands who are reading about this event, they now have to ask themselves the question: is this a claim worthy of dismissal?
This is the way in which such fire-brand rhetoric works: disrespect of faith disillusions many people from the kind of reverence that convinces them such claims are unquestionable, thereby causing them to consider whether the person adamantly claiming them as truth is able to be reasoned with. For those who think horses can fly and snakes can talk and that the world is 6,000-years-old in despite of all the evidence they have seen to the contrary in their lives, one could argue dismissal is an appropriate response. If any belief can possibly be a stupid one, surely thinking that flying horses exist must qualify.
Dawkins — and by extension, New Atheism — isn’t on trial for being Islamophobic (for the record, it’s not). It’s on trial for holding Islam and all other faiths to the same standard of proof and morality that it holds all other methodologies. To prove it, one must necessarily think about the claim that a person flew from Los Angeles to New York City on a winged horse — an obviously ridiculous idea. But the moment that narrative is connected to a prophet, ridiculing such a position is bigoted and offensive. And the fear of being falsely labeled as bigoted and offensive is beginning to halt the honest discussion of these positions in its tracks. Refusing to call out asinine assertions for what they are only adds a kind of legitimacy to the system of lies–monotheistic faith–which has repressed, oppressed, and obsessed the majority of our species for entirely too long and at too great a cost.