A couple of days ago, Kimberly Winston at Religion News Service wrote a story about whether Richard Dawkins was an asset or liability for the atheist “movement.”
The story sure makes it seem like Dawkins is a liability, with the majority of quotations coming from people who think he does a lot of damage to our cause. I’m mentioned in the piece and even I come off as critical of him:
And it isn’t only women atheists whom Dawkins upset. Writing on The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta said: “I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins. I know he means well. But damn, it’s annoying having to defend him. More importantly, I shouldn’t have to!”
I wrote that, to be sure, but I don’t think my thoughts on Dawkins are properly captured in that one passage. So I want to clarify what I sent to the reporter because, unlike most of the others quoted in the piece, I don’t think Dawkins hurts the image of atheism (even if he has some missteps along the way):
I think Dawkins is still an asset to movement atheism. His books will live on long past any Twitter controversy (even those of his own making) and — let’s face it — most people are completely unaware of his polarizing presence online. What we need to recognize is that he’s a great communicator when he has the chance to explain himself fully, which he has done throughout his career in his books.
However, Dawkins has not figured out how to master sound bites. On Twitter, where he’s limited to one-liners, he thinks people will focus on the broader context of what he’s saying, not the particulars. Those of us who primarily write online know better than that. Dawkins also hurts himself by assuming rational people everywhere will think just as he does, even on controversial issues. As someone who generally knows what he’s trying to say, even I often cringe at the way he goes about making his case.
Richard Dawkins should stick to books. The Internet isn’t working out for him.
I would also add that the Internet controversies involving Dawkins tend to focus on statements he makes that he probably thinks are innocuous and sensible. It’s not that he’s trying to be controversial, but the comments often blow up in his face and he doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late. Then, in an attempt to make things right, he just digs himself a deeper grave. (And in some cases, it’s like he can’t win because people refuse to ever give him the benefit of the doubt.)
So, yes, Dawkins is still an asset for atheism… even if he hasn’t mastered the art of speaking in 140 characters.
By the way, I don’t blame Winston for not using what I said. Usually, when someone in the media asks for a quotation, I’m well aware that space constraints mean the final product will either include only a portion of my comments at best.