Writing a provocative, timely, compelling profile is tough. How do you write a profile without becoming enamored with the successful book sales, the dynamic speeches or the captivated audiences? You want to describe and elaborate on why an individual is so successful or effective in his or her work, so it’s difficult to remain completely objective.
These are questions that came up for me as I read a New York Times profile of Richard Dawkins, known in religious circles for his atheism.
It is a measure of Britain’s more resolutely secular culture that Professor Dawkins can pursue his atheism and probing, provocative views of Islam and Christianity in several prime-time television documentaries.
…Critics grow impatient with Professor Dawkins’s atheism. They accuse him of avoiding the great theological debates that enrich religion and philosophy, and so simplifying the complex. He concocts “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince,” wrote Terry Eagleton, regarded as one of Britain’s foremost literary critics. “What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus?”
Put that charge to Professor Dawkins and he more or less pleads guilty.
Wow, what a tough charge. Why not just ask “How are you just so awesome?”
The reporter does try to contact someone who might take the criticism bait but receives a “no thanks.”
Of late he has taken up the cudgel for atheism, writing “The God Delusion,” an international best seller. When Martin Rees, Britain’s astronomer royal, recently accepted a prize from the John Templeton Foundation, which promotes a dialogue between science and religion, Professor Dawkins was unforgiving. Dr. Rees, he wrote, is a “compliant quisling,” a traitor to science. Dr. Rees declined to counterpunch.
Professor Dawkins often declines to talk in San Francisco and New York; these cities are too gloriously godless, as far as he is concerned.
This is interesting and revealing–how does he feel about Tim Keller and other pastors’ huge Christian networks in NYC?
“I’ve had perfectly wonderful conversations with Anglican bishops, and I rather suspect if you asked in a candid moment, they’d say they don’t believe in the virgin birth,” he says. “But for every one of them, four others would tell a child she’ll rot in hell for doubting.”
Really? Publish that without either getting feedback on or off the Record from some Anglican bishops? I wonder if they would print something from an Anglican bishop that said something like “With atheists, I rather suspect if you asked in a candid moment, he believes in Jesus.” You probably wouldn’t publish that without at least checking with a few atheists, right?
He insists he frets before each lecture. This is difficult to imagine. He is characteristically English in his fluid command of words written and spoken. (Perhaps this is an evolutionary adaptation — all those cold, clammy English days firing an adjectival and syntactical genius?)
Sure, you’ll occasionally see these kinds of glowing profiles of religious thinkers, but I’m trying to remember the last one I saw in the New York Times. Honestly, I’m not really looking for them. I’m rather have a thoughtful, big-perspective piece than a reporter-fascination attitude.
Am I being defensive? I certainly hope not. I turned to Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta for some perspective.
There was a very positive profile of Richard Dawkins in today’s New York Times by Michael Powell. It’s not everyday you see such glowing coverage of an outspoken atheist, so savor it while it’s there.
Yes, Mehta liked parts of the piece (less related to religion), but he does outline some criticisms:
–The headline uses the word “Bashes” — we could’ve done without the implied imagery. Dawkins is anything but violent
–There’s really no new information about Dawkins. He loves science, he thinks religion is hogwash, he doesn’t talk much about his private life, he had academic battles with Stephen Jay Gould. Nothing his fans haven’t already heard before.
–There’s virtually no mention that Dawkins has ever been criticized by anyone within atheist circles. No mention of Elevatorgate (maybe for the best…), no mention of AC Grayling‘s for-profit school which Dawkins will lecture at. You can still write about those things without making a big deal of it.
Those are small issues, though. By and large, this is a welcome article and I’d love to see more like it.
Are they really small issues? The headline frames the article. A profile is supposed to break new ground. If there are criticisms within atheist circles, shouldn’t they come up in the piece, at least briefly? From an advocate’s perspective, is it better to have a glowing profile that tells us nothing new than something more objective? Maybe it is, I don’t know. Really, not to sound defensive, but can we imagine the same piece being published on Tim Keller, Charles Chaput, even Francis Collins? Please weigh in.