Dotage and Dawkins

Dotage and Dawkins February 9, 2015
Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Valerie Tarico is the latest to observe the spectacular decline of Richard Dawkins. She zeroes in on Dawkins’s capacity to offend nearly everyone with his Twitter account:

Part of the reason Dawkins has been so influential in positive ways is that he has a compelling drive to say what he thinks, whether his opinion is popular or not. But coupled with Twitter, this quality has created a public relations storm that threatens to undermine his legacy as a pioneer and the ability of his foundation to advance secular values including the study of religion as a natural phenomenon.

Tarico, however, thinks the story here is not Dawkins’s lack of basic empathy but his age. “The story raises challenging questions about aging public figures in an era of instantaneous communications,” she writes.

As old dogs it gets tougher to learn new tricks. Add to this the fact that the brain’s executive function, which was immature but growing during those adolescent years (one reason we forgive teen peccadillos), begins to decline as middle age winds down. It gets harder to pay attention and we become less good at editing impulses.

Social media have inherent social risks, regardless of age, but the intersection between aging and social media is particularly perilous, and the more stature and visibility a person has attained, the more he or she has to lose.

I have to admit here that I didn’t realize Dawkins was embarrassing his fellow secularists *this* much. Allegations of mental decline, particularly for someone whose name still has purchase power in the academy, seem quite a big step up from simply admitting that Dawkins’s worldview is cold and ruthless. Personally, I think I would rather be told that I’m a jerk than be told that my mind has bought a one way ticket on the runaway train.

Anyway, I don’t buy it. Tarico writes as if Dawkins’s lack of charm is a recent development. That’s false, but I understand why Tarico would get that impression. The pre-Twitter Dawkins was full of rancor, cynicism and rudeness; the difference is that social media feminists were not in his warpath. Most liberal publications showered Dawkins with praise and publicity for calling the God of Christianity a “genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” The outrage meter barely shivered when Dawkins, asked the difference between Christians and atheists, answered: “Well, we’re bright.” Neither do I remember any questioning of Dawkins’s mental health when he said it would demean him to share a debate stage with William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher with a doctorate from Oxford.

I can’t comment authoritatively on the state of Richard Dawkins’s mind. If his health is indeed falling, I offer my empathy and well wishes. But it’s absurd to pretend that his combative callousness is a mysterious new symptom. It’s been there for a long time; Salon just hasn’t always cared.

Photo Credit: By Shane Pope from Austin, United States (Richard Dawkins, original resolution) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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