Aug. 31st, 2013

dormant_dragon: Sleepy Stan from 'All Yesterdays' (Default)
I've just finished reading this article, which is critical of Richard Dawkins and his use of Twitter to express what can certainly be taken as bigoted and racist comments. The contention of the article is that Dawkins is well on his way to becoming irrelevant to the 'maturing' atheist movement and is petulantly trying to attract attention, negative though it might be, while he still can (he's into his 70s, after all).

Well, for one thing, I have seen more than enough evidence in online fora to feel quite dubious of the claim that atheism, as a whole movement, is actually growing in maturity, as such. There will always be adherents to any philosophical position who attempt only a superficial engagement with it, who like to use it as a club to beat their opponents, whose allegiance does the community no favours; and they will always be balanced, ultimately, by those who take a more thoughtful, nuanced approach. This is true of every intellectual and cultural movement in human history.

What might be happening as atheism gains more ground in the war of ideas and more prominence in the public sphere is that the need to go on the offensive is far less pressing now than the need to consolidate the territory that has been claimed. This means the focus has shifted from making a lot of loud, righteously angry noise - something at which the likes of Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens excelled - to mounting a more balanced and considered discussion of what the philosophical position of atheism entails. Okay, so you don't believe in gods or other supernatural entities - what does that mean in terms of how you live your life?

One of the criticisms often leveled at Dawkins, even before he began blotting his copybook with sexist, racist and other blatantly privileged remarks, was that his approach to atheism is philosophically shallow. The accusation that he failed to acknowledge the depth and subtlety of religious arguments is easily dismissed; Dawkins himself does so in the preface to the second edition of The God Delusion - why engage deeply with a position based on such a nebulous foundation as the claim that a being such as the God of Classical Theism exists? There's no need to undermine a palace built on shifting sand.

But the accusation of shallowness comes from the other side of the faith divide too and really, it's a pretty fair call. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist first, not a trained philosopher. If you want depth from him, read his works on evolutionary theory, not his attacks on religion. Having said that, even the latter, I was somewhat surprised to discover, are not all bluster and aggression; The God Delusion is actually a relatively gentle and humorous read, certainly when compared to, say, Christopher Hitchens' flights of bullshit-busting bombast in God is Not Great. There is, after all, something to be said for meeting obfuscation head-on with plain-speaking, straightforward arguments - and no-one can deny the elegance of Dawkins' writing.

None of this, of course, is an attempt to defend his abuse of privilege with his ill-considered tweets. And perhaps he really is becoming irrelevant to the long-term project of advancing atheism. Maybe every public intellectual has a best-before date.

But one thing that struck me forcibly as I read the article was just how eager we humans seem to be to find cracks in the armour of others and use them as an excuse to denigrate the whole person, to dismiss all their works and opinions as tainted because somewhere along the line, they've fucked up. I believe it was at least in part this tendency that allowed the Australian media to conspicuously fail to recognise the brilliance of Julia Gillard's speech condemning sexism (even though the rest of the world seemed to have no trouble giving credit where it was due). We judge people harshly for getting it wrong and find it very easy then to forget the times they got it right. And for some of us, the greatest victim of this imbalance is ourselves when we turn our overly critical eye inwards.

I decided recently that I'm not going to be that person who takes the measure of others - or of myself - by their failures. I can acknowledge those times when I make mistakes and get it wrong, without using that to invalidate my successes. And I find, increasingly, that I can accept that the people I admire are not perfect, nor should I expect them to be. But the reasons for which I admire them don't disappear in a puff of inappropriate behaviour. So no, I am not going to be shamefacedly hiding my signed copy of The God Delusion at the back of a bookshelf - it is and will remain a valued possession I am proud to own.


dormant_dragon: Sleepy Stan from 'All Yesterdays' (Default)

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