Don’t Buy the Hype About Dawkins: Media Playing Up Antagonism Between Atheists and Believers

by on January 11th, 2011
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Could anyone help but catch the Old West gunslinger showdown metaphor when a discussion between atheist Professor Richard Dawkins and Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams was heralded with the headline “High Noon in Oxford” ? The buzzphrase “aggressive secularism” has been bandied about liberally; in fact, the phrase seems to follow Professor Dawkins around in Britain. I watched the full discussion on YouTube, and I could find very little of the adversarial spirit that the media seemed to be playing up. In light of this latest public discussion, I think we have little grounds to fear that Richard Dawkins will offend and drive away fence-sitters in his upcoming role as keynote speaker at the Washington, DC Reason Rally. the expressed purpose of which is to build a bridge of understanding between theists and non-theists.

The “debate” of February 23 was actually a three-way discussion between Dawkins, Williams and, in the role of a mediator of sorts, philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who identifies himself as an agnostic concerning the existence of God. Kenny goes on to characterize himself, in true self-effacing British style, as the “representative of ignorance” in the discussion. The topic was the nature of human beings and the question of their origins and the origins of life and the universe. If you believe the media, it should have been a knockdown-drag out free-for-all verbal slugfest, pitting a sneering Dawkins against a dignified and beset Archbishop.

It was nothing of the sort. The exchange was polite and dignified on all sides. The archbishop admitted his agreement with the theory of the evolution of man from lower animals, while Dawkins admitted his ultimate uncertainty as to the existence of God. If you listen to the headlines, Dawkins’ declaration of his agnosticism would seem to be the big sensation, as he has always been characterized in the media as the standard-bearer of the atheist movement in the Western world. But this too is hype. All atheists are technically agnostic, and Dawkins himself makes this point years earlier. It seems the media has built him up to be a sort of two-fisted, sneering villain, spouting intolerant atheism in the face of unsuspecting and virtuous Christian apologists. One could conceivably make this argument from some of the more frustrated utterances in Dawkins’ books and interviews concerning the inherent low regard for truth on the part of believers.

Is the choice of Dawkins as the Reason Rally’s keynote speaker a bad move for those wishing to reach the communities of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers? Should moderate atheists and agnostics try to disassociate themselves from such an uncompromising spokesman as Professor Dawkins? In my opinion, no they shouldn’t. He fully qualifies his reasons for saying what he does, and those reasons make sense. In many cases, they are backed up by hard data. When Dawkins claims there is an evil in the concept of faith, he qualifies it by noting how the disregard for truth can cause the justification of religious violence. Judging from the recent ruling favoring Sharia Law on the part of a Pennsylvania judge in the case where a Muslim physically assaulted an atheist for mocking Mohammad, I’d say Dawkins’ concerns are valid, timely and should not be suppressed, even in the name of building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers.

If Dawkins’ performance in discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury and eminent philosopher Sir Kenny is any indication, I’d say that much of the hype surrounding the view of Richard Dawkins as detrimental to the idea of opening a dialogue between believers and nonbelievers is media-generated and not genuine. The Archbishop’s willingness to meet Dawkins halfway seems to have met with an agreeable response, thus resulting in an amiable and edifying exchange between believer and non-believer. Even without a full meeting of the minds, the civility was encouraging.

Certainly the Reason Rally’s stated purpose can easily be fulfilled if believers will simply meet Professor Dawkins and his fellow agnostics and atheists halfway, instead of relying on slanted media and the long hegemony of the Abrahamic religions in the western world to claim the moral high ground with no real justification beyond majority opinion. Oh yes, and please leave the snarky reference to how Dawkins flubbed the full title of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species at home. Surely it is childish tactics to use an unflattering public screw-up to discredit by means of hype an otherwise impressively credible spokesman. Show some class, like the Archbishop did.


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