Atheism is maturing, and it will leave Richard Dawkins behind

Increasingly, Richard Dawkins' public output resembles that of a man desperately grasping for attention and relevance in a maturing community.

In the olden days, at the turn of the century, it was hard to come by vaguely-racist bigotry in our day-to-day lives. Back then you had to go and visit your grandparents a few times a year, and sit there quietly while they talked about the coloured folk in the corner shop and how you couldn’t walk to Sainsbury’s to buy your Daily Mail without being robbed by a gang of Asians. Then somebody built Twitter, and then Richard Dawkins joined.

@RichardDawkins is the increasingly erratic comedy creation of a bored Oxford Professor called Richard Dawkins. One of the best science writers of the last few decades, Dawkins has succeeding in crafting an online character that ironically parodies the more militant tendencies in capital-A Atheism, serving as a useful reminder for all of us to be more nuanced and tolerant.

Or at least that’s the kind interpretation. The alternative is that one of Britain’s leading intellectuals really has degenerated to the point where he believes that the following is an intelligent argument:

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people have found this offensive. It contains no meaningful criticism of religion, nor can it reasonably imply any – there are many reasons why the residents of North Africa or the Middle East win less Nobel prizes than Cambridge scholars, just as there are many reasons why more men than women win Nobel prizes. And ‘designated religion’ is a long way down that list. Besides, on what planet are Nobel Prizes the best metric for achievement or progress?

No, this is simply a statement about Muslims - all Muslims – and a spectacularly bigoted one at that. “Dark age achievements undoubted,” Richard kindly acknowledges, “But since then?” Well, since then I’d imagine a lot of Muslims have achieved a great many things, and many of them without the benefits of a Cambridge education.

What’s frustrating is the practiced naivety with which Dawkins and his supporters defend bigotry like this. “It’s a simple statement of fact,” people protest, but of course there’s no such thing. All statements are made in a context: if I were to create a Tumblr linking to stories about black people who did dumb things, each story might simply be a ‘statement of fact’, but that wouldn’t detract from the inherent racism of such an exercise.

“Islam isn’t a race,” is the “I’m not racist, but. . .” of the Atheist movement, a tedious excuse for lazy thinking that is true enough to be banal while simultaneously wrong in any meaningful, real-world sense. Yes, congratulations, you can read a dictionary. Well done. But it’s possible for a statement to be both true and wrong. “Homeopathy worked for me” is one example (as is its inverse): it may genuinely make people feel better, emotionally or through the placebo effect; but it doesn’t work in any medical sense.

Take immigrants, even though many people would rather we didn’t. A lot of people like to say that you can’t talk about immigration without being accused of racism. To follow the binary logic of Dawkins’ defenders, this is clearly nonsense. ‘Immigrant’ is not a race, so how on Earth can you be racist about an immigrant? Except that of course when people talk about ‘immigrants’, often they have a very particular type of immigrant in mind, and the segregation of immigrants into ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ tends to occur along lines of class and race - Canadians are far more welcome in Britain than Nigerians. ‘Immigrant’ is not a race, but discourse about immigration can still sometimes be racist.

The same holds true for ‘Muslim’, a term thoroughly linked in the public imagination to a particular set of ethnicities. Plug the term into Google Images, and what do you see? Hmm, yes, thought so. Sam Harris fell face-first into this trap with his infamous suggestion that, "we should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim,” an idea clearly inspired by watching Team America: World Police after one too many fizzy drinks. Yes, Islam is not a race, but only the profoundly ignorant would suggest that discourse about ‘the evil Muslims’ doesn’t veer into racism on a depressingly regular basis.

When Dawkins talks about ‘Muslim’ Nobel prizes over the years, he is not simply criticising a religion; he is attacking a group of people in a fairly well defined geographical area, associated with a particular set of ethnicities. He contributes to racially-charged discourse through his choice of dubious facts, the exaggerated and inflammatory language he uses to describe them, and the context within which he presents them. In short, he is beginning to sound disturbingly like a member of the far right – many of his tweets wouldn’t look out of place on Stormfront. Whatever the motives behind it, one wonders how much further he can continue down this path before the tide of opinion turns firmly against him.

Dawkins remains a powerful force in atheism for the time being. Increasingly though, his public output resembles that of a man desperately grasping for attention and relevance in a maturing community. A community more interested in the positive expression of humanism and secularism than in watching a rich and privileged man punching down at people denied his opportunities in life. That, ultimately, is the tragedy of Richard Dawkins - a man who knows the definition of everything and the meaning of nothing.

Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue