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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.