Critical ThinkingPop QuizReligion

Pop Quiz: Richard Dawkins Says You Can’t Handle The TRUTH

Aww man, Dawkins. Not again.

 

By now you’ve probably seen Richard Dawkins’ latest foray into the world of Twitter. He recently informed his many followers that “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” Unsurprisingly, this led to a hurricane of commentary on Twitter and in other discussion spaces. It even made some of the newspapers here in the UK.

 

Dawkins has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been vocal and blunt in defending his comment. He points out that he was simply stating a fact, that Islam is a religion and not a race, that facts cannot be racist, and so on. His Twitter feed is filled with people offering messages of support and derision. And you know what? He’s right. He is totally right. If you look at the figures, then what Dawkins tweeted is absolutely factually accurate. All of the world’s Muslims combined have indeed earned fewer Nobel Prizes than have been won by people who went through Trinity College in Cambridge. Correct. Factually accurate. He just swung by, dropped a truth bomb on us, and it’s not his fault if you’re offended by FACTS. Maybe YOU’RE the racist.

 

The problem with this, of course, is one of context and connotation. Dawkins’ tweet is indeed factually accurate, but he either fails or refuses to recognise the fact that that vast, vast majority of people do not operate as purely factual beings, devoid of emotional context.

 

I get what he was aiming at. I really do. Religion can act as a severe hindrance to scientific advancement. People shouldn’t ever be afraid to criticise a specific religion, especially in the face of dire threats from a vocal minority of that religion’s followers. I’m on board with that. I understand his fact and I absolutely get the deeper atheist meaning behind it (especially since he was kind enough to explain it several times in follow-up tweets).

 

However, I also know that a few months ago two Muslim fanatics decapitated a soldier in broad daylight not too far away from the very place he mentioned in his tweet. I know that since that event, several mosques and Islamic centers in the UK have had bombs placed outside them. I know that the USA is still reeling from the awful events in Boston a few months ago. Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is still a major issue in the world and is doing immense harm to Muslims and non-Muslims right now. The violent actions of a few fanatics have inflamed dangerous anti-Muslim hatred in the minds of people unable or unwilling to differentiate between the peaceful majority and the violent minority.

 

To think that as a public figure you can make a statement like Dawkins did this week and then just cry “AH BUT FACTS” when people call you out on it is at best dangerously naive. Yes, he was factually accurate. But this fact that he chose to share publicly, out of the blue, has a ridiculous amount of emotional baggage attached to it. Those of us who are offended by Dawkins’ statement are not “misunderstanding” him. We’re not idiots who just “don’t get it”. We really do grasp the point he was making, but we’re frustrated and angered by his utter unwillingness to accept that there is anything to be annoyed about in the first place. Context, Richard.

 

Ok, fine, but what does this have to do with education? This is a Pop Quiz, after all. Well, Dawkins’ statement and his subsequent arguments really reminded me of one specific pupil who I used to teach. This young man, who has long since left school, found atheism and scepticism in a BIG way when he was around 16. He read (surprise surprise) The God Delusion, watched a couple of online videos, and suddenly he knew it aaaaallllll. He turned from a fairly quiet and pleasant person into someone who would not hesitate to tell anyone around them exactly why they were wrong about any given topic. He used to love breaking out the old standby phrases from the Handbook Of Obnoxious Arguments: “Well I think you’ll find…”, “Ehhh, I’m just saying….”, “Well I’m just stating facts…” and of course “It’s not my fault if you’re offended”.

 

I watched this kid alienate almost all of his friend group over the course of six months. I admired him in principle for his new-found love of atheism and scepticism, but he was so utterly assured of his own correctness that he was completely unwilling to think about the idea that hey, maybe sometimes there’s a wrong way of saying something that’s right.

 

I don’t know what happened to the guy once he left school. He went on to university; maybe he learned to tone it down a bit, to engage with people politely and sensitively while still sticking to his arguments. Or maybe he’s out there somewhere now, telling an increasingly unimpressed and distant friend group exactly why they’re wrong.

 

He reminds me of Dawkins, this 16 year old boy; full of passion and a love for sceptical thinking, completely assured of his own righteousness, but seemingly devoid of any real understanding of how to actually engage with human beings.

 

So after that somewhat longer than anticipated diatribe, here are your Pop Quiz questions for today!

 

What are your views about Dawkins’ recent “Nobel Prize” tweet?

 

Have you ever met a student who displayed a similar type of attitude?

 

If so, how did you handle the situation? If not, how would you handle it?

 

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays at 8pm ET.

 

 

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Alasdair

Alasdair

Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

2 Comments

  1. August 12, 2013 at 7:37 pm —

    It seems like the social sciences are not Dawkins’ strong suit. The idea that human interactions involve context, and that your words have connotations as well as dictionary definitions, seems to be an inconvenient truth for some people. “I’m not responsible for your offence” leads to a lot of pouting and complaining about “irrational” criticism, as long as the racist/classist/sexist thing is implied and not explicitly stated. To take an example, why did he choose to use the Nobel Prize as an example of the height of achievement in science and progress? If I were to say “a panel of white men has recommended fewer people of demographic group X to receive an award then they have recommended white men who also happen to work at their alma mater” it would be true for pretty much any group X, regardless of group X’s religiosity, achievements in science etc. The Nobel Prize is a worthy achievement, no doubt. But if we start saying that this particular award, with it’s particular European history, is the ultimate standard by which we measure human ingenuity and such, and if your philosophy fails to produce nobel prize winners you are clearly doing it wrong, then we shouldn’t be surprised when that leads us down a euro-centric socially inept rabbit hole (albeit one which has become a bit more globally inclusive in recent decades, so I hear).

  2. August 13, 2013 at 7:17 am —

    I completely agree, and it’s also interesting to note that Dawkins even belittles the Nobel Peace Prize in one of his subsequent tweets. His benchmark for “achievement” is not actually the Nobel Prize overall, but only Prizes for select fields.

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