Is Richard Dawkins Arrogant? Ridicule, Passion And The ‘New Atheists’

Written by April 10, 2010 6:01 pm 25 comments

This article is developed from a post on the forums here.

You have probably heard the claim that Dawkins is arrogant. Usually this claim is directed at him from believers. But ever so often one hears it from other freethinkers, in the context of representing science and reason. The claim often is that Dawkins’ “arrogance” is actually counter-productive to the cause. Here is the video that has been quoted multiple times to make the case:

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Most people who hear Dawkins say the words “Fuck Off” let their minds go blank as to the context. Multiple times I’ve had other atheists tell me that Dawkins sounds so “mean” when he dismisses people like that. But Dawkins is quoting someone else here! To anyone actually paying attention, its clear that Dawkins quotes the editor of New Scientist, to actually make the opposite point- that he is “not the worst”. Yet those intent on criticizing him for his logical and yet undoubtedly sharp criticism of religion latch onto such video clips to justify their intuitive dislike of Dawkins himself.

But this is an issue that is greater than just Dawkins. This concerns the entire freethought movement. What kinds of strategies should we take up when promoting science, critical thinking, naturalism and atheism?

I submit that we must adopt a pluralistic strategy.

Any single advocate for atheism cannot influence every type of individual who believes in the supernatural. This is obvious if you take into account how vastly different people are in their thinking.

That having said, there is absolutely no doubt that few (none, in my opinion) have been as influential as Dawkins has been in promoting reason and atheism in modern times. Time after time I have come across individuals for whom reading one or the other of his books was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

It is easy today to look at Dawkins from a critical standpoint, forgetting all the gains that atheists have made over the past 2 decades. But if we step back and take a look at how the modern atheist rights movement was born and has evolved, the role that he played becomes more apparent. Back in the 1970s and 80s, RD was a lone voice among the scientific community. His books, even back then, were tinged with arguments for a naturalistic epistemology, deriding the supernatural. I read The Selfish Gene in high school in the 90s. Hundreds of thousands of others were already “converts” by then.

There is a very important role that anger, ridicule and passion play in any social movement. While intellectual understanding is key to a movement that is well-grounded, it is the primary emotions that provide the impetus for social organization. Without this, atheism would simply remain an idea to be discussed in academia and in private settings.

Let me give you an example. Secular Humanism has been around for more than a century. Humanists often deride the ‘New Atheists’ for their bitterness. Inrichard-dawkins fact, the argument from many humanists has been that their tactics are more effective! But how many people knew about secular humanism before the ‘New Atheists’? Their whole movement was an academic one, restricted to an elite group of people who had the time and inclination for such intellectualisms. While the humanists were debating about human rights and ethics for over a century, atheists continued to remain in the shadows, in a cultural environment where they were unable to realize many of their fundamental rights. The only community that was available to most atheists was society at large. As you may well know, one of the most important functions of religion is to provide a common cultural ground to enable a common morality and social code to bring together people and form a functioning and content community. We atheists did not have this- not until a few years ago. It is easy to ignore the freedoms (from the point of view of social acceptance) we have gained towards expressing our beliefs in public and for gathering in the name of reason. It is easy to forget that millions of atheists crave the kind of social contact that religions have traditionally provided. It is even more easy to forget the role that anger, ridicule and passion have played in creating this global community of freethinkers. Without the ‘new atheists’, secular humanism would have remained irrelevant in the public sphere. Today we can meaningfully talk about replacing religion with a secular morality derived from humanistic principles only because of the social impetus that the ‘New Atheists’ like Dawkins have provided humanity with.

It is a false assumption that to convince a believer about the validity of atheism (or rather, the absurdity of religion) one needs to be gentle and defensive. That is complete bull. It may work in a few cases, but it is generally a long term strategy applicable only to a tiny segment of people, the ones who are genuinely interested in exploring the truth regardless of their personal emotional intuitions. The vast majority of religious people are absolutely reticent to question their own beliefs and instead will attack atheism blindly. Most people who have become atheists have done so because at some point they began to question their own beliefs. Contrary to the general assumption, this sort of questioning does not come naturally to everyone. It does not come simply because we present logical arguments defending atheism. It often comes because at some point, someone else questioned their ridiculous religious beliefs. Often because someone ridiculed those beliefs. Throughout history, this is how revolutionary ideas have dispersed through culture. Society does not work on the same principles of science, in that evidence and proof do not determine what the majority will believe. Ideas die in a culture when it becomes embarrassing to hold on to them. Social conformity is achieved not through intellectual discourse as much as through the need to belong. If your ridiculous beliefs are laughed at, you begin to question them. This may not apply to you or me or many in this group, assuming that we are more evidence-based on our thinking, but this certainly applies to the majority of people on earth.

Do not think that I am advocating personal attacks. I am talking about ridiculing irrational beliefs, not people.

In fact, I do not engage in debate with believers any more. At least, I try not to. This is the least effective strategy for someone like myself, since many religious folk seem to be unable to make the distinction between personal attacks and criticism of ideas. I think that what really works is for atheists to be visible to the community at large. If religious people actually see that atheists are a happy, moral and well-organized community, obtaining the same social benefits from cooperation and emotional fulfillment that religious people do, that is more effective in making them question their own beliefs. In the process, let’s have some fun laughing at absurd and false beliefs, even as we expose them for the dangers that they represent.

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- who has written 62 posts on Nirmukta.

25 Comments

  • I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, Tyson has a good point about the best way to educate people is interacting with them on a compassionate level. But OTOH Dawkins’ forcefulness has been instrumental in giving atheists confidence to boldly come out and be proud of disbelief in a world of believers. And I think Dawkins feels that the best way to educate the world at large is to have the atheists rise up, which I honestly think is working very well.

    • Thank you for your input, Max. I agree with you that this is a balance. One more thing I would add to your distillation of the ideas here is that we can probably increase social cohesion within the freethought community by getting together and laughing at the absurdities we see around us…

  • If you engage in a debate with a religionist then do not expect to convince them. It’s the fence sitters like myself from a year ago who are the ones you aim to affect.

  • I fear that this is true. As a secular humanist of long standing who agrees with many but not all of the tenets of contemporary atheism, I think most people are, and probably always will be, stuck in binary thinking — “A or B” rather than “A and B.” Until someone develops the fluidity to maintain non-dualistic thinking, they’re going to have an easier time with the concept of atheism than with anything “softer” or more pluralistic.

    My preference in arguing with believers of any stripe is to argue for “keeping your beliefs off my body” rather than for “what you believe isn’t true”; I have issues with both the ethics and etiquette of proselytization — if someone’s beliefs are making them happy *and harming nobody*, I feel it wrong to try to take those beliefs away. And if the beliefs *are* harming others, which is far too often the case today, then the problem is in the harm, not in the beliefs.

    • Janet, I will agree that there are certain behaviors that are unacceptable, but my bar is probably set a lot lower than yours. Interesting analogy, btw, with metaphysics of mind. I completely agree with you about the strategic wisdom in allowing the label to do its work for now.

      We have to first make a distinction between the two ways of looking at the issue, starting with personal freedom to believe anything you want and approaching the limit where your beliefs affect my personal freedom. The problem is often it isn’t that simple. There is a continuum of belief in many respects, with overlapping beliefs forming larger, overlapping and self-contained belief systems. Who’s to say that a lady who seeks a psychic is not doing any harm to society? Doesn’t she perpetuate the lie through popular culture, wasting much necessary and valuable resources on such demonstrably useless notions? I can present multiple scenarios where real harm could come about. Of course such things are not restricted to superstitious/supernatural beliefs, but if we as caring human beings know that something is patently absurd and probably detrimental to society, I submit that we must at least expose it for what it is. When it comes down to it, if it’s bullshit, I think it’s our job to call it.

    • Janet, I cannot grasp the “isms” in your worldview. I can make no sense of the notions that atheism has “tenets” and that there’s a difference between “contemporary” and some older kinds of atheism. Atheism has only ONE tenet, that gods are inventions of human brains. We now have definitive, decisive, overwhelming scientific proof of this fact, but it has been extremely obvious to many people for decades, and rather obvious to many people for centuries. Perhaps when you go back far enough, people’s understanding of thought/mind/brain/nervous-system was so primitive that atheism was a rare and vague concept. My point is simply that there’s nothing fundamentally different about atheism in any era that might be called “contemporary”.

  • I FEEL YOU AJITA!

    This education is a massive undertaking. These are different conversations with different people, and all approaches seem to have their audience. I think they are all necessary especially with what I have seen doing online support for EX Jehovah’s Witnesses for the past 4 years. I can see clearly that people leaving religion find themselves in very different places philosophically, we should adjust for this.

    After going through the agonizing loss of my own religion and my belief in the supernatural, I had no idea what the f*ck to believe. I felt that I had been tricked out of 32 years of my life waiting for Armageddon, I was angry and woefully undereducated!

    I read “The Selfish Gene” and I was left with a peace of mind I had never experienced before. I loved Dawkins sarcasm, Imma pretty sarcastic Irish girl. Seriously, I learned so much from those pages, my years of doubts were validated and I found reason! I had been so censored and oppressed by my religion for so long that his irreverence was REFRESHING!!!!

    “The God Delusion”, gave me a window into an amazing, awe inspiring, reality based world, I am fascinated with the life I have left after leaving a cult that made my life hell. I’m grateful to Richard and I’m not being dramatic when I tell you that he saved my life by giving me real life, in exchange for my delusion.

    Pluralistic approach, Ramen to that!

    • Thank you, Raven!

      I’ve been reading and listening to your stories about the Witnesses and what the ‘victims’ go through. You definitely should know about the different types of people out there. For many of these folks, noting will ever do it- they’re in too deep, but you are evidence that there is always hope that reason will shine through.

      The influence of Dawkins on your life is obvious in your words. I truly felt that way too, although I was a bit younger than you when I first read him. And yes, that sarcasm is the part that is endearing, even in his most serious bits.

      ” I’m grateful to Richard and I’m not being dramatic when I tell you that he saved my life by giving me real life, in exchange for my delusion.”

      I’m very happy for you, Raven, and just thinking about all the thousands of others who went through that same life affirming experience.

  • When intelligence is considered arrogance we should be proud to they call us arrogant :) In other words, lets not look to blame ourselves. It happens in the liberal circles as well. The FAR right has demonized what it means to be a liberal without even understanding the “underpinnings” of being a liberal and as long as you let believers demonize atheists and call us arrogant without “militantly (AS RD puts it)” defending yourself then “They win”

    There is a great youtube video of Sam Harris talking about atheism that may fit what your speaking to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ok2oJgsGR6c&feature=player_embedded# its a 2 part video and its a great watch regardless

    • John Harrison

      I was led here by searching “Dawkins arrogant” following an article in today’s Times. Not that it’s particularly relevant to what follows, but I am an atheist, albeit one who from time to time wonders why anything exists at all – but since I don’t expect ever to have an answer to that question, I don’t dwell on it for too long. I do however concede the freedom of people to believe in whatever deities they choose, would never dream of “ridiculing” somebody’s beliefs just because I do not share them and have little time for atheists who cast religions in a wholly negative light by enumerating the bad things they are responsible for while deliberately ignoring the many good things – and I don’t just mean “morally” good.

      Anyway, as I’ve said, atheism/religion are irrelevant to the article in today’s Times. For those who haven’t seen it, it concerned a series of tweets in which RD explained syllogisms. He started by saying that the statement “X is bad. Y is worse” does not imply that the speaker condones Y. No argument with that, completely sound logic. When some people didn’t get it, he gave another example: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse.” Fair enough, as a pure syllogism this does not imply that the speaker condones date rape; in fact I would say it is wrong to imply that RD necessarily subscribes to the statements in the syllogism – it is simply an example chosen to illustrate a point.

      But, RD could have chosen any one of countless examples that would have illustrated his point without causing offence. So why be deliberately provocative in a context that hardly requires it? My conclusion is that this was motivated by publicity seeking and an arrogant compulsion to incite and insult anyone he considers his intellectual inferior.

      This is reinforced by his response to the people who took issue: “Go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically”. Yes, they had missed the point, but he could have made the point better with an example that did not, as he knew it would, provoke outrage.

      I can do syllogisms without RD’s help. I make a good living basically from applying logical thought. If you accept the Crick-Watson test as an objective measure of critical thinking, then I am in the 99th percentile. However, I would never insult people merely because they are my intellectual inferior or cannot grasp a concept that I understand.

      So, is RD an arrogant oaf? My view is, on this occasion, yes – and, what is worse, an insincere, unnecessarily provocative one as well.

  • Thanks for this Article Ajita. Many of these statements rung true in my personal experience, especially these below. And shows that I have company.

    RE: “The vast majority of religious people are absolutely reticent to question their own beliefs ”

    There were these Jehovah’s witnesses who came to my place distributing pamphlets, and since I am an open minded person I was willing to listen to their ideas. They visited my place 3 times, and we had 1-hour discussions each time. They threw the ‘Watchmaker analogy’, “world was made for man”, etc at me, and at that time I was just an independent atheist, not an informed one. They are stuck in a world of ideas a few thousand years old, and are completely ignorant (or dont care) for any of scientific ideas over the last 400 years (since the Age of Enlightenment). Being an amatuer astronomer and a follwer of science, I told them about how some their ideas are incorrect, but they arent open at all. In the end, they just stopped coming to my place.

    RE: “In fact, I do not engage in debate with believers any more. At least, I try not to. This is the least effective strategy for someone like myself, since many religious folk seem to be unable to make the distinction between personal attacks and criticism of ideas. I think that what really works is for atheists to be visible to the community at large”

    Although I debate religion with others, its actually easy to occasionally migrate into heated personal attacks, from my side as well. So my approach is also changing to.. just show that I am an atheist and that I lead a happy life as well.

    • Srivathsa,

      Thank you for your comment. I am glad that you identify with the statements made in the article. You are obviously a very amicable person, because you found it in you to actually carry on conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses! But yes, they are not open to new ideas at all, an in fact, that seems to be an important requirement of their religion.

      Raven Pence who commented below is an expert on this subject, herself being someone who was once a Witness and now an ardent atheist.

      Keep debating with the believers, we need more people like you :)

  • As regards the approach to educating the believers about the senselessness of religion and god, I believe that that most effective step is to raise their awareness about its irrationality without coming across as “either you believe me or you don’t.” Most believers do not know any different than what they have been indoctrinated into believing from their childhood. It takes time for them to give up those beliefs, and they do it in small steps. Most do not even know that they have the right to question their own beliefs.

    When possible, Atheists should avoid confrontational approach while debunking religious beliefs. In my own articles, while I decry Brahmanic practices geared towards fleecing people, I am careful not to attack Hindu gods such as Krishna or Rama. These gods and religions were created by various vested interests to serve a specific purpose in the ancient times. Our job should be to point out to people that they are no longer needed for us to lead a productive and moral life. We need to emphasize the fact that the religious practices are anachronistic, useless, counterproductive and even dangerous. We need to raise their awareness about how the priestly class has mesmerized them and controlled them to further their own interests, and that they have all been fooled again and again. Gradually, this message would sink in. At least let us hope so!

  • If there were no God, then why does it matter what people think? What is the basis for concern? All objections to belief in God, when carried to their logical conclusion, ultimately end up being moral objections. Atheists, whether they realize it or not, make objections by appealing to some moral absolute, and indeed have to in order to have any objective meaning, otherwise such objections become nothing more than expressions of subjective opinions in which no one else is morally obligated to concern themselves with. There would be no justification for imposing laws on society, or imposing a certain curriculum on students otherwise. But moral absolutes have no basis in the atheistic worldview. What is Mr. Tyson’s justification for his criticism of Dawkins’ approach? He is trying to assert that Dawkins is “wrong”, but wrong in what way? He’s not saying Dawkins is factually wrong; he’s not challenging Dawkins’ claims, but rather Dawkins’ delivery which Tyson feels alienates some people and does harm to the “cause”, but notice this is a moral objection, and begs the question “Why is it objectively wrong to harm the cause?” Atheism cannot answer this, and it is beyond the scope of science to answer as well. It’s a matter not of the mind but of the will. This is why it’s so sad watching otherwise smart people waste time chasing their own tales in vane.

    • Why are we even asking if Richard Dawkins is arrogant? If macroevolution were true, then arrogance is a natural byproduct along with all other behaviors, attitudes, and states of mind. On what basis do we sort these things and assign them rungs on the moral ladder? Atheists have no choice, if they are to be logically consistent, than to admit that evolution – survival of the fittest – brought us arrogance. Evolution is morally blind and indifferent, so what is the basis for trying to guide the evolution of behavior in a certain moral direction?

    • Satish Chandra

      There are no objective morals. That is, morals have no meaning outside of human minds. That is a fact. It always has been so since the dawn of humans. So in essence you set up a strawman argument that atheists appeal to some objective morality and then setup a non-existent contradiction in the atheistic worldview. Just because there are no objective morals, it doesn’t automatically mean everything gets thrown to the wind. We can reason our morals as we have been doing from the past few millenia despite delusions of they coming from god or an equivalent entity. That there is some other source of morality other than what evolution has given us is a fiction.

      • On what basis do we reason our morals, and why should we reason morals at all? Why shouldn’t everything be thrown to the wind? Let’s put your claim, that there are no objective morals, to the test: Is it wrong to torture babys just for fun?

        • Satish Chandra

          No. Babies shouldn’t be tortured. That is because humans have an evolutionary reason not to (the ick factor) and because allowing such acts are not conducive to our happiness. Note that neither factors have any meaning outside of human minds. Hence are not objective. But that does not lead to the conclusion of “throw everything to the wind”.Our shared biology and a shared idea of happiness (with some degree of consensus) are good enough to ground our morals in. Only when those get thrown to the wind, do morals get get thrown to the wind.

          Now let me ask you a question. Where do you get your morals from? The Good Book?

          • A book can never be the source for objective morality, only the means to record and communicate said morals, just as “The God Delusion” is merely a means Dawkins uses to advance his thoughts. Morals can only come from a Person who is alive, as dead things produce no morality.
            Evolution could only account for what is; it can never explain what ought to be. Morality is not descriptive, it is prescriptive. You are still appealing to a moral absolute, to something that must of necessity predate humanity, dictating that humans “ought” to conform to evolutionary reasons and “should not” do anything that is counter to other’s happiness.
            In a world that is a product of survival of the fittest, why should I care about anyone’s happiness over my own? Why shouldn’t anyone ignore what others cite as evolutionary reason and go ahead and torture babies? What is the justification for punishing such people? Aren’t such sick people also the result of evolution?
            Evolution is about change, so, by your definition, morality also changes with time. It cannot stay the same, it can never be eternal. Will you still object to baby torture if humans no longer have an evolutionary reason not to? Why should I care about evolutionary reason?
            Have you ever thought that certain laws, or the lack thereof, were unjust? Where do you get your objective ideas of just and unjust?
            You can only describe your personal preferences, which are subjective. You can not justify imposing them on anyone else.
            If evolution started from mindless processes, without morals, resulting in particles turning into people, then what is the basis for using our minds to make moral decisions in directing the future of evolution? What is the point of reference? If your answer is “whatever is best for humanity”, then please explain not only how you determine what is “best” without a guidepost, but also explain why we even should.

          • Satish Chandra

            You are still appealing to a moral absolute, to something that must of necessity predate humanity, dictating that humans “ought” to conform to evolutionary reasons and “should not” do anything that is counter to other’s happiness.

            You are reading too much into what I said over a space of few lines. You are right in inferring that I meant to say about morality is that it is what we ought to do. But that’s all. I did not “dictate” anything. Nor did I categorically say that we should not do what is counter to one’s happiness.

            In a world that is a product of survival of the fittest, why should I care about anyone’s happiness over my own?

            You start with a loaded premise, the validity of which is questionable. And you are assuming something about my morality which is not true.

            Have you ever thought that certain laws, or the lack thereof, were unjust? Where do you get your objective ideas of just and unjust?

            My brain has certain states which indicate what is just or what is not. And those states are amenable to change. I can live with that.

            You can only describe your personal preferences, which are subjective. You can not justify imposing them on anyone else.

            But what if my very existence is considered by someone as imposing on them? Should I kill myself to not justify me imposing on them?

            If evolution started from mindless processes, without morals, resulting in particles turning into people, then what is the basis for using our minds to make moral decisions in directing the future of evolution?

            Again some loaded premises which are questionable. Who here is talking about directing the future of evolution?

            Moral issues aren’t something that can be dealt in black and white and certainly not in a few hundred words in the comments section of an article. You started with an attempt to show some contradiction in the atheistic worldview when in reality you will hard pressed to find atheists on this site who use only evolution to arrive at moral decisions. You have setup a strawman and have attacked it, in vain.

            That minds exist is a fact. I don’t know why there should be minds at all (neither do you), but given that they are there, I can ask start with that premise and the premise that my brain wants to be happy and ask “what now” and proceed from there. That is good enough for me and as I said, I can live with that.

  • Quoting the lead article:
    “I think that what really works is for atheists to be visible to the community at large.”

    I just love this thought! For me, debating with theists is an utter waste of time. Atheism is such a trivial, obvious, basic scientific observation that discussing it at all can feel like a waste of time. On the other hand, interacting with people who share fundamental values and intellectual abilities is one of the most wonderful ways to spend one’s time! At this point in my life I’ve had way more than enough exposure to people who don’t share those things, giving me more than enough education to understand that aspect of the world I live in. I’ve heard and understood their points of view very thoroughly. Any further interaction with those people is simply numbing and wasteful. So I totally agree that projecting one’s self as an atheist and bolstering atheistic communities is the best approach. That’s why I’m spending time here today on this website. Let others convert themselves by observing our thoughts and lives.

    As far as Dawkins, well, I’ve been an atheist for twenty years and I’ve never read anything by him, but I’ve watched a few youtube clips and I can’t see why any atheist could find anything not to like about him! He’s obviously a cultural superhero. This whole “arrogance” and “tact” issue is a nonsensical red herring. Atheism is a simple scientific fact. It’s not like we’re trying to sell vacuum cleaners or win political office.

  • Great work. “It is a false assumption that to convince a believer about the validity of atheism (or rather, the absurdity of religion) one needs to be gentle and defensive. That is complete bull.” Great words of wisdom. We will definitely carry forward your mission Ajita.

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