Dawkins, atheism, and the right to discuss religions

Okay, so this has been sitting in my ‘to post’ folder for a while, so now it feels a bit dated, but I’m posting it anyways because… well, because it’s my blog and I’ll do as I like, really.  But for the datedness – mea culpa.

So continuing my desire to post cool stuff before I delve into horrible ridiculousness, Nahida has an absolutely brilliant post over on the fatal feminist about how the Western desire to depict the Prophet (peace be upon him) intersects with racism.  Check it out!

Also, apropos of nothing, here’s a video of a very responsible cat walking a very confused dog.  I particularly appreciate the dog’s look.  “I… I don’t think I like this?… But I? … Okay..”

Okay, now that we’re filling sufficiently chill and full of good idea and reasonable arguments – Richard Dawkins!

So for those who haven’t heard, Professor Dawkins decided to defend Lawrence Krauss’ decision to ‘almost’ walk out on a debate held at University College London and hosted by the Islamic Education and Research Academy because the attendees appeared to be segregated by gender with the greatest weapon in his arsenal – twitter.  He tweeted several sarcastic comments about the event, including “I don’t think Muslims should segregate sexes at University College London events. Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me.”  Because if there’s one thing that’s hilarious, it’s RACISM.  Amiright?

First off, I want to point out on behalf of my fellow ladies (heeeellloooo, ladies) that “almost walking out” on something that you think might be sexist isn’t exactly gold-star ally material.  Generally speaking, most oppressed groups expect allies to speak up, present ideas and (God forbid!) use their position of privilege to open up spaces for members of the oppressed group to speak for themselves.  Krauss could have called attention to the gender segregation and used it as an opportunity to allow women in the audience to speak for themselves, instead of “almost walking out” and then praising himself for doing so on twitter, which is nearly indistinguishable from doing nothing.

How to be an ally 101 aside, though, I think the real question I want to raise about the whole thing is: how much should we care what Richard Dawkins thinks about Muslims?

Now, I can’t deny that I’m not Professor Dawkins’ biggest fan, but that’s partly because I end up being asked to talk about him more than I think is reasonable, which makes me feel like people are already over-valuing his opinion.  When people find out what I study, “what do you think of The God Delusion?” is a pretty common follow-up question (along with “have you converted?” and “so do you want to work for the CIA?”).  My stock answer is that I’m not terribly impressed by it, in the same way that if I decided to sit down and write a biology textbook tomorrow, I don’t expect many scientists would be terribly impressed by it.  It strikes me as having been written by someone with a better-than-average but by no means expert understanding of hermeneutics, Biblical analysis or church history, who doesn’t appear to have any understanding of comparative religion or the methodology for studying non-Western religions, and who hasn’t really done much reading on the subject, which is what I would expect from a book on theology written by the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science.  For the same reason, if someone inexplicably asked me to write a book about biology, I might suggest that they go speak to Professor Dawkins at St John’s College, Oxford, as being way more qualified.

Which gets us back to the question of how much we should care what Richard Dawkins thinks about Muslims?  He’s not speaking from a position of expertise, he’s speaking as a vocal defendant of an alternative perspective on divinity.

I’ve talked before about whether atheism should be considered a religion, and the fact that, from an academic standpoint, it’s hard to come up with a definition of “religion” that includes everything we want to include that doesn’t include atheism, particular the vocal, organized atheism of Dawkins and Krauss, by default.  After all, the title of the debate that Krauss ‘almost walked out’ on was “Islam or atheism: which makes more sense?”  Replace “atheism” with the name of any other religion, and it’s obvious that that debate is pointless.  “Islam or Christianity: which makes more sense?”  Oddly enough, I’m going to guess that the Muslim respondent is going to say Islam, and the Christian respondent is going to say Christianity.  And more amazing still – they’re both right.  Or at least, they’re both speaking genuinely of their own experiences – their religion does make more sense to them than the other religion.  The same goes for atheism – atheism makes more sense for atheists than theism, but there’s a big difference between that and any sort of provable, objective standard of “makes more sense.”

And here’s where I think it starts to matter how much we care what Richard Dawkins thinks about Muslims.  There’s nothing wrong with caring what he thinks, but we need to do so in a valid context, one that recognizes that not only is he not immune to the normal human tendencies towards bias and bigotry, but perhaps more susceptible to them, because he has dedicated a rather sizable portion of his life to defending a variant view on the nature of the divine.  Messages which speak of Muslims as inherently wrong will always fit well with members of variant viewpoints, because they share certain assumptions, and unfortunately Islamophobia is one of those messages which speaks of Muslims as inherently wrong.  Most people who work with interfaith dialogues are very aware of this point, and work hard to create spaces in which religions can communicate with one another, not by ignoring their differences, but by addressing them and then putting the unsolvable differences to one side, and speaking to the points of shared belief or possible reconciliation.  But atheists stand apart from this tradition, because being part of ‘interfaith dialogue’ would essentially label them as a faith.  This is, of course, their prerogative – their community of like-minded people should be allowed to gather under whatever rules they like – but if they want to do so with members of religious traditions, I think some consideration of the other side needs to be made, and that’s what I see as lacking here.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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7 Responses to Dawkins, atheism, and the right to discuss religions

  1. qolyehudi says:

    Reblogged this on A Jewish Voice and commented:
    Jessica, the owner of askanislamist, posted this interesting post at her blog. I can only encourage the readers to visit her blog and spend some time reading her posts.

  2. FloweryHedgehog says:

    I feel like writing up a checklist on how not to be an ally to Muslim women (and specifically Muslim feminists). I think the most important item on the checklist would be to pretend that Muslim feminists don’t actually exist and haven’t been articulating their own positions on what should happen in their communities and why. Dawkins has really mastered that one!

    • You definitely should! I feel like, in general, good Ally 101 behavior is – if you think you’ve just discovered how oppression affects the oppressed, you’re wrong, they already know about it. Really, when you’re on the receiving end, it’s often difficult to miss!

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that his “almost” walking out (and then self-aggrandizing, to my mind, after the fact) wasn’t the best way to publicize the issue or function as a good ally for any feminists, Muslim or otherwise.

    • Yeah, honestly, that was what stood out first for me – I really can’t imagine someone praising themselves for ‘almost walking out’ on an event, as almost walking out is effectively the same as ‘just sitting there.’

      • Exactly! I know it’s easy to say “if it had been me, I’d have walked out,” but I don’t think tooting his own horn and getting Dawkins involved reflects especially well on him regardless. It’s like saying “I MADE THIS PROTEST without effectively changing anything NOW TELL ME HOW GOOD I AM. I WANT A COOKIE.”

      • Exactly. (Also now I want a cookie.)

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