The Hypocrisy of Richard Dawkins

At yesterday’s Reason Rally, the acknowledged headline speaker was the famous Richard Dawkins. And Dawkins, true to form, managed to display both hypocrisy and irrationality in the course of his fifteen minute speech.

To set the stage, let’s remember the promise the Reason Rally organizers made to us on their website:

Are we just going to use this opportunity to trash religion?
No. This will be a positive experience, focusing on all non-theists have achieved in the past several years (and beyond) and motivating those in attendance to become more active. While speakers have the right to say what they wish, the event is indeed a celebration of secular values.

There are two ways to understand this paragraph:

  1. We will not trash religion at all during the Reason Rally.
  2. We will trash religion at the Reason Rally, but not “just” that (‘just’ being the key word). We will also celebrate non-theist accomplishments. A positive experience that celebrates secular values, rightly understood, includes trashing religion, in addition to other activities.

Before the Reason Rally, I thought this statement should be understood in the first way. However, after the repeated trashing of religion from multiple speakers at the event, it is clear that one of the primary purposes of the Reason Rally was to ‘trash religion.” Therefore, this statement on the Reason Rally about page elaborates that, in addition to “just” using “the opportunity” for that kind of “positive experience,” the Reason Rally also planned to celebrate other secular values.

Either way, it isn’t good. Perhaps it is the case that secular people want to be known as a community that trashes religion and religious people as a core part of their value system. To state the obvious, this would be intolerant, judgmental, and in the worst case scenario, just hateful. Or, alternatively, they completely failed to live up to one of their stated values at “the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history.”

In any case, in his headline speech at the Reason Rally, the most famous speaker, Richard Dawkins, managed to contradict himself on precisely the point of contempt for religious people.

Early in the speech (starting at 7:28), Richard Dawkins addressed some criticism:

I am often accused of expressing contempt and despising religious people. I don’t despise religious people, I despise what they stand for. I like, I like to quote the British journalist Johann Hari [?], who said, ‘I have no contempt for you,’ sorry, ‘I have so much respect for you, that I cannot respect your ridiculous ideas.’

But then, towards the end of his speech, he said this (seven minutes later, starting at 14:28):

When I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is, don’t believe you, I don’t believe you, until you tell me, do you really believe, for example, if they say they are Catholic, do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the Body of Christ. Are you seriously telling me you believe that?! Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood? Mock them! Ridicule them! [Pause]. In public. Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off the list. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged, and if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt. [Cheering].

That is a stunning turnaround. First, Dawkins denies that he expresses contempt for religious people. He denies that he despises them. He makes clear that it is only their ideas which disturb him, because it is the ideas that are ridiculous.

But then, at the end of his speech, Dawkins encourages those at the Reason Rally to “mock” and “ridicule,” in public, the actual religious people he disagrees with. Mock them. Ridicule them. For good measure, he also encouraged the attendees to ‘ridicule with contempt’ religious claims.

Yes, Richard Dawkins, you are often accused of “expressing contempt and despising religious people” because even when you deny that you do this, in the very same speech you encourage thousands of people to publicly express contempt and actively despise other people. And the crowd cheers! This is hypocritical – and given that this was a keynote speech at the Reason Rally – a bit irrational as well.

Imagine what he could have said. He could have suggested,

When they suggest an idea that you find crazy, it will be frustrating, but ask some questions to make sure you really understand their point of view. Then, I encourage you to reason with them. In terms of attitude, I’ve found it is best to keep calm and avoid getting angry. Instead, trust that a loving and reasonable attitude towards the person will bring about a friendly connection and the opportunity for discovering truth together. When the time is right, and they are interested, share the evidence and reasons for your own viewpoint. But again, whatever you do, don’t ridicule or mock them. Keep the focus on the ideas, the evidence, and the arguments.

Let me give an example of what I mean. Even though I’m an outspoken atheist, I want to give credit for an idea in many religions, which I also believe is wise: ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ At The Reason Rally, we want to show that atheists can be moral people. Therefore, it makes sense for us to actively look to find common ground and reason well, with respect, when other people believe ideas that we find to be crazy. Let’s show the world how respectful, loving, and reasonable atheists really are!

Instead, Dawkins rallied his troops for the intolerance and irrationality of “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public.”

Out of sincere respect for atheists, please, raise the bar to a higher standard. Let’s find a way to respect each other and get along when we disagree. This isn’t a game but about something really important. You’re right to be upset when you are hated by religious people – so don’t respond in kind and become like those you oppose. If he hadn’t already, surely with this hypocritical and irrational speech at The Reason Rally, Richard Dawkins has discredited himself as a reasonable spokesperson for your movement.

For further conversation:

I’ve co-edited a book called True Reason that discusses the claims of the new atheists to be the only rational people, and provides arguments why Christianity is a more rational worldview. Sounds crazy, right? I invite you to reason together about the arguments and evidence the book provides.