On Dawkins and Ignorance

Racism – it exists.  It’s not easy to talk about, it’s something most of us don’t want to talk about in the hope it will just go away.  It hasn’t.  I find it awkward to talk about it myself, largely because I grew up in a majority; so I am not sure I can really understand, though I try to be empathetic with, the direct effects of racism.  Being raised a white, protestant female in a region of the USA which is pretty dominated by white protestants, doesn’t exactly put me in the minority.  Yes I am female, but I have also had advantages.

I was born during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA.  I don’t remember segregation, I was a baby, but I am a product of the after effects of the US South trying to heal.  I grew up watching Sesame Street – a Children’s program which was a champion of diversity. I grew up with an LP of ‘Free to Be You and Me”.  I grew up in a time where all children were required to read To Kill a Mockingbird.      

I am not saying racism disappeared during this time, or in any sense the Southern USA is a paragon of equality, sisterhood and brotherhood, but in the 70s the way the State thought best to combat racism was through education.  To this day, I am a firm believer that much racism is a result of ignorance. Ignorance isn’t synonymous with stupidity; Ignorance is a lack of knowledge.  But to behave in ignorance usually isn’t the best thing to do.  

This is what is so devastating about Richard Dawkins’ recent tweet about Muslims. He may not be intending to be racist, but it is pretty ignorant and willfully uninformed not to realize that is what he sounds like.  Saying something like Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive, is just ignorant, yet many people believe that Dawkins is among the world’s living geniuses.  His PR says he is supposed to be really smart and thoughtful.  Dawkins, who identifies himself as a Humanist and is in fact highly educated, most of us think (myself included) should know better.   

I do understand the counter-argument to this will be – ‘he was just stating a fact’.   But this again is somewhat ill-informed as Martin Robbins points out; factual statements are always made in some sort of context.  He argues this much better than I could even attempt to in his article for the New Statesman.  Though his fact is ‘true’ it is still an incredibly ignorant thing to say.  Life, as the man who wrote Unweaving the Rainbow should know, is complex.  Most of the Nobel prizes are won by people in the developed world – no surprises there – which has to do with all sorts of things. Better opportunities for those in the establishment (at least historically), exclusion for so many years of anyone but white males.  The list could go on.  

Richard Dawkins has often complained in writing, on Twitter and in speeches – that we give religion much more respect than it deserves.  Perhaps he is right, but in my estimation it is pretty ignorant to combat this by being deliberately offensive.  His defense of he’s just “stating of facts” just makes him appear even more ignorant.  I find this rather sad and in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
 

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @girlinterruptin
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7 Responses to On Dawkins and Ignorance

  1. cromercrox says:

    He also perpetuates unpleasant stereotypes about Jews, too. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/01/internationaleducationnews.religion

    • yes, I just think he likes to be deliberately offensive to all religions and I don’t even want to get started on his view on ‘All Americans are….’

  2. aeon says:

    I’m not intending to defend someone who uses a medium with 140 characters to shout out stuff which everybody is not interested in. But I hate it when people are confusing rants about religion with rants about the stupid concept of “race”. And I find it mindbogglingly anglo-saxon to react with a not-so-much elaborate controversy in multiple media.

    If you make distinctions, make them correct. Otherwise, you are just doing what Dawkins seems to do: polarise. This whole thing is not about being part of a race, it’s part of a cultural heritage. And to quite a certain extent, you can choose which culture you are following. (Also true for “cult”, as it is.)

    So, calm down. Religion is not race. Religion is culture. We can change culture. And a culture of tolerance would be quite ok in most cases, with a few exceptions. One is racism. Zero tolerance there. If a racist speaks up, shove his arguments up where the sun doesn’t shine.
    Another no-go is any type of religion which is trying to influence other people’s life. Keep it to yourself, if you want to believe in supernatural things and externalise your ethics to written morals – otherwise, shut the f*** up and move along.

    This ranting white male on twitter is the answer to other ranting males on twitter, most of them religious extremists. They should all shut up. Getting involved there is as promising as hunting flies with a tennis racket. If you hit the air wildly enough, you might hit a fly on the head, but chances are that you might also tilt the tea pot, spill the sugar, and slice the cake into mushy bits.

  3. What disappoints me about this is that Dawkins resorts to Twitter. He is eloquent enough to convey precisely what he means… though that takes a whole more than 140 characters. I can only assume he is attempting to reach those he otherwise doesn’t – ie, those who don’t read his books – and in so doing exposes himself, not only to accusations of offensiveness (which I’m sure don’t worry him), but also of bigoted ignorance (which I would of thought might), digging himself a hole and attracting bad press in the manner of some UKIP gobshite.

    I think a more interesting take is to be had here, rather than from Martin Robbins, who could be read as though he’s relished the opportunity to have a go and disparage ‘the Atheist movement’ (… as racist?).

    Recent trollish goings-on on Twitter hardly smack of a ‘maturing community.’ Dawkins doesn’t need it.

  4. Cromercrox says:

    If Dawkins wants to take a pop at religion and academia, saying that more Nobel Laureates came out of Trinity College than from a Muslim background makes no sense. One would also have to remark on the fact that the number of Nobelists of a Jewish background is much greater than one would expect per capita. What does this mean? Bupkes!

  5. Paper_Pusher says:

    I must admit that I don’t like Dawkins very much, particularly as he uses his Facts to browbeat others into his way of thinking. Can one Fact (evolution) be superior to another? In my academic career (and other careers), the most useful insights I have had is when I have compared contradictory Facts, and then found that it was my understanding of the wider context or indeed the real situation that was lacking; the Facts were not wrong, it was my interpretation of their context and importance relative to each other that was wrong.

    Similarly, if someone should ever devise a perfectly infallible test that demonstrates factually that “black” people are less intelligent than “white” people, or that “hispanic” people are more intelligent than “white” people, or indeed that or “religious” people are more delusional than “rational” people, then this doesn’t really prove anything. I would like to think that an intelligent person would see mutual respect for another person, and shared education and understanding as a duty and responsibility, is what is appropriate. Dawkins’ attitude is far too much “intelligent vs stupid” and “master vs servant” for my liking.

  6. As often, Nick Cohen’s take is worth consideration.