Richard Dawkins and Islam: my debate on BBC Radio with Daniel Trilling

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Yesterday I debated Daniel Trilling of New Statesman (soon to be editor of New Humanist) about Trilling’s criticism of recent comments by Richard Dawkins about Islam. The discussion was on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, hosted by WIlliam Crawley.


I will analyse what we discussed in a later post, but I want to first of all publish here a transcript of the debate.

William Crawley: We are used to hearing criticism of the New Atheists, and especially Richard Dawkins, for their stridency. But, in recent months, more and more atheists have been joining the throng of critics to call for a more balanced, more respectful, more responsible discussion about religion. One of those new critics of New Atheism is Daniel Trilling of New Statesman, who next month becomes editor of New Humanist magazine, and that’s a lot of ‘New’s. He’s been explaining to me why he’s so concerned about Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers, and he’s been explaining it also to Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland.

Daniel Trilling: The problem is that among various prominent atheists, there seems to be a tendency to treat Islam as it was a special case, as if it was a specially bad religion, and its followers were particularly violent or inimical to the rest of society. To me, this isn’t about a clash of personalities, but really it’s a wider problem, and what people need to recognise is that sometimes discourse that presents itself as criticism of religion is actually a cover from more conventional racist views.

Written By: Michael Nugent
continue to source article at michaelnugent.com

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    • In reply to #1 by Mr DArcy:

      Trilling appears to be in the running for the gold prize in Pussyfooting.

      Pussyfooting is the first word that sprang to my mind too. From the article:

      there seems to be a tendency to treat Islam as it was a special case

      Well, duh, every religion is a special case in its own way!

      as if it was a specially bad religion, and its followers were particularly violent or inimical to the rest of society

      Is this Trilling blind or stupid I wonder?

  1. That was Daniel Trilling of New Statesman, the new editor of New Humanist magazine, he takes up that job in September, speaking with Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland.

    Oh dear! What a very unfortunate appointment! They had better sack this confused apologist before he does any more damage to secularist progress!

    • In reply to #3 by Alan4discussion:

      That was Daniel Trilling of New Statesman, the new editor of New Humanist magazine, he takes up that job in September, speaking with Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland.

      Oh dear! What a very unfortunate appointment! They had better sack this confused apologist before he does any more damage to se…

      Yes. I’ve only just started to read New Humanist, and I was disappointed by Trilling’s stance. I’ve written to the magazine in complaint.

  2. Conflating the religion Islam with those who label themselves (or are forced by their environment to label themselves) as being Muslims is a favourite tactic of the apologists: “My neighbors are Muslims and they are suuuuuuuch nice people, how can you possibly talk about their beliefs like that…which, by the way, they don’t even follow?!?”

    What is typically left on the cutting room floor in these exchanges while it is in fact the very foundation of the entire debate, is touched on by Nugent and, predictably, completely ignored by Trilling and Crawley: “Something is either true or it isn’t true.”

    Whether there is some good to be salvaged out of the barbaric nonsense of religion’s teachings is irrelevant. Whether some good is done in the name of religion is irrelevant. Whether there are good people who self identify or are identified as members of one religious group or another is irrelevant.

    The question should be: Why should we tolerate known clear and present falsehoods and their propagation regardless their origin. The correct answer is: We should not. The answer given by atheist apologists like Trilling and those that infest this website is: We should not, except in the case of religion.

      • In reply to #33 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #4 by godsbuster:

        Liked your comment, but strictly speaking he is a religious apologist, even if he claims to be an atheist. Atheism, as you well know, has nothing to apologise for.

        Yes, you are correct. You don’t even have to be speaking strictly. I had seen that and wanted to go back and correct it to “atheist apologist of religion” but the editing window had by then already mercilessly closed.

        What is especially annoying about it is that is an important distinction. A garden-variety religious apologist for religion, say, a Douglas Wilson who went on that debate tour with Christopher Hitchens can even evoke pity for his naivety (and having to repeatedly face Hitch on the podium). Or, like a William Lane Craig, evoke disgust for his snake oily sleazy dishonest debating tactics. However, with the likes of in-house saboteurs like Trilling and some regular posters here, betrayal enters into the mix.

        There is a reason why treason is so reviled and severely penalized. Coming in for far greater opprobrium even than hostile acts committed by an enemy, say, in the course of warfare.

    • In reply to #4 by godsbuster:

      To you and I the only important thing about an assertion is whether it is true or not.

      Other people judge quite differently. They don’t feel the tiniest bit embarrassed about disagreeing with you on the primacy of truth. What is very hard for you and I to understand is they don’t give a flying fig if some nutty article of faith is false. That is partly why they feel so little guilt trying to trick you into believing some nutty assertion. The truth is irrelevant — just some property atheists are hung up on.

      Other values:

      1. How will it make people behave if it is widely believed?
      2. How will it make people feel it is widely believed? (Your dead dog is waiting for you in heaven)
      3. How will it trick others into giving me money, status, a free house?
      4. Is it beautiful? (Santa is obviously false, (even children debunk it), but quite beloved).
      5. Did I learn it while feeling exceptionally happy? If yes this must be a telegram from the creator of the universe not to be questioned.
      6. What do various people I respect have to say about the idea?
      7. What is the consensus in my community?
      8. What do recognised experts say? (If you are a JW there are boards of people who act like an encyclopedia. All questions that could touch faith must go to the them for final answers.) On the other hand, there are people who automatically assume any info from a corporation, government or university is a lie. There is no need to check.
      9. does it fit with my world view (e.g. God is about tho destroy the world, so none of the stuff science says could be true).
  3. Trilling is repeating a mantra started by the religious to avoid defending their faith instead playing the man and not the ball. I think this is comming very close to slander. His explaination as to why he didn’t use his article to correct what he admitted was factually incorrect because Richard has had the opportunity to respond was very telling. I for one am extremely grateful that Richard is giving a loud and prominent voice to my concerns about a religion.

  4. Does that mean that we are not allowed to say that Islam is bullshit ?

    It’s bullshit. It mentions a flying horse.

    Now, sure enough, racists are singling Islam out as a bad religion, to target a population.

    But 2/3 of all Muslims live in Asia (1 billion out of 1.5 billion) – 200 millions of them in Indonesia. Your average Muslim has slanted eyes or looks Indian.

    Islam is not a race ; it’s an ideology. That is what has to be taught so Islam could be freely criticized for what it is : terrible and powerful bullshit among other religious bullshits.

    Is it worse than the rest ? Well, it punishes apostasy by death, so at least in that regard, it has to change and the Coran has to be edited or rejected. Full stop.

    • In reply to #6 by Ornicar:

      Does that mean that we are not allowed to say that Islam is bullshit ?

      It’s bullshit. It mentions a flying horse.

      Now, sure enough, racists are singling Islam out as a bad religion, to target a population.

      But 2/3 of all Muslims live in Asia (1 billion out of 1.5 billion) – 200 millions of them i…

      Of 1.2 billion Indians 83% are Hindus, a sizable percentage of which are anti-islamic right wingers. So yes, without supporting those rightwing nuts, it is certainly evident that Islam is not a race or ethnicity. Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism or any other fairy taler should be openly criticized as much as one likes.

  5. I didn’t get far in the transcript before wanting to throw something at the computer. Trilling bases his “logic” (quotation marks, because it really isn’t) on placing in the mouths of his naysayers the false, even barmy, premise that because Islam is not a race, “therefore nothing that is said about Islam can be racist”. His words. His thinking. And that criticism of Islam, in that it cannot be context free, is “therefore” (repeat use of quotation marks for first reason) racist in character.

    So Islam has nothing in it that makes it contemptible on its own grounds? It must be protected from scorn merely because it is associated with non-Anglo Saxon tribes? So I have to be silent about, say, the sourcing of human body parts by witch doctors because that is an anti-African viewpoint?

    Bleeding heck, if this is the sort of craven, cringing, cult-pampering surrender that comes from the future editor of the New Humanist I can’t see myself wanting to sign up in a hurry. No way. What an embarrassment.

  6. I’ll just put here a tiny excerpt from the interview which needs neither comment nor pointer as to which person is the shamefully idiotic tit:

    Michael Nugent: it’s not singling out Islam. We are discussing Islam today because you raised the topic in your article in response to Richard’s comments…

    Daniel Trilling: And you have just singled it out, that’s my point.

  7. ” Richard had his chance to respond “

    Why would anyone respond to this? The accusation of racism is fatuous as islam is not a race.

    ” a tendency to treat Islam as it was a special case, as if it was a specially bad religion, and its followers were particularly violent or inimical to the rest of society.”

    ” Behead those who insult the prophet ” ( and many more )

    Ya, that sounds about like any other religion!

  8. Islam is perhaps treated as a special case because it is responsible for more violence in the world today than any other religion. It has the potential to start nuclear warfare. That’s why Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other prominent atheists are concerned about it. It’s got nothing to do with racism.

    • In reply to #16 by prietenul:

      Too many on the Left subscribe to the theory: An enemy of my enemy is my friend. This is the real reason the charge of racism is being invoked by Leftists to stifle criticism of Islam.

      And many of us on the Left are disgusted by that stance. I do not regard people as being remotely Left, if they want to pander to theocrats, homophobes and misogynists. They’re clericofascists.

  9. In reply to #10 by Smill:

    In reply to Godsbuster, post 4. People ‘infest’ this website? Can you think of a moment in history when a ruling ideology has referred to any particular group of people as animals, and for what purpose and with what outcome?

    You bet:

    The Holy Qur’an 008.055
    “Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are those who disbelieve, then they would not believe.”

    The Holy Qur’an 008.022
    “Surely the vilest of animals, in Allah’s sight, are the deaf, the dumb, who do not understand.”

    And in another glorious example of how Islam scooped modern “western” science in this case Evolution’s suggestion that we are related to apes:

    The Holy Qur’an 002.065
    “And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath: We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.”

  10. In reply to #10 by Smill:

    The question should be: Why should we tolerate known clear and present falsehoods and their propagation regardless their origin. The correct answer is: We should not. The answer given by atheist apologists like Trilling and those that infest this website is: We should not, except in the case of religion.

    In reply to godsbuster, post 4. People ‘infest’ this website?

    Yeah. Websites. Countries. If you don’t subscribe to this point of view (I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of linking to this particular comment on threads like this one) you’re part of an infestation in the eyes of certain site members.

    Cockroaches, Muslims, leftists. All much of a muchness.

    It’s political correctness. Before that came along, a Paki was a Paki, a queer was a queer (this was before those deviants took that word back for themselves). A smack on the fanny or playful squeeze of the breast from a male coworker was taken in good humor by us women; we were just grateful to be out of the house.

    If only we could return to the halcyon days of yesteryear, to a time before the fascistic PC brigade came along and one could say with impunity anything one wanted about those different from oneself. To a time when anybody who wasn’t a Caucasian, heterosexual, Christian male would receive regular beatings ― and be grateful for the attention.

  11. “what people need to recognise is that sometimes discourse that presents itself as criticism of religion is actually a cover from more conventional racist views.”

    Well, this is certainly correct, and not always obviously so. The question is when that’s true, and when it’s used as an excuse for not addressing actual criticism of religion and/or Islam.

  12. “What I was trying to do was to draw out some wider points from that discussion, and what I really take issue with is the constant refrain, that Richard Dawkins and many others have repeated, that Islam is a religion not a race, and therefore nothing that is said about Islam can be racist. I just think that is completely untrue.”

    Go into any number of mosques and you will see black, brown, oriental and even Caucasians worshipping. Go into any ‘Muslim’ country, such as Pakistan and you will also find Christians, Hindus, Atheists… You do not choose your skin colour, or country of birth, you DO choose whether or not to follow the religion you were brought up in. What connects Muslims across the globe is not skin colour or country of birth, but their shared belief in an ideology. Therefore it is nothing to do with race! What is so hard to grasp about that simple principle?

    In fact, I’ll go one better. If it is racist to criticise Islam, then that must be some sort of segregation that kept a certain ethnicity out of it i.e. it was racist because it was targeting anyone not of ethnicity x. Unfortunately by that simple act, that would also make Islam itself a racist organisation and therefore thoroughly deserving of criticism is the name of anti-bigotry and anti-racism!

    • In reply to #22 by AsylumWarden:

      You do not choose your skin colour, or country of birth, you DO choose whether or not to follow the religion you were brought up in. What connects Muslims across the globe is not skin colour or country of birth, but their shared belief in an ideology.

      The penalty for leaving Islam is death. It’s absolutely not a choice for Muslims to reject Islam in a Muslim country.

      Are you equating race with skin colour? What has skin colour got to do with anything?

  13. In reply to #15 by David W:

    Islam is perhaps treated as a special case because it is responsible for more violence in the world today than any other religion…

    Can I just ask how you know Islam is responsible for more violence in the world today than any other religion.

    Do you think Israeli casualties outnumber Palestinian casualties in that conflict?

    Neo-Nazism is on the rise in Europe again, bless its Christian heart.

    Soon to be corpse Robert Mugabe is an ardent Catholic, as is the repulsive Tony Blair. Blair’s master during his term in office, George W Bush, is an evangelical Christian and war criminal.

    …It has the potential to start nuclear warfare.

    Does it? Leaving aside for a second how a religion has the potential to start a nuclear conflict (that to me is a bit like saying vegetarianism can hold up a convenience store, but I get your meaning), how many countries in the Muslim world are currently in possession of atomic weaponry?

    Why are all of you not remotely racist Islamaphobic types not going all ants in the pants about North Koreans or Chinamen. There’s about a billion of them and we know they’ve got nuclear weapons and don’t give a Belgian’s biscuit about human rights.

    It’s said as well that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So tell me again which is the only country in the world ever to deliberately kill people with atom bombs and why I shouldn’t be more scared of them and their Rapture ready, take me to Jesus political class, and the stone age Muzzies are the ones I should really be feart of.

    My niece’s bunny rabbit has the potential to start nuclear warfare.

    If I were to stick a plutonium rod up its bum.

    • In reply to #23 by Katy Cordeth:

      In reply to #15 by David W:

      Why are all of you not remotely racist Islamaphobic types not going all ants in the pants about North Koreans or Chinamen.

      Why shouldn’t I be more scared of and their Rapture ready, take me to Jesus political class, and the stone age Muzzies are the ones I should really be feart of.

      My niece’s bunny rabbit has the potential to start nuclear warfare.

      If I were to stick a plutonium rod up its bum.

      I’m worried about all those things, fairly equally. Except the rabbit.

  14. The penalty for leaving Islam is death. It’s absolutely not a choice for Muslims to reject Islam in a Muslim country.

    The penalty for leaving Islam is death, I agree. It’s not a choice as in ‘Islam allows it’, but it is still a human choice. There are many closet atheists in Muslim countries.

    Are you equating race with skin colour? What has skin colour got to do with anything?

    Nothing. That’s my point.

    • In reply to #25 by AsylumWarden:

      It’s not a choice as in ‘Islam allows it’, but it is still a human choice.

      Death, imprisonment, persecution, loss of job, family, friends is not what anybody would choose. You can’t call it a choice unless it’s a genuine option, maybe a difficult one, but not an absolute disaster. A few heroic martyrs would accept their fate but not the vast majority. And atheism, after all, is the rational point of view. So, you’re wrong to call it a ‘choice’, for Muslims in Muslim countries. It could be considered a choice for the minority who live in free societies, who have been born into them or who have been able to seek refuge in them. Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes to mind. She’s a woman of extraordinary courage but she does have a degree of protection by living and working in America.

      On the subject of racism, the targets of it don’t have to be a ‘race’, in any objective sense. They are people who are stereotyped and stigmatised with the worst characteristics attributed to them by the racists. Jews are not a race (or are they?), but they are the victims of anti-Semitism. Judaism is definitely not a race, but a religion. Islam is a religion, definitely not a race, but Muslims are definitely victims of Islamophobia.

      • In reply to #27 by aldous:

        In reply to #25 by AsylumWarden:

        It’s not a choice as in ‘Islam allows it’, but it is still a human choice.

        Death, imprisonment, persecution, loss of job, family, friends is not what anybody would choose. You can’t call it a choice unless it’s a genuine option, maybe a difficult one, but not an a…

        Fine, since you insist on being pedantic. There are no physical barriers that exist to leaving Islam – only the ones society puts in place. Similarly you are not born a Muslim, Christian etc. You are brought up into that culture. The same cannot be said for skin colour – that is a physical attribute that people have absolutely no say over whatsoever (unless you count expensive cosmetic surgery). The same is true of natural hair colour, height, facial shape – all the things that traditionally define ‘race’.

        Racism judges people on those traits – assuming (wrongly IMO) that these physical traits determine personality. It condemns (or encourages different treatment) of things people have no control over. It is therefore completely wrong to equate this with the judgment of people on an ideology – something that people DO have absolute control over (barring societal imposed barriers) and that furthermore DOES tell you something about that persons character; albeit in many cases not to the degree some people may claim.

  15. I’m not in possession of evidence to the effect, but I’d hazard a guess that as with Christians the vast majority of Muslims believers rely on what their leaders tell them their holy books contain, and have never read them themselves to confirm the content.

    If adherents were to be asked simple questions like what is the first book in the New Testament, or how many suras are there in the Qur’an, my guess is that the questioner would receive less correct answers than incorrect ones; but, as I say, I’m guessing.

    • In reply to #26 by Stafford Gordon:

      I’m not in possession of evidence to the effect, but I’d hazard a guess that as with Christians the vast majority of Muslims believers rely on what their leaders tell them their holy books contain, and have never read them themselves to confirm the content.

      Irrespective of what believers actually believe, the sacred texts set out the belief system. Since these texts are, in the universe of the believers, THE TRUTH, it is reasonable to take this as the position to be the subject of derision by reasonable people. Mohammed’s flying horse, God’s sex life are ridiculous. If the believers agree, or don’t care, let them give up the nonsense and join the unreligious. If they seek to defend them, how are they going to do I?. It’s all metaphorical? Metaphorical of what?

      Metaphors are ways of expressing literal truth, a means of explaining what is difficult to understand or a means for the poet to enhance the power and beauty of what the rest of us take too easily for granted or struggle to do justice to. What is the literal truth that religious metaphors point to? A primitive worldview that would have long been discarded were it not the basis of the wealth and influence of religious institutions and those who serve them?

  16. Daniel Trilling seems to embody that ideological aspect of humanism which I have always found most troubling. He is advocating for a kind of group-think thought policing I haven’t encountered since 1984.

    I will only remain a humanist until we discover or create something better. Humans are nowhere near ideal, yet.

  17. Yes Mr Trilling. As a fellow traveller, as you put it, of Professor Dawkins, I can see why you would be so concerned about us treating Islam as a special case; a particularly bad religion.

    Because, as you say, that must surely be just a mask for expressing racist views.

    Although, weird as this may sound, could it just be a weeny bit possible that we are actually concerned that Islam actually is a special case; a particularly bad religion?

    Just ponder that we are not hashing the remarks of a fork-tongued politician here; but the words of a distinguished scientist. One who is known for choosing those words with care.

    Also, Richard was commenting on the fact that Islamic societies seem to be at a disadvantage to the rest of the western world regarding the development of science and technology; especially in terms of innovation.

    This is to be extremely kind and tactful to Muslims, as it skirts around the far worse issues of racial supremacism, misogyny, intolerance and the unreformed barbaric punishments in sharia law. All of which are certainly implicated in the various conflicts involving Muslims around the globe, at least in the views of some.

    Well, me, anyway!

  18. Will not be renewing my subscription to New Humanist.

    I discuss all of these issues with a work colleague who most would assume is a Muslim because he is brown and from Pakistan.

    He’s like me, an atheist, only he is trapped by his religious based culture of his childhood which he cannot escape – essentially he pretends to be a good muslim and gets away with it. I wonder how many others like him are hiding in “plain sight”?
    Keep stating facts Richard; it’s exactly what converted me to the truth.

    • In reply to #35 by price:

      Will not be renewing my subscription to New Humanist.

      I discuss all of these issues with a work colleague who most would assume is a Muslim because he is brown and from Pakistan.

      He’s like me, an atheist, only he is trapped by his religious based culture of his childhood which he cannot escape – e…

      I agree. Trilling is a moral coward. Time and again, what I find on places like the Guardian, is that right-wing Christians will respond to being called out on their misogynistic and homophobic religion by saying, “You wouldn’t say that about Islam!” I would, and I do. And for that, people I would otherwise regard as allies then cry “Racist!” I regard all religions as fantasies, and I particularly deplore all that peddle the oppression of women and LGBT people because their gods and ‘holy books’ claim they should. I’m not going to treat some of them with kid gloves.

  19. @stafford gordon — I think your guess is probably pretty spot on. But, on the second point, I think there was a recent survey that backs up what you’re saying. Atheists scored first, Jews second, and christians last on a test. I think I read the results on this website. I took the test and got a perfect score thanks to my southern baptist grandfather who made me read the bible out loud as a kid.

    As to the article, this dance is getting tiresome. To me the huge pink elephant in the room as to religion is, it claims to know what the creator of the universe wants. An ALL KNOWING being. So, saying that these beliefs are a thousand years old and outdated and not even followed anyway should be a giant RED FLAG! How could an all knowing being be wrong about anything??? The guidelines should’ve stood the test of time because they came from a being with knowledge of the future for the love of Pete.

  20. Islamic punishment

    The link above ostensibly contains a grizzy picture of the Islamic punishment for reading the bible.

    When I was studying Islam in the 1990s in Vancouver, I learned that both the OT and NT were official Islamic holy books, though the Qur’an was definitive. Further the parts of the Qur’an written last trump the early versions. This same principle applied to the OT and NT.

    If somebody is harming people for reading the bible, the tormentors would be ignorant of this. Reverting by rejecting the Qur’an is considered very wicked, however.

  21. What a cowardly wuss-puss Trilling is. he would sell out his loved ones, capitulate and accommodate and appease . The of course, they’ll get their sickening way. When are these pussies going to learn that the demands for respect will never stop until we stand up together and say NO!

    David Silverman’s 2 recent youtubes prove the point that firm atheism is working to diminish the religious threat of both xtianity and islam. I do wish people would watch these very exciting speeches of Silverman’s and be inspired!

    I also notice Trilling fails to understand how islam comes to dominate slowly by setting up the right conditions years ahead of time. That’s very dangerous to not get an education about how that all works. Why is this fuckwit even talking about racism! He is a know nothing who should not be editing an atheist production. What a worry!

  22. “more and more atheists have been joining the throng of critics to call for a more balanced, more respectful, more responsible discussion about religion”.
    Don’t like this generality of phrasing. It makes it sound like I’m one of those idiots. I also won’t be picking up any new editions of New Humanist. How can these guys be falling for the nonsense that blunt and frank discussion is disrespectful? When you robustly criticize religion you seek to gain human dignity and freedom for people who’ve never known it because of religion. No one should apologize for the tone and style they use to do that.

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