Richard Dawkins’ nuanced memoir and the unjust personal smears against him

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An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins is a generous, nuanced and ethical memoir, and the recent personal smears against Richard by some atheists are unjust, hurtful and irresponsible. Some other atheists have disagreed with Richard in more considered terms, as should be expected and encouraged in any freethinking community

Some critics may dislike his outspoken criticism of religion, his distillation of complex arguments into the 140-character limit of Twitter, and his use of ridicule as a weapon of choice against what he sees as ridiculous. But the recent pattern of personal smears against him is disproportionate to any reasonable disagreement that his critics may have with him on issues, and it grossly misrepresents the man conveyed in his memoir.

Richard’s memoir

When Richard Dawkins recalls losing his virginity he concludes “But I’ll say no more on the subject, and will betray no confidences. It isn’t that sort of autobiography.” And indeed it isn’t. It is a generous and empathetic recollection of the first part of a remarkable life, in which he gives credit to those who helped him to channel his sense of wonder into science, expresses regret and guilt about some things that he feels he could have done better, and tries to see in a compassionate way the faults of those who have hurt him. It could not be further from the cold caricature of Richard that some of his critics, within and outside the atheist movement, like to inaccurately convey to the public.

His parents traveled widely throughout Africa before bringing Richard to England. Many of his childhood memories recall his natural gullibility, and his willingness to believe tall tales told to him by adults, including a man who convinced Richard that he had become invisible while playing hide and seek. He was terrified by ghosts, and he prayed to God to help him in various ways, before becoming an atheist after his confirmation. A common theme in the early part of his memoir is the need to teach children critical thinking skills, and to evaluate plausibility. He adds a caveat that he did not keep a childhood diary, so he may be mistaken in some recollections, and he reminds us that false and true memories can be indistinguishable.

Early schooldays

Richard compares his schooldays in England with some aspects of the movie ‘If’. He writes of a headmaster who caned boys with such severity that the bruises took several weeks to fade, turning from purple to blue to yellow on the way. Yet he does not believe that this man was guilty of cruelty or sadism, but sees this as an example of the speed with which customs and values change. He recalls that the same man was also capable of great kindness. He read stories to the boys, comforted frightened boys during severe thunderstorms and, on Sundays when parents took their children out for a day, he and his wife would take boys whose parents were absent for a picnic with their own children.

Richard writes of the cruel bullying that took place between boys at school, and declines to name one boy who was badly bullied in case he happens to read it and the memory is still painful. He recalls being empathetic towards boys who were in trouble with the school authorities, and thanks to reading Doctor Dolittle he was empathetic with nonhuman animals, but he expresses retrospective guilt that he did not have the empathy to try to stop the bullying between boys at the school. He compares the dynamic of this school bullying with the verbal cruelty and bullying in some internet forums today.

Because academic ability was not admired among his peers, Richard would sometimes pretend to know less than he did. Also, he disliked saying out loud when he got ten out of ten, because he had a stammer that made the word ten hard to say. He tells of a teacher who once put his hand down his pants, and when he told his friends, he discovered that many of them had the same experience. He writes that he doesn’t think that this teacher did any of them any lasting damage, but that some years later he killed himself. He also tells of his extracurricular immersion in beekeeping, poetry and music.

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

19 COMMENTS

  1. Why “old” is insult, BTW? I am not old – yet – but I will eventually be. Everyone will, we can´t help it. There´s nothing wrong with being old. Call me “old (put some insult here)” and I call you filthy scum.

  2. Notwithstanding that for many reasons it is terribly difficult and painful for some people to leave a religion, it is an elective decision and race is not.

    As for criticism of Islam, just like any religion it’s fair game; and if it’s too insubstantial to withstand being criticised then that in itself calls for criticism.

    I wouldn’t blame any Muslim for believeing everything that her religious leaders have told her, but I won’t allow myself to be cowed into silence about the lies she’s been told.

    The numbers game is just silly; if something is true then regardless of how many billions of people dislike it, or are told it isn’t true, it nontheless remains a fact.

    Everyone has to deal with the backlash they receive in their own way; Laurence Krauss makes fun of it, Daniel Dennett gently analyses it, Sam Harris calmly dismantles it, while Richard Dawkins tends to give it a haymaker on the chin!

    Which I think all adds to the gaiety of proceedings.

    • In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

      Notwithstanding that for many reasons it is terribly difficult and painful for some people to leave a religion, it is an elective decision and race is not.

      You can decide your race. At least, you can when you fill in the American census form. There are many people of mixed race who might choose one out of the mix. It’s more than painful to leave a religion if the penalty is death for apostates. .

      • In reply to #9 by aldous:

        In reply to #3 by Stafford Gordon:

        Notwithstanding that for many reasons it is terribly difficult and painful for some people to leave a religion, it is an elective decision and race is not.

        You can decide your race. At least, you can when you fill in the American census form. There are many peopl…

        Not quite the same thing, though. Choosing how to describe yourself isn’t the same as choosing what ethnicity your ancestors had.

        • In reply to #11 by Zeuglodon:

          We don’t choose our mother tongue, our religion, our culture, our race. We don’t even choose which god we are atheists about. The god of Protestant Christianity is the one I didn’t believe in, because that’s the one I grew up with. That is to say, until you are an adult in a free country, your capacity and ability to make choices is limited or non-existent. While you cannot eradicate your past, you can move on.

          In Mike Nugent’s rather touching championing of Richard against various preposterous slanders, one thing that struck me was the line that ‘Islam is not a race. However you define race, if you can convert to something (or convert or apostatize out of it) it is not a race.’ How do you define ‘race’ ? We can dodge the issue by using ‘ethnicity’ instead but we still have to consider why we talk about ‘racism’.

          • In reply to #12 by aldous:

            In reply to #11 by Zeuglodon:

            Well, in the context of Stafford Gordon’s reply, I took it to mean that “race” is biological ancestry based on the prehistoric isolation of populations, such that people from different geographical regions have slightly characteristic phenotypes. In that context, you can’t choose race for the same reason you can’t choose your parents or genes. It’s not the same as a socially constructed identity, which at least does depend on conscious decision-making. It’s different again from being coerced into adopting ideas or from being isolated from alternative views and ideas, which at least in principle can be overcome by education and reforms.

            For instance, I can choose whether or not I want to call myself an English Nationalist or Labour supporter because in the future, I might change my mind and identify with something else. However, even if I got a tan or dyed my hair or (in a hypothetical future) had surgery to remove any traces of European phenotypes, that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t choose whether my great-great-…-great-grandparents were European or African even if I wanted to. I think the distinction is clear enough, even if how people use the distinction can be misguided, hence racism.

            Going back to Nugent’s point, I imagine he’s distinguishing between Islam, which is a religious position one can opt into and leave (at least, minus coercion), and, say, being of Arabic race, which is about having an ancestral lineage mostly focused around North Africa and the Middle East. That’s why there’s a difference, for example, between Islamophobia and racism towards Arabic people, and why conflating the two is wrong.

          • In reply to #13 by Zeuglodon:

            …being of Arabic race, which is about having an ancestral lineage mostly focused around North Africa and the Middle East. That’s why there’s a difference, for example, between Islamophobia and racism towards Arabic people, and why conflating the two is wrong.

            How are you defining the ‘Arab race’? Do you mean native speakers of Arabic? Do you mean people who ‘look like Arabs’ ? Do you mean natives of the constituent countries of The Arab League? Actually, the people of North Africa and the Middle East, who are covered by these terms, are quite diverse. Isn’t racism against Arabs, really a social construct? It isn’t going to manifest itself by identifying people as Arabs through genealogical research.

            For example, resentment against a Saudi in flowing robes getting out of his Rolls Royce in Mayfair is down to the connotation of undeserved wealth, whereas an Egyptian journalist walking past in a business suit is not identified as an Arab at all. Israeli soldiers racially harass Palestinians at checkpoints because Arabs are seen as enemies of the Jewish state.

            Prejudice against Muslims, is of a similar sort. They are identified by external signs, such as dress, colour, names, cultural behaviour. They are all lumped together and prejudice against individuals comes from the supposed obnoxious characteristics of the group.

            Stigmatising Roman Catholics, Roma, East Europeans, Muslims, Kurds, Africans is racism, although none of the targets is identified by genealogy. Perhaps, we need some new terms, like religionism, ethnicism, ethno-religionism but, in the meantime, the word ‘racism’ applies.

          • In reply to #14 by aldous:

            How are you defining the ‘Arab race’?

            Er, you know I’d just explained this in my previous post, right?

            Isn’t racism against Arabs, really a social construct?

            No. Again, I thought I just explained this.

            Prejudice against Muslims, is of a similar sort.

            No, it’s not, except when people confuse Arabic race with Islam. Most Arabs are Muslims, true, and people have used that to make assumptions about Muslims, but they’re not identical concepts. Not every Arab is a Muslim, and not every Muslim is an Arab.

            Stigmatising Roman Catholics, Roma, East Europeans, Muslims, Kurds, Africans is racism.

            The last thing we should be doing is using the word that loosely, especially when it obscures rather than reveals any further talking points for any discussion on the issue. You can’t just jumble up those things and claim they’re all races. I could convert to Islam or to Roman Catholicism, but I can’t convert to an African. Keep racism to the issue of physical characteristics and genetic history, and use some other word for the rest, to avoid confusion. You had a good list. Let’s call Islamophobia religious prejudice, or something.

          • In reply to #15 by Zeuglodon:
            In reply to #15 by Zeuglodon:

            Let’s call Islamophobia religious prejudice, or something.

            Let’s call it Islamophobia. Anti-Semitism is a parallel term.

            However, I recall Mike Nugent’s apologia on this point.
            “He ( Richard Dawkin) said that the Jews are not a race. You can argue about whether Judaism is a religion or a cultural tradition, but whatever else it is it is not a race.”

          • In reply to #16 by aldous:

            In reply to #15 by Zeuglodon:

            Let’s call Islamophobia religious prejudice, or something.

            Let’s call it Islamophobia.

            I meant classify it as religious prejudice as opposed to racism.

            Anti-Semitism is a parallel term.

            However, I recall Mike Nugent’s apologia on this point.
            “He ( Richard Dawkin) said that the Jews are not a race. You…

            Well, I would criticize Nugent for failing to realize that one word can have multiple meanings. On the other hand, the Jewish religion/race issue is probably marred because people fail to separate their meanings, which is at least one reason why we shouldn’t use the term too loosely. In the case of Jews, it would probably be awkward to invent a new word for one or the other, but at least with Muslims and Arabs, we have an alternative word to make that difference between cultural idea and biological background explicit. At least one helpful way to dissuade people from religion is to make it clear that religions aren’t in the blood but are things you can critically evaluate and walk away from, which won’t happen if we haphazardly mix the two ideas without regard for the difference.

  3. and his use of ridicule as a weapon of choice against what he sees as ridiculous.

    Jefferson thought it the only suitable weapon against ill formed propositions.

    and the recent personal smears against Richard by some atheists are unjust, hurtful and irresponsible

    ad hominem attacks say more of the ‘character’ of the attacker than the victim.

  4. Nice try, Michael Nugent, but Richard Dawkins’s biography is seriously deficient. Most of the recollections of his childhood seem to depend heavily on his mother’s memoir. Once he gets to the postdoctoral stage he abandons all attempts to talk about his personal experiences, just mostly recaps the stuff he already published in The Selfish Gene. I’m one of many Dawkins fans who is deeply disappointed by this rather feeble book.

  5. I am generally very sympathetic towards Richard and his views. No surprise then that various people attack him, and as Nugent points out, with very little justification. The despicable Charles Moore wrote a vitriolic review of the book published in The Telegraph. No review, this was just a personal attack on the author Richard Dawkins

    They don’t like the message, that’s why they attack the messenger ! Sly, snide, insidious, and downright misleading are the characteristics of many of Richard’s critics. But Richard’s scientific views have reality on their side, as did Darwin’s, and that counts for everything. Frankly I couldn’t give a shit whether a childhood memory is something to condemn a man by. But the critics don’t care about reality, they care about “image” and “respectability”. In Moore’s case, I suspect he cares about the nice fee he will earn from denigrating “Britain’s Most Dangerous Man” ! (Daily Mail headline).

  6. Roedy- I read their book at the risk of losing my atheism (made it more, dare I say, strident actually); the very least they could do is read a few of ours (at the risk of wising up) before soiling themselves in print.

  7. Zeuglodon:

    Not every Arab is a Muslim, and not every Muslim is an Arab.

    Indeed ! The country with the greatest number of Muslims is Indonesia. Religion is not the same thing as race, and Nugent is quite right. As far as I understand it, “race” has something to do with biological characteristics, although no scientist has yet managed to define the term.

    Hurling the charge of “racism” against critics of Islam is just a cheap insult, its purpose being to divert attention away from the actual criticism.

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