The white scientist versus the African teenager

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A Rationalist’s Irrationality

Why is Richard Dawkins such a jerk?

For Slate:

Richard Dawkins is not your garden-variety Internet troll. He’s a retired professor at Oxford University and the author of a number of well-received, best-selling books on science and atheism. His book The Selfish Gene is one of the most-read popular accounts of evolution, and it introduced the term “meme,” long before Internet cats, as a way to express how ideas spread and evolve. In other words, he’s as establishment as they come. He is no fringe conspiracy-monger lurking in the anonymous cave of message boards and comment sections.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking he is, based on his willingness to say offensive things on social media, often at the expense of non-famous people. In the latest iteration, he proposed the notion—just as a simple “what if”—that Ahmed Mohamed got himself arrested on purpose as a way to get money and attention. [Read the rest at Slate….]

As a personal aside, I expected some pushback over this piece, and I certainly got it. At present, there are nearly 1000 comments at Slate, and I’ve lost track of how many people have sent me angry messages on Twitter. However, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses as well, and despite a few people declaring they’ll never read a thing of mine again, I hope I haven’t driven too many away. It’s been an interesting 24 hours, to put it mildly.

One thing I did find interesting though was the various interpretations of the piece. I wrote a critique of a prominent scientist and science communicator, and intended it to be nothing more or less than that. It wasn’t a critique of atheism (though some took it that way), or a defense of religion in general or Islam in particular (though some took it that way). I personally am uninterested in debating those things in the abstract. Ideas are always fair game for criticism in my view, but people are only fair game in inverse proportion to their vulnerability. Thus, the powerful and the privileged are tough kids and can handle a little harsh truth if they need it. Picking on the poor, the minority, those whose voices are not widely respected is at best bullying.

Systems that privilege some and deny others demand criticism, which means yes! the practice of religion is definitely a legitimate target for criticism where it deserves it. But to say that any random practitioner of a religion — a child, say — is fair game because you don’t like some of the tenets of that religion? I can’t follow you there. Someone who uses political office to enforce their religious beliefs on another is leveraging power and privilege; an atheist like Dawkins with many listeners and a stable social position can also leverage power over others, albeit a less direct form of power. The privilege and power are the enemies when they are misused, and I think people of goodwill can unite in that cause, regardless of religious convictions or lack thereof.

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