Richard Dawkins is in the country

In case you weren’t aware, the ever charming, frypan-hating Richard Dawkins is in the country. (If you are unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s the man God created to illustrate irony.) The Dawks has been appearing around the place getting his knickers in a twist about people who think there might be things science just can’t explain, or be applied to. Admittedly, I did not attend his performance at the Sydney Opera House, but am ‘lead to believe’ (sorry, Richard) that it took on the nature of a lecture rather than an operatic aria. (This is fitting as there is no way of scientifically measuring artistic poignancy or recreating it in a static environment, so it probably doesn’t exist.)

Nor was I at the Atheist Convention in Melbourne on the weekend, so it is possible that he said nothing at all about his objections to the existence of anything science can’t explain. However if one is to read his books and then apply the law of averages to discover the probability of him mentioning these topics at the convention, one will find the probability very high. Given this scientific application, I doubt Dawkins would object to me making assumptions. (It is also worth noting that he has nothing against picking one-liners from various texts and putting them out of context. There is a low to medium probability that I will do this here, and I will endeavour not use his rather elastic principles on this practice as an excuse.)

There are quite a few things that get on my proverbial goat about Richard-all-we-need-is-science-Dawkins. Yes Dawky, science has produced a super-computer, which can perform 60 trillion calculations in a second, but it is yet to write a good novel. And if you can’t imagine anything beyond what you can observe, then I can see how it would be difficult to grasp the idea that human beings aren’t the most intelligent beings in existence. I would like to clarify that I have no objection to someone publicly expressing opinions that vary from mine, but I don’t like it when they are so darn unimaginative about it. Poking fun and picking apart the church is a doddle – to borrow one of his turns of phrase – anyone who has ever seen a high school production of The Crucible can do it, not to mention anyone who has a vague knowledge of Australian history. You can hear most of what he has to say by getting in the back of a taxi and asking the driver what they think of the church. Buckle up, sit back and mind the sticky patch on the armrest.

Dawkins likes easy targets. He likes those who are inclined to turn the other cheek and he especially likes to call them names. Indeed, the only thing that riles my poor goat as much as Dawkins’ lack of imagination is his attempt to use nasty, cheap insults to hide the fact he has no sense of humour. Even Jesus had one of those. Now before you get on your high horse (this is quite the menagerie, isn’t it?) and site his one-liners regarding Senator Steve Fielding, I would like to state my case that they were lame insults and not clever in any way. (It’s easy to get nasty and funny mixed up – just look at Wil Anderson.)

It’s an unfortunate tactic. Insults don’t make him appear funny or even human (calm down Dawky, that was a metaphor); they only serve to further his resemblance to a class bully. Although, I doubt Dawkins would have a problem with bullying, ‘survival of the fittest’ and all. I would love to watch him debate someone who isn’t such an easy target: Dawkins vs. Desmond Tutu perhaps, or maybe some sort of event can be organised where he calls Nelson Mandela a religious wing nut to his face.

Watching him debate Senator Fielding on the ABC’s Q and A was like watching Mundine fight a sack of tomatoes: it just wasn’t a fair fight. Dawkins is good at what he does – when he’s not hurling witticisms about earthworms – and to further the boxing analogy, he thinks on his feet, he’s quick and he’s calm. So why not line up an opponent who’s up to the task? Feel free to comment that there aren’t any and I will happily furnish you with a list.

In the meantime I will placate my poor goat by coming up with fun names for Richard Dawkins, keeping with his schoolyard preferences by playing on the very name God was so thoughtful to provide for him. No wonder he doesn’t have a sense of humour.

PS. Richard, if you’re reading this I just want to explain that I do not own a goat. Again, this was a metaphor, and I know, they can be difficult to understand.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

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  1. Well said! Good to see some (more) well-rounded criticism of the ‘Dawkins Delusion’ that to me, is quite frustratingly taking this country, the world seemingly like the Billy Graham crusades once did. There are ‘Other’ voices and just because you disagree with Dawkins (or are ‘agin’ him) doesn’t mean you are religious, you believe in God or you are an earthworm. I challenged him to a debate, and my challenge stills stands. I am up to the task.

  2. Given that you did not go to these events, I would hope you’re not basing this blog on the inaccurate media reports written in particular by Maley and Zwartz (the latter of which has published a retraction and written a public apology).

    Here is a comprehensive list of the pathetic parade of misinformation published by the Australian media so far:

    There is even footage. Have a gander.

    Furthermore, had you attended the Atheist convention, you might have seen Dawkins answer questions at the end of his lecture (the topic of which was, just give you a measure of accurate information, ‘Evolution and Gratitude’).

    One of the questions came from a Christian who introduced herself, “I give thanks for God for everyone and for being here” or something of similar ilk, followed by a rapid succession of barely understandable questions, which clearly fed to her. The final question? “What is DNA?” The crowd was incredulous, and made themselves heard.

    Richard Dawkins shut the crowd up, politely requested that the woman re-ask the question, and then proceeded to outline DNA, RNA, etc. He was generous with his time, and treated this woman with utmost respect.

    She was a supremely easy target, asked a ridiculous time-waster of a question, and he was in a crowd that was clearly on his side. Prime target, you’d think, for him to execute the most epic of smack-downs. But he didn’t. This woman, who was sitting near me, returned to her seat, and said “See, he couldn’t answer my question about DNA.”

    Additionally, his extended joke about a “divine knob twiddler” during his speech goes against your contention that he has no sense of humour, but I’m pretty sure it was one of those things where you Just Had To Be There.

  3. Wait so your problem with Richard Dawkins is that he has used insults that you didn’t actually see, that he was intellectually superior to Stephen Fielding on Q & A, during which I might add he didn’t use any insults at all, and that he can’t imagine anything beyond what science can observe, which therefore means he can’t imagine a being smarter than humans, by which I assume you mean God. LOL. Read that last one again slowly or read it how you wrote it, same difference.

  4. I am honestly befuddled by the point of this article. It doesn’t take so many words to say, “I think Dawkins is a twat”, but without some more substance than that it is about as thought-provoking as a discussion of Britney Spears underwear.

    I assume you have some opinions on the actual issues which are of more importance to you than the cult of personality. (Which, incidentally, is the chimera you are criticising here.) If so, could you read back over your own disdain of “easy targets” and perhaps aim higher.

  5. So no critique of Dawkins’ arguments, merely complaints about how he makes his points, and who he makes them to?

    “Watching him debate Senator Fielding on the ABC’s Q & A was like watching Mundine fight a sack of tomatoes: it just wasn’t a fair fight. Dawkins is good at what he does – when he’s not hurling witticisms about earthworms – and to further the boxing analogy, he thinks on his feet, he’s quick and he’s calm. So why not line up an opponent who’s up to the task? Feel free to comment that there aren’t any and I will happily furnish you with a list.”

    Unless Professor Dawkins was responsible for the guests on the ABC’s Q&A this is a rather peculiar criticism. I suppose he could have declined to appear, at which point critics would have been free to crow about how he was afraid to face his critics on Q and A.

    I also wonder how Claire thinks Dawkins should have reacted to Fielding’s belief in a 10,000 year old Earth. Pretend it isn’t absurd and in total contradiction to the evidence? If so, what is to be gained by being nice to nonsense?

    And then there’s the delicious irony that this entire article is written in a snarky tone complaining about – Dawkins’ snarky tone. Perhaps a touch hypocritical?

  6. @Brian – I don’t think the snarky tone was hypocritical: I think it was intended to be pointed mimicry. However, it completely fails as satire as what was critiqued was a caricature, not the person nor his actual positions.

    Which makes the whole exercise pointless.

    I say again, I am genuinely baffled by the emptiness of this post. I can’t even get begin to address the real issues in response to it as the whole is nothing but a straw man.

    @Claire Zorn – I apologise if I sound scathing but the lack of substance here is very disappointing. If you have opinions on the actual subject rather than the media hype, I would like to hear them. Then perhaps we could all have a discussion.

  7. a) I don’t think Richard Dawkins is a twat. He is far cleverer than I will ever be. But he is not the Messiah.

    b)If I have made any statements that aren’t true re. Dawky’s viewpoints, please point them out. I can only hope that some of the opinions he expresses in his website, The God Delusion and his television series aren’t true. I didn’t attend the convention, and I was honest about that. If he has changed his viewpoint that science is the be all and end all of existance, please, please let me know and help bring some light into the dark, dark world he portrays.

    c)I hoped people might realise that he is not just attacking religion, he is attacking anything that can’t be measured, observed, anything which science can’t explain. I am not as good as articulating this as Charlie Kaufman. Watch ‘Adaptation’.

    d) As this was my first post, my number one objective was to get people to read beyond the first line. The second would have to be to get people talking about this stuff. (Me and the Dawkster aren’t that different, you know.) The third would be to somehow incorporate a joke about goats.

    e) All this is making me feel a bit misty-eyed about the beauty of free speech. It’s like that bit on the West Wing where Josh doesn’t bother chasing votes on a bill… Oh never mind. It’s late. Thank you for your passionate responses, especially you Bscare.

    f)If a debate were to be organised, I would like to see Dawkins debate Jesus, perhaps chaired by Mary Murphy to keep things really interesting.

  8. Isn’t it sad when people feel the need to rip apart a perfectly good piece of writing, just for the sake of pretending they could do better?
    @ClaireZorn, I found your article witty, brave and original. Keep them coming.

    1. Thank you @LM. Next I’m thinking of writing about the Archibald, much safer as people never have opinions on that…
      But then, there was that helpful suggestion that I do something on Brittney’s underpants…

  9. Hi Claire,

    Thank you for your response. I don’t know you, and have never read any of your writing before so there are few assumptions I can make about your positions, and this article left me nothing to disagree with but the entire premise.

    My responding here was not for the pleasure of being a critic, and not for the reason LM suggests. (I thought the writing itself was good, btw.) I responded because I actually wanted clarification.

    Regarding your responses…

    On A – “…he is not the Messiah.”

    Do you think anyone, or any group, thinks that he is? If so, who and on what basis? And is there a reason you felt it necessary to point it out here, as though your audience were such people? This is my problem with the premise. Without any context given, exactly what are you arguing against? The only visible target I can see is a media representation which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

    On B & C – “…science is the be all and end all”, “…he is attacking anything that science doesn’t explain.”

    Well, I don’t pretend to be an expert but this seems to me to be a misrepresentation of Dawkins only via a misrepresentation of science. Are you implying that science, or scientific knowledge, is somehow static, limited, limiting? If so, in what way? Or do you have an alternative epistemology which you think superior/preferable to logic and reason?

    Artistic endeavours get a couple of mentions in the post, as though it is something science is inadequate for, but as that isn’t what science is for, and as Dawkins expresses appreciation and wonder for the arts as well as for the natural world, I fail to see the issue you have there either.

  10. I thought Phillip Adams’ speech at the Atheist Conference was quite good. Don’t agree with all of it but at least he differentiated himself from the rightward trend of the New Atheism and spoke about the need to engage politically with believers.

  11. Lani,
    The ‘Messiah’ point was alluding to the religious fervour which surrounds Dawkins’ brand of ‘New Atheism’ and was never intended to imply that Overland may think of him as such. Secondly, just as you correctly point out that science can not adequately be applied to the arts, it is my belief that science can’t be applied to God or spirituality…Trippy, I know.
    Also, from the tone of some of the responses it seems as though the idea that one might take the piss out of oneself (by complaining about Dawkins’ habit of name-calling and then calling him a ‘Dawk’) is a bit foreign. Or perhaps, it’s because this was my first post and it could be difficult to put it into context, as you pointed out. I hope so.
    Yes I attacked the caricature of Dawkins, but it is a caricature he himself has cultivated, and relies upon to sell books and fill seats. Do I think he would be terribly offended if he were to read my post? Nope. I think he would rub his hands in glee, and perhaps chuckle an evil little chuckle while stroking a fluffy white cat. He’s a stirrer, and it seems that perhaps it takes one to know one… My job here is to generate discussion, I consider my job well and truly done.
    I am a little disappointed that no one asked me for that list, or offered a link to a debate between Dawkins and someone more capable than Senator Fielding. Just as you may have found it frustrating that I was attacking the caricature of Dawkins, and considered that a pointless task, so too was I frustrated that Dawkins was attacking a caricature of a Christian.

    1. Claire,

      Thank you so much for responding again. I had just been reading all the coverage of the Convention at the time and was already frustrated by the time I arrived here, so this just really stuck in my craw. I did actually try to find a way to express that frustration productively. But failed miserably.

      I do agree that there are some for whom Dawkins is, well, lets say an idol rather than a Messiah, but to be honest, while I think the adulation is misplaced and unhelpful, I can sympathise with the reasons behind that particular phenomenon. I think it is par for the course for unheard or under-represented or repressed groups, when they “come out” to be, well… angry. And I think Dawkins gives a voice to that anger. (As I write that, it seems overstated, and I don’t in any way mean to make qualitative comparisons to, say, racial oppression but I do believe it is the same dynamic at work.)

      I’m won’t offer a defense of Dawkins himself, as I don’t believe I have read widely enough of his work to do so with much authority and I disagree with him on too many points anyway, but it is certainly my impression that he has a more subtle understanding and more subtle opinions and a more considered purpose in his public image than you have given him credit for.

      Regardless, however much of the caricatures (on either side) is media generated or generated by the players themselves, I do stand by my opinion that they get in the way of actually discussing the issues. It seems our frustrations are not dissimilar.

      Can I give you a belated congratulations on the “trial-by-fire” of your first post? Now that I know you are a stirrer, I won’t rise so easily to the bait. 🙂

  12. Agree with Lani on points of refusal here.

    Just want to add this: I think it’s a shame, and seems to be a common misconception, that an atheistic or scientific worldview would have to be a dark one. Why? Why does this have to be so? The majority of atheists I know are committed to living this life to its fullest because for us, there is no afterlife. This is it. And we’re (more-or-less) happy with that. I am the only atheist in my family, and the only one not afraid of death.

    I cannot state in stronger terms: An understanding of science absolutely does not kill appreciation of the Arts. I read a lot of science, but I also read and enjoy literature, love music, and attend the theatre, art galleries, concerts. My family (all Catholic), do not share these passions.

    I simply don’t understand how you can think that Dawkins portrays a “dark, dark world.” At the start of his speech at the convention, he said, “The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”
    He has spoken at length about how lucky we are to be alive:

    You might want to read ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’ if you want to explore Dawkins’ ideas on the nature of life and beauty from a scientific viewpoint.

    Why are you misty eyed for freedom of speech? The West Wing is my favourite show and I fail to see what your point is here. You’re exercising your right to an opinion. I’m exercising my right of reply.

    For my part, I’m dismayed that your opinion seems to not come from your personal consideration of Dawkins’ ideas, but from secondary sources, and those sources may not necessarily be accurate. It’s just shame that someone who can write so well has produced an eloquent piece that is so under-minded by misrepresentation and ill-informed opinions. Sorry.

    Or, given that you imply you’ve seen his documentaries, website, and read The God Delusion, perhaps you are approaching his work with preconceived notions and cherry picking quotes, etc, to support what you want to think? I don’t know you, but given that some the charges you’ve levied against Dawkins in your article are just not true, I have no choice to assume that this may be the case.

    Jeff- Didn’t get to see Adams speech, so thanks for the link. I agree with him that there needs to be a dialogue constructed between theists and non-theists, or atheists. It can be more fun to “shake your fists and pound the table” but at the end of the day, will get no one anywhere. The idea that atheists could serve as some sort of “honest broker” between clashing religions is an intriguing one. I’m not sure it would work, or how effective it would be, but certainly it warrants discussion.

  13. Claire,
    If you had read any Dawkins you would know that one of the finest things about his writing is his use of metaphor. If you knew anything at all about Dawkins you would know that one of his most recent publications ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ is analogically structured around Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

    I apologise but he has a wonderful sense of humour, has taken on some fine minds, including fellow biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and commonly discusses music and literature throughout his books. It’s enough to make one crave a bit of Oxford (and deplore bloggers). What a needlessly patronising and uninforming post.

  14. And furthermore,
    This ‘messiah’ must have at most a couple of thousand ‘followers’ (appreciators) across Australia. I would put this at approximately half the number of people who have never read his work but simply assume that everyone arguing for reason, for evidence based inquiry, has a ‘dark dark’ view on life and has no conception of pleasure for artistic pursuit. Perhaps they have heard a disparaging comment or two about him on ‘the spirit of things’.

    See above comment on ‘Unweaving the rainbow’ a book dedicated to showing the compatibility of inquiring and the arts.

    He is not a messiah, not is he seen as one. Though he does give voice to many disaffected thoughtful people who are tired of assumptions. The assumption that art or our appreciation of art cannot be understood rationally, or at all, but is somehow metaphysical, and that it cannot be appreciated by people who concurrently appreciate science, who don’t enforce such metaphysical enclosures. (Perhaps Claire Zorn is the embodiment of the argument for the Melbourne Model, an arts student who expects that the scientifically minded cannot, but must, understand literature and yet doesn’t know what the second law of thermodynamics is, nor understand the enormous difference between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ when it comes to evolutionary thought (absurd comment on bullying).)Such an assumption isn’t dissimilar to the assumption that the mind cannot be scientifically understood, which itself isn’t dissimilar to the assumption that the inside of a computer cannot be understood. Which it can’t, by me at least, though I don’t mind if someone else can understand it. They are tired of the assumption that religion is the basis of society, the basis of morality and that no morality can exist in its absence and that there is no such thing as secular humanism.

    Furthermore, Dawkins and his ilk come down heavily upon religion as they see it being the cause for much discrimination that exists in the world. You don’t have to agree with this, but whether or not you do it is an important debate in an era when ethnic and religious cleansing continues unabated, in an era where thousand of young girls continue to have their genitalia brutally disfigured, where the papacy is above interrogation despite enormous and devasting powers. If he does one thing extremely well it’s highlight the importance of this debate. The more sanguine Peter Singer seems to have a similar view.

    Art on the other hand, on the whole, apparently causes less suffering than it does pleasure (or ‘b-l-i-s-s’ if you’re Lynch). It isn’t something to criticise, but celebrate, and you would agree that Dawkins would agree if you dipped into one of his books.

    Reading beyond the arts faculty 101.


    1. Honestly Otis, this is nonsense. Dawkins is an impeccable scientist – in his field. Once he moves into history, social science, politics, religion, anthropology and sociology, his scientific methodology is left in the cloakroom.

      I’ve noticed this trend in a number of Oxford-educated white men well past their prime. They appear to fantasise as they get older – and one assumes, approach their expiry date – that their expertise in their field makes them an expert in every field. Just look at the company Dawkins keeps, like the scientifically and morally bankrupt Hitchens and Harris.

      Perhaps he could do us all a favour and use his general expertise in all sciences and fields to stop the BP oil spill.

    2. You don’t have to agree with this, but whether or not you do it is an important debate in an era when ethnic and religious cleansing continues unabated, in an era where thousand of young girls continue to have their genitalia brutally disfigured, where the papacy is above interrogation despite enormous and devasting powers. If he does one thing extremely well it’s highlight the importance of this debate.

      Yes, it’s amazing how they’ve managed to reframe the whole debate about American imperialism into a debate about ethnicity, religion and liberation.

      You may be interested in reading Jeff Sparrow’s essay, Unholy enthusiasm.

  15. Thanks Otis. Think you might have misread the tone. Not actually an arts student, or from Melbourne, but it’s fun popping people in boxes isn’t it? You see, I’m kinda tired of the assumptions too. I’ve read Dawkins work. Also read the Bible and Darwin. Got a copy of Scientific American on my desk, actually. Seems this whole thing isn’t about God or Dawkins. It’s about ego, and who’s smarter than who.

    If you deplore bloggers, why are you reading this?

  16. Claire,
    It is easy to misunderstand this tone:
    ‘PS. Richard, if you’re reading this I just want to explain that I do not own a goat. Again, this was a metaphor, and I know, they can be difficult to understand.’

    And reading because Overland is an excellent publication. But I’m yet to decide about these online excursions. I suppose I could go to Meanland to discuss that. And I’m glad to hear of this reading. I don’t think I’ve heard of the bible, worth my time?

    I love this ‘Oxford educated white men’ stuff.

    I don’t know why this debate has to be separated out – it needn’t be one or the other. It’s a shame, and just simplistic, to collapse everything into a single evil, whether it be superstition or America (if superstition and America will gladly stop petting for the duration of my point). The removal of America or any kind of imperialism wouldn’t suddenly remedy all malevolence (or imperialism). One might assume this has something to do with certain tendencies.

    Clearly many of the luxuries that you and I enjoy have much to do with secularism (this conversation), though of course they have much to do with imperialism as well – the US isn’t alone by all means, every nation from Aus to China to Poland to Brazil seems to want in. It’s easy to fault them, harder to blame them.

    As for those tendencies (putting Dawkins to the side for a moment and keeping in mind this idea of not separating and exagerating individual elements), we live in heavily designed environs, and it’s increasingly apparent that the process of design impinges upon the working of a particular object or thing. (One can spot a building designed with Sketchup very easily just as they can spot a chair designed with 3d max.)

    Which suggests that taking an evolutionary perspective on sociology (as this process of design is likely to have an affect on behaviours and perspectives) is worthwhile and is essential for a comprehensice understanding. But it has to be in conjunction with other perspectives as it certainly has its limitations. But to say evolution must stay in its little box . . . And I’m not talking about those silly hunter gather diet manifestations of this discussion. It still seems to me, and I could be very wrong about this, that evolution or any kind of scientific thought is still, all this time later, expected to remain steadfast at the neck.

    And you left off his other ‘henchman’ Dennett, who is himself definitely worth a read and comes from a more traditionally philosophical background. Don’t have much time for the other two.

    As for BP, hey I never said he was some kind of messiah, just that he is badly misrepresented as a dour old man above and that he has some good points that are worth taking seriously. Why do certain beliefs spread?


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