Type
Polemic
Category
alt-right

What happened to Richard Dawkins?

What happened to Richard Dawkins? How did an acclaimed scientist and public intellectual transform himself into the dreary boor regularly popping up in your social media feed with yet another drunken uncle tweet about gender or race?

Dawkins, you might say, has aged like milk, except that’s not exactly true. As a matter of fact, he’s always been like that. He’s not the one who has changed – the world has.

The New Atheism Dawkins helped forge related to philosophy rather as Nu Metal pertained to music. In retrospect, they’re preposterous and embarrassing but, in their day, both presented themselves as cutting edge, even progressive.

Remember the whole Four Horsemen shtick, that presentation of well-spoken university types (Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) as avenging angels of the apocalypse as they gave lectures about ideas (‘science is good!’, ‘blind faith is bad!’) you could hear from your average high school teacher – or, indeed, vicar?

In the early 2000s, Dawkins was the Limp Bizkit of the Qanda crowd, enjoying an entirely undeserved reputation for edginess, largely for being in the right place at the right time.

As a movement, New Atheism owed more to 9/11 than to any particular intellectual breakthrough. The attacks on the Twin Towers pivoted the world away from the Cold War against godless communism and into a new order where the West’s enemies could be denounced for their faith rather than their disbelief. Handily, New Atheism separated old-style Freethought from any social critique, producing an atheism that could lend its ‘progressive’ – even radical – colouration to Islamophobia and liberal imperialism.

Back in 2011, I wrote a piece for New Matilda making that point, and then became embroiled in an angry debate with atheists enraged to be associated with the right. In retrospect, it’s an argument very much of its time, a product of an era in which a not insignificant group of people who identified with the left (does anyone remember the Euston Manifesto?) tacitly or explicitly backed western interventions in the Middle East.

The evolution of Hitchens, the most overtly political of the Horsies, into a shrill and hysterical warmonger dampened down much of the progressive enthusiasm for New Atheism – as, of course, did the collapse of the whole liberal imperialist venture. But Dawkins has played his role in discrediting his movement, too. If 9/11 helped him paint himself as a herald of the antichrist, its retreat into historical memory allows his natural Boomerism to shine.

On Twitter, Dawkins uses, like everyone else, his account to promote his various appearances and enterprises. Yet every so often he supplements this thin gruel with something rather meatier.

His effort the other day was entirely typical. Apropos of nothing in particular, he posted a rumination on eugenics.

‘It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds,’ he explained. ‘It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.’

When, as might be expected, this startling declaration provoked something of a backlash, Dawkins explained, like an aggrieved thirteen-year-old, that just you could breed humans like pigs and dogs that didn’t mean that you should.

Then, inevitably, he began complaining about the nastiness of twitter and its inability to conduct a civil debate.

On one level, all this is simply garden-variety attention seeking: you gin up a bogus controversy so you can proclaim yourself a victim, persecuted for truth telling.

But there’s also something more going on.

In a tweet a few days earlier, Dawkins complained about the reading habits of ordinary people:

Forgot to take something to read in doctor’s waiting room. Had to fall back on magazines provided. Sample headlines: “Mum shut my baby sister in the freezer. I found her behind a meat pie.” “My poor hubby’s privates got EATEN.” People buy magazines like this. They vote

It’s an example of a trait embedded deeply within the New Atheist DNA (as it were): a tendency to regard the masses as ignorant fools who need the guidance of their philosophical superiors. Where an older, Marxist-derived atheism explained religion as a product of alienating social conditions, Dawkins and co. attributed it to the gullibility of the populace. The elitism in that perspective informed their political orientation, allowing them to embrace a liberal interventionism in which enlightened Westerners dragged the ‘backward peoples’ into modernity by their hair.

You can see how the mentality of that tweet (how dare people read popular magazines rather than, say, trolling Twitter all day long!) can lead to some pretty dark places. When Dawkins expressed incredulity about those he regards as his intellectual inferiors being accorded voting rights, he was presumably making a rhetorical point rather than outlining a fighting program.

Others, however, take the argument to its logical conclusion. If the masses are foolish and uneducated, why should they be allowed to take part in political debates they can’t possibly understand? Why let them vote?

Why, indeed, let them breed?

Let’s note, at this point, that Dawkins’ onetime associate Sam Harris now spends his time on the Intellectual (sic) Dark Web lauding racists like Charles Murray, a man who genuinely does look at the human gene pool from the perspective of a canny pig farmer.

Let’s also remember that the rightward trajectory of New Atheism allowed many of its adherents to venture down some similarly nasty paths, with the ‘facts ignore ideology’ slogan echoed in the ‘fuck your feelings’ meme of the alt-right.

If you spend any time on the sites where the online fascists gather, you’ll encounter plenty of Christian fundamentalists, Catholic reactionaries, Odinists, Satanists and other oddballs. But you’ll also find a goodly number of atheist edgelords who have combined Dawkins-style scientism, Islamophobia and elitism into a particularly poisonous brew.

Dawkins isn’t one of them, of course.

He’s not a fascist, nor even a supporter of the alt-right. He’s better understood as an extraordinarily entitled member of the political class, who happens to possess a huge platform through which he can express that entitlement.

Nevertheless, with the far right making increasing inroads into the mainstream, it’s important to remember the role that Dawkins and his friends have made and continue to make in popularising its ideas.

 

Image: Flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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Comments

  1. Interesting piece. I was drawn to read this, partly because I loved Dawkins’s early work, but also because I recently became embroiled in his Twitter feed. He posted something quite bland…a vox pop about a literary allusion. I, late at night, faffing about, posted a reply. Apparently I misread the vox pop and gave away the answer. Oh the ignominy! I awoke to a deluge of insulting and demeaning responses from some of his other followers, claiming I was attention seeking and couldn’t read, and how stupid was I.
    Not his fault, of course…but still. All these intellectuals (and I self-identify as such), trying to show how clever they are by pointing out how I was trying to show how clever I was. Bizarre, and kind of sad.

  2. thanks for writing this. I was following him on twitter for the science but I no longer follow richard dawkins.

  3. Dawkins has the pompous smugness of 1st year uni Atheists, carefully unable to apply his own claims of scientific skepticism to the genesis of The New Atheism, The New Pearl Harbor, sorry 9/11.
    However such human all too human qualities hasn’t been the fall for many.
    What has been is that he hasn’t submitted to his original sin of being a CIS normative white male intellectual. He applies his atheist critique of all dogma as the fruit of human intellect without due prejudice. Cutting across identity boundaries without dues respect to identity stereotypes is blasphemy in the current Western canon.

  4. ‘While the romantic numskulls of Nazi Germany are dreaming of restoring the old race of Europe’s Dark Forest to its original purity, or rather its original filth, you Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men – the first worthy of the name of Man.’ Leon Trotsky, If America Should Go Communist.

    • Written before final and devastating compromitation of The US eugenics of Davenport and Laughlin as pseudo-science similar to Nazi racism. Howeber, 3 things should be highlitened in this quote from Trotsky: 1. Critique of Nazi race “science”; 2. Support for truly critical scientific analisys of eugenics (took place after the 1945); 3. Support for multiculturalism.

  5. A perceptive article that “gets” Dawkins
    A few years ago Melvyn Bragg wrote an equally perceptive and eloquent refutation of Dawkins, in reference to his trashing of the mythology of the Australian Aborigines. “He (Dawkins) is unfairly dismissive of ancient religions, totally fails to contextualise them, shows no historical respect and merely scorns them from our present pinnacle of knowledge (which will surely pass in time).”

  6. “Race Religion and Nationalism the last refuge of the Scoundrel”Time to wake up and look at our place in this mighty Universe like dust and no signs of life within a 100 light years and more,yet we cling to 2000 year old beliefs to display our ignorance.

  7. One of the most extraordinary things about Dawkins’ eugenics tweet that few have pointed out is that from an evolutionary biologist it’s remarkably scientifically illiterate and seems to expose a darker political agenda rather than a commitment to ‘facts’. The ‘facts’ are that human breeding of animals is remarkably bad for those animals in an evolutionary sense. Yes we get traits we want and almost always those traits are harmful to the animal’s evolutionary fitness, making them stupider, expressing extreme traits that virtually disable them and so on. Just look at dog breeds. To say this works is ludicrous in the extreme. For Dawkins to tweet such a thing leaves me incredulous – he must know that humans are among the least genetically variable among species; almost any reduction in the variety of our genes would likely be disastrous. He must know this so why his scientifically illiterate tweet suggesting eugenics could be effectively good (but immoral). Yes it’s immoral but also much more likely to do harm than good. Imagine Nazis selecting for blue eyes and blond hair – the limited gene pool doesn’t bear thinking about.

    • Great point Claire, to question the unquestioned assumption in the tweet that eugenics is ok for all the non-human animals out there, but only becomes problematic when applied to humans. This buys into Dawkins’s humanism, that humans are the superior beings, at ‘the top of the chain’, which is shared with all the religions Dawkins likes to attack.

  8. Dawkins fought a war against The Church of the Right to be Perpetually Offended. This Church holds as its gospel that My Feelings Matter More Than Your Reason and Evidence. He never had a snowflakes chance in Hell going up against that movement at the time. Then the Trump, the Brexiteers and the Eastern Europeans set that Church on the path to oblivion, offering Salvation for everyone with functiong brain.

  9. He was such a lame public intellectual. Attacking faith has got to be the easiest argument to make, its so basic, why even make it. The worst thing was we had to hear his weasaly little voice. he should never have spoken in public. He tries to antagonise but hes got nothing interesting to say and never has. what a con job. idiots bought his book.

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