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Dawkins and Mormons (follow-up)

Looking over the comments from yesterday’s post, it seems that some people understood my point about Dawkins’ Mormon quote, and others didn’t. It’s an important point, though, so I want to follow up and try to make it clear for everyone.

The problem I see is not that Dr. Dawkins is impugning the sanity of people who would seriously consider voting for Mitt Romney. That’s fine, that’s fair game. Romney is a candidate for the US presidency, and it’s perfectly reasonable to discuss his expected behavior as president if he were elected. The problem is that the quote, as originally phrased, does not address Mitt Romney’s qualifications, it addresses the qualifications of “a Mormon.” Not any specific Mormon, but just “a Mormon”—and thus, by implication, any Mormon.

That may seem like a quibble, but it isn’t. There’s a hugely significant difference between saying you’d be crazy to vote for Mitt Romney because he makes important decisions based on irrational beliefs, on the one hand, versus saying you’d be crazy to vote for “a Mormon,” on the other. One is a specific assessment of a specific individual based on observed patterns in his behavior, and the other is prejudice against an entire class of people, based on religious affiliation, regardless of individual qualifications for the position. The former is fair game; the latter is prejudice based on religious affiliation.

Here’s the original quote again, for reference.

Yes, America STILL manages to reach Mars despite half the country preparing to elect a man who believes he’ll get a planet when he dies. It is all the more to the credit of the sane, rational half of America that it manages to achieve so much despite being positively held back by the other half, the half that believes the universe is 6,000 years old, the half that seriously contemplates voting for a Mormon.

The first sentence was sent via Twitter, and the rest is a comment posted by Dr. Dawkins in his discussion of the Curiosity landing, so it is an authentic quote. And I can understand what he’s saying: he’s commenting on the irony of America being able to achieve great scientific and technological advances despite the pervasive influence of irrational, superstitious and fundamentally anti-scientific beliefs, to the point that you’ve got a better shot at the White House if you’re a Mormon than if you’re an unbeliever.

All well and good, but the way he phrased it still came out all wrong. We don’t know whether “a Mormon” would be qualified for President of the US, because we don’t know what “a Mormon’s” beliefs really are or how they might affect his or her conduct in office. We can say “this specific Mormon” is unqualified if we know he has a pattern of irrational, religion-based decisions in his past behavior. Criticizing this specific Mormon, on the basis of specific observations we have made, is perfectly fine, zero bigotry. But we can’t make a blanket application of that same criticism to everyone who happens to be “a Mormon,” because that would be mere bigotry.

Like I said, it might seem like a quibble, but it’s an important point. I’d raise the same objection if someone said it would be crazy to vote for “an atheist,” not because atheists are special but because the principle’s the same regardless of which demographic is the target.