II (cont’d): The Lecture
To wrap this up: Another memorable part of the talk involved Dawkins’ response to Christians who take offense at the supposedly rude and aggressive tone he allegedly uses. While saying that he’d rather be known as a “friend of truth” more than an “enemy of religion,” he admitted to being unable to resist “humorous broadsides” against religion and its believers. He compared some of the passages in TGD that Christians have singled out as especially offensive to other examples of criticism, like restaurant reviews in British newspapers, some of which are so scathing and insulting they must be seen to be believed. And these kinds of verbal assaults can be harmful, Dawkins pointed out, as chefs “really exist, while blasphemy is a victimless crime.”
Again, we go back to the problem of religion’s unmerited privilege of being considered outside the purview of criticism. Everyone today, but especially believers, have gotten used to the idea that we shouldn’t be offended, ever, Dawkins noted. But there’s no rule that says we have some innate right to expect that, especially in a culture that promotes the free exchange of ideas. In fact, there are many things we should be offended by, like religious fatwas and female genital mutilation. Dawkins went through a list of human atrocities we have a moral duty to find offensive — many of them doled out with the tacit approval of someone’s religion — accompanied by a series of slides that elicited ever-increasing applause. It was a touchstone moment of the whole evening’s talk.
The idea of how offensive believers find challenges to belief struck a chord with me, as one thing I’ve noticed over the years is the way in which Christianity in America has managed to become, despite its overwhelming presence in the cultural mainstream, something of an isolated subculture at the same time. There are Christian bookstores, and Christian radio stations, and Christian colleges, and Christian rock bands, and Christian sports teams, and Christian versions of the Yellow Pages that help Christian consumers shop only at overtly Christian businesses. All this sort of thing contributes to an environment where believers can effectively shield themselves from any viewpoint that doesn’t embrace and reinforce Christian dogmas and beliefs. To many Christians, you don’t even have to be overtly offensive — Don Imus or Ann Coulter style — to offend them. Merely declaring your atheism openly, and not having the good taste to keep your distasteful disbelief to yourself, can be enough to set many believers off.
And it’s a fact as well that many Christians who whine about how offensive Dawkins is never think to see what’s coming out of their own camp. Even in the comments a few posts down, we get Rhology whining, “Come on, are you really trying to make Dawkins into a guy who never says anythg offensive about Christians?” Well, sure he does, but it’s usually in the form of jokes and jabs, as he did last night, in a crack comparing “Christian thinkers…and intelligent people. (Raises hands, chuckles) My apologies!”
Yeah, I guess compared to the recent hateful homophobic rant against gays spewed by Oklahoma representative Sally Kern (a rant enthusiastically supported by her fellow GOP Christian right colleagues and the Thomas More Law Center, who vowed to follow up their wonderful epic fail in Dover by defending Kern against the onslaught of whatever legal action teh gayz were sure to hit her with); compared to the sewage you hear spew from the likes of Coulter and Michael Savage; compared to the way pricks like Ben Stein and Dinesh D’Souza draw links between science and atheism and Hitler and Joe Stalin; compared to the way Judge John E. Jones had to have his whole family protected by U.S. Marshals following his ruling in the Dover trial due to all the death threats they received by loving anti-evolutionist Christians…
Yeah, compared to all that, I can see just how offensive Richard Dawkins is because he wrote a book and went on a promotional tour and cracks the odd joke.
Cry me a river.
Anyway, those are just a couple of highlights from what was, on the whole, an upbeat talk, entertaining, witty, informative, but also passionate and serious in its message and its aim of raising public consciousness to the free ride ancient superstitions have gotten in our culture, and our need to question just how long that free ride should continue. Dawkins ended on a moving and elegaic note, reading the opening paragraph to Unweaving the Rainbow, which he’s earmarked to be read at his own funeral and which I’ll let you read for yourself.
III. The Q&A
The Q&A only went for about seven or eight people, I think, mainly because he took a couple of questions at the beginning. But one or two of the questions were memorable.
One guy asked about Expelled, and Dawkins wasted no time in castigating the film and informing everyone of the way in which he and PZ Myers and Genie Scott were lied to by the producers in order to secure their participation. Based on the internet trailer that’s been up for a while, Dawkins felt confident the film would not “convince anyone who wasn’t already an ignorant fool.” Of course, as the whole planet now knows, Dawkins saw the movie Thursday night in Minneapolis, at a screening Myers was bizarrely ejected from. I’m sure we’ll now hear his informed opinion of what a loathsome pack of lies it is now he’s seen it, pretty quick. (Especially the way the filmmakers doubtless edited his interview to make him look a fool. As a filmmaker myself, I can attest: you can create any effect you wish on the editing suite.)
However, Dawkins did make a very good point regarding effective ways to mount rebuttals to Expelled that I hadn’t considered.
The questioner had also asked whether the scientific community needed to rush a pro-evolution documentary into production to counter Ben Stein’s bullshit conspiracy-theory agitprop. This was also a topic brought up in a thread on Pharyngula. After pointing out the obvious fact that making films professionally is a damned expensive hobby, Dawkins suggested that such venues as YouTube would work just fine for taking down Expelled‘s campaign of lies. In this age of ubiquitous self-documentation and pervasive video cameras, it’s a head-smackingly obvious solution.
For one thing, I don’t think Expelled is going to do much theatrical business beyond a possible “church bus bubble” in its first few days of release. (And it helps to remember that the producers are offering Christian schools cash payouts to take their classes on field trips to see it!) As an independent and a documentary (sorry, I’m now slipping into movie biz mode), it won’t open wide and it won’t do Narnia numbers. Whatever audience it has will almost certainly come through DVD sales campaigns to churches. So there’s no need to rush a cinematic rebuttal before the cameras, and in fact, to do so might have the ironic effect of legitimizing it.
But I can certainly see thousands of biology undergraduates simply dismantling Stein’s folly piece by piece and scene by scene with their webcams. Bring it on, gang.
Another questioner asked Dawkins what he thought about the transhumanist ideas of Ray Kurzweil, and the possible future in which biology and technology began to merge. Dawkins allowed as how, as a “product of the century I was born in,” the notion of such a merging kind of frightened him. Much of transhumanism sounds like science fiction, he noted, but went onto add that he liked science fiction, and who knows, it might be possible that the biotech future some people predict may in fact occur.
The talk finally ended with another rapturous ovation,
after which Dawkins signed books for a line that bled out onto the sidewalk. An enjoyable evening for one and all. Except, perhaps, for any religious fundamentalist cowering in the nosebleed seats.
IV: The Meetup
When I announced the AE Blog Meetup for the Spiderhouse following the talk, I expected maybe five or six people to turn up at most. I eventually took a head count of around 18 of us at the peak of it, and we ended up taking over the Spiderhouse’s entire front room (chasing off some poor woman who up until then had had it all to herself, sitting with her coffee, iPod, and reading her book — sorry, whoever you were). I saw some old friends I hadn’t talked to in ages, and met quite a few awesome new folks, including several students from Atheist Longhorns. (And boy, was their profile on campus ever raised by this event!) It was a great way to wind down at the end of a long and most gratifying day, and after a Shiner and one slice of rich chocolate espresso cake, it was time for me to turn into a pumpkin. Fade out.
It will be kind of difficult for CFI-Austin to top an event like this in scale and public enthusiasm. But still, this is a hell of a long way for the positive promotion of atheism to have come, just since the days nine years ago when I first joined ACA, and you could fit all of Austin’s outed atheists into one dinky bagel shop on 5th Street. An event like tonight really made me feel like I’m part of an exciting and vital community, hopefully one that will someday succeed in taking Richard Dawkins’ goal of consciousness-raising to an even larger scale.
Good night and good luck.