Guest post by Josh the SpokesGay
I’m pondering this and haven’t come to any firm conclusions, but I want to float it for conversation.
We’re seeing an enormous number of people (who we thought would know and do better) ignore the most awful behavior from Dawkins. Obviously, not just with him, mind. It’s sometimes staggering; it’s so surprising to see people one knows to be capable of independent thought and analysis turn so completely nasty and dishonest in their attempts to stop any suggestion that Dawkins might be wrong.
We know that people have heroes. We know that we, too, are subject to the same instinct to circle the wagons. But the degree to which Dawkins supporters are doing this genuinely stuns me. It is quite literally watching rational people become irrational, fact-free, religious (perhaps ‘tribal’ is better) adherents for whom no argument is too dishonest or low.
I suspect a structural tragedy is responsible: There simply are not enough venues in public discourse for disaffected secularists to build solidarity, a shared identity, and the confidence to push back against religious privilege. Especially for those with traumatic experiences of religion, Dawkins seems like a lifeline. Finally, somebody isn’t afraid to call the emperor out on his non-existent clothes.
It felt that way to me when Dawkins wrote The God Delusion. I understand this impulse. It’s normal, it’s not weird, and it’s there for good, justifiable reasons. The first fan letter I wrote was to Richard Dawkins, thanking him for being an “oasis” in a sea of privileged religious bafflegab. And I sent this to him even before TGD came out. That he wrote me back the very next morning had me on a cloud for days.
Shorter version: many people perceive, correctly or not, that Dawkins is the only or best “venue” for people like them starved for secular discourse. The threat of that being taken away (meaning that Dawkins might actually be a jerk, or that he may be so badly wrong on other counts that one has to find new heroes) is simply too much for them.
Perhaps that explains Nate Phelps, son of Fred Phelps. Undeniably traumatized by religion, one can understand why he might see Dawkins and his circle as a haven. I recently saw Nate compare Ophelia Benson, of all people, to his father, the vicious preacher Fred. No, he didn’t come right out and say “you’re as bad as he is.” But Nate did compare Ophelia’s stance on “the whole feminism -vs- secularism issue” to the “you’re either for us or against us” approach his fundamentalist father insisted on.
We see this a lot. People victimized by religious extremism often paint other, non-abusive forms of vehement position-staking as “just as bad as the fundamentalists.” They mistake the form for the content. They react against the act of uncompromisingly defending one’s position while not paying attention to the content of the position. They don’t seem to understand that it is not automatically Wrong to have confidence—even a degree of righteousness—in one’s opinion. What matters is whether that confidence is justified.
Whether you totally dig Ophelia or not, I hope anyone can see how badly wrong Nate’s comparison is. So—is it the perception/reality of the scarcity of robust secular voices and spaces, particularly in the US, that causes people to defend Dawkins doing the indefensible? Is it a deeper structural problem that can only be effectively addressed over a long time by building other and better “venues” for being a non-apologetic secularist?
Shortest of all: Is Dawkins a case of perceived but artificial scarcity?