From the archives: Dawkins’ way with words

For this month’s repost, I selected an article I wrote in 2008.  Considering how old this is, I don’t necessarily stand by what I said, nor do I vouch for the writing quality.  There were a couple parts that I thought were unclear, so I added footnotes.  But this is interesting from a historical perspective, because it shows a slice of the problems with Richard Dawkins even before “Dear Muslima”.

Richard Dawkins has an irritating habit of using the wrong word, or otherwise saying some very silly things.

Example 1: “Delusion” The number one sign that you’re dealing with an uncareful skeptic is when the skeptic chalks everything up to insanity. People believe weird things not because they’re clinically insane, but because they’re normal. They have normal cognitive biases. Everyone does. Religious beliefs are no different except that they’re even more commonplace than other weird beliefs. Calling it all a delusion is simply sloppy.

Dawkins fans will come to his defense, saying that he carefully defines “delusion” as “a false belief or impression”, eschewing any psychiatric connotations. But that’s not the case. Dawkins is surprisingly ambiguous. He endorses a quote by Robert M. Pirsig: “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.” It’s as if Dawkins wants to satisfy both parties. Well, I am not satisfied, because I see too many people claiming that religion really is a delusion, and Dawkins is at least partly to blame for it.

Example 2: “Child Abuse” The same thing is going on here. When Dawkins says religion can be “child abuse”, he inadvertently implies that it should be illegal, because child abuse is illegal. It would be great if Dawkins explicitly denied any such connotation, but he’s surprisingly ambiguous.

Example 3: “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists” Dawkins uses this term to describe people who are interested in trying to reconcile evolution with religion. Does he not realize that he’s breaking Godwin’s Law? And furthermore, indirectly comparing religion to Hitler? The Hitler Zombie has chomped Dawkins’ brains.

Example 4: “Darwinism” Dawkins seems persistently ignorant of the fact that this term is dated in the U.S. It’s not even accurate either, since it’s not like Darwin had the final word on evolution.

Example 5: “The Jewish Lobby” Dawkins doesn’t actually say this phrase,1 but he refers to how Jews, though a minority, have a powerful lobby.  It is much more precise that there is a powerful “Israel lobby” which is not made up of all Jews. In fact, the idea that there is a “Jewish Lobby” is a common anti-semitic notion, and it’s not good that Dawkins blindly accepts it.

Example 6: “The Selfish Gene” Ok, wrong book.2 But it’s worth noting because it’s an older phrase coined by Dawkins that has caused much confusion among the public. People seem to think the idea refers to the selfishness produced by evolution, when really the whole point is that selfish genes lead to cooperative lifeforms. It’s so darn painful when people mix it up. Dawkins clearly regrets this particular example, since he has made every effort to correct the confusion (even mentioning it in The God Delusion).

Example 7: “Brights” Again, not specifically from this book, but it’s still another stupid word endorsed by Dawkins. The Brights campaign was meant to replace “atheist” with a more positive label, “bright”, just like “gay” was used to give homosexuals a positive label. That’s nice, but the word choice was extraordinarily poor. What’s the opposite of Bright? Anyone could have predicted that the campaign would flop.

Ok, I don’t have any more examples off the top of my head, but Dawkins perpetually seems to say the exact wrong thing. I sometimes wonder if he’s doing it on purpose, just for the shock power. Can’t he think of a way of shocking people that isn’t so careless with the truth?

1. Dawkins did in fact use the phrase “The Jewish Lobby” in various places (see Orac), and what I really meant is that he doesn’t say the phrase in The God Delusion. (return)

2. For context, this post was talking about The God Delusion, while “The Selfish Gene” comes from a different book, The Selfish Gene. So that’s what I mean by “wrong book”. (return)


  1. says

    IIRC, In TGD, Dawkins explicitly attaches the term “child abuse” to teaching children the idea of eternal punishment in hell for violating arbitrary social norms. I tend to agree with this charge, and only practical problems of enforcement prevent me from advocating that such teaching be actually illegal.

    However, I agree that Dawkins has exhibited many examples of unclear speech, so it’s entirely possible that he has been less specific elsewhere.

  2. says

    Yeah, I don’t really agree with 2008!me about religious child abuse. In retrospect, arguments about legality were a distraction, and the important takeaway should have been that we need to build support networks for victims of religious abuse. Indeed we now have such networks today.

    Although, I think the way Dawkins talked about religious child abuse didn’t help. I don’t think belief in hell is the correct dividing line between abusive and non-abusive religious upbringing. Hell is a common feature in Christian belief, but only a minority of ex-Christians see their Christian upbringing as abusive. The way Dawkins talked about it, it sounded like he was accusing nearly all Christians of child abuse.

  3. kenal98 says

    I wouldn’t have gone with the argument from legality either. Siggy has already pointed out that such a line of argument would be a distraction. Siggy is right though to point out that the way Dawkins actually framed his argument about religious child abuse was questionable. Hell is a very common belief among Christians (and Muslims) and yet I think we would be hard pressed find ex-Christians (ex-Muslims) who would describe their upbringing as abusive merely because their parents told them about hell. It is of course entirely possible that religious parents could use the idea of hell to terrorize their children in a way which would constitute child abuse. I am certain there are some religious parents who abuse their children in precisely this way but I don’t imagine that these parents represent a significant percent of religious parents.

    My Muslim parents taught me about hell but in deciding to leave Islam, I never for a moment thought that they abused me. Dawkins is simply painting with a very broad brush with his imprecise line of argument.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    Hell is a common feature in Christian belief, but only a minority of ex-Christians see their Christian upbringing as abusive.

    I would interpret that thus: only a minority of ex-Christians really (a) had the concept of Hell drilled into them, (b) believed it and (c) thought the implications through. Dawkins’ error is that he assumes that all children brought up Christian are exhaustively taught about Hell in detail, think through the implications and believe them.

  5. says

    My parents deliberately deemphasized hell. As a result I never thought about it much growing up, although of course I knew what it was.

  6. Kimpatsu1 says

    “When Dawkins says religion can be “child abuse”…”
    When did Dawkins ever say that religion was child abuse?
    He said that labelling children with the religion of their parents is child abuse. Not the same thing, O Careful Skeptic…

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