NPR throws mud at Dawkins

Oh noes, says Barbara J King at NPR, that mean Dawkins guy is the keynote speaker at the Reason Rally. That will wreck the whole thing, right?

No, but Barbara J King does her best to make it so by predicting it, as pseudo-concerned atheist-bashers so often do.

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Yes; and?

Here is what he said in the full version – note first of all that it’s the interviewer who introduces the word “evil”:

My sense is that you don’t just think religion is dishonest. There’s something evil about it as well.

Well, yes. I think there’s something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence. And the reason that’s dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything. If you’re taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die — anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed — that clearly is evil. And people don’t have to justify it because it’s their faith. They don’t have to say, “Well, here’s a very good reason for this.” All they need to say is, “That’s what my faith says.” And we’re all expected to back off and respect that. Whether or not we’re actually faithful ourselves, we’ve been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences.

And? Is that such an obviously wrong, or evil, thing to think? We see examples of the consequences here every day.

But King thinks it is obviously wrong.

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

Maybe, some, but maybe some others – assuming they read the interview itself and not just King’s six word gotcha – will see his point. King, however, does her best to prevent that.

Will Dawkins rally The Reason Rally’s secular pilgrims with the same scorn towards the faithful that he’s shown to date? We’ll have to wait and see. If he does, he’ll drive a stake in the heart of the Rally’s stated goal. He will confirm that some of the negative stereotypes associated with the nonreligious — intolerance of the faithful, first and foremost — are at times aligned with reality.

In the meantime, the rest of us, scientists, science writers, and followers-of-science alike, can opt to rally around a different principle.  Whatever our position on the continuum from deep faith to ardent atheism, we can lose the sneers. We can explain and, when necessary, defend science with rigor and passion and genuine civility.

But it wasn’t a sneer. It was a very serious point, and it’s not obviously wrong. Arguably it’s the people who insist on protecting the feelings of people who “hold faith dear in their lives” who do the most harm.


  1. ShowMetheData says

    He will confirm that some of the negative stereotypes associated with the nonreligious

    Maybe as a news organization, NPR or at least this woman might want to check the negative stereotypes for validity rather than praying that they be confirmed.

  2. stonyground says

    These people have a problem with someone pointing out that faith, believing things without evidence, and religion in general is evil?

    Breaking stories on atheist blogs:

    Parents allowing their son to die of appendicitis. praying instead of seeking medical advice.

    Parents beating their children to death because they mistook bad colds for possession by demons.

    Afgans paying off debts by handing over six year old girls to be slaves for two years and be whipped daily.

    Those are things that are happening in the present, don’t even get me started on their evil effing history.

  3. says

    It’s simple, really: if Barbara J. King were right that being as respectful and kid-gloved and mewling as possible is so effective in winning people over to your side, there would be no need to have a rally for defending reason. Atheists and scientists have been quiet and respectful for a very, very long time up to this point, and look at what we’ve got: nearly half the American populace doesn’t even understand, let alone accept, evolution. Instead, they’re influenced by loud and bigoted and angry people on the religious right.

    It’s certainly true, some people are blinded by tone and once they feel disrepected, they turn their minds off; King herself is an excellent example of this kind of person. But many others are influenced by honesty and straightforwardness, and that’s what Dawkins and others like him bring to the table.

    The deep, deep irony is, Dawkins (to my knowledge) has never once criticized the behavior or methods of accomodationists, either with regards to science or atheism. The Nü Atheists™ are, as far as I’ve ever seen, perfectly glad to have the gentle and respectful and political and soft-spoken on their side. The intolerance seems to all be coming from the other direction.

    What a hypocritical crock of shit.

  4. says

    And another thing: isn’t the whole point of supporting reason to support it INSTEAD OF faith? The whole thing about reason is to not accept things without evidence. Doesn’t it immensely muddy the message to say, “hear, hear! support things because of reason! look at evidence to make your decisions!” but then to say, “…or, don’t. just believe whatever you find convenient.” Either you think it’s good to employ reason or you don’t. Otherwise it’s all just solipsistic nonsense.

  5. Grendels Dad says

    A very serious point, and one that is difficult to get across without it sounding like a sneer. When you try and tell people that something they have regarded as a virtue, full stop, can be a vice, it is going to sound harsh. I was recently in a longish Facebook discussion trying to explain this concept to the daughter of a high school classmate.

    I was extremely cautious not to sound too harsh because I had to worry about triggering a defensive reaction from the parents as well as the person I was talking with. I think the most direct I was was to refer to faith as the clichéd Double Edged Sword.

    It’s hard enough for me to get a point across in the best of circumstances. Trying to do it while tiptoeing around with half my vocabulary tied behind my back was incredibly frustrating. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for a public figure like Dawkins.

  6. ash says

    NPR used to be the go to place for liberals. They have dropped the ball SO many times in the last few years. I wonder if they know that a good part of their listener base are atheist, at least a greater percentage than FOX news listeners.

  7. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The problem is too many people do consider faith to be a virtue. “I believe in something without any evidence it even exists, what a good person I am.”

    It’s hard to see how faith is desirable. Other than religion, people are not expected to believe in something without evidence. However goddists argue that religion is different and deserving of this practice. Looking at religious faith objectively, it becomes obvious that religious faith involves believing what one wants to believe no matter what logic and evidence would mandate. Such faith is a form of willful ignorance in which desire is more important than reason.

    Because it’s considered inappropriate in American society to criticize or even question someone’s faith, the faithful can attribute any belief to their faith. Faith gives people an excuse to end discussion of religion and the existence of gods. If an atheist tries to continue the discussion, the faithful find screaming persecution often works.

    People who believe in goddism will accept that someone else’s belief, while mistaken, is genuine if the faith card is played. I suspect this is one reason why moderate goddists, while rejecting fundamentalist beliefs for themselves, don’t object too loudly when fundamentalists push creationism or homophobia. The fundamentalists have a sincere faith in a 6000 year old universe and that’s a good excuse for the moderates not to argue with the fundamentalists.

    Christianity, just as much as Islam, teaches children that unquestioned faith is a virtue. You don’t have to make the case for what you believe. If somebody announces that it is part of his faith, the rest of society, whether of the same faith, or another, or of none, is obliged, by ingrained custom, to “respect” it without question; respect it until the day it manifests itself in a horrible massacre like the destruction of the World Trade Center, or the London or Madrid bombings. Then there is a great chorus of disownings, as clerics and “community leaders” (who elected them, by the way?) line up to explain that this extremism is a perversion of the “true” faith. But how can there be a perversion of faith, if faith, lacking objective justification, doesn’t have any demonstrable standard to pervert? –Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

  8. says

    One example of the people whose feelings King is so anxious not to hurt are the Catholic parents in Quebec who recently objected to their children being forced to attend a secular “Ethics and Religious Culture” program, the purpose of which was to expose children to “a range of cultures, creeds and religious traditions such as Judaism, aboriginal spirituality and other religious traditions”, in addition to teaching about the historical significance of French-Canadian culture and the role of Catholic and Protestant Christian traditions.

    The parents complained that the program would expose their kids to harm and disruption, “caused by forced, premature contact” with beliefs that are incompatible with those held by the parents., and that it could have an adverse effect on the religious beliefs the children were being taught in their home.

    Surprisingly, good sense prevailed and the court ruled that the parents’ concerns were not sufficient justification for them to withdraw the kids from the class.

  9. GordonWillis says

    Oh bugger, here’s another one. And I was hoping that Zedeeyen on Eric’s blog was a one-off. And he talks about shutters, too. Odd, really, when you think how shutters have been out-of-date for decades (at least here in Britain, where the only shutters you see are screwed immovably to the walls and plainly wouldn’t fit the windows anyway). I suspect a new plot and ploy, a new offensive: don’t deny what Dawkins says, just point out that nobody wants to listen. “Hurtful and harsh” means “Sorry, we don’t want to hear this”, and “minds closing” (“stand well clear, minds now closing, stand well clear…”)is the perennial problem that we’re in the business of confronting. After all, there’s always the hope that a photon might get through before the shutters shut.

  10. sailor1031 says

    I see NO continuum between deep faith and atheism. Only a yawning chasm. And WTF is “ardent” atheism. Not believing in something is “ardent” now. I tell you NPR has not been the same since the Bush administration parachuted in a bunch of apparatchiks from VOA and they fired Bob Edwards. They now make no attempt to be objective or to provide real news and informed commentary. Boo hiss I say, especially to Fox functionary Mara Liasson and most especially to the infinitely creepy Barbara Bradley Haggerty

  11. says

    She chose a dumb quote to make her case, but I think there is a good point in there: how we present ourselves and our values at this event could have extraordinarily significant consequences for our movement, both for good and for bad. It is potentially possible that one of the speakers could make a speech which legitimately would harm this movement to a great degree. There is certainly precedent. I have high hopes for the event, but they’re tinged with a certain level of concern.

  12. Rieux says


    It’s endlessly dispiriting to see the extent to which normally reasonable people will go to certain favored beliefs from the slightest challenge.

    Dawkins picked up the interviewer’s use of “evil” on the way to a perfectly ordinary critique of faith—an idea. King’s post is approximately the 8,340,943rd attempt to pretend that such a critique is an attack on “people who hold faith dear in their lives” (emphasis added).

    No one ever even tries this move when the idea in question is not religious: no one beats up on Paul Krugman for showing such contempt for people who hold Austrian economics dear in their lives, or on Al Gore for being so hurtful to people who hold AGW denial dear in theirs. Only religious people are granted this pedestal status, and only criticism of their specifically religious ideas receives this endless insufferably arrogant tut-tutting.

    King, like a thousand other gnubashers, is clearly totally clueless about the reasons forthright atheists have for publicizing our unvarnished opinion of religious belief, and about the deep hole of societal bigotry that millennia of polite bowing and scraping have left us in. But who needs to know anything about that? It’s just so easy to lecture a despised minority on how awful it is for the overwhelmingly powerful majority when we scummy subpersons “choos[e] words hurtful and harsh.” My heart bleeds for the hegemon.

    Bah. Guess I should just lob some Paul W. and go home.

    One thing that does frequently bring deep emotions into play is the sense that accommodationists frequently advise us what to do as though they think we’re simplistic strategically naive zealots, as opposed to thoughtful people with well-thought-out positions, good arguments, and an arguably excellent strategic rationale that is almost never even mentioned, much less properly addressed, by people who proffer an “obviously better” strategy toward apparently different goals.

    Until accommodationists are willing to talk very, very seriously about Overton issues, we’re going to dismiss their strategic advice as the shallow, platitudinous crap that we think it is. As long as they act like we don’t even have a strategy, and criticize us for not going along with theirs, we’re going to be seriously annoyed when they tell us to do what they want us to do, instead of what we’re doing.

    Talking about us as though we’re simply strategically naive and gratuitously confrontational is straw-manning us, and we are sick as shit of it. It’s been going on nonstop for years, and doesn’t show any sign of stopping.

    We do understand accommodationist arguments. Of course we do. We always have. It isn’t exactly rocket science. (Or even passable political science.) And we’ve always had good reasons for disagreeing with them, which are almost universally ignored by accommodationists, who continue to talk past us, and talk systematically misleading cartoonish smack about us.

    That’s just seriously annoying, isn’t? Should we not be annoyed by that?

  13. says

    Rieux – I’d love to have a serious, evidence-based discussion around strategy with people who disagree on this issue. In fact, we’ve been trying to find people to write about strategy from your perspective for the HCP blog, but so far we haven’t found anyone willing to put in the time to put forward a well-evidenced case. Do you know someone who might be willing to do this? Or would you be willing to do it? Or are there already good articles on this that you think might be worth us investigating? Paul W’s comments are a start, but we’d need something more closely-argued and fully-evidenced to put it on the site.

  14. says

    There was a hit piece done about CFI and me (although they didn’t use my name) on NPR a couple of years ago. They have a very mixed track record with stories about atheists/atheism.

  15. Rieux says

    James: Well, Paul himself is an obvious candidate. He certainly can make a more “well-evidenced case” for Overton Window strategies than I can. (And you should spend some Google time digging up the ones he’s already written; I suggest starting at the old B&W and then looking on Jerry Coyne’s site.) I wouldn’t bet that he’d be interested, but obviously it’s not my place to say.

    As for me, there are some ways in which I might fit: for one, among loudmouth gnus on the Net I might be the most sympathetic to the general concept of the quasi-religious communities with staff and weekend-morning services and whatnot. As you probably remember, I’m an ex-UU, and I could reasonably comfortably return to UUism if it ever took serious steps to deal with its major atheophobia problem. (It won’t, though.)

    On the other hand is what one could call the Kilimanjaro Expedition Sketch Problem: as Eric Idle puts it there, “I’m afraid I shan’t be coming on your expedition, Sir, as I’ve absolutely no confidence in anyone involved in it.” That’s a slight overstatement in our current context, but I do have effectively zero confidence in Greg Epstein and Chris Stedman insofar as their ability to treat gnu atheism honestly and appropriately is concerned. Which I think presents somewhat of a problem for my working on their project.

    Nonetheless, it’s an interesting idea. I’ll think about it.

  16. says

    Thanks for the suggestions. And I understand your concerns: if I were asked to post a guest post for some of the bloggers on this site I would feel a similar reticence.

  17. joed says

    NPR National Propaganda Resource

    Kenneth Tomlinson, who took over at Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in 2003, began his tenure by asking for Karl Rove’s assistance in overturning a regulation that half the CPB board have practical experience in radio or television. Later he appointed an outside consultant to monitor the regular PBS program NOW with Bill Moyers. Told that the show had “liberal” leanings, Moyers eventually resigned in 2005 after more than three decades as a PBS regular, citing political pressure to alter the content of his program and saying Tomlinson had mounted a “vendetta” against him.[23] Moyers eventually returned to host Bill Moyers Journal, after Tomlinson resigned. Subsequently, PBS made room temporarily for conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, formerly of MSNBC and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, and The Journal Editorial Report with Paul Gigot, an editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page (this show has since moved to Fox News Channel) to partially balance out the perceived left-leaning PBS shows.[24] On November 3, 2005 CPB announced the resignation of Tomlinson amid investigations of improper financial dealings with consultants.[24]

  18. Rieux says

    FWIW, in comments at the NPR site I seem to have at least gotten Kimg’s attention. She professes to be “upset” by my (our) “massive misreading” of her piece.

    I think it’s a substantial sign of progress, actually.

  19. says

    Not really, James. Rieux said which people he meant; you just said “some of the bloggers on this site,” which is a passive-aggressive snipe. And of course I don’t know you don’t mean me. That’s why that “some of the” is so…

    what it is.

  20. says

    Rieux, I dutifully clicked “recommend” on all your comments. Well not dutifully, actually, I read them all and I damn well recommend them! Gordon’s, too.

  21. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    The only problem, and I emphasize the ONLY problem, I have with accommodationists is when they pull the “you’re not helping, you’re making it worse, if you’d only act like I want you to then everyone (except you) would be so much happier” schtick.

    If someone wants to play patty-cake with goddists then go for it. Have a nice time. Every so once in a while the accommodationists should let us know about the hordes of goddists they’ve converted to whatever they try to convert them to.* All I ask is they don’t whine because us nasty, cruel, out-of-the-closet, confrontational, militant gnu atheists don’t use the same rule book the accommodationists use. I’m perfectly willing to let them suck up to goddists all day every day if that’s what trips the accommodationists’ triggers. Just give me the same courtesy when I get in goddists’ faces with mean, vicious questions like: “How do you know that?” or “Got any evidence?”

    *YEC to OEC? Fundamentalism to pentecostal evangelicalism? Coke® to Pepsi®? I don’t know what the accommodationists’ goals are.

  22. says

    ‘Tis Himself, OM: What if we can provide good empirical evidence that they will achieve their own aims more readily if they change their strategy? Would you still be opposed to giving a recommendation in that case?

  23. John Morales says


    James @25, can you confirm that “we” refers to accommodationists, and “they” refers to gnus?

    (Because if so, you will need to know gnus’ aims, first of all)

  24. says

    John: No – I mean “we” as a community and “they” as whoever was being referred to in 24.

    After reading an AWESOME post addressing Overton and other issues by Paul W (thanks for the recommendation Rieux!) it is clear I do not remotely fit his preferred definition of “accommodationist”.

  25. says


    James – I do get so tired of your self-appointed mission to manage the way atheists communicate. Who, exactly, asked you? Who died and put you in charge? Who made you the boss of atheism? Your comment #11 above is so self-important it makes my teeth hurt.

    how we present ourselves and our values at this event could have extraordinarily significant consequences for our movement, both for good and for bad. It is potentially possible that one of the speakers could make a speech which legitimately would harm this movement to a great degree. There is certainly precedent. I have high hopes for the event, but they’re tinged with a certain level of concern.

    Noted. But I’m afraid you’re just going to have to live with it. Unless you can somehow persuade all the speakers to check with you beforehand, you’re not going to be able to control their speeches. You’re not in charge. You seem to think you are, for some reason, but you’re not.

    In fact there’s an irony lurking here. You present yourself as an expert at audience appeal, and yet I for one find your air of authority extremely grating. The humorlessness of the passage I quoted is something to behold.

  26. says

    And I get tired, Ophelia, of the double standards and hypocrisy of people like you and PZ who are quite happy to ruthlessly criticize people whose strategies you disapprove of in the most derisive and personal ways, frequently without offering a jot of evidence or even bothering to read carefully what they have written, and yet take extraordinary umbrage when someone airs an opposing view. What I’m doing in offering my opinion is no more than what you or Paul W or Rieux are doing when they offer theirs: contributing to a discussion of effective strategy. I try to do do carefully, civilly, and with an eye to the available evidence – something that is not true of people like PZ and Al Stefanelli, who you seem to support. You are not required to read what I write, let alone agree with it, but you cannot claim with any level of integrity that YOU should have the right to criticize and air your view and I should not.

    As for the irony you mention, it would be more convincing were you a more honest broker. I have great respect for your writing and your moral vision. But you have shown repeatedly that you are hyper-sensitive to criticism of anything done or said by figures you support, frequently seeing ill-will when there is merely disagreement. You are nowhere near as completely irrational on this front as PZ is, who has repeatedly been flatly dishonest in his response to opposing ideas, but you clearly have a very large blind-spot and an unreasonable sense of persecution.

    I will continue to respectfully air my view while trying to present the best case I can from the evidence at my disposal. I do so because I think the goals of this movement are critically important and that it is my moral duty to do what I can to promote them. Those who wish to use the materials I provide can do so. Those who do not need not. But I will not be silenced by bullying and shaming tactics like the ones you just employed, and which have been used against me by numerous commenters and bloggers on this site.

  27. says

    “people whose strategies you disapprove of” – you mean like Chris Stedman and Karla McLaren? Whose “strategies” include calling “new” atheists all kinds of rude names, and then acting outraged when people push back?

    You actually are doing more than “contributing to a discussion of effective strategy”; you’re trying to rule out some strategies.

    I’m actually not trying to silence you; I’m trying to convince you not to talk as if someone had made you a monitor. You would be more effective if you did.

  28. says

    I myself have criticized Stedman and, most roundly, McLaren when I think they’re out of order. I must admit I was more thinking oft self, frankly. And what in what you quoted made you think I was establishing myself as an arbiter? I expressed my hopes and concerns for the event, as others have. The only difference I see is that I agreed to a limited degree with the article.

  29. says

    Of self? But I don’t think I have criticized you ruthlessly! Or have I – maybe I did early on. I’ve also defended you though. I changed my mind about you.

    What made me think it? The whole passage, really – it just sounds so…well, stuffy, frankly. From a great height.

    Here’s what I think: I think your (laudable) effort to be civil and reasoned sometimes leads you into sounding pompous. I don’t say that to be mean – I really think you’d be better off avoiding that!

    Part of why I changed my mind about you was because I kept bursting into laughter at your lewd jokes on Facebook. Ok not “kept” but it happened once or twice.

    Loosen up a little, would be my advice, if I were in the business of giving advice. Don’t try to sound 4 times your age.

  30. says

    I agree with you – you’re right. Sometimes I sound very stuffy when I post on here. In my defense, it’s partly because I try to be SUPER CAREFUL on FTB because people are SO sensitive to perceived slights. When I used to joke a bit people always took it to be snarky or mean or flippant, and so I try to read everything I post here 9 times before I post it. But it does make me sound like a pompous ass. Or even more of one than usual – I tend to be portentous at the best of times. 😉

  31. says

    The author Barbara King seems to entirely miss the point. The stereotypes of atheists, whether accepted or not, whether true or not, will exist in force regardless of how people view Dawkins and his words.

    I am fully tolerant that people choose to hold faiths. It’s their right to believe whatever they want to, I’m not about to go to war against anyone over beliefs, that’s religion’s territory. It’s when those ideas spill into the real world and affect lives that I’m no longer tolerant. When pricks like Newt Gingrich can no longer get on stage and hate on homosexuals without being booed off stage, I’ll stop making fun of religion. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I do on my website and page.

    Love your work, Ophelia!


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