A.N. Wilson has a genuine talent for stretching a quote

Perhaps your curiosity was aroused by Richard Dawkins’ apology:

I am distressed to find myself reported as participating in a “literary spat”, and as “pouring scorn” on an individual, comedian Peter Kay, for whom I actually feel nothing but goodwill (Heard the one about the atheist who scorned a comedian for his belief in a comforting God? March 8). The explanation is as follows. I am one of those whom reporters regularly telephone for a soundbite. Last week, I was fed a quotation from somebody, previously unknown to me, who said he believed in God because he found it comforting. Assuming I was one of a panel of usual suspects being asked to comment on this rather common sentiment, I gave my usual response.

Now it seems that I was being set up by a hired publicity machine, so that I would appear to be mounting a personal attack upon a particular individual who is my rival for a literary prize. And I also learn that the quotation they selected is an unrepresentative one from a book I haven’t read (I look forward to doing so), which is competing with my own for the same prize. I hope you will allow me publicly to apologise to Peter Kay and wish him well in the competition.

Perhaps you are also wondering what horrendous torrent of abuse he must have spewed to require that he apologize. Here it is, in full:

How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it “comforting”? If evidence for a Supreme Being were found, I would change my mind instantly—with pride and great surprise. Would I find it comforting? What matters is what is true and we discover the truth by evidence and not by what we would like.

That’s it? He said he finds it difficult to take someone seriously who believes in some elaborate my because it is “comforting”? That doesn’t sound like it warrants any kind of apology at all.

What demands an apology are the extravagant, indignant histrionics that A.N. Wilson spins into a half-page article of shrill denunciations in the Daily Mail. You can get an idea of the tone from the title alone, but do read the whole thing: Why, in God’s name, do we take this silly, shallow scientist seriously?. Ouch. A.N. Wilson stands exposed as a silly, dishonest, and patently sleazy journalist.

(via Back off, man; I’m a scientist)

Ooops, the link to the Daily Mail scan didn’t hold up under the load: try this copy instead.


  1. CalGeorge says

    I thought A. N. Wilson was an old man! Turns out he was born in 1950. He spits out biographies like there was no tomorrow:

    The Laird of Abbotsford: A View of Sir Walter Scott (1980)
    A Life of John Milton (1983)
    Hilaire Belloc: A Biography (1984)
    Tolstoy (1988)
    Eminent Victorians (1989)
    C.S. Lewis: A Biography (1990)
    Jesus: A Life (1992)
    The Rise and Fall of the House of Windsor (1993)
    Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (1997)
    The Victorians (2002)
    Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her (2003)
    Betjeman: A Life (2006)

    Someone make him stop!

  2. Tom says

    Just to put Americans in the picture: the Daily Mail (or the ‘Daily Hate’ as I know it) is one of the worst newspapers in the UK but unfortunately one of the most popular. It is filled with hardly any news but lots of polemic. It is always ranting against immigrant ‘scroungers’, single mothers, the muslim menace, etc, etc. I have persoanlly been at an incident in London and then read barefaced lies about it in the Mail the next day. This newspaper is not fit to line a budgie’s cage. I certainly wouldn’t want the nether regions of any of my pets exposed to it. A.N. Wilson writes some of the more hate-filled pieces for this rag.

  3. says

    I am happy that Dawkins is up there, giving a lot of publicity to the cause of truth. His fame in the popular press is relatively new, and he will have to learn to deal with traps and tricks. I would have thought the atmosphere of am English univertisty would be some training for that.
    By the way did anyone catch this ctitique of Dawson by Niel Degrass Tyson, another giant. It is hillarious.

  4. says

    Yeah I read about that in the guardian- to be fair the way it was reported was it sounded a bit like trash talk- both are nominated for a book award, and Peter Kay is a very well liked kind of guy. It seemed out of character for Dawkins to have a go at someone for such a thing just randomly (although I rather agree with the sentiment), I’m glad to see he was taken out of context.

  5. quork says

    … people like myself – that is, intelligent beings who did not have a scientific bent at school.

    A.N. Wilson self-assesses himself to be intelligent. Let’s see a sample of his intelligence:

    In his television series attacking religion, he did not confront any of the difficulties of his position – the fact, for example, that nearly all the greatest philosophers, musicians, painters and writers in the history of the globe have believed in God.

    He goes on to say more stupid things.

  6. says

    It just made me chortle that after being owned in 2006 by the Betjeman hoax, he wastes his time again on a complete non-controversy – might’ve been worth calling Dawkins to confirm the story, methinks. Tom, above, sums up the Daily Mail nicely – on RDF Dawkins says he posted a response to Wilson’s article, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t find its way on there.

    Thanks for the link PZ.

  7. Kyra says

    You can take such a person seriously if they know when to stop. Objectivity in deciding what is true is necessary to be accurate, which is necessary for successful science.

    Science requires accuracy in a way that religious belief does not; they have different standards, one of knowledge and logic, the other of faith and intuition; you can think what you please about their relative worth, but a if person is fond of spending some days lying about watching TV, it does not necessarily mean he is incapable of running a marathon. It just takes a willingness to spend time in a pursuit that involves NOT lying about on the couch. Ditto, a religious person can make a competent scientist if he holds his scientific work to a somewhat higher standard than “I believe it ’cause I like it.”

    It is the crowd that can’t or won’t consider logic and evidence in scientific pursuits, that cannot be taken seriously.

    My apologies if this constitutes trolling.

  8. rrt says

    You aren’t trolling, Kyra, but you are rehashing an old debate frequently held here. There are some who would argue that a strongly religious scientist has no justification for the dual standard she or he applies to faith and science.

  9. MelM says

    No more tolerance of faith!
    With fanatical Dominionists wanting to rule the U.S. and fanatical Islamists shouting “Death to those who insult the prophet!”, I think it’s way way past the time when “faith and intuition” and the resulting dogma (a necessary consequence) should be tolerated. If someone wants to kill me, I’m going to insist on reasons quite beyond “God commands it.” How freakin’ dare they claim the right to rule or kill me in the name of nothing but rotten dogma!!

    I don’t think Dawkins is too harsh.
    As for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s rebuke of Dawkins, although I like Tyson, I don’t think Dawkins is being too harsh. From my perspective, the mindless sucking-up of dogma–and using every logical fallacy known to man to defend it–is a moral issue; it deserves a negative moral evaluation. Faith is a vice.

    Tolerate this stuff? I don’t think so.
    One of the worst things the theists do is to pull out all sorts of sophistic gimmicks trying to undercut people’s confidence in their own mind–thus leaving the believer free of criticism. And what about those still trying to push ID? There’s plenty of info on the Web. If they had any real, honest, scientific interest in the matter, they could settle their questions and wouldn’t still be trying to peddle the idea around; they deserve what they get. And, I think Dawkins was right to slam into Liberty U. about the 3000? year old dino bones; an outrage is an outrage.

    Debating with irrationalists.
    And, how the hell does one have a rational discussion with an irrationalist anyway? We’ve all tried it. They can usually come up with more evasions and fallicies per sentence than one can even begin to deal with in a short answer. And, if you do answer, they will only invent more intellectual “hacks” to cover themselves. And how should someone like John C. Hagee be dealt with? He’s dangerous “end of days” freak. (Our major news media should really be taking a look at this guy and some big shot politicals need to be asked why they are dealing with him at all.)

  10. Ian H Spedding FCD says

    Tom is much more restrained in his characterisation of the Mail than I would have been. To put it another way:

    Why, in God’s name, do we take anything written in this rag by a silly, shallow journalist seriously?

  11. One Eyed Jack says

    I find it comforting to think that Salma Hayek is waiting for me in my bedroom. I think I’ll sleep on the couch tonight so I don’t disturb my comforting thoughts.


  12. False Prophet says

    I like deGrasse Tyson too, especially his presentation on Stupid Design. But he makes the same mistake a lot of people do. People talk about Dawkins’ position as Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, and thus that means he should be more diplomatic about the public’s point of view.

    Leaving aside the fact that he does educate the public about science (I listened to his talk at McGill University as part of the CBC Ideas program, and other than a couple of cracks at creationists, he didn’t have anything at all to say about religion until he was directly asked in the Q & A), the thing to note is Charles Simonyi gave Oxford a huge endowment to create that position with the intention of Dawkins being the first holder. Doesn’t that basically sound like Simonyi gave Oxford a whole lot of money to let Dawkins be Dawkins? I thank Simonyi immensely for that.

  13. Louis says

    One Eyed Jack,

    Sirrah you lie like an ID creationist! Salma Hayek is not waiting in your bedroom, she is waiting in mine. A fact I find infinitely more comforting than your pathetic fiction.

    By bandying a woman’s good name and falsely and scurrilously slurring her by claiming she is in your bedroom when the world knows she is moist with anticipation in my bed right now you have insulted my honour. I demand satisfaction. Report to my Second and choose your weapon, either biting satirical parody or outright sarcasm. I await your answer sir, I shall see you mocked or named craven!

    Sir Arthur P Biggott-Smythe, Retd (Regular reader of the Daily Mail, the World’s Greatest Newspaper)

    P.S. Oooohhh Immigrants are coming over here trying to give us all bird flu and steal our jobs and make us all gay and clog up the hospitals and they speak funny I don’t like darkies or poofs send ’em all back where they came from they’re ruining the moral fabric of society with their heathen gods and their human sacrifice I’m writing to my MP….blah drone waffle

    (**I’m not serious about the above, but frankly one cannot parody the hysterical bullshit in the Daily Mail. Like my fellow countrymen I shall pour scorn upon it. I would not use the Daily Mail to wipe my arse, and not just because the print would come off, but because I would not wish to sully my anus with the filth that came off that bigot manual)

  14. G. Shelley says

    I have to agree that the Daily Mail is not much of a source for anything, other than vile hate filled propaganda.
    A recent case in point, the government wanted to change the laws for Adoption agencies, so that those that discriminated against same sex couples would not get funding. The Catholic church wanted an exemption. For a few days there was uncertainty over which way Tony Blair would go, especially as the minister in charge was believed to be very sympathetic to the Catholic view. The day of the decision, the Mail reported it as “Blair caves on adoption row.” Until I saw it was the Mail, I thought it probably meant he had caved to the Catholics, but as soon as I noticed which paper, I knew the real meaning.

  15. Stephen says

    Strange to think that when PZ was born the Mail was a respected middlebrow newspaper – in fact I think it still was in the late sixties. It had started sinking by the mid-seventies, and by the mid-nineties it was so bad I managed to pursuade my parents to get a real newspaper (they’d taken the Mail all their lives.) I didn’t think it could get worse, but apparently it managed it.

    Does this mean it’s now even worse than the Sun, or has the Sun managed to sink still further? (I don’t live in the UK any more.)

  16. says

    Well, that’s what the Daily Mail does, isn’t it? It’s not like they don’t stretch something minor into a scandal every single issue. Really, Dawkins should have known better.

  17. says

    Adam, yes. Frankly what Wilson wrote is all too typical, (We have it here in Boston, it’s called the Herald. But the Globe ain’t above it either.) When you become as prominent as Dawkins, you can expect this kind of thing. It’s a surprise it doesn’t happen every day….

  18. Tim Harris says

    Many years ago, I reviewed A.N. Wilson’s biography of Milton, a poet whom I revere, for PN Review (Manchester). The biography was a sloppy and dishonest piece of work, and I said so. Nothing subsequently I have read of Wilson’s has made me respect him any better. He is all too often merely unpleasant and hysterical, while pretending to a moral authority he lacks – a sort of thinking man’s Rush Limbaugh. I am not a compleat admirer of Dawkins, but he is someone for whom I have great respect. Wilson, though, is a silly, shallow and vain man with an uncontrollable temper.
    Tim Harris

  19. BlueIndependent says

    I looked at Daily Mail’s website. They seem almost like a tabloid, rather than a terribly serious news outlet. Most of the stuff on today’s front page had to do with celebrities and other vaccuous stuff. Very little about anything important like Iraq.

    The title of Mr. Wilson’s article pretty much gives the whole thing away. I don’t recall ever seeing a story headline phrased quite that way.

  20. RickD says

    My perspective (American in UK): the Daily Mail is the primary newspaper for reactionary politics in the UK these days. Its politics are roughly comparable to the BNP, i.e. herding all the foreigners and liberals to the shore and forcing them into the sea. I would use it for my cats’ litterbox, but they would complain.

    The Sun, in comparison, is just a pure sensationalist, traditional tabloid.

  21. MAJeff says

    We have it here in Boston, it’s called the Herald.

    Boy do we. Any paper that would print the execrable Howie Carr isn’t even worth being called a newspaper.

  22. MartinC says

    Taking the Daily Mail seriously as an example of print journalism is about as useful as taking Fox News as a source of news. That said there is actually a distinct anti-science undercurrent within the UK that has different roots to the fundamentist sort you lot in the US experience. I would actually expect that Dawkins will get a lot more stick in the UK when he comes out with his next TV program that confronts New Age thinking (the biggest proponent in the UK being the future King).

  23. says

    It’s all the more churlish since Dawkins in fact referenced A.N.Wilson in TGD (page 93 & 96) for his biography of Jesus (of all people).

    The only person who will end up embarrassed by such a silly piece of blood-rush-to-the-head op/ed is A.N. Wilson himself. Dawkins’ apology is actually very gracious, and for those of you in the US who aren’t aware of him, Peter Kay is indeed very funny, and I doubt he would take it thick, even if Dawkins had opened up on him big style.

  24. G. Tingey says


    The Daily Nazi (Mail) has never been a “moderate” paper ….
    Right up until about “nd September 1939, they were saying there wasn’t going to be war with that nice Mr Hitler, who didn’t likr those nast jews who were flooding into Britain ( I kid you not)


  25. Joey says

    Bah, the Daily Mail is just a Tory rag anyway, no better than a tabloid. Goodness knows why anyone still respects it.

    I read in the Independent yesterday that the Student’s Union at the University of Sussex has banned the Daily Mail due to some of its comments on asylum seekers. I know that most student unions are mostly dominated by left-wingers, but the fact it was banned pretty much illustrates the stupidity of its articles.

  26. says

    If you want to know the history of the Daily Mail, just google “Hurrah for the blackshirts”

    They have also been summed up as a paper determined to divide the natural world into things that either cause or cure cancer.

  27. One Eyed Jack says


    I see your delusion and raise you one hallucination!

    The lovely Miss Hayek remains in my bedroom. I know this to be true because I have not ventured there for two days. Very soon though I will be getting a bit ripe and may be forced to retrieve fresh clothing.

    Perhaps if I shut my eyes tightly and refuse to look around, my comforting fantasy can remain intact. Ignorance is bliss, no?


  28. Ginger Yellow says

    As hinted at above, the Mail is also the primary repository in the British press for crackpot New Age bollocks, from crystals and homeopathy to the Bible Code. Go to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science site and search for “Daily Mail” to turn up a ton of anti-scientific crap.