T-shirts and mugs

A Sunday Times reporter went to talk to Richard Dawkins about all this no-platforming they get up to over there in Americaland.

He is in the news because, 10 days ago, a left-leaning Californian radio station suddenly “no-platformed” him. He had intended to speak in Berkeley, where he undertook graduate studies in the 1960s, but the event’s organisers cancelled his talk, citing his “abusive speech [against Islam]”, which had “offended and hurt . . . so many people”.

Dawkins insisted he had never spoken abusively against the religion, admitting that while he had called Islamism “vile”, Islamism is not the same as Islam. (In a 2013 tweet, he wrote that “Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today. I’ve said so, often and loudly.”)

More to the point, I think, was his prolific hostile tweeting about Ahmed Mohamed, whom he called “Clock Boy” and “Hoax Boy.” The kid was 14 at the time, and he is of course a Muslim. It was not Dawkins’s finest hour.

(Not that I think KPFA did the right thing. I don’t.)

Being no-platformed, he says, is “utterly appalling: a shocking, backward, cowardly step”. He is particularly sad that, these days, it happens so often at universities, “where you would have thought students would welcome visitors they could challenge and debate”.

What is causing the trend? “It could be social construction, which seems to foster the idea that opinions are what matter — opinions that don’t need to be defended. Terrible! Evidence is the only reason to believe anything.”

Sigh. No it isn’t. Evidence isn’t the only reason to believe it’s better not to be like Donald Trump, for instance. Evidence is one source of reasons to believe that, but it’s not the only source. Values have a lot to do with feelings and, yes Richard, opinions. Evidence informs those feelings and opinions, but not all by itself. Opinions do matter. They need to be defended, but defending opinions can be complicated and call on a variety of resources.

Valuing evidence above all is laudable — but has repeatedly got him into trouble. He should perhaps never have discovered Twitter: even some of his most devoted fans have challenged his intemperate remarks to his 2m followers.

Some of those who believe he is right about religion, reason and the scientific method say he often goes too far online, lacking emotional intelligence.

Quite so. And here’s a shocker: it’s not just evidence that would persuade him to do better. (Which is not to say I know what would persuade him to do better, because I don’t. The answer may be that nothing would. He’s a bit like Trump that way.)

When a woman contacted Dawkins on Twitter, worried what she would do if she became pregnant with a foetus with Down’s syndrome, Dawkins’s reply was brief: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“People were saying to me, ‘You want to kill my child!’” he says. “Of course I wasn’t. You rightly love your child. Nevertheless, when you had the option of aborting it, that would have been the sensible thing to do.”

Does he not see how comments like that might deeply hurt the parents of children with Down’s syndrome? “Only if you allow emotion to ride above reason,” he says.

There. That’s why he should stay off Twitter forever. Gee golly imagine parents of children with Down syndrome having emotions on the subject!! There are arguments to be made on the subject but Twitter is not the place to make them…and what he said in that tweet was not an argument anyway, it was just an assertion.

Today you can buy T-shirts, mugs and other “merchandise” on his foundation’s website, while he used to sell membership of the “Dawkins Circle” for up to $9,999 (£7,600) a year.

Perfectly rational.

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