If you haven’t read it, you will almost certainly have seen it: the critique of Professor Richard Dawkins that arraigns him for being too “strident” in his confrontations with his critics. According to this line of attack, Dawkins has no business stepping outside the academy to become a “public intellectual” and even less right to raise his voice when he chooses to do so. Implied in this rather hypocritical attack is the no less hypocritical hint that Dawkins might be better received if he were more polite and attract a better class of audience if he used more of the blessed restraint and reserve that is every Englishman’s birthright and which he obviously possesses in such heaping measure.
I think that Dawkins would be quite right to refuse the oily invitation that is contained in this offer, and I hope that he continues to do so. I say this while having actually found his manners to be quite unusually polite and even quiet, especially when one considers the context of this discussion. I, for example, am a self-taught amateur writer who quite enjoys getting a bit scruffy in debates with those who think that Earth was designed with them in mind. Dawkins, on the other hand, has spent decades of his life refining and deepening the teaching of evolutionary biology—a revolutionary subject that is only just beginning to disclose its still-more revolutionary, and healing and educational, properties and aspects. Why should he sit still and see a valued and precious discipline being insulted, even threatened with not being taught? It’s no exaggeration to say that in some parts of the modern world, real efforts are being made to stifle evolutionary biology and to impose the teaching—under various disguises of differing ingenuity—of creationism. In which case the real question ought to be: Where are the other professors? Why is the academy being so cowardly in failing to stick up for the teaching and the free inquiry on which it lives? I don’t think that Professor Dawkins should be left to do this important work all by himself.
In doing so at all, of course, he comes from a potentially great tradition. In the famous nineteenth-century debate with Bishop Wilberforce, or “Soapy Sam,” in which the theory of evolution was tried and found sound in the Oxford school, it was Thomas Huxley who emerged as “Darwin’s bulldog.” It wasn’t to be expected that the mild and retiring Charles Darwin would or could appear each time to defend evolution by natural selection, but at least there was someone upon whom he could rely, and the evidence is that Huxley was very happy to undertake the task. My view now would be that that was all very well for the nineteenth century, when the struggle was to expand and deepen the circle of scientific knowledge. But now that the discipline is clearly established, it should not require a full professor to justify his right to be teaching it! Instead, he and others should be getting on with important projects. Yet just today I spoke to some biologists who work closely with the National Institutes of Health and are regularly forced to waste time in red-herring discussions about the ethics of using existing stem cells. Alas, in testimony before Congress, they are forced to be polite and understated, lest they meet with the wrath of God.
This is why I suppose people lay traps for Dawkins, trying to catch him out. Most recently there was an attempted “gotcha” when he showed reluctance to have a public exchange with the Protestant fundamentalist William Lane Craig. This time the chorus turned sarcastic and pseudo-ironic—“Dawkins declines debate, etc.”—as if this time they wanted him to be more strident rather than less. It’s not as if Craig is a biologist or has any other sort of serious credential, but he does like to claim “credibility” by taking on great names. Dawkins is usually willing to accommodate debates with the “other side.” But he had serious misgivings about the premise of this one because Craig had set out an especially hard and brutal defense of the genocide of the Amalekites. In general, we of the “Four Horseman” faction avoid direct engagement with Holocaust deniers, lest the idea of denial become insidiously more acceptable. And, cloaked as it is in biblical rhetoric, Craig’s defense of the exterminationist view expressed in the Pentateuch is as close to denial as makes damn little difference. Indeed, as I try to point out, it is considerably more like Holocaust affirmation. The whole project of extirpation is approved, right down to the slaughter of the Amalekite children, on the grounds that a place is reserved for them in heaven. They just happened to be born in the wrong place (and to the wrong people) to be able to accommodate God’s children.
So here again I find myself unreservedly seconding some “stridency” by Professor Dawkins. It is disgusting to preach mass ethnic murder out of holy books. It is moreover, in the current highly charged situation in Palestine, fantastically irresponsible. Israeli settler zealotry is financed and encouraged to an important degree by American Christian evangelicals: if they seem to be advocating or excusing genocide it helps lower the threshold at which these horrors can be introduced and discussed. Such a thing seems to me to call for unequivocal condemnation. As to whether Craig is invited to disown mass murder from the platform, or as a condition of taking part, I don’t much care. But I do think I know who the demagogue is in this situation and who is the honest professional attempting to make the best use of his time in the interests of scholarship. At least two cheers for stridency!
Christopher Hitchens authored Arguably (Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2011) a collection of essays and reviews, as well as numerous other books and essays.