Talk about a storm in a teacup ...
or should that be grail?! Richard Dawkins' recent cutting tweets about journalist, Medhi Hasan, have resulted in an explosion of condemnation online and off from an assortment of religious writers, colleagues of Hasan and tweeters. During an interview in Febuary on Al-jazeera, Hasan made the statement that he believed Mohammed had ascended to heaven on a winged horse (a white one I presume). Professor Dawkins' subsequent tweets quite rightly questioned not whether Hasan was a skilled journalist or whether Muslims could be journalists, but whether someone who believed in the literal truth of an obvious myth could be considered an objective contributor to a serious journal (the New Statesman) or credible to use his word. By that it's clear he is referring to Hasan's ability to be wholly rational on serious issues.
If those who criticised Dawkins were themselves more detached and objective they'd have to admit he has a very good point. But the outrage they displayed was neither reasonable nor rational. In truth it was simply an opportunity as they saw it to sink the boot into a perpetual thorn in the side of religion. Consider the following quote from Scott Stephens, Religion Editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
For some time I've been expecting to see a particular secularist conceit expressed in a particular way -- and over the weekend, Richard Dawkins finally came through. Without any direct provocation that I can see, apart from whatever bad feelings remain from a bruising encounter late last year on al-Jazeera, Dawkins tweeted:
"Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist".Dawkins' views on religion are by now extremely well-known, to the point of cultural saturation thanks to the media's fixation with him. Dawkins makes for good copy -- that's why journalists love him. But the dogmatic assertions and withering dismissals that made Dawkins a media-darling, and "The God Delusion" an international bestseller, lend themselves particularly well to the anarchic medium of Twitter, where his unjustifiable claims can shrug off any residual requirement for justification. At the hand of his hundreds of thousands of followers, who rehash and #hashtag with a well-nigh evangelical fervour, Dawkins's tweets take on the force of a Delphic pronouncement.
The tone of Stephens' article has been repeated by many of Dawkins' critics, and the attacks have a personal edge to them because they, his critics, in a state of frustration take atheist assertions personally. When faced with the incisive logic of evidence-based reason, believers react with indignity as though their very identities are under challenge. It hurts them even more knowing their arguments cannot stand up to scientific scrutiny. Indeed, Hasan's questions and body language betrayed this throughout the interview. At times aggressive, sometimes obnoxious, Hasan demonstrated one of the great failings of religious belief: the ability to be dispassionate and unprepossessed. Given this it's understandable that Dawkins was piqued enough to post his tweet, which in effect offers some sound advice.
After all, this is not only an issue about winged horses or fairies at the bottom of the garden. It comes down to people's ability to separate their emotional attachments from their obligation to be reasonable and objective. Religion and those who attach themselves to religious mythology as a means of establishing some kind of cultural identity have much to think about. Hasan later added that he wasn't sure whether he believed in winged horses. Well he would say that wouldn't he? On the one hand he mustn't look ridiculous, on the other he has his Muslim identity to think about. Clearly he's trying to have a bit each way. Perhaps the only thing he should be trying to be is intellectually honest.