Why Dawkins Gets Asked About His Atheism

By Chris Mooney | October 29, 2009 9:12 am

Josh had a very good post yesterday, and not only because it defended us from some ongoing misrepresentations. In it, Josh also raised an important point: Why is Richard Dawkins, promoting his new evolution book, regularly being asked about his atheism, and why he is “strident,” “polarizing,” etc? Is it the media’s fault–or is it Dawkins’?

I would actually say a bit of both.

Journalists can be quite irresponsible, and even when they’re not outright irresponsible, they love to be provocative and to stir up conflict. To them, Dawkins is “Mr. Big Atheist,” and thus instinctively seen as a polarizing figure. Many radio or TV hosts, and even print journalists that Dawkins encounters on his tour, will not have read his books carefully; instead, they will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard.

Moreover, some of these journalists probably partake of the popular misconception that evolution and atheism are somehow equivalent. They may not even be able to distinguish between Dawkins’ last two books, and so of course, they’ll leap from one to the other insensibly.

Finally, atheism is, to a trouble-making journalist, potentially a much sexier topic than evolution. It’s divisive. It’s controversial. It’s much easier to create sparks with culture war questions than it is to patiently allow Dawkins to explicate science.

Frankly, I wish the media would just let Dawkins talk about evolution–it is the topic of the new book, and would be much more educational for the audience. But I don’t believe for a second that this is how the media behaves. That Dawkins would, after The God Delusion, be framed as a scientist-atheist combo, or even the icon of atheistic science, was as inevitable as night after day. It’s the media equivalent of a law of nature.

And this is where Dawkins himself comes it–for at least on some level, could he possibly not have known this? A few years back, long before we had The Greatest Show on Earth, I wrote (with Matt Nisbet) of Dawkins that “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.” Just swap “media” for “public” and the sentence is equally accurate.

Now, should the public and the media know the difference? Hell yeah. But is that the world we live in? Hell no.

And thus arises the really tough question: Should Dawkins and his followers recognize this reality and adapt accordingly, or should they blame the media and public (for being the media and public)?

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Comments (76)

  1. Anthony McCarthy

    When someone writes a book and promotes it onto the Best Sellers list, it’s a bit disingenuous for them or their fans to complain when they are asked about the topic of said best seller. Especially when their subsequent activities highlight the topic of their best seller.

    Last summer I dared one of the prominent new atheists of the Scienceblogs here, to try the experiment of going all-science, all the time for a few months to see if their large fan base was really interested in science or in their rancid invective. After the test period they could go back to their ususal topic choice. Needless to say, the dare was turned flat down.

    I said it was a bit disingenuous for them to complain above, that’s not true. It’s entirely disingenuous and an indication that they’re either regretting their choice or they’re finding it embarrassing now. It’s just another dodge, probably tactical and it too will pass.

  2. Sorbet

    You can hardly blame Dawkins entirely for the fact that the media finds atheism more juicy and therefore is bent on asking him about it. A large part of the blame falls on the media, and to the people who get titillated by atheist fare.

  3. The answer to the “really tough question” depends on what Dawkins wants: if he wants to engage in an endless, tiresome and ultimately pointless battle of rhetoric with the brainless media, then he should absolutely blame them. But if he wants to move on to more important issues, like evolution, then he can just adapt and let it roll off his back. On the other hand, a valid argument could easily be made that the more media attention Dawkins gets, whether because he’s an outspoken atheist or whatever, the more books he sells, and therefore the more people will be educated on the issue of evolution. Sometimes any publicity is good publicity, and the ends justify the means.

  4. John Kwok

    Sorbet,

    And it isn’t just Dawkins, since none other than a journalist, Christopher Hitchens, may be more responsible now for much of the perceived “radicalism” espoused by him, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, among others.

    Still, some of the blame rests clearly on Dawkins’s shoulders since he’s made himself into the “Number One Poster Boy” of the New Atheist movement in light of the publication of his “The God Delusion” and his recent television documentaries critical of religiou faith that aired originally in the United Kingdom and then, later, on cable television networks around the globe.

  5. Tom Johnson

    I think the only current blame should be put on the public and media for misrepresenting Dawkins’ stance. Now, if Dawkins and others see this happening and don’t call it out/adapt to it, then the blame will be on them. I think some of Dawkins’ recent statements show that he is adapting, however.

  6. Erasmussimo

    “Should Dawkins and his followers recognize this reality and adapt accordingly, or should they blame the media and public (for being the media and public)?”

    Ah, the classic question: do we behave as if others are rational or as if they were human? To treat people as human acquiesces to a lower standard; to treat them as rational ignores the ugly reality. So should an orator appeal to their audience’s rationalism or its emotions? Are seat belt laws a violation of the freedom of a rational person or an acknowledgement of human laziness? Is it fair to impose lesser punishment those who murder in fury than on those who murder in cold blood? Should you tell your wife that she looks beautiful in that ugly dress? Should you tell your husband that you really don’t care about the size of his penis?

  7. Luke Vogel

    Chris Mooney,

    >”Should Dawkins and his followers…”<

    What's disappointing is close to what I just had to say to Tom Johnson. There is meat on that bone, there is substance to be discussed, concerns to haggle over, honest debate to be had, but yet again no foresight is used.

    Also, to defend Richard here, part of this is his problem to deal with, and it appears he partly recognizes that and is trying. I've seen it for myself, and so have you. We can go back recognizing the argument of "science=atheism" as not useful across the board, and to highlight the dangers of scientist genuinely being poor spokespersons for science at times. It is useful to point to a "told you so" so we can maybe learn something here, but it needs more context, it needs something besides implying harm is done when that still isn't shown to any reasonable extent. You know as well as I the "evolution=atheism" was not invented by Richard Dawkins.

    I'm done here. You want to play that stupid game, have at it. This approach and worthless provocative type phrasing has been tried and failed, it's nothing but empty rhetoric. Are we to just take your word for it and generalize to the point of absolute absurdity. Maybe we can start pointing our fingers at anyone buying his books.

    Well, now I've done it. I've made myself a virtual outcast in to those wild and crazy "new atheist" by my harsh criticisms of "new atheist" and now to the "accomodationist" crowed, most likely. Though even if not so, feels like it.

    Someone be my follower, please, I use tithe's for fondue parties.

  8. Luke Vogel

    I have a comment in moderation. It’s not very long, so I”m assuming I’ve been flagged and not autopilot. If this is an automatic process, then perhaps someone can inform me of the word count to get my post on board before sometimes several hours past.

  9. Luke,
    Simmer Down! You may have ticked off both sides – but so have I from time to time. Doesn’t stop me here either.

    I thnk what chris is doing – and has for several posts – is trying to steer us back to actual, menaingful debate. He’s trying to find real life examples that he believes will, if discussed civily, get us toward consensus and action, instead of incessant hand wringing and insult.

    Of course, given the audience and many of the interlocutors on both sides, hew may well miss that mark . . .

  10. Gaythia

    I think some “pushes” have been useful. For example, I have heard several interviews with the authors of “Superfreakonomics” recently, and each time, the authors are very careful to state up front, and quite vigorously, that they do accept the evidence of global warming, and that their book chapter on the subject is an attempt at a solution.

    I think that Richard Dawkins is getting more media savvy over time. His books would not be so popular if they did not resonate with many people.

    Traditionally religious people have been meeting together regularly for centuries, (and are frequently quite divisive amongst themselves). I think inter-connectivity is generally a rather new thing for atheists, and they may need time to grow into this new collective role.

    And I strongly agree with Luke that there should be more room for “middle ground” and that it is time for this conversation to grow in depth and substance.

  11. Luke Vogel

    Philip H.

    >”I thnk what chris is doing – and has for several posts – is trying to steer us back to actual, menaingful debate. He’s trying to find real life examples that he believes will, if discussed civily, get us toward consensus and action, instead of incessant hand wringing and insult.”<

    You may certainly right, but one only needs to see the quote I pulled to recognize the problem in defending your statement. Does it appear to you that in recent post Chris has still applied the term "new atheist" broadly and in a negative light, including it's "followers"? I have stressed what this can do is to trivialize the situation and paints an unrealistic picture that those "new atheist" are uninformed, generally ill meaning, and undeserving of the "following" they do have.

    The problem of Dawkins painted as an "atheist" first, and a science communicator second is several years old, and that's just for the newcomers. For you and I, and hopefully Chris, this discussion is easily recognized to go back decades. Richard has made no bones about his position and its just so happens that time was right for the historical events to play out as they have. Just about Richard's entire book, TGD, was "peered" through Free Inquiry magazine and in early books (and other journals as well). The secular humanist movement which welcomed the arguments is also tied tightly to science advocacy, the discussion of approach and the divide of "atheistic" advocacy and scientific literacy is not new and the backlash being painted to starkly now only speaks to the success that "new atheist" are having, not the damage done by proclamations by Mooney after his conversion.

    Michael Ruse's condemnations and perilous predictions don't seem anywhere in sight, I love Michael, but how after TGD do we reconcile the fact he may have simply been burned. He after all took Stephen J. Gould to task in his review of Rocks of Ages for being to mean to the religious like F. Russell Stannard, well guess where else Stannard is lashed(?), yes you guessed, TGD. Point being, this is not new. And if we are to point fingers then I think a *higher standard* needs to be applied then what I am seeing.

    I perhaps closed the door to tightly behind me. However, this is the second time this week I've felt disappointed in Chris' post. If you want I can recount why doubt was warranted to the Tom Johnson case and the way it was used. In fact, if you've paid attention the past couple days, more doubt has emerged. This is *not* the way forward to more productive and meaningful discourse.

    I welcome civil discourse, and will attempt to refrain from getting out line. However, being polite doesn't mean anyone need bite their tongue, disagreements emerge, honest debate can be had regarding 'approach', 'advocacy' etc. – but shouldn't we all damn to some extent those who pretend to enforce an undefined politeness?

  12. Luke Vogel

    After saying that of course, I would be willing to return to what I think is actually worth discussing in Chris’ blogpost. However, lets not pretend a reinforcement of “us vs. them” was not implicitly put in place (many would easily see it as explicit and perhaps for good reason). I do allude to some major themes in my last couple post. Can’t we all remember Matt Nisbet’s blog post of the Fox News caption with the still fram of Dawkins and the caption to describe him was “atheist”? Shall we ignore now the several instances where Richard has patiently pointed out that TGD and his newest book are *different* books. That’s what I said, it is his problem mainly and he’s working around that. But, again Chris paints a too black and white picture which can be transformed at a moments notice.

  13. It’s the media’s fault for nonsense like “strident”, “shrill”, etc. Specifically, the producers and editors who as a career choice evidently all suffer from ADHD.

    Dawkins should adapt by talking about whatever people want to talk about. If people want to talk about atheism, then talk about atheism. The problem is only when atheism-talk crowds out evolution-talk, since that’s what this new book is about. I can very well understand his frustration if people bring him on the show only to ignore his new book.

  14. Luke Vogel

    Just an aside, to see how discussions which run along the borders of the type of discussions on this blog are playing out in public, check out the back and forth between Paul Kurtz and Ronald Lindsay, linked below (Lindsay’s comment is #3). I did in fact post on John Shooks blogpost; “Science and Religion: The Greatest Show on Earth?” where he discusses something similar to Chris’ post here today and ask’s:

    >”If the real obstacle to evolution is only some aspects of some religions, why demand prior abandonment of all religion? Why must scientists be told that they must take an aggressive stance against all religion? On these questions, the debate over accomodationism begins.”<

    I'm the only poster to Shooks blog, only the first is relevant, it is the definitions in circulation for "accomodationism(t)".

    ~ Are There Any McCarthyites at the Center for Inquiry? by Paul Kurtz

    ~ Science and Religion: The Greatest Show on Earth? John Shook

    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blog

  15. Woody Tanaka

    Chris,

    I don’t mean this as a criticism, but my question to you is this: you wrote a book which took very strong positions on the supposed failings of scientists to properly communicate in the social and media climat that exists. Here, you correctly note that the media is often to blame for interference in communications, because of its pursuit of what it believes is “sex[y],” “divisive,” and “controversial.”

    Seeing as how you are a journalist and not a scientist, wouldn’t your efforts be better spent in trying to convince your fellow journalists and media personages of the error of their ways rather than questioning whether someone like Dawkins is to blame for failing to change his messages in reaction to the media’s prejudices?

    I mean, rather than spending years trying to convince scientists to adapt to the media “reality,” (and writing a book which discusses the way that you think scientists should do that), why have you not invested your energies with your peers and compatriots in the journalism and media worlds (which is after all your profession) to make them reform their ways and to change that media reality?

    I would really be interested in hearing your response. Thanks.

  16. MartyM

    Remember the old adage:

    “You have to be the change you want to see in the world.”

    If you like anything about this old saying, then you should agree that it means one should be consistent and un-compromising on ideals one finds important, and to express them appropriately to propagate those ideals.

  17. Sorbet

    John, I agree; that’s why I said the blame does not rest entirely with Dawkins. I think he needs to make some kind of a statement.

  18. Jon

    Here, you correctly note that the media is often to blame for interference in communications, because of its pursuit of what it believes is “sex[y],” “divisive,” and “controversial.”

    You have to sell newspapers. How would the incentives change?

    You can’t just point fingers and kvetch. You have to figure out how the incentives could be made to point in the right direction. And why *not* get science to modify its game too?

  19. Sven DIMilo

    The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his call for more effective science communication and his bashing of Republicans.

  20. gillt

    Mooney: “And thus arises the really tough question: Should Dawkins and his followers recognize this reality and adapt accordingly, or should they blame the media and public (for being the media and public)?”

    Nice tautology at the end. So obviously this is a rhetorical question–not a tough question–meant to convey Mooney’s view.

    Well, of course Dawkins anticipated the medias response to this book after the success of TGD. Besides saying evolution won’t necessarily turn you into an atheist or that you can be a good scientist and be religious, which NAs already do, what else do you propose they do about it, lay low? Wasn’t that also was one of the things you and Nisbet prescribed?

  21. Jon

    Interesting thing, you can change your political beliefs, but the church you were born into, a little bit of different matter, isn’t it? Are the institutions really parallel? If you bash a nice old lady’s synagogue–a bit different than bashing her political leaders, isn’t it? Different institutions, different expectations, and for good reason too. Seeing them as the same reveals a certain flatness of perspective, I think.

  22. Jon

    (My last comment was directed to Sven DIMilo)

  23. I heard Dawkins speak about a month ago in Menlo Park. He was asked both evolution and atheism questions, and didn’t seem to mind being asked about his second-last book as well as his last book. So I don’t think it’s been established that Dawkins views this as a problem, even if other people might.

    Beating a dead horse yet again, Dawkins has two goals, evolution and atheism, and people here that are only interested in the first keep missing that fact. Dawkins and the New Atheists then add to the confusion by refusing to acknowledge a partial conflict between the goals.

    A pox on everybody.

  24. gillt

    Mooney and Nisbet: “Dawkins, who rose to fame with his lucid expositions of evolution in such books as “The Selfish Gene,” has never gone easy on religion. But recently he has ramped up his atheist message, further mixing his defense of evolution with his attack on belief.”

    Mooney: “Now, should the public and the media know the difference? Hell yeah. But is that the world we live in? Hell no.”

    You and Nisbet purposefully confounded Dawkins’ two agendas. I guess you count yourself among those in the media and public who don’t know the difference.

    Now you get to blame yourself as well.

  25. MadScientist

    Dawkins is not strident and polarizing and I really don’t understand why people like to propagate such lies.

  26. Jon

    “Child abuse” accusations directed at all Catholics aside, of course.

  27. Jon

    I’ll also note the different approaches discussed in this dialog between Dawkins vs. Tyson:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_2xGIwQfik

    …Which Dawkins doesn’t dispute.

  28. james wheaton

    Face it – evolution presents huge problems for the fundamentals of Christian belief (especially fundamentalist Christian beliefs). It takes the legs out from under the concept of original sin and the fall and all that stuff which are crucial foundations of their beliefs. It renders obsolete huge chunks of the Bible, especially the old Testament, leaving it clinging to more modern interpretations to have any chance at all of applying to more modern thinking folks. It is only natural for most Christians to take the next step and assume evolution is on its way to disproving God itself and therefore rejecting it out of hand. Even if it really doesn’t, it certainly changes the idea of what God is in their eyes and they don’t want that.

    And that is primarily why evolution is such a hot button issue in the red states. It is regarded as a direct threat to the Christian view of life and the world as they know it. It is no wonder that a large portion of the population of red states does not believe in evolution.

    It should be no surprise at all that the press jumps on this immediately when it can, especially with Dawkins becuase he has gone ahead and taken the leap just as I suspect most in the various science disciplines have. I would guess the minority of scientists are Christian or Deist of any kind – and they have to stretch to find common ground between their religious beliefs and the fact of evolution. Those that do are not nearly as interesting an interview in the eyes of the media.

  29. onefossilrabbit

    I agree with…

    “25. MadScientist Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 5:10 pm
    Dawkins is not strident and polarizing and I really don’t understand why people like to propagate such lies.”

    He isn’t a preacher, he’s a scientist. If the data led him in a different direction, he’d go that way. He’s not interested in an agenda, he’s interested in education – science education – that’s a bad thing? No, it isn’t.

    “Moreover, some of these journalists probably partake of the popular misconception that evolution and atheism are somehow equivalent.”

    It isn’t a misconception – that’s your mistaken perception. Personally (and for that matter, logically), I don’t see how one can truly understand evolution (and accept it as the fact that it is) and still believe in the supernatural of any kind. Oh, and that answers the question above doesn’t it? He get’s asked about his atheism and it’s connection with evolution because they are hand-in-hand TRUE. There is nothing wrong with that either.

  30. onefossilrabbit

    Brian Schmidt: “Beating a dead horse yet again, Dawkins has two goals, evolution and atheism, and people here that are only interested in the first keep missing that fact. Dawkins and the New Atheists then add to the confusion by refusing to acknowledge a partial conflict between the goals”

    What partial conflict? THERE IS NO CONFLICT.

  31. Classic

    Can anyone tell me why evolution is such a big deal in the US even though Christians are widespread in other countries too? It strikes me as odd that the most “developed” country in the world would have the biggest problems with the teaching of evolution.

  32. Jon

    It takes the legs out from under the concept of original sin and the fall and all that stuff which are crucial foundations of their beliefs.

    No it doesn’t. If you don’t believe the Garden of Eden story literally happened, in the sense that evolution happened, you can still agree with St. Augustine’s concept of human nature and how he interpreted the Biblical story of human origins, etc.

  33. bilbo

    New Atheist: Oh, silly Jon. You’re just dissembling. Everyone knows that a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible is only used by people lying about what faith is.

    Real-world translation: It makes it easier for me to debunk religion if I pretend that the only legitimate way to interpret religious texts is with complete literalization, as if religious texts were an anti-science textbook. I give other interpretations labels with negative connotations so as to quash discussion and avoid anything more complex than the utmost simplicity.

  34. Luke Vogel

    I’m not sure which thread this belongs, but it could go anywhere since the the idea of “new atheist” and working with religious people seems to come up a lot. Usually with some inflammatory quote, PZ is probably the most quoted in this regard.

    This came to mind while at the book store this evening. It appears PZ Myers received Humanist of Year, 2009 [check humanist.org]. I thought to myself, PZ, Humanist of the year? I thought I remembered PZ saying he wasn’t a Humanist…

    My memory was correct, it’s in his blogpost ” Can we at least demand ‘Secular Communion’?” (a response to an article in New Humanist). But, a complete reading of the first paragraph deserves attention for what else he admits. This is from November, 2007. Some day we may pull back from trying to paint these debates to black and white.

    >”First, I have to confess: I’m not a humanist. I’m just not that keen on defining myself by my species, and I’m not going to join a group that willfully excludes squid. Still, I sympathize with the aims of secular humanism and I’m willing to work alongside them, just as I’m willing to work with reasonable Christians and Muslims — I’m just not ever going to be one of them, and I’m not going to hold fire and abstain from criticizing them.”<

  35. Luke Vogel

    This blogpost has made it Richard Dawkins’ website. This could work in a direction that Philip H. holds. It’s only been up a short time so there’s only a small handful of comments so far, but it looks promising. I’d like nothing more at this point than to be proven wrong in my assumption that I’m witnessing a myopic maneuver which holds little substance.

    I found Mark Jones’ opening remark interesting (from rd.net): >”This is simply Chris Mooney desperately trying to get some purchase for his constant harping on about strident atheists being the problem in science education, and not the faithful.”<

    Is this admitting something, or am I misreading?

    http://richarddawkins.net/article,4539,Why-Dawkins-Gets-Asked-About-His-Atheism,Chris-Mooney—The-Intersection

  36. steve

    > Dawkins and his followers …

    Richard Dawkins does not have “followers”. He does have fellow travelers that evaluate the claims that he makes based on the evidence. He has earned my trust and respect based on his uncompromising commitment to reality.

  37. Chris,
    You begin with a rather large assumption, that Dawkins is unhappy with the media’s treatment of him. I don’t think he is, nor do I see any reason why he should be. You see, we’re not like you, Chris. We’re not embarrassed by our atheism. In fact, we’re proud of it. And while you might not be exactly in the closet about your atheism, you’re not in a much better position. While you clearly understand the dangers of religion encroaching on science and public policy, you horribly underestimate the power and irrationality of those we’re fighting and are unwilling to say what you really think because you’re too afraid of alienating people who were never going to change their minds to begin with. This is a criticism many are making about Obama’s recent decisions, and I think it applies here as well. Diplomacy is great, but sometimes you reach a point where you realize those you’re trying to persuade are irrational ideologues who are resistant to rational argument and you must either sh*t or get off the pot.

    Face it, no matter how nice you are to Kirk Cameron, he’s never going to accept evolution. Even if you sit him down and force him to read Origin of Species or any number of great books on evolution, he’ll still reject it because he’s already convinced himself that its nonsense. He’s probably a lost cause unless something rather dramatic happens in his life to cause a crisis of faith. But after this generation, there doesn’t need to be anymore lost causes. Faith is a conversation-stopper and needs to be challenged head-on or else we’re going to see exactly what we’ve seen all along, continued religious indoctrination where children are taught from a young age to reject science that’s perceived as a threat to their ideology and religion’s continued trampling over our science and public policy.

    But I’m glad to see that you’ve made such enormous gestures to find common ground with the “New Atheists.” : (

  38. bilbo

    Someone needs to open up Mark Jones to the fact that although he says “It’s a massive fail on this issue, since it’s not the *atheists* who are linking evolution and atheism,” the following is a post in the same thread:

    “Atheism and evolution are inextricably linked. Evolution made God redundant” (Mitch Kahle) (Followed by an “amen!” from another poster)

    Confusion in paradise?

  39. Cents

    Re Steve says:
    I couldn’t agree with you more. If Dawkins was spewing unscientific garbage he would be treated like all the Creationists, as having made extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence and therefore be shunned by those of us who believe in the process of science and rational conclusions based on evidence. That he is not shunned by those who believe in the f science and evidence speaks volumes about what he has to say and what he represents, rational thinking in what we hope will become rational times. How long before we atop listening to thousand year old voices of sheep herders with their complete lack of understanding of the modern world.

  40. latsot

    Dawkins is trying to sell his new book. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for him to get annoyed when – while he’s on his promotional tour – everyone wants to talk about his previous one. I’m sure he accepts that there was a certain amount of inevitability about this but it doesn’t mean he has to like it. I wouldn’t.

  41. Chris

    @Brian Schmidt 23

    You write that Dawkins has two goals, evolution and atheism I suspect that you are incorrect.

    As far as I can tell Dawkins has one aim and that is to convert people to atheism and his own set of beliefs.
    For Dawkins science is secondary, a tool he can use and abuse to reach his ends.
    I don’t believe that he is concerned about the well being of science, except in a very secondary way.

    The same holds for the other evangelical atheists such as Hitchens (politically very different from Dawkins though from a similar social group), myrh and the re-incarnation believing harris.

  42. When Dawkins choses to appear on any media show I am sure he knows which kind of questions he will get asked. Media, all media, need to create interest in their audience. So, they ask what sometimes seem silly and redundant questions. I don’t mind this. All the exposure in the media is helpful to bringing the important issues into discussion. If the media we’re totaly unbiased, or had read everything Dawkins or any other author has published and said, we would find it pointless to buy the books or listen to interviews anymore, and no-one would bother talking about things everyone agreed about. So, I guess my point is, we need some controversy to spark our imaginations and interest, ESPECIALLY, THE RELIGOUS amongst us, since they need to have something they can enquire about, and so perhaps start some of their own critical thinking. We should expect people to be upset by the media’s reporting, this is a good thing, it promotes debate, and encourages people to find out for themselves. I am proud to say I am an Atheist, and I am happy to read as much about Atheism and Evolution in the media as is possible. Let everyone get in on this conversation!

  43. Jon

    It doesn’t seem unreasonable for him to get annoyed when – while he’s on his promotional tour – everyone wants to talk about his previous one.

    It doesn’t matter if he’s annoyed. The media is here to attract eyeballs and sell newspapers. Atheism stirs the pot more than evolution. If he never wanted the kind of attention combative atheism generates, then he shouldn’t have published TGD.

  44. Jon

    In some ways it’s similar to the situation with the Superfreakonomics. If you write something to shock the bourgeoisie, don’t whine. You can’t whine when you generate lots of attention and controversy, because that’s what you wanted in the first place.

  45. Mark Jones

    Bilbo said:

    “Someone needs to open up Mark Jones to the fact that although he says “It’s a massive fail on this issue, since it’s not the *atheists* who are linking evolution and atheism,” the following is a post in the same thread:
    “Atheism and evolution are inextricably linked. Evolution made God redundant” (Mitch Kahle) (Followed by an “amen!” from another poster)”

    Nice quote mine; you left out the ‘here’ at the end of my comment. Of course atheists *have* linked evolution and atheism – Dawkins has done it many times, as have I. My point is more nuanced; that TGSOE is addressing *creationist* denialism. *They* say evolution=atheism, and in many cases that drives their antipathy to evolution. Mooney suggests (I guess) that Dawkins’ message is being obscured by his stridency; well, if that were the case, then faitheists and evolution-believing theists would have greater success in delivering the creationists to rationality. Do they?

  46. Peter Beattie

    Many radio or TV hosts, and even print journalists that Dawkins encounters on his tour, will not have read his books carefully; instead, they will be going on impressions and what they’ve heard.

    Spot-on, Chris. In August, some dork in the L.A. Times even went so far as to predict not only what would be in the book (“regaling” stuff, apparently) but also foretold the readers’ reaction to the book. All of that before he had even read the book. But that’s the media for you. RD probably should have pre-emptively adapted to that.

  47. bilbo

    “If Dawkins was spewing unscientific garbage he would be treated like all the Creationists, as having made extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence and therefore be shunned by those of us who believe in the process of science and rational conclusions based on evidence. That he is not shunned by those who believe in the f science and evidence speaks volumes about what he has to say and what he represents, rational thinking in what we hope will become rational times.”

    I know several scientists who, despite being wonderfully brilliant rational thinkers, are also womanizers who treat women as inferior dogs. I don’t give them carte blanche on being an a-hole just because they’re being scientific and rational the rest of the time.

    Same goes for Dawkins. Being scientific is wonderful, but he doesn’t get a free pass from me when he purposefully goes out of his way to unrealistically broadbrush to offend.

  48. Jon

    The question, of course, is whether this kind of controversy and boosting the esteem of science, mix.

    I say that bashing grandma’s church or synagogue and boosting the esteem of science, don’t really mix.

    Or if they mix, they mix in the way that John Belushi boosted the esteem of college.

  49. Chris (41)-

    As far as I can tell Dawkins has one aim and that is to convert people to atheism and his own set of beliefs.
    For Dawkins science is secondary, a tool he can use and abuse to reach his ends.
    I don’t believe that he is concerned about the well being of science, except in a very secondary way.

    What does “converting” someone to atheism entail, Chris? What beliefs will they hold subsequent to such a conversion?

  50. Skeptic

    Mooney, since you yourself used Dawkins’s book on evolution as a springboard for your criticism of his atheism in the LA Times, you would know. That itself is a good example of how the “media” (naturally you think that excludes you) uses Dawkins’s science as an excuse to talk about his atheism. This is really a shameful display of hypocrisy on your part.

  51. ignorant amos

    @Jon
    It doesn’t matter if he’s annoyed. The media is here to attract eyeballs and sell newspapers. Atheism stirs the pot more than evolution. If he never wanted the kind of attention combative atheism generates, then he shouldn’t have published TGD.

    He doesn’t get annoyed. You would think the media was there to interview the author of the book in question about the book in question…not “the other book” as Dawkins regularly reminds them. Where do you get the your suposition that Prof. Dawkins never wanted any attention about “combative” athieism, whatever that means, and The God Delusion? He certainly did at the time. It was different book, try and stay focused.

  52. bilbo

    I suppose then, amos, that if I call you an ignorant, deluded douchebag that deserves to be institutionalized today but turn around and try to be friendly tomorrow, you’ll forget I ever insulted you at all?

    Dawkins supporters are acting like words don’t have consequences. Even Dawkins has acknowledged how that kind of thinking is silly.

  53. Jon

    It’s like a fashion designer designing a topless dress, and then a business suit. The fashion designer goes to to promote the business suit. But the press wants to ask about that topless dress that got so much promotion. So the designer says, “Hey, I just designed this business suit. Try and stay focused.”

  54. ignorant amos

    Yes Jon that WOULD be the same…not….this is meant to be a place for intelligentsia….you would think. The Greatest Show On Earth is a topless dress of its own style, if you insist on using the metaphor, thats if the media spent a bit of time to look. If there is nothing in the new book for a sensationalist hack to get a grip of, then I fear for the trade. I don’t know about you, but if I’m to read a book review or watch a promotional interview, I prefer it to be about the book at hand. It always helps when forming the opinion to purchase, which is what I percieved reviews to be about.

  55. Luke Vogel

    Skeptic @ #50

    Good point! I’m guessing you’re referring to the LA Time’s article “Must science declare a holy war on religion?”. Chris starts the article out by saying:

    >”This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins — most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, “The God Delusion” — returns to writing about science. Dawkins’ new book, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” will inform and regale us with the stunning “evidence for evolution,””It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers—often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term.” “But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?””Surely not those who need it most: America’s anti-evolutionists.”> And yes, this is about Richard’s “atheistic” advocacy and tone.

    So, Chris is showing the way forward for journalist with regards to Richard’s standing on science and religion/”atheism”. Chris asked,could Richard have known this would happen, the answer, yes. To even ask the question reveals that one is not paying attention.

    Again, even though Chris is on target in many respects in my opinion, there’s just lack of foresight and a clear view of the larger picture. However, Chris is actually voicing on occasion what many of us realize and are concerned with, but like others voicing concern he has tended to distance the concerns and alienate those who we want to listen simply by not being clear and going to far without seeming to realize it. So, to sum up that up, we see again alienating those we wish to pay attention (while claiming to want open dialogue), and making very public the problem so many have of “evolution=atheism”, therefore preparing the readers, journalist and “anti-evolutionist” where to stand and how to react.

    What have I seen this week? Well, lets go back to that LA Times article and Exhibit A. Keep in mind “A” when you read: ” “But it’s also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins’ new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?”< Why is that important, well the easy rebuttal to that and Exhibit A is Exhibit B – and who provided that(?), why the person who has defined Chris' debate for him in many respects, Jerry Coyne. What Jerry offers is what we expect when the criticism becomes harsh to the point of sounding like you want religion vanquished from the earth right now, conversion stories. Heart felt, well meaning and in your face conversions and the great works being done. Therefore, the entire debate has been defocused, the intention of the expressed concerned are washed away, and sometimes, rightfully so. Usually when this happens one side is not afforded an opportunity to see the consequences of their actions, or simply ignores what is going on, but I know Chris see's. What's worse, Exhibit A was nothing of the kind and a hypocrisy of sorts has been revealed with this blog.

    There is a problem and I find it hard to fully express and I want too. But, that's probably something else I won't get to because it'll get side tracked again.

  56. ignorant amos

    bilbo, you can call me whatever you like, but I would expect you to back it up with evidence…..what words are you refering to? Just so I can get a bit of a handle on what it is that you’re upset about.

  57. Luke Vogel

    ignorant amos @ #51

    >”The media is here to attract eyeballs and sell newspapers. Atheism stirs the pot more than evolution.”<

    Another excellent point and one I've tried to express elsewhere. Take this most recent debate, how journalist will approach the "science and atheism" divide when speaking with Dawkins. Of course to journalist "atheism" is sexy, well, sort of, it's actually not talked about much. In fact, even 10 years ago Chris couldn't make that claim (but I digress – it illustrates again for me that there is a severe lack of foresight). Atheism and journalism not long ago was something not really discussed at all, and if it was, it was mainly negative, much, much more negative than anything we see today. It was *not* sexy, nor was science. Science has *never* really been sexy in the press.

    Chris already decided who wouldn't read Richard's book, and where is the finger pointed the straightest (?), at Richard's "atheistic" advocacy and anti-religious stand, but not only that but to "new atheism" at large (Chris, at some point you have to tell us when Christopher Hitchens became a scientist). However, science books have never been big sellers, it is only on rare occasions that a straight science book gets on the NYT's best seller list. This is widely known in the sciences and use to be a large focus of science advocacy, but Chris wants us to maintain clear focus on religious criticism. There's even data on this stuff and sayings like; the amount of graphs used by a scientist in a book is negatively correlated to it's sales (the more data, the less sales). But, it does happen that a book gets up there, and guess what, there's two there now (though Outliers is only partially really, but a great read, loved it) and one is Richards and it's the hottest issue in all of science in the public's eye.

  58. bilbo

    Strictly being metaphorical, amos. Apparently it missed the target.

  59. Jon

    this is meant to be a place for intelligentsia….you would think.

    Right. This is the place for the intelligentsia to talk about a media that is *not* ruled by intelligentsia. It tends to be ruled by bean counters, bean counters want readers, readers want controversy. Hence my controversial fashion designer analogy.

    The Greatest Show On Earth is a topless dress of its own style…

    The fashion designer says, “Hey my business suit is a topless dress of its own style.” His media interviewer says, “OK, if you say so. But hey, let’s talk about the dress that got so much attention.” As I was saying above, you can kvetch, but that’s how it works. Dawkins can say, “but this book isn’t about the culture wars, it’s about cool evolutionary science.” His interview says, “OK, if you say so. But hey, your last book got a lot of attention. My editor wants me to talk about the culture wars.”

  60. bilbo

    Oh Luke and Skeptic, you’re bordering on silly with attacking Chris for calling Dawkins an atheist in a news article, especially the part about howw Chris was wrong in mentioning Dawkins’ last book. How many times have you seen a news article written about an author where that author’s last book wasn’t mentioned?

    The media is a predictable beast, and Chris is part of it. You can be a 10-year volunteer at a soup kitchen who shoots a guy one day, and guess which act will get reported? But does that mean it shouldn’t be reported on?

  61. bilbo

    “The fashion designer says, “Hey my business suit is a topless dress of its own style.” His media interviewer says, “OK, if you say so. But hey, let’s talk about the dress that got so much attention.” As I was saying above, you can kvetch, but that’s how it works. Dawkins can say, “but this book isn’t about the culture wars, it’s about cool evolutionary science.” His interview says, “OK, if you say so. But hey, your last book got a lot of attention. My editor wants me to talk about the culture wars.”

    …and think of all the attention my article will get if I can get you to fly off the handle and spout some invectives!

    Again, the sentiment I seem to be getting from some Dawkins fans is that people shouldn’t pay attention to how wild and crazy Dawkins was acting about atheism a few years back, sputing invectives and all. But is that really what we want atheism to be seen as in the public eye? Atheism certainly isn’t that way to me…

  62. Luke Vogel

    I want to add quickly to my last point, because I can read the mind of the rebuttal. Well, it’s only selling to those that want to read Richard. In fact, this idea was expressed by Sam Harris when he reminded “atheist” that when we point to sales of the “new atheist” books, we are actually talking largely about the same people buying the books. His concerns mirrored those of Michael Shermer from his “Rational Atheism” essay and expressed elsewhere. So, we can say it’s the “same” people buying the books. However, not only can this be said for other authors and genre’s, but also for science books in general. Again, we get back to reaching a larger audience with good science and the best way forward, and again it can be shown that in this case Richard is actually being successful. Will or has Richard reinforced the resolve on the “other side”, most definitely, but to what end is a fair question (my meaning here is one would have to argue long and hard that the resolve wasn’t already fanatical to some extent).

    My main worry is yet to come.

  63. ignorant amos

    bilbo….I drew the inference that RD incorrectly used adjectives in TGD that offended. Apololigies.

  64. Luke Vogel

    bilbo,

    >”How many times have you seen a news article written about an author where that author’s last book wasn’t mentioned? “<

    You're right of course. However, the question is about context and how the message is being presented. The relevance is easy to see, since we have a journalist pointing to what could be considered a problem (one expressed throughout these debates), which is creating more of a gulf in the "evolution=atheism" divide. We can go both ways here. Someone like Jerry Coyne and in fact Richard on occasion has made this point (but, he's actually been clever about it, unlike Jerry "The Big Jesus" Coyne).

    One side can say, well it's about time we point to the problem of evolution by natural selection does in fact provide a problem for religion and in fact can be seen as a legitimate avenue for "agnosticism" or "atheism" with regards to religion (I must admit a mistake I made a couple years ago when I started in these debates, I had drastically underestimated the ignorance many "atheist" had regarding this issue – where I had thought to "atheist" and scientist in general this was well understood and relevant to the discussion).

    The "other" side can say well we have evidence to show that accepting evolution by natural selection and maintaining ones religion is also a fair argument to be made. That even though the "problem" exist, it can not be automatically assumed to be the case the "problem" can not resolve itself by carefully traversing the land mind laden area.

    Obviously, to a large extent, that even one who says evolution makes religion irrelevant, must accept that both sides are essentially right. We clearly find Richard in the area these days, and it appears he's trying to maintain close allegiance to his "atheism" while maintaining the correctness of the "other" side. Chris now would like to play "gotcha" and in a way that can be helpful, but the problem of course is that Chris did in fact basically do what he wants to frame this question of journalism and focusing on Richard's "atheism" around.

    That's the point, if you want to decouple the "evolution=atheism" and you feel you recognize a part of the problem, then why the hell do you highlight it then turn around and say, couldn't we see this coming? Of course, part of the answer is to recognize the problem and perhaps that provides a better way forward. But, be honest, is that what we're seeing here? It looks more like to me a journalist who is practically forcing "evolution=atheism" and implicitly says that the "atheism" part should not have become an issue in the first place. However, we are beyond that, even before Richard's newest book, we are going forward whether Chris wants to or not (and I sincerely hope he does, because we need his voice and hopefully it doesn't become as disdainful as Michael Ruse's has become – I am speaking strictly on this issue, Micheal's newest edition is another incredibly valuable piece of work that I hope more people but and share).

    Again, to me there is a larger issue that involves religious criticism and where I think is the problem.

  65. Sven DiMilo

    As far as I can tell Dawkins has one aim and that is to convert people to atheism and his own set of beliefs.
    For Dawkins science is secondary, a tool he can use and abuse to reach his ends.
    I don’t believe that he is concerned about the well being of science, except in a very secondary way.

    This is stupid. Dawkins has written two books mostly about atheism and eight about evolutionary biology.
    He sees science and atheism both resulting from observation + rigorous reasoning. Others prefer to entertain beliefs that do not result from observation + reason.

  66. Luke Vogel

    65. Sven DiMilo

    And everyone else! Please try to remember to attribute quotes to their rightful owners.

    I see the quote, Sven, but I have no idea who said it, where and what context. Skimming through all these comments looking for a quote is painful business.

    I’d like to know who said the below quote before I reply:

    >”As far as I can tell Dawkins has one aim and that is to convert people to atheism and his own set of beliefs.
    For Dawkins science is secondary, a tool he can use and abuse to reach his ends.
    I don’t believe that he is concerned about the well being of science, except in a very secondary way.”<

    I will say it's one sad comment, and I'd love to see it defended, but not before I take a whack at it.

  67. latsot

    Jon:

    It doesn’t matter if he’s annoyed. The media is here to attract eyeballs and sell newspapers. Atheism stirs the pot more than evolution. If he never wanted the kind of attention combative atheism generates, then he shouldn’t have published TGD.

    Well I imagine it matters a little to him.

    People are talking about whether Dawkins and his alleged ‘followers’ are justified in feeling pissed off or not. My point is that even though he probably expected it and was resigned to it, it probably (unsurprisingly) annoys him a bit.

  68. journalists have less time to capture readers or viewers attention, so going for the quick sensation is better press than explaining something complex.

    Also, the evolution v creation debate is firmly establish and old hat – kinda like abortion – there’s nothing new to say on either subject.

    Atheism is the new sexy thing that’s not been explored in the public discussion, so, it’s what’s focused on – easier to write about, easier to get the concept – even if you don’t understand it – than evolution is.

  69. Ram

    The rationale for minimizing the discussion about the science, maximize the discussion about his atheism., in four parts:

    1. The general public lacks knowledge about basic science and the scientific method.

    2. That lack of knowledge can result in the notion that discussions about evolution and discussions about (aspects of) religions are synonymous.

    3. Religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are deeply personal, which can result in one’s feeling that one has a deep understanding of those beliefs.

    4. The natural tendency is for one to talk about what one understand.

  70. Sven DiMilo

    The quote is from Chris in comment #41.

  71. Luke Vogel

    70. Sven DiMilo

    It’s obviously “anti-Dawkins” gibberish. It was, as one may expect, quoted on Richard’s site. It becomes and easy target and unless people like myself who support Chris and Sheril take note of this and call it what it is we do ourselves no favor.

    Chris (not Mooney) said (to repeat): >”For Dawkins science is secondary, a tool he can use and abuse to reach his ends. I don’t believe that he is concerned about the well being of science, except in a very secondary way.”<

    Ignorant Amos, on Richard's website quote that Chris comment and adds: "Sycophantic accommadationist methinks. " Isn't that what you'd expect? If this is not challenged by "accomodationist" like myself and others, it does give the appearance of being welcomed, that this is a safe place for outrageous lies and misrepresentations of Richard Dawkins. Chris Mooney's constant "Dawkins and his followers…" language leads to the opposite of what he appears to intend happen, this is obviously so. He entrenches both sides to any debate where we are to speak about Richard and science, atheist and religion.

    The claim by the comments Chris (not Mooney), is indefensible and will be used by others. It is so out of line that one must ask, how couldn't it be used by others. It is fanatical talk that unfortunately certain rhetorical devises used by Chris Mooney can elicit.

  72. #3o Onefossilrabbit: I was speaking in shorthand about the partial conflict between Dawkins’ goals of evolution and atheism. I agree there’s no conflict between the two concepts, just that there’s a partial conflict between the goals of promoting both concepts.

    #40 latsot, #43 Jon, and others: it hasn’t been established yet that Dawkins is bothered by atheism questions. My experience with him last month was that he wasn’t bothered. Someone needs to provide contrary evidence.

    #41 Chris: Dawkins career doesn’t at all show that science is secondary to him. His primary fame for decades was as a biologist.

  73. Sorbet

    One thing Dawkins can do is set a condition beforehand that people talk mainly about The Greatest Show when they interview him. Let’s see how many journalists are ready to interview him then. Maybe a question or two about atheism but no more.

  74. TB

    Dawkins came out with a pretty powerful book about his atheism, and people are quite naturally going to want to know how that book influences everything else.
    It may be a bit like Leonard Nemoy’s situation. He is Spock.
    Dawkins – fairly or unfairly – may be getting typecast and all his work may now be getting viewed in the context of his atheism.

  75. Hah, I quite like that Spock analogy, TB. Full marks!

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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