There was a time when Richard Dawkins was the well-respected voice of atheists, a critical, rational observer who deconstructed faith and religion and made his own case for biology, science and rationality. He was the most prominent person in an ever growing tide of atheists in Britain; a quarter of us stated we had no religion at the last census, a huge number more than the census before. Change the question, and you get a totally different answer. In a YouGov survey, when asked “Are you religious?”, 65% said no.
Dawkins was iconic in his fervent belief that religion was a fiction, and he made a strong case for it. “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further” is one of the most inspired quotes of all time. Dawkins made documentaries where he met with religious extremists, from racist ultra-zionists to hate-filled evangelical Christians. This was bad, Dawkins told us, and we agreed.
But there was problem with this. Religious extremists were terrible, as was the pain and suffering they inflicted upon others, all in the name of a God that Dawkins (and other atheists, including myself) found inherently silly. But religious extremists aren’t most religious people. Sure, documentaries about old ladies making jam sandwiches for a church fair wouldn’t have been quite as shocking, but these people make up a huge number of religious people. Incorrect in their beliefs, perhaps, but totally, and utterly harmless. Better than harmless, in fact, because these people hold the values that I as an atheist share; compassion, kindness, generosity. They give generously to charity and help out in the community. A religious person might describe them as saintly, and I’d be inclined to agree.
Dawkins’ ideological opposition to religion morphed from a sensible apprehension of its value to a downright hatred, one that bubbled up into a series of offensive, ill-judged and ignorant comments. His latest, to insinuate a link between a fifteen year old boy brainwashed into beheading someone in the name of ISIS, and continued critical attacks on defenceless ‘clock boy’ Ahmed Mohamed, the victim of appalling racist discrimination, is a particularly embarrassing black mark against Dawkins’ name. Among the worst of Dawkins’ comments was the frankly outrageous assertion that because women in Muslim countries face endemic sexist mistreatment, Western women should think themselves lucky and be quiet about their own misfortune. A claim this moronic doesn’t really require a response, apart from perhaps to ask Dawkins why, if Christians in Britain aren’t killing children accused of witchcraft we should feel annoyed that they won’t let gay people get married in their churches. A series of increasingly ridiculous sexist comments followed. This culminated in Dawkins blaming drunk rape victims for their misfortune and that was when he lost me forever. For someone so critical of religious attitudes to women, he’s not exactly a feminist icon himself.
Dawkins lives in a world so black and white, so ideological that he cannot take a step back and see what has happened. His belief system is so fixed, so certain, that anyone who does not share it is immediately dismissed as not worth listening to. But this is everything atheism should stand opposed to. After all, atheists can be just as irrational and ridiculous as anyone else; just look at the Soviets and their laughable attempts to push ‘scientific atheism’ on an unwilling population. Atheism is not a religion to be forced on others. Our absence of faith means we should be able to look objectively at all opinions, and try and ensure that everyone gets the best deal; not just hoard for ourselves as religious organisations have been doing throughout history. Trying to push religion out of social spaces is a mistake; it is social balance, diversity and plurality that makes our society such an incredible place in which to live. Atheists should stand against discrimination against religious people, not actively encourage it.
Religion is infinitely complicated, extremely personal, and always evolving. Just because it says something in a religious text doesn’t mean it’s followed by everyone. Just because someone in Syria cut off someone else’s head in the name of Allah, doesn’t mean the 1.2 billion other people who believe in that God approve of that action. I wouldn’t want to be tarred with the same brush the next time Dawkins choose to spout some ignorant nonsense about FGM. Neither do Muslims.
It’s lucky that as atheists we don’t need a figurehead. I don’t need an ambassador, including myself, to go around the world patronising people by telling them I know better than they do. Isn’t that the evangelical nonsense that sends atheists running for the hills in the first place? Religious people can hold their beliefs, and, providing they don’t use those beliefs to harm anybody else, that’s fine by me. I’m not here to convert anyone to my way of thinking, but if people are interested, I’m more than happy to have a spirited debate about it. I have a religious studies degree for a reason! Feminists are in the process of abandoning Germaine Greer, whose claims that transgender women are not women are more the sort of them you’d expect to hear at an EDL rally than from a respected feminist author. It’s time atheists abandoned Dawkins also. He’s become an embodiment of the irrational religious evangelising he stands so fervently against.