The USS Quad Damage

An open letter to Richard Dawkins

Maybe more for my own benefit than anyone else's

Dear Richard Dawkins,

I’ve appreciated your efforts for several years. It is beyond doubt that you have helped shape humanity to some degree, whether it is through the ideas of survival of the fittest (however misconstrued), or memes, or indeed, by your efforts in Atheism as a movement.

And, in a way, I do understand what you’re going through. It must be like being a prison warden. Dealing with prisoners day in and day out, you start to think like them, and you start to assume that everyone behaves like prisoners do. It gives you a warped sense of perspective, and perhaps makes you forget why you became a prison warden in the first place.

At the moment, what you are doing is drawing a sharp line between religious people and Atheists, and saying “we are better”. You have not always done this, and when you do it, you are doing the wrong thing. For what the Atheist movement is about is not people, it is about beliefs. You do not want to win over a religious person, you want to win over the religious person. That person must like you enough that eventually, perhaps without prompting, they say “you know what, you're absolutely right, phooey to this religion stuff[1]”.

You probably don’t see this when arguing with fundamentalists. They will stick to their points until the cows come home, and you probably feel like you need to try a different tack. However, the truth is a mighty sword, and you have probably eviscerated them by the time the conversation has finished. A fundamentalist will probably stitch the pieces back together again somehow, but for someone watching? You don’t know how many people you convince whenever you talk to someone on TV or radio. As odd as it sounds, you need to wield that sword more gently, so as to not cut someone, but show that you could. It’s an act that earns respect.

When you insult someone, whether you are right or wrong, they will cling ever stronger to their beliefs. While what you are saying might be factually correct, the outcome you are after is not what you will get by arguing this way. Because you are talking about people as some sort of unalterable beings, people are (perhaps rightly) calling you a bigot. The fact is, people can and do change. You need to focus on that and draw attention away from the insult. In the long term religion will disappear, so you need to talk to people as if they’re on your team, they just don’t realise it yet.

The second thing you want to do is allow people who are without religion to “come out” as it were. In the past, you did this fairly well, but more recently, you are making it harder, not easier, for someone to admit they are Atheist. If a 12 year old were to tell their parents they were an Atheist, you are the role model that immediately comes to mind: “Like that Richard Dawkins?” — And people will not consider your achievements, but your personality. You need to be a role model that people, even (perhaps especially) the ones that disagree with you, have to respect. If you’re drawing battle lines between Atheists and non-atheists, that isn’t going to happen.

But you’re a Scientist, and a defining feature of a Scientist is changing tack when something isn’t working, and this isn’t working. Keep in mind that there are thousands of religious people who are shedding their religion because of words you have said, but they have friends, family, and a community of people who they like and respect, and who they need to get along with. Creating an “us” and “them” world is not beneficial.

1 to this end, saying “religion is making it harder for you to think clearly” is a good statement, but “you are stupid because you are religious” is a bad statement.