A Short History of Richard Dawkins vs. The Internet

Richard Dawkins, celebrity atheist and evolutionary biologist, made a lot of people angry on Twitter today by weighing in once more with his views on Islam (spoiler alert: he's not a fan).

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Richard Dawkins, celebrity atheist and evolutionary biologist, made a lot of people angry on Twitter today by weighing in once more with his views on Islam (spoiler alert: he's not a fan). It's just the latest in a series of online statements from the scientist that have even some of his most devoted followers wishing he'd be a bit more, well, rational, with his off-the-cuff remarks.

Here's the tweet from today:

After meeting resistance:

Dawkins dug in:

The tirade was prompted by Alex Gabriel's post at Heresy Club a long, atheist-to-atheist explanation of what's behind Dawkins's repeated Twitter rants on Muslims.  It turns out that Dawkins has a particular grudge with Islam, with loose ties to the rhetoric of the European far right.  Dawkins is well-known as a "New Humanist" atheist, a particular cut of atheism that tends to see little to no value in religion at all — think Christopher Hitchens here. At its best, that argument gives equal time and criticism to all the religions of the world — like the opposite of a co-exist bumper sticker, with the goal of questioning and calling out religion's unique reverence in society. But Dawkins has taken New Humanism to a different end, focusing heavily in recent years on Islam. Here he is, calling Islam "One of the great evils in the world."

And, from earlier this year, going full Godwin's Law on Islam:

Gabriel finds two particularly egregious examples of Dawkins tweets and blog comments about Islam, indicating that the speaker's comments are at their worst in the instaforums of the internet. Along with a third, particularly notorious incident of Dawkins combining his anti-Muslim beliefs with sexism, we have a trifecta of reasons for Dawkins to dial it back a bit online:

Richard Dawkins Likes Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician and anti-Muslim activist, made a short movie called Fitna a few years ago. The film juxtaposes verses of the Koran with images of violence, with the explicit intention of arguing that Islam promotes violence among its followers. The film is popular in some corners of the right, both in the U.S. and in Europe. And Dawkins liked what he saw. Here's a comment he posted to his own blog, from 2010:

I have just watched Fitna. I don't know whether it is the original version, but it is the one linked by Jerry Coyne. Maybe Geert Wilders has done or said other things that justify epithets such as 'disgusting', or 'racist'. But as far as this film is concerned, I can see nothing in it to substantiate such extreme vilification...Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

Wilders was, at the time, a rising leader of an anti-Islam movement that wanted to ban the Koran, tax headscarves, and promote a nationalist, anti-immigration platform, all in the name of stopping the "Islamization of the Netherlands"

Richard Dawkins vs. Feminism.

In 2011, Rebecca Watson, who runs the blog Skepchick, posted a video after sitting on a panel with Richard Dawkins, among other people, at a skeptics' conference. Watson talks about addressing a pretty common subject for women in the skeptic and atheist community — sexism, which she spoke about at a panel discussion. In the video, she briefly, and calmly, describes an encounter with a (male) in an elevator after the panel, during which she was asked back to his hotel room "for coffee." Richard Dawkins himself decided to weigh in on her video in the comments section of a separate blog post by PZ Meyers on Watson's experience (The original post is no longer available, but the New Statesmen preserved the entire spat). Here's Dawkins:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep"chick", and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn't lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


It's not really clear why Dawkins decided to bring Islam into a debate over sexism in the atheist community, but there you go. When asked to clarify, Dawkins issued a follow-up:

"...She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings." 

For speaking out against sexism in the atheist community, by the way, Watson has received a deluge of rape threats.

Richard Dawkins vs. "Islamophobia"

Dawkins often discusses Islam on his Twitter feed, so here's just one example: earlier this year, a university made a very dubious decision to let a fundamentalist Muslim speaker segregate the audience of a debate by gender. A lot of people, including a non-Muslim participant in the debate and a good portion of the audience, were deeply offended. But Dawkins's response probably gained more attention than the incident itself:

This post has been updated to clarify the timing of Alex Gabriel's blog post

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.