Yesterday I debated Daniel Trilling of New Statesman (soon to be editor of New Humanist) about Trilling’s criticism of recent comments by Richard Dawkins about Islam. The discussion was on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, hosted by WIlliam Crawley.
I will analyse what we discussed in a later post, but I want to first of all publish here a transcript of the debate.
I’ve highlighted my contributions in red text.
William Crawley: We are used to hearing criticism of the New Atheists, and especially Richard Dawkins, for their stridency. But, in recent months, more and more atheists have been joining the throng of critics to call for a more balanced, more respectful, more responsible discussion about religion. One of those new critics of New Atheism is Daniel Trilling of New Statesman, who next month becomes editor of New Humanist magazine, and that’s a lot of ‘New’s. He’s been explaining to me why he’s so concerned about Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers, and he’s been explaining it also to Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland.
Daniel Trilling: The problem is that among various prominent atheists, there seems to be a tendency to treat Islam as it was a special case, as if it was a specially bad religion, and its followers were particularly violent or inimical to the rest of society. To me, this isn’t about a clash of personalities, but really it’s a wider problem, and what people need to recognise is that sometimes discourse that presents itself as criticism of religion is actually a cover for more conventional racist views.
William Crawley: So, bigotry masquerading as unbelief?
Daniel Trilling: That would be one way of putting it, yes.
William Crawley: What do you think of that, Michael?
Michael Nugent: Well, given, Daniel, that you’re basing your piece on Richard’s comments, the interpretation could be that you’re suggesting that Richard is racist or bigoted. Now, that’s clearly untrue. He is a gentle, decent man who is very ethical, and he speaks the truth as he sees it without any racism or bigotry. If, as I suspect, your position is that he is technically correct in what he is saying, but that you don’t like the way that he says it, then I think it might be more helpful if you focused on his later clarification, and correct that misinterpretation rather than repeat it.
William Crawley: What was the clarification?
Michael Nugent: He wrote a series of responses to all of the various comments that were made. He said that his experience is, and it is the same as my experience when I have debated Muslims, is that they tend to rely a lot on arguing that Islam has brought major contributions to science, not alone in the Middle Ages, but with claims that the Quran foresaw modern scientific discoveries. And they have far-fetched interpretations of the big bang and embryology, and nonsense like mountains being pegged into the earth to keep it stable, and freshwater and saltwater not mixing. And those type of things, in conjunction with the turmoil that Islamic science is in in the Middle East, with leading scientists complaining about the Islamic world’s failure to fund the science contributions that it has promised to over recent years, shows that Richard was making a comment that is factually correct. He was saying it obviously in a thought-provoking way, but it in no way suggests that he is bigoted or racist.
Daniel Trilling: Well, I completely agree with the point about context, and I also agree that I don’t think that Richard Dawkins personally is a man who holds bigoted views, but there are two things there really. Number one, context is important, and I think that there is a context in which statements about Islam are being co-opted into this wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West, and I think that Richard’s comments are sometimes careless in that respect, in that they can be taken up and used by others in that way…
Michael Nugent: Would it not have been more helpful then for you to correct that misinterpretation rather than repeat it?
Daniel Trilling: No, I don’t think so, because Richard had his chance to respond. What I was trying to do was to draw out some wider points from that discussion, and what I really take issue with is the constant refrain, that Richard Dawkins and many others have repeated, that Islam is a religion not a race, and therefore nothing that is said about Islam can be racist. I just think that is completely untrue.
William Crawley: On the tweet, I must say I was surprised by the tweet, Michael, because you could look at the number of Nobel prizes that have been awarded historically, there are about 800 of them, and only 44 have been given to women. It doesn’t follow from that that one half of the human population is less intelligent than the other.
Michael Nugent: Of course it doesn’t, and nobody is suggesting that for a moment, nor is Richard suggesting that for a moment. What Richard did was that he made, in a thought-provoking way, and within the 140 characters that you are limited to in tweeting, he made a comparison between the claims that Islamic speakers make about the scientific prowess of Islam, and the relative paucity of Nobel prizes that one would expect if those claims were true.
William Crawley: What would you say to Richard Dawkins, if he were here, Daniel? What advice would you give him about the kind of rhetoric he has been engaging in recently?
Daniel Trilling: Well, I would just ask him to listen to some of the criticisms put forward…
William Crawley: Mainly by other atheists actually…
Daniel Trilling: Richard has partially responded to them, but I think that he has mainly just restated his position, and I do think that there is a real need for a debate to be had here among atheists, and I hope that it can be done in a cordial way, in a way that doesn’t set people up as in conflict against each other, and that we can reach some sort of common understanding.
William Crawley: Michael, would you agree that some of this rhetoric, the straw man arguments that we have been talking about at times, some of this sort of stridency is actually discouraging some people from taking humanism or secularism or atheism seriously? It makes it easy to write off those traditions?
Michael Nugent: Something is either true or it isn’t true. And if you’re trying to build a more ethical, secular and just society, where our ethics are not dominated by religious diktats, then you have to take into account that Islam is a threat to that type of society, in a way that other religions are not. Now that’s not to say that…
William Crawley: Islam or some forms of Islam?
Michael Nugent: Well, I was going to say that it’s not to say that Muslims are, but that Islam, as in the Islam of the Quran, that says that a husband can beat his wife in certain circumstances, that says that a woman’s evidence is worth half that of a man’s, that says that a woman can inherit half of that which a man can, and that perpetuates the unevolved morality of centuries ago, that is not a useful thing to ignore.
Daniel Trilling: It’s precisely this type of singling out that I think is incredibly damaging. First of all, every religious text is trying to give rules on moral behaviour that are hundreds or even thousands of years old. But to say that religious believers behave according to thousand year-old texts, and that that is why these problems exist in the world as it is, I just think is a completely misleading argument. It doesn’t explain for example the current turmoil in the Middle East. You can’t look at Egypt for example and say, oh there is a huge political conflict there because of what the Quran says. If that was true, why would the conflict be happening now, and not 20 or 50 or 100 years ago, given that Islam has been around for centuries?
William Crawley: And the Quran is informing both sides of the debate.
Daniel Trilling: Well possibly, but there are other political considerations, and people are looking beyond religion for answers as to how they want to structure their society. So this is why I reject this singling out of Islam as particularly inimical to all of the things that atheists and secularists quite rightly stand for.
Michael Nugent: it’s not singling out Islam. We are discussing Islam today because you raised the topic in your article in response to Richard’s comments…
Daniel Trilling: And you have just singled it out, that’s my point.
Michael Nugent: Well, if you want to talk about other religions, I will talk about the damage that Roman Catholicism has done in recent years, not even necessarily going back to biblical times. If you take any religion, I’m quite happy to discuss what it has done good and what it has done bad in society. But what we shouldn’t do is refuse to discuss the problems caused by Islam, and I think that in many circumstances the reluctance is caused by fear rather than by any intellectual considerations.
William Crawley: Daniel, there is a perception that some people have, that you can criticise Christianity as much as you like, but that if you cross the line into criticising Islam, you take on the ire not only of some Muslims, but also of the secular left in Britain.
Daniel Trilling: Well, if people think that there is a reluctance or a fear to criticise Islam in this country, then I reckon that they don’t pick up the national newspapers. It’s there in abundance. And if people object to certain elements of that criticism, such as I do when it crosses a line from entirely legitimate criticism of the kind that Michael has just described, into racism, that is not trying to shut down debate, that is just saying hey, hang on, there is a line…
William Crawley: But where is that line? When does it become racism?
Daniel Trilling: You can’t give a pat, 140 character, definition of where this line exists, which is precisely why there is a need for open debate on this issue, and for it not to get shut down when it comes up. If people are saying to Richard Dawkins, or to anybody else, this thing you said here has crossed the line, and if those people are coming from within the atheist community, and they quite clearly don’t have a vendetta against him, then there is something there that needs to be discussed.
William Crawley: But you don’t think that he has crossed the line?
Daniel Trilling: Well, I do. I agree with the argument that Tom Chivers, The Telegraph columnist made, about the way in which over a series of statements, Dawkins has appeared to treat Muslims as a monolithic block. It plays into a wider discussion of Islam that goes for Muslims rather than the religion itself.
William Crawley: And if Richard Dawkins was here himself, he would be outraged at the suggestion that that is racist on his part.
Daniel Trilling: I’m sure that he would. I certainly don’t suggest that Richard Dawkins is a racist, but then people can say things that support racist ideas without themselves having any malicious intent, or even themselves endorsing those ideas, because I think that your words can have an effect beyond what your intentions might be.
William Crawley: That was Daniel Trilling of New Statesman, the new editor of New Humanist magazine, he takes up that job in September, speaking with Michael Nugent from Atheist Ireland.