An open letter to the AHA about Richard Dawkins

I have written the following letter to the American Humanist Association.

Please reconsider your decision to publicly withdraw from Richard Dawkins the Humanist of the Year award that you gave him in 1996. By doing this you are sustaining a pattern in recent years of people unjustly portraying Richard as something of a cartoon villain.

You are of course entitled to publicly disagree with or dissociate from Richard’s opinions. Indeed, your executive director Roy Speckhardt wrote an article in 2014 that criticised both Richard and former AHA Honorary President Gore Vidal for what Roy called “arrogant atheism.”

However, retrospectively withdrawing an honour made a quarter of a century ago undermines the integrity of nearly seven decades of your awards process. It turns a public recognition of contributions to humanism, which many people have accepted in good faith, into an ongoing threat of public censure for decades into the future.

This is an escalation of the recent tendency of groups inviting and then disinviting speakers. It is perfectly okay to not invite a speaker, or to not give a person an award. But once you have publicly done either, you should require overwhelming reasons to reverse it. Otherwise you harm your own credibility as a body that can be trusted to keep to its word.

In this case, your stated reasons are uncharitable opinions about the intent and implications of some of Richard’s statements, and an unsubstantiated claim that his clarification is insincere. I don’t share this view. I think Richard is honourable, rational, respectful of rights, and passionately inquisitive. But I accept that you sincerely believe your opinions.

On this basis, you have concluded that Richard “is no longer deserving of being honoured by the AHA.” Yet your website says that:

“The Humanist of the Year award recognises the accomplishments and work of the individuals reflecting humanist values up to the date of the award and in concert with the prevailing humanist thought of the time. Since humanism is an evolving philosophy where we continually strive for improvement, some awardees we recognised in the past would no longer meet our current standards. As humanists we also recognise that people are imperfect and may at times lose sight of the values and ethics that previously guided their humanistic behaviour.”

Presumably this more charitable approach to humanity explains why you have not publicly withdrawn the same honour that you previously gave to other awardees, including:

  • An awardee from the 1950s who supported eugenics and spoke publicly of the need to put an end to breeding by the unfit.
  • An awardee from the 1960s, a former AHA President, who lobbied Stalin to promote his utopian dream of positive eugenics in a classless society.
  • An awardee from the 1980s, a former AHA President, who was notorious for groping women and whose own autobiography describes him as “the man with a hundred hands.”
  • An awardee from the 1990s, a former AHA Honorary President, whose authorised biography cites friends and relatives describing him as cruel, nasty, and scary.
  • An awardee from the 1990s who promoted a book by David Icke which includes conspiracy theories about Jews and alien space invaders.
  • An awardee from the 2000s who has repeatedly used violent rhetoric and written that he hates or despises named people and groups, and who has now published a photo of himself with his AHA award in a blog post titled “I still have mine.”

By contrast, Richard Dawkins has not engaged in any behaviours like these, yet you have chosen to withdraw his award. You did not do this when he made statements that made religious people uncomfortable, but you have now done so when his critics are secular.

As I have said, I don’t share your genuinely-held beliefs about Richard’s statements or his sincerity. But even if your beliefs were correct, why are you treating him less charitably than these other previous awardees?

Do you now intend to retrospectively test all of your previous awardees against the standard you are now applying selectively to Richard? If not, can you please reconsider your decision to withdraw your previous award to Richard?

You can then continue to criticise his opinions and his style of communication, and ask him to reconsider his beliefs and behaviour. And he and others can do likewise with you. That is entirely within the spirit of humanist values.

I would welcome a response that outlines your thoughts on this.

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15 Comments

  1. Excellent as always, Michael.

    Many of the people attacking Dawkins are not in any way Humanist. I have seen some of these who call themselves “Humanists”, and indeed, one “Humanist Chaplain”, engage in abuse, threatening behaviour, celebrate violence including the physical assault of a Muslim, defend Communist and authoritarian regimes and dictators, and repeatedly enable antisemitism or actively engage in it themselves.

    The American (non)-Humanist Association needs to clean house and get its act together. They have been alerted to the problematic nature of other awardees, many of whom have acted in far more non-Humanist fashion than Dawkins. One in particular, has promoted blood libel-style conspiracy theories about Jews. They are referenced above by Mick, but I won’t name them since Michael didn’t.

    Anyway, we are still awaiting a response from them. The way in which AHA and other once proud organisations have gone in recent years, letters like this will sadly be treated with scorn and contempt.

  2. A very well reasoned response to AHA. Humanism is a dialogue which should be on going and not ostracism. Bet Michael, you are not going to get a positive response !

  3. Than you Michael for your considered letter to the AHA. There is an echo of 1940, when Bertrand Russell was hired by the City College of New York to teach classes on logic, mathematics, and metaphysics of science. He was not allowed to take up the post, as a judge ruled that Russell held immoral views regarding sexuality.

  4. Richard was an outspoken critic of Trump. Far from ideal president, at least Trump was in support of constitution, that in turn supports free speech.
    On the other hand wokezi are ready to rewrite constitution using ideas of Orwell, Stalin and Kim Jong Il. Mr Dawkins would be sent to a deplatformed gulag. Maybe for a moment it slipped his mind that open atheism as a rather new phenomenon, can thrive only in environment of secure freedom. Any tyranny will readily outlaw it. Evolution proves that everything changes. AHA changed, is now wokezi, and individual grievances are more important than wisdom.

  5. Well, here we are again trying to fight for human rights which includes freedom of speech, freedom of expression which includes freedom to offend. Otherwise, it’s not freedom.

    Let the one without faults cast the first stone.

    People in glass houses should not throw stones.

    Don’t be a pot calling the kettle black-ass.

  6. Well written, Michael. Good job. There will be those that throw ad hominem attacks at you for writing this. You will be labeled anti-trans, even though you are criticizing AHA and not even discussing trans rights. Ignore those people. They resort to ad hominem because they do not have a good counter to your criticism of AHA.

  7. That list of awardees is quite considerable. I’d feel it maybe worthwhile naming them, but nice letter nonetheless.
    It makes clear the reality of why the AHA have done as they have: they just want the cheap publicity of revoking an award to someone who’s no longer as popular, just as they were capitalising on his popularity when they awarded Dawkins in the first place. Unscrupulous opportunism.

  8. Thank you so much for putting in to words what I have been thinking. It is sad that the woke mob is now eating its own. Classical liberalism is now dead, I’m afraid.

  9. Well, Michael, that was a good letter and I hope it receives a considered response. I’m not a member of the AHA, so I can’t push for the reinstatement. I agree that it’s odd that so many other faults are looked past and their awardees are not subject to having the awards nulled out.

    There’s something happening here. When an issue can’t be discussed, and the assumption becomes that to do so is hatred, it sounds suspiciously like religious forces at work.

  10. Great letter. I think it’s a start to addressing the accelerating problem within the Skeptic-Humanist-Atheist community of requiring shiny superheroes with, at most, a slight blemish. This continuing trend demonstrates that our community is as fractured as christian denominations. We seek to tear down and destroy anyone who doesn’t fit our-christ-like impossible levels of perfection. No organization is perfect, not person is perfect. Yet, we pay mere lip-service to this fact. For a group of people that supposedly like facts and acknowledge that facts don’t care for feeling, we sure don’t like inconvenient facts that conflict with our ideology. Soon, I fear, we will be indistinguishable from religion. What was the point of our journey from religion to begin with?

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