First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
If recent articles in the Telegraph are any indication then Richard Dawkins has just moved from phase two to phase three, which means that his victory must be imminent.
Dawkins has, of course, been in the media a lot over the last couple of weeks as a representative of the secular movement. He’s been interviewed by people who presumably find the difference between atheist and secularism a little tricky to understand. Some of the interviews I’ve seen and read have been rather bizarre, but it’s the series of articles in the Telegraph that have been the strangest.
It started on 14th February when they reported on Dawkins’ appearance on the previous day’s edition of the Today programme. Dawkins had been talking to Giles Fraser, the former canon of St. Pauls about the MORI poll on the beliefs of people who had ticked the “Christian” box on the census. Fraser seemed to think that the validity of the poll somehow hinged on Dawkins’ ability to recall the full title of the Origin of Species. Taken by surprise in the studio, Dawkins failed this challenge. Most listeners struggled to see any relevance to the discussion in hand, but Stephen Pollard in the Telegraph described it like this:
In a discussion on the Today programme yesterday, Dr Fraser skewered the atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins so fabulously, so stylishly, and so thoroughly that anti-religion’s high priest was reduced to incoherent mumbling and spluttering.
It’s clear that Pollard has no love for Dawkins but this is a very strange description of what happened.
But it got worse on Sunday when the Telegraph ran Adam Lusher’s story Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins’ family estate. Apparently some of Dawkins’ ancestors in the eighteenth century made rather a lot of money from slaves. Quite how the actions of his ancestors are supposed to influence our opinion of Dawkins is never really made clear, but the clear implication is that it’s all a bad show and that it should certainly stop him being quite so cocky about morality. Or something like that. Of course, we all had dozens of ancestors alive in the eighteenth century. What are the chances that one of them was involved in something that would offend present-day sensibilities? Dawkins has written in some detail about the article and his reactions to it.
Then yesterday there was a story by John Bingham – Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist. This was based on a public conversation between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the conversation Dawkins mentioned that he couldn’t be sure that God doesn’t exist and that he describes himself as an agnostic. Bingham has leapt on this as though it is a new revelation and a major change of position. Of course it is neither of these things. Anyone who has studied even basic logic knows that it is impossible to conclusively prove a negative assertion and that it would be ridiculous for Dawkins to ever take any other position. This whole argument is laid out in considerable detail in chapter four of The God Delusion (it’s entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God” which is a bit of a giveaway). Bingham is the Religious Affairs Editor at the Telegraph. You might expect him to have read that.
And there’s this confusion between atheism and agnosticism. Bingham seems to think that if Dawkins is agnostic then he can no longer be an atheist. This is, of course, nonsense. The two terms are completely orthogonal. Just because we can’t be sure of God’s non-existence (the agnostic position) that doesn’t mean that we need to accept that his existence is as likely as his non-existence. The atheist has decided that the balance of probabilities fall firmly in favour of God’s non-existence. But only a fool would say he definitely doesn’t exist (which is about as close as I’m ever going to come to agreeing with Psalms 14:1).
So why is the Telegraph attacking Dawkins with this incredibly weak stuff? Surely it’s a sign that they are rattled. Secularism is definitely an idea whose time has come in the UK. The Bideford prayer ruling has been praised by a large percentage of the population and the few who object are sounding increasingly like they represent a group who doesn’t know its time is over. If the MORI poll is accurate, the percentage of people who said they were Christian in the 2011 census has fallen to 54% (from 72% in 2001). And among that 54% a large number have beliefs that fall a long way outside what most people would consider mainstream Christianity. That’s not to say for a second that they shouldn’t call themselves Christian if they want to. But it’s clear that politicians and the more reactionary elements of the media cannot use Christianity to support policies like the rejection of gay marriage if a) only just only half of us are Christians and b) most of the Christians are as disgusted by the Church’s traditional view of homosexuality as the rest of us are.
It’s probably incredibly unpleasant for Dawkins to see this nonsense being written about him. But I hope he can draw some hope from them. These attacks are a sign that the Telegraph has run out of arguments. They can’t build a rational argument against Dawkins ideas so they are forced to try and discredit him personally. They are the increasingly desperate voice of a vanishing minority.
Religion is losing ground in the public arena in the UK. And that has to be a good thing.