Tweeting with Richard Dawkins

OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little; I didn’t actually have a lively Twitter conversation with Mr. Dawkins, it was more like… a limited… er… all right, so I just answered a Tweet he made. But it’s a good thing he didn’t answer. You will see why momentarily.

As we know, Mr. Dawkins is a card-carrying atheist with a chip on his shoulder, who wears “RELIGION: together we can find the cure” T-shirts. That’s all fine and good, he probably found out that writing best-sellers is more profitable than genetics. I should add that I enjoy his books and respect him greatly as a scientist.

But about his ‘Champion of Reason’ shtick… he sometimes goes overboard. That is, he goes right over into unnecessarily nasty territory. Now I for one can appreciate the worth of mockery and sarcasm in the spirit of enlightening your fellow human being. Many great writers and thinkers have gone that route. Think Voltaire. Think Twain. Think any political cartoonist of repute.

That masterful Persian, Omar Khayyam, says in his Robbaiyat –and I’m sorry if I can only quote from memory– something to the effect that “One cup full of wine is worth more than all the nonsense spouted by foolish priests”. Ah! I used to read that and other poems to my father, and his eyes would shine with mischievous fire, he would roar and laugh and be generally blasphemous in poetic approval, and he would pour more wine in both our cups while we basked in the sunshine in our old, metal rocking chairs.

My father, that grand old man, had no love for priests, and that is because he got to know many of them just all too well. We may get a taste of what it’s like in Mexico –though I doubt it may be much different elsewhere– from the Diaries of Caroline von Humboldt, the brilliant wife of that brilliant man, Alexander von Humboldt, both of whom spent a great deal of time in Mexico and other places in nineteenth century Latin America, as outstanding surveyors of both the geography and of human nature. When she met the Mexican archbishop, she annotated in her diary with characteristic wit: “If one had to choose from one among all the stations of men, it would surely be that of Archbishop of the New Spain; for not even the Pope himself lives in such splendor and power, with such unquestioningly loyal subjects; and he has none of the awful pressures of the Head of the Church.”

Frau Caroline, it goes without saying, was also a favorite of my father.
My father liked to mock, and he did so mercilessly, but in a supremely amusing and homely way. But his mockery came not from ignorance: it was not the bigoted ridicule of he who does not know what is in front of him; it was rather the laughter that only comes from intimate knowledge and which teaches as it rouses and affronts. It was wise mockery. My mother always said of him that he was a born psychologist.

My father’s ludicrously large family was divided along religious fault lines: half of them were Catholic, and the other half were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so he had had more than his fair share of raw material to study from, and he arrived to conclusions that were summed up as follows:

“He who carries a Bible under his armpit and is very very very religious, is one hell hell hell of a bastard”.

I never saw him lose an argument which ventured into the religious, but to be fair, he was not fond of spontaneously inciting such a discussion; he and my mother loved meetings of a more bohemian character and in these late gatherings I learned the true love of music, as he played the chords of a tango in his unbelievably battered guitar and my mother sang with deep sentiment, “Cuesta abajo en mi rodada…”. I learned to love Gardel and Mexican trios and cantina songs (to my mother’s dismay, that last one) as he played that awful guitar he called a “donkey’s belly”, which later became my first guitar and about which my classical guitar teacher gave me no end of grief.

Anyway, it is a testament to my father’s character that he never once lectured me or my sister on religion and what he thought of it. We both attended Catholic school, but he never instructed us to be rebellious or disobedient there, but just to learn mathematics and biology properly. He would let us hear his rants when he was talking to friends at home, but he let us make up our own minds about it. On such occasions when the whole family had to attend mass for some reason or other –and there’s always plenty– he allowed me to go and sit, and stand and genuflect while he stood respectfully at the back of the church for the whole duration of the mass. Never once did he ask me not to kneel, not to eat the bread, not to fast. Or come to think of it, he did tell me once, never to kiss a priest’s hand and/or ring, but that was in the middle of a joke he was telling.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better, more generous, more understanding teacher than him.

But coming back to the topic. Mr. Dawkins is a brilliant man, he is a defender of scientific thought, he is a mighty vocal proponent of atheism, but he is, well… how can I put it? We can’t all be Oscar Wilde, now can we? It would be wonderful if we could come up with such devastating, effortless witticisms at the drop of a hat, but we can’t. Certainly Mr. Dawkins can’t. He practices and prepares his material, but really. He tries too hard. He would be better off with just the plain ol’ science arguments; there’s really no need to go out of your way trying to look cool when you have such a wealth of powerful stuff already on your side.

One of his favorite bits –I’ve seen it in quite a few interviews and speeches– is, if it doesn’t have a name already, the “Thor argument”. It goes like this:

“An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

To be sure, that is sort of funny. But the problem is, it’s wrong. It does make a point, kind of. But it’s made to please the already convinced, to give them some ready-to-use ammo. It is not made to convince –or at least to make the person on the other side of the argument think hard and reflect. It is rather tailored to stun an opponent, and at this it plainly succeeds, because I haven’t found videos of any occasion where someone stands up to him and answers. Which is a very easy thing to do.

The thing Mr. Dawkins does here is putting together two different ideas, making them sound as if they are the same, and using them as such for his conclusion. Now let’s see.

The idea of “atheist” means “no god”, pure and simple. It doesn’t get any simpler, actually: the particle “a-” is Greek for No, and “Theos” is Greek for God. No. God. At all.

So you cannot take that simple and clear definition and say that if you are a Christian, you are an ‘atheist about Siva’. You can’t. The thing Mr. Dawkins is trying to sell is that you are ALREADY an atheist, and maybe you just need a little extra push to get rid of that final, pesky god. But the truth of the matter is that you should compare an Atheist to a Theist, whatever he calls his god; not compare an Atheist to subgroups of Theist. The contrast should be made between one who does not admit of any conscious creating force, and one who does. The simple equivalence that Mr. Dawkins makes is a mistake.

But anyway I will let that pass because, sneaky and ultimately wrong as it is, the proposal at least has a modicum of material that allows for doing what I just did, which is thinking about it for a couple of minutes and saying, “Hey, wait a minute”. It’s a nice, if simple, logical fallacy.

On to more serious stuff. As I said, mockery and sarcasm are powerful teaching tools. But you need grace and wit and an altogether je ne sais quoi to use it properly and to its full potential. It helps if it is done in person, where we can hear a harsh word or phrase, that can become nuanced and even gentle when we see the intonation, the look in the eye of the speaker, his body language. It certainly can be catastrophic as a Twitter line. Allow me:

If you cannot see the image in that link, it is a screen grab of the non-conversation I had on Nov 22, 7.41 PM (China time) with Mr. Dawkins. He said:

“I fear this may be untrue, but it’ funny anyway. Pic symbolizes how sweet touching true faith can be.”

And added the following link:

The link is to a news site which reports that a “Nigerian Pastor Tries to Walk on Water Like Jesus, Then Drowns in Front of His Congregation”. And the picture is of a man’s hand in the water, as he purportedly drowns. Now, with all those wacky internet sites that we have now, like The Onion, which pass off sarcasm as news, it’s hard to say if this particular piece of information is certain or not. Some Thai fellows make bread in the shape of a corpse and take pictures of themselves cooking and eating it, and suddenly all Thai people are cannibals. But that’s immaterial to my point. My point is: that remark from Mr. Dawkins is uncalled for, nasty and plain mean-spirited. At least it comes across like that on Twitter, I was not at his side when he thought it up.

My response to his remark was as follows:

“Because, you know, ‘man with obvious mental problems kills himself’ is always hilarious.”

And just to drive the point home, please read again the way he starts his comment. Oh, what’s that, he FEARS it might be untrue? Why yes, Mr. Dawkins, too bad we don’t have one less of those crazy religious types around, am I right?

Come on. Let’s say that the news is true. Is that hilarious? Was Reverend Jim hilarious, down in Guyana? Was Waco? It is sad. Or I think it should be.

Am I wrong? At least it makes me sad to see the extremes to which fanatic behavior can and do take people.

Mockery can be wise. At times it can enlighten, like a Zen slap. This was not one of those times.