Oh Steven Pinker, please, you are better than this…..

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by Neil Godfrey

Steven, I really do love your books, at least I loved all of the ones I had read (Stuff of Thought; Language Instinct; Blank Slate; How the Mind Works) up to Better Angels — though I cannot deny you did give a slight warning of what was to come in Blank Slate, iirc. (Better Angels came across to me as one extended apology for neoliberalism.)

So what’s with these words that The Guardian has attributed to you”

Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker came out in support of Dawkins, writing to KPFA that their decision was “intolerant, ill-reasoned, and ignorant”.

“Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century. He has criticised doctrines of Islam, together with doctrines of other religions, but criticism is not ‘abuse’,” said Pinker. “People may get offended and hurt by honest criticism, but that cannot possibly be a justification for censoring the critic, or KPFA would be shut down because of all the people it has hurt and offended over the decades.”

Yes, I can agree that Richard Dawkins is a great communicator of science. Whether he is a “great thinker” I do not know. Was “the selfish gene” his own discovery or was he communicating to a popular audience the way others in his field had come to understand a process of evolution?

But even if “Dawkins is one of the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st century” in the field of biological evolution, he is no better qualified to speak about Islam or any other religion than any other articulate “village atheist”. Dawkins is definitely not one of the great thinkers on Islam, not even Christianity.

I have no interest in covering some of the other indignant ravings about this event, least of all the incoherent ignorance spilt by Coyne et al, so will conclude with some links to views of those I consider among the more sane, though I am sure most of you already have your own lists:

Dawkins being “deplatformed” — Siggy:

There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  

Organizations have the right to not invite Richard Dawkins — or me — to speak (PZ Myers)





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9 thoughts on “Oh Steven Pinker, please, you are better than this…..”

  1. For me, Dawkins and Pinker think of themselves not only as of communicators of the science, but also as fighters for the oppressed ones. Dawkins may lack some philosophical background, or even more on field of religious studies, but for sure he has much compassion to people suffering from religion. They have something common with abolition movements, and that’s the source of their zealotry, Not hate for absurdities of religions dogmas, but more like, let’s say, “Sense of moral righteousness”.

    The “Better angels of our nature” was first Pinker’s book that I’ve read. Maybe it is my context (conservative “counterrevolution” aided by “spiritual leaders” in Poland), but I find it very refreshing and insightful. Still, I feel that it lacks in pointing out how religion was not only “source” of violence, but also first (although imperfect) remedy for it.

  2. At first I loved the “in your face” antics and braggadocio of the New Atheist movement, the bus and billboard ads, the “be good for goodness sake” slogans, etc. and I still have nothing against all of that, but over time I became increasingly uncomfortable with some of the savageness of the criticisms of religion by Dawkins, Harris and co. I felt that their criticisms lacked a compassion for and understanding of many of those who are religious, belittling them as inferior and even stupid. For all of the sins of religion, I don’t like the idea of mocking people who in the end have nothing else in their lives, or feel they have nowhere else to turn.

    It doesn’t hurt to have a little compassion and understanding for why many people embrace religion. I personally have no time for religion at all and deplore the hurt it has done to so many, but I have to remind myself that I was once a very sincere believer and many people really don’t know where else to turn.

    What I find culpable in the criticisms of Dawkins and Harris etc is that they seem to refuse to pick up any serious scholarly research studies into the nature of religion and do some serious learning about it and why people embrace it. They rely on nothing more than the same level of ignorance as the “man in the street” yet use their status as public intellectuals to give weight to what they say about something they know very little about.

    And they certainly do not seem to demonstrate any serious understanding of why people are religious or hold the beliefs they do. Simply saying they are stupid and unscientific is cheap, ignorant and unhelpful, in my view.

  3. Thank you, Neil. I agree with much of your comment. My point was more of understanding Dawkins than of his apology. I also once was a firm believer and I simply cannot fight with religion in my society as Dawkins or Coyne does, mainly for reasons you’ve pointed out. My disbelief and apostasy from catholic church was source of great pain for almost whole my family. I think that is common. Old Marx has a point: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. But I think that Dawkins is sometimes better than his average at that point. I’m listening now “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind”, where Dennet and Dawkins (who wrote foreword) are both quite humane for priests and pastors, who cannot quit their service, when they have already lost their faith.

    “And they certainly do not seem to demonstrate any serious understanding of why people are religious or hold the beliefs they do”. Sam Harris book “Waking up” contains some sort of understanding. He writes about meditation and give religions some “justice” at tis point, but in fact his apocalyptic friends (Dennet for example) sees that as sort of illusion or silliness.

    1. I am still reading more on the psychological research into religion and want to post more when I get a better grasp of the research from that perspective. It’s quite a different way of understanding it all from what I’ve understood through the various New (and other) Atheists. There’s so much to learn from so many different angles — I’m sure we agree on that. I can’t really imagine what it’s like to be in very religious society as you (and some Americans) experience, unfortunately.

  4. According to the radio station itself,

    > We have since extended an offer to Mr. Dawkins to discuss this matter on KPFA’s airwaves, a forum where his assertions can be engaged and challenged, but KPFA will have no financial stake in promoting them. He has not yet responded.


    It seems to me that such an offer effectively removes competing claims of “free speech rights” from the table.

  5. What has happened over the last two decades is that the usage of Christianity and religion in general as a moral veneer for bigotry has slowly been worn off by our own efforts. The inevitable consequence of that is those bigots now let their bigotry hang loose without any phony moral veneer at all anymore. Now it is up to us to deal with people who are openly amoral regardless of whether they use religion or not. People who I used to know as devout are now nothing more than assholes who don’t even care about the technicalities of their faith anymore.

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