Ditching Dawkins

By Rescinding an Award, the American Humanist Association Honors Humanism

On April 19th the American Humanist Association revoked the “Humanist of the Year award” it had conferred on Richard Dawkins in 1996 due to a history of public statements “that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups”. They were referring to numerous tweets and other statements in which Dawkins has waded into discussions of transgender identity and race in an insensitive, ignorant, and intentionally provocative manner - something which cannot be reasonably disputed by anyone with any knowledge of 1) his history of tweets and 2) an understanding of contemporary social justice discourse.

This has provoked quite a reaction. The Center for Inquiry (a US-based freethought organization now affiliated with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science) first posted, then removed, a blog post criticizing the decision and calling it a “betrayal of Humanist values”. Ron Lindsay, the author of the post, justified his disagreement by appealing to the Humanist commitment to discourse and free speech, saying “We believe strongly in free speech and we have a willingness to entertain and consider different points of view, even controversial points of view.” He called the revocation of the award “censorship” and the establishment of “dogmas that cannot be questioned or discussed.” (It is not quite clear how the post’s almost immediate removal from CfI’s website fits into this characterization: does CfI now have “dogmas” too?)

A British blogger Stephen Knight, host of The Godless Spellchecker Podcast, wrote an article accused the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, the Secular Coalition for America of joining “the woke church". He concludes his piece as follows:

“we now have atheist, humanist and secular organisations attempting to create a climate where mere discussion on this issue is to be considered beyond the pale and worthy of excommunication. This is what ideologues do. And like all groups of ideologues, they will eventually implode under the force of their own purity criteria.

I’ve lost my interest in mainstream atheist/humanist/secular groups in the states in recent years. They have become utterly infected with woke ideology. There’s no backbone, no radicalism, no room for heterodoxy. They have simply just rejected one church in favour of another.”

Even the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid newspaper, ran a piece on it: Toby Young wrote that “Woke humanists have become as dogmatic as religious fundamentalists”. The Mail is not a reputable media outlet: it is known as the “Daily Hate Mail” by many in the UK. One of their front-page stories is currently a rant about the “woke mob” coming for Worcester sauce (a popular condiment), so no surprise that they are up in arms about this. But you might imagine that professional journalists would seek to maintain a little integrity, and not stoop to such absurd hyperbole as Young’s. He claims that the AHA “has been captured by the woke cult, a hard-Left ideological movement that is every bit as dogmatic and intolerant as fundamentalist Christians and Islamists.”

Since then others have weighed in, including Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who wrote an open letter to the AHA criticizing the move, calling it an attempt to “punish, dishonor, or humiliate” Dawkins. The AHA “demonized” Dawkins, in Pinker’s view, and acted in an “illiberal” manner. Dawkins has been “excommunicated” as a “heretic”, even, and this whole affair augurs a “new Inquisition”. Jordan Peterson, self-help guru and avatar of the Intellectual Dark Web, published an incredibly strange tweet calling down God’s wrath upon the American Humanist Association:

All these commentators (none of them trans, of course) are making roughly the same argument: that the AHA’s decision to rescind its award to Dawkins is evidence that organized Humanism has compromised one of its most cherished values - freedom of thought, speech, and discourse - in favor of a dogmatic and closed-minded commitment to a narrow set of opinions currently championed by leftists woke-scolds. Dawkins is being “censored”, “silenced”, and “cancelled” for daring to ask questions about a controversial topic which should legitimately be part of public discourse. They all draw attention to what they see as an ironic similarity between the decision of the AHA and the actions of fundamentalist religious groups which have long been the target of Humanist criticism.

This argument is, from top to bottom, complete and abject nonsense. First, as all these commentators know, Dawkins has not lost one jot of his freedom to think or speak because of the AHA’s decision. Their decision to revoke the award is an exercise of their own freedom of association, and an attempt to maintain their institutional and philosophical integrity - actions perfectly in line with participation in a liberal society. It in no way prevents Dawkins from saying whatever he pleases. He has been active on Twitter since the most recent offending tweet, touting his newly-released audiobook, his appearances on prominent podcasts, etc. He has not been “silenced” or “excommunicated” from anything.

Second, the AHA’s decision is not even an attempt to prevent Dawkins from airing his views. It is an expression of their own disagreement with them: something which is well within their rights as an autonomous organization. Any non-profit organization like the AHA has the absolute right to withdraw whatever awards they please, if they feel that continued association with the awardee is no longer in-line with their values. This is, of course, precisely what the AHA said in their own statement: that Dawkins’ repeated interventions in ethically-sensitive matters are not consistent with their commitment to human dignity, and particularly that of trans people.

Third, it is genuinely incredible that these commentators should take at face value Dawkins’ claim that he is merely wanting to raise an intellectually and culturally important question in a disinterested manner. This is what I most object to in these critics’ approach to this issue: to take them at their word we must believe that they think - while lauding his contributions to science and freethought - that Richard Dawkins is fantastically stupid. That he simply doesn’t have the capacity to understand how his words might be construed in the current political context, and is unable to frame his ideas more carefully.

But Dawkins’ is not stupid. As the AHA said in their own statement, he has made “significant contributions” to science and science education, and is one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. He is perfectly capable of understanding the sort of signal he was sending with his “question”: he is signaling to those who share his obvious skepticism about the “reality” of trans identity that he is on their side, while maintaining a shred of deniability when the inevitable criticism comes. Online we call this JAQing off - “Just Asking Questions!”, when the “questions” are in fact thinly-veiled statements.

The AHA has seen through this fundamentally dishonest and cowardly approach, and decided to take a stand, and good for them. I, for one, am utterly sick of intelligent, exceedingly well-educated public figures without the guts to say what they really believe, provoking controversy by sidling up to sensitive topics and “asking questions” and “presenting points for discussion”, and then posting disingenuous “apologies” when they get the critical reaction they were looking for in the first place. No thinking person can honestly believe that Twitter, of all places, is a good place to have any discussion on any topic whatsoever, let alone ones as ethically and politically sensitive as transness and race - and whatever else Dawkins might be, he is at least a person with the capacity to think.

But what about the argument that contemporary Humanism is becoming a cult, with its own unquestionable dogmas? Is the board of the AHA donning robes and preparing the thumbscrews? Of course not. In fact, steps like this show that organized Humanism is becoming more Humanistic. Humanism means more than a commitment to skepticism and freethought, and more than not believing in God (and the more I do Humanism the less I think that even matters). It means working to promote the dignity and worth of all people; fighting for the oppressed and the marginalized; working together for a more just world; and striving to bring out the best in ourselves and in others. Humanist organizations should seek to uphold these positive values at all times, and in disassociating themselves with the increasingly cringeworthy behavior of Richard Dawkins, the American Humanist Association showed a commitment to them.

Of course freethought, skepticism, and intellectual debate are central to the Humanist project. We should be vigilant against any tendency toward groupthink or cultishness. But for too many years, organized Humanism has focused on freethought and skepticism to the detriment of the broader panoply of values the tradition should uphold. It has promoted - even lionized - figures who are rightly well-known for their contributions to science and skepticism, but who are not good representatives of the fullness of our tradition. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became darlings of our movement at a time when it was focused far too much on defeating religion, and far too little on defeating injustice. That is now changing, and some in the movement don’t like the change. They want to hold onto their heroes, and resist the criticism they receive. New battle-lines are forming, and with this decision the AHA has chosen a side.

Good for them that it’s the right one.