Richard Dawkins is the mouthpiece of atheism or the New Atheist movement, as the media have called it. He has been instrumental in bringing intellectual attitudes against religious dogma to the forefront of academic and journalistic concerns, and is viewed as something of a monolith in the nonreligious and Humanist community. That is not to say that nobody had criticised him in nonreligious circles, far from it. His claims in The God Delusion that atheists are 'smarts' - a term he has coined for us, suggesting our skepticism makes us automatically smarter than the average bear - came under fire from none less than the venerable Christopher Hitchens. Indeed the Hitch, who was an avid supporter of Dawkins' longstanding movement to engage and dispute religious bullying, made the obvious criticism that atheism cannot and could not be proof of intelligence. There are atheistic fools and psychopaths as well as atheist Nobel prize winners and heroes.
So why has Dawkins recently lost my support? The answer fits in one word:
In the past year, Dawkins has made use of Twitter to get himself into a number of fixes, in which I initially chimed in with his supporters to come to his defence. His comments on Down's syndrome earned him a drubbing from support groups for the condition as he had posted comments on the morality of aborting foetuses diagnosed with the condition. This led to three outcomes:
1. A tidal wave of comments attacking his heartlessness and appealing to emotion and love
2. An explanatory note from Dawkins outlining a position which was much more nuanced and well-informed than the initial posts appeared
3. An apology for causing offence, putting the problem down to the 140 character limit of his original posts.
Result: Religious groups show up their tendency to resort to authority and emotion on issues which require rational discussion, and Dawkins' explanation appears as a beacon of rationality in a Twittersphere full of bile.
That was, in any event the impression shared by many (but not all) atheists and Humanists on the matter. Of course, Dawkins was painted as a eugenecist and all sorts of other nonsense among religious groups, but that hardly mattered. They love to hate and twist his words anyway, so who cares?
Well, this is where Dawkins loses me. It seems he is actually using the above mentioned string of events as a formula to voice his views via Twitter. Cause a storm by offending one group or another on an ethical issue, rile up the religious nutbags and then swoop down with a joint explanation of the original point and criticism of the idiocy of Twitter.
This is not worthy of Dawkins. It's clumsy at best for an academic of his prowess and stature, and callous at worst, as it relies on alienating entire communities affected by ethical problems, driving them away from Humanism, which might otherwise appeal to them.
Dawkins' most recent casualty was rape victims. He posted a string of comments berating women who make rape allegations against men despite being inebriated during the alleged events. While acknowledging that rape is always wrong, he staunchly defended the position that victims who make rape accusations based on incidents where they themselves had been drinking were causing harm by making their case on 'bad evidence'.
It is plain to me that Dawkins has vast knowledge of biology among other sciences which make his views on medical ethics very valuable indeed, which is why I supported him during the Downs furore. But this recent Twitterstorm is well outside his remit. He clearly does not see the full picture.
Most rape cases are unreported as victims have no confidence they can make a decent case against their attackers and the trauma of dredging up such events is too much. To discourage victims from speaking out because of weak or bad evidence of their attack is irresponsible if you understand the issue.
A myth prevails among newspapers, radio presenters (I have heard it touted on LBC) and bloggers that there is a culture of victimhood in rape cases which could encourage or support false accusations. This is simply not borne out by fact. Cases where evidence is bad are thrown out of court. End of. There is no harm done to an alleged attacker if he is found not guilty. However, the harm done to a rape victim who was told not to bother reporting the incident because they had consumed alcohol is potentially much greater.
The high profile child abuse cases such as Rolf Harris and Stewart Hall's, followed hotly by the revolting Rotherham scandal go only to confirm how wrong Dawkins is here. The prevailing culture is still to dismiss rape allegations even when they are backed up by solid evidence, due to the difficulty of obtaining a conviction. How many vulnerable women, children and indeed men have not even dreamt of bringing a case against their abuser because of flaws in their own behaviour?
It is for courts to decide whether alcohol consumption damages a rape allegation, not Richard Dawkins or anyone else.
By using Twitter to make such arguments, the father New Atheism is becoming something of a griping grandfather, taking potshots at everything that irks him and then blaming the very medium he has used to make his comments for the damage they do. 140 character statements are very easy to quote out of context indeed. But those young people who heed Dawkins as the face of the British Humanist Association will be listening.
Dawkins has a duty to those potential victims to stick to matters his vast scientific knowledge gives him insight into. As for Twitter, it clearly does not suit the thoughts of an Oxonian academic.
Why not leave it alone, Professor?