Dr Jekyl retracts

This is actually a pretty smarmy retraction by Dr Jeckyl Dawkins of an honest but nasty tweet by Mr Hyde Dick.

Mr Dick tweeted (perhaps in response to a recent re-tweet reminding him of his frustration at a three month old exchange) that “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” And in response to the predictable (but in my opinion unreasonable) blowback, Dr Dawkins claims that Mr Dick's "ill judged words" were just "a rather confused mixture of the following three – admittedly not wholly compatible – spellings-out:"

  • Isn’t it an odd paradox that a journalist good enough to be employed by no less a journal than New Statesman is capable of simultaneously holding a belief at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies?
  • Given that he believes something at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies, is it possible that I’ve over-estimated Mehdi Hasan? Could it be that he’s not such a good journalist as I had thought?
  • Conversely, it seems so odd that a good and intelligent journalist should believe obvious nonsense, that I can’t help wondering whether he really does believe it, or whether he only pretends to out of loyalty to a loved tradition.

But let's see now. It's no denial of free speech to argue that anyone with experience of the modern world who claims to believe the literal truth of a story about flying around on a winged "horse" (or for that matter about the virgin birth of a male child) is either lying or nuts, and that allowing such a person to express their views does not extend to giving them a platform in a magazine that people rely on for accurate information and analysis. Yes, such a person may have well-founded views on many issues and may be capable of opening my eyes to issues I had overlooked, but I cannot avoid the fact that he is also capable of believing complete nonsense and so his judgement is not to be fully "trusted" (not that anyone ever should be fully trusted of course, but there are different levels of trustability required in different contexts and being published regularly in a major magazine is one of the more demanding I think). Perhaps Hasan has merits which override his evident credulity and it would have been fine for the nice Dr Dawkins to identify such. But the fawning over-compensation with which he does so turns my stomach a bit.

On the other hand he ends well with:

There is a distinction between the Doyle/Dowding belief in fairies and Hasan’s belief in a winged horse. Hasan’s absurdity stems from a major religious creed and is for this reason treated with an over-generous portion of respect. Doyle’s belief in fairies was an individual eccentricity, fit only for mirth. People would blithely write off Doyle among the fairies as a comic nutter while agreeing that he was a very good storyteller; or laugh behind Dowding’s back while agreeing that he was handy with an Air Force. But if you describe a religious believer as a nutter because he believes in a winged horse (or a follower of another tradition because he believes water miraculously turned into wine) you will be in for trouble.

It was an additional intention of my tweet (spelled out in subsequent ones) to emphasise, yet again, this remarkably widespread double standard. It is a double standard that is applied, with peculiar vitriol, by some who call themselves atheists but bend over backwards to “accommodate” religious faith. If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot”; or say to you, as a British Member of Parliament tweeted to me,  “You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man.” The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege. And perhaps that is the most important take-home message of this whole affair.

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