Richard Dawkins

Richard DawkinsIf you are following at all the skeptic / atheist / humanist / freethought movement(s) (henceforth, SAHF), last week has been an exciting and/or troubling one for you. First, the announcement that the Richard Dawkins Foundation had merged with (or taken over, depending on whom you ask) the venerable Center for Inquiry, up until then the chief remaining operation established by one of the founding fathers of modern skepticism and humanism, Paul Kurtz.

Then, a mere six days later, the organizers of the North East Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS), likely to soon become the major skeptic conference in North America (given the apparent demise of The Amazing Meeting), dropped a bombshell: Dawkins was being disinvited — probably a first in his career — on grounds of yet another obnoxious tweet he had thoughtlessly sent out to his 1.35 million followers.

It seems, therefore, like this is as good a time as any to take stock of Richard Dawkins and of the SAHF community and see where they stand. I will begin with my personal assessment of Dawkins as a scientist, science popularizer, and public intellectual. I will then get into some (not too lurid) detail about the latest twitter-storm, and conclude with a few reflections on the significance of all this for the SAHF movement(s) at large. Needless to say, everything that follows reflects my own opinions, not those of Plato…

Dawkins the scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual

I have met Dawkins a few times throughout my career as a biologist and a philosopher, and every encounter has been as cordial as it could be expected between colleagues who disagree on a number of issues. The first time, actually, was before I became a professional biologist. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Rome, and was sent by the Italian magazine “Sapere” (To Know) to interview Dawkins in Florence, where he was appearing as an invited speaker to a public conference on evolution. The second time was in the mid-90’s. By that time I was an Assistant Professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, and my Department invited Dawkins to speak as part of his book tour (very likely for Climbing Mount Improbable). It was also his birthday, which we celebrated with cake and all the rest, following his talk. There have been a couple of other meetings after that, but the last time I saw him in person was at a workshop on philosophical naturalism organized by cosmologist Sean Carroll. Interestingly, over lunch during one of those days, I experienced Dawkins in what is a rather uncharacteristically humble mood: he confided at our table that he felt a bit intimidated, being surrounded by so many professional philosophers (he wasn’t talking about me, I assure you, but more likely of Dan Dennett and Alex Rosenberg, among others). It was interesting to see that rather unexpected (from his public appearances) side of him.

Okay, personal history dealt with, let me move to the interesting stuff: what do I make of Richard Dawkins as a scientist, popularizer, and public intellectual? It’s a complex issue, to be sure. For one, he and I have never seen eye to eye, and this is way before he published The God Delusion — a book that had I read it as a youngster would have certainly excited me, but that as a professional philosopher I found simply ghastly in its cartoonish simplicity.

To begin with, I never bought his argument in The Selfish Gene (TSG), the book that (rightly) launched him as a top rate science popularizer, back in 1976. I read and appreciated the book for the first time a few years later (I was in middle school when it came out), but I always thought that his arch-rival, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, while himself an interesting, shall we say, character, was much closer to the mark. In a nutshell, TSG presents an exceedingly reductionist view of biology that is simply incapable, in my mind, of taking in the bewildering variety of biological phenomena that we have documented ever since Darwin. Dawkins’ focus on the gene level and only the gene level, his refusal to take seriously the idea of multi-level selection, his (later) casual dismissal of epigenetics, his ridicule of advances coming out of paleontology, his utter ignorance (judging from the fact that he hardly wrote about it at all) of important concepts like phenotypic plasticity, phenotypic accommodation, niche selection, robustness, and evolvability — to mention but a few — meant to me that his view of biology was hopelessly limited.

His long feud with Gould was highly influential on my formative years as a young scientist. You can get a feeling from the (overall pro-Dawkins, but generally balanced) booklet written by philosopher of science Kim Sterelny, and aptly entitled Dawkins Vs Gould: Survival of the Fittest. (It was published before Gould’s untimely death, or the title would have been in real poor taste!)

A few years later, when I was a full professor, but still at the University of Tennessee, I actually taught a graduate seminar on the Gould-Dawkins rivalry, and that’s where I learned something that still few people seem to realize. You see, Dawkins is often portrayed in the media as “a leading evolutionary biologist.” But if by that one means an active research scientist who has actually made major contributions to his field, then that title really ought to describe Gould, not Dawkins.

Dawkins essentially ceased publishing in the primary literature (with a few exceptions, mostly commentaries) after he wrote TSG. Absolutely nothing wrong with that: the man had found his true calling as a science popularizer, and Zeus knows we need a lot of ’em! But even TSG was just that, a popular book, not the presentation of original ideas (except for the whole “memes” thing, more on that in a minute). Indeed, TSG was the popularization of notions developed in the preceding couple of decades by true giants of the evolutionary field, including George Williams (nature of natural selection, criticism of group selection), William Hamilton (kin selection), and Robert Trivers (reciprocal altruism). (Here is a short article I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer about going beyond the selfish gene.)

As I mentioned, the one really novel idea Dawkins presented in TSG was the concept of memes, a cultural analogue of genes, introduced with the express purpose to convince his readers that “Darwinism” applies universally, not just to straightforward genetic systems. (This eventually led Dan Dennett to his famous idea of Darwinism as a “universal acid,” in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea — an interesting book in which, however, Dennett gets rather uncharacteristically, and in my mind unjustifiably, nasty about Gould.)

Now, I have written elsewhere why I think “memetics” is a bad idea, as memes are just metaphors, and they are not particularly useful to understand what they are supposed to help us understand, cultural evolution. Sure enough, after their 15 minutes of fame, thanks largely to a book by Susan Blackmore, memes have receded to generic metaphor for successful ideas that spread virally. Indeed, the Journal of Memetics, the only peer reviewed publication on the topic, has long ago closed down for lack of interest in the scholarly community.

Finally, let me get to Dawkins the public intellectual. For a number of years he held an endowed chair as Professor of Public Understanding of Science (an excellent idea, which ought to be replicated elsewhere!) at Oxford. During that period (and before) he published a series of excellent books on evolutionary biology, my favorite probably being Climbing Mount Improbable. That, I think, was Dawkins’ golden age, during which even those who criticized him on professional grounds (like myself) were nonetheless eagerly reading his books (as I did).

That golden age, in my mind, came to an abrupt end at the very moment Dawkins’ popularity made a huge leap, with the publication of The God Delusion. Again, I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I will not rehash that particular controversy. As is well known to my readers, I’ve been critical of the New Atheism in general, and of the decidedly scientistic turn that it has imparted to the SAHF movements, a turn that I’m confident would have been frowned upon by some of the early leading figures, such as Kurtz, Carl Sagan, and Martin Gardner. There is definitely room for disagreement here, but the current essay is about my own assessment of the Dawkins phenomenon, so there it is.

The broader point is that I think Dawkins has been sliding down ever since he became a (very) popular spokesperson for atheism. Which is highly unfortunate, because atheism does need good spokespeople. But the most effective ones, I would think, are those that come across as reasonable and articulate, and who are very careful about what they say in public, especially on social media. Dawkins is articulate, but doesn’t come across (to non atheists, and indeed even to some atheists) as reasonable. And he’s definitely not careful about his public statements, as we’ll see below.

So, to recap my thinking so far: not a leading evolutionary biologist (never been); a top notch science popularizer (until The God Delusion); a problematic public intellectual (after The God Delusion).

The latest twitter-storm

Which brings me to what happened last week. The trouble started when Dawkins posted the following tweet (he deleted it since, hence the screenshot):

Dawkins tweet-1

The video linked to in the tweet, and which Dawkins clearly endorsed, can be found here. It is an egregious, unqualified, piece of racist and misogynist garbage. Please, pause reading this post for a couple of minutes and see for yourself. It’s simply horrifying.

Then again, this was not an isolated incident. Dawkins had racked a considerable number of similarly embarrassing tweets over the past few years. Here is a sampler, ranging over such light topics as abortion, rape, pedophilia, and Islam (of course!). Use Google to find many, many more.

Much has been said about the most recent episode, particularly because it has led to the NECSS organizers dumping Dawkins from their conference, but some people seem to have missed at the least part of the point.

For instance, Dawkins took the tweet down after being told that the “feminist” in the video is not just a generic caricature, but represents a real woman, who has received plenty of threats and harassment in recent times, as a result of an admittedly rather embarrassing video of her during a protest in Toronto.

What needs to be noted here is twofold: a) Dawkins, despite having deleted the offending tweet, does not actually seem regretful at all (contra to what he wrote in a press release from CFI about the NECSS incident):

Dawkins tweet-2

“The rest was very funny, right on point and beautifully executed.” No Richard, it was none of those things. Not at all.

This is why the NECSS organizers (to be clear: I am not one of them) took the extraordinary, and likely costly, step of withdrawing the invitation to Dawkins to come to New York. You can read Steve Novella’s full explanation here, which I find convincing and earnest. If anything, in my mind, the question is why was Dawkins invited to NECSS to begin with, considering that his socially erratic behavior was notorious. But I suppose it’s hard to resist the cachet of a celebrity, and Dawkins sells tickets at whatever event he is invited.

This time, however, the NECSS folks took a stand, one that, as I said, is likely to cost them financially — though they have certainly augmented their reputation in terms of integrity, an increasingly rare asset these days. The cost is going to come from the fact that a number of local and non-local atheists have already decided, or are at the least deliberating about, boycotting  NECSS because they think the whole incident is much-ado-about-nothing, and that the organizers overreacted because of  rampant political correctness. Which brings me to the last part of this post: the community.

Impact on the SAHF communities

The SAHF communities have seen a significant amount of turmoil in recent years, largely to do with a double internal split, as far as I can determine (I’m speaking from personal experience here, I haven’t seen any systematic sociological studies of the matter).

First, there is the political split: there are (notoriously, unfortunately) few conservatives among skeptics and atheists. This is to be expected as far as the humanist crowd is concerned, since secular humanism has always (or almost) been a philosophy of progressive liberalism. But there is no reason whatsoever why a conservative shouldn’t be an atheist, or skeptical of claims of the paranormal and such.

I suspect, however, that the common origins of SAHF in the United States, with a few pivotal figures (like Kurtz) blazing the trail in the 1960s and ’70s, is a main reason for this situation. Kurtz was not just an atheist and a skeptic, but a secular humanist, and he saw no sharp boundaries among those branches of the movement, which means that the progressive liberalism of secular humanism got sort of automatically imported into the other branches as well.

Notwithstanding the virtual absence of conservative SAHFs, there is a strong, and vocal, minority of libertarians to be reckoned with, including some of the leading figures of the last few years, like Michael Shermer and Pen Jillette. Predictably, the clash between the libertarian minority and the progressive majority has led to major disagreements and some embarrassing moments, for instance when prominent libertarian skeptics declared themselves “skeptical” of global climate change. (Shermer was one of them, though to his credit he has since changed his mind.)

The second split, not at all orthogonal to the first one, separates defenders of “free speech” (who tend to be libertarian, but not exclusively) from advocates of “social justice” (who tend to be progressive, but not exclusively).

This also has led to nasty exchanges, with accusations of Islamophobia and misogyny being hurled (sometimes appropriately, at other times not so much) to people like Sam Harris, comedian Bill Maher, and, of course, Richard Dawkins. The response from those so accused has been that the other side is stifling the right to free speech, a standard tactic that has already emerged in reference to the latest Dawkins debacle. Except, of course — as Steve Novella has pointed out — that NECSS, for instance, is a private organization whose own free speech is exercised by the choice of who they do and do not invite, not to mention that to claim that Dawkins’ speech is being stifled, considering the huge number of followers and endless number of platforms he has available, is more than a bit ridiculous.

In all of this, it hasn’t helped that some on the progressive side (a side with which I identify, broadly speaking) have confused atheism (technically, simply a negative metaphysical stance) with secular humanism (a truly politically progressive philosophy), a confusion made all the more maddening by the vocal stamping of a number of high profile characters who relish in (and profit from) making outrageous statements with the transparent purpose of increasing web traffic while vilifying and insulting some of their own readers (you know who you are, no need to mention names).

Now, let us step back for a second. Remember what the SAHFs evolved for: to further reason and critical inquiry, to promote science and debunk pseudoscience, to build a community of like minded people, to provide a civil alternative to religion. Does any of the above sound anything like this set of highly worthy goals?

No, clearly. But there are countless good people involved with SAHF, and they deserve to be able to return to the original goals of what they set out to do, shutting off the insanity and incivility, taking a stand again in favor of reason and decency.

That is why I applaud the step taken by the NECSS organizers. That is also why I wish (I know it’s not going to happen) that CFI divested itself from its link with the Richard Dawkins Foundation, engaged in some serious soul searching, and regrouped around the basic principles set forth by Paul Kurtz. I met Paul, and he was no saint (who is?). But I’m pretty sure he would be disgusted by the shamble in which his intellectual heirs currently find themselves.

So the Dawkins-NECSS debacle is a splendid opportunity for the good people within SAHF to step back, appreciate and remind themselves of all the good they have done in decades of activism, but also conscientiously and critically inquire into the bad or questionable stuff. Every movement goes through growing pains, and this is just one of those moments. I sincerely wish them all the best for a speedy and safe transition to maturity.

208 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins

  1. David Ottlinger (@DavidOttlinger)


    I care a lot about these things because like it or not (and you know how I feel about it) Dawkins and other people of his ilk have serious cultural influence. In the tense post 9-11 moment Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the rest did a great deal to stoke anti-religious sentiment and degrade commitment to civil discourse. I have long been alarmed that a whole set of virulently anti-religious and often anti-feminist youtubers grew up around this time as a kind of collective, new-atheist enfant-terrible. The right, in reaction, has been able to bolster their Christianity-under-attack narrative. David Silverman and Sam Harris are both favorites of Bill O’reilly. This was an odd moment, an acknowledgement by a “horseman” of the children of the revolution (not to put it too grandly though they might).

    You have talked in the past about how some kids blew up your attempt to share the public square alongside Christian displays by trying to get you to include a display of the flying spaghetti monster. I guarantee you if you went back to those kids houses they would have God is not Great and The God Delusion on their shelves. These things matter.

    By “signalling” here it seems to me you mean politics. I think is important that others of us put forth a better view to oppose it in the public square. So I thank Massimo for doing that.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Coel

    Hi labnut,

    Why not do that by giving a considered assessment of nu-atheism, stating its achievements, what is good about it and what its prospects are.

    In the West as a whole, and in nations where New Atheists operate: the fraction of people identifying as atheist is steadily climbing; the fraction identifying as non-religious is steadily climbing; the fraction who think that religions should not have the special privileges they still have is climbing; and the fraction who consider that religions are on-balance harmful to society is climbing.

    Now all of that is not, of course, purely to the credit on the New Atheists. Indeed the Islamists are doing a spectacularly good job of discrediting religion (which is why the establishment is so keen to bleat “nothing to do with Islam” whenever Islamists misbehave), but the open criticism and disrespect towards religion shown by the NAs is part of the trend.

    Further, on all of the above indicators, the younger cohorts are significantly less religious and less favourably disposed to religion than their elders. Thus the future for NAs is bright. Hopefully there will one day be a time when we no longer need NAs. Religion could be an amusing hobby for a minority, akin to whippet racing.

    Freedom of speech was a right we won to protect us from oppression by the state. This is what is protected by law.

    Agreed, and that is under threat. Nowadays we call it “hate speech” laws. For example, in the UK recently a Christian preacher was prosecuted for expressing the opinion that Islam was “Satanic”. The prosecution failed, but it was a narrow thing, and the judge’s ruling showed some convoluted reasoning to try to avoid having to find him guilty.

    (Note that of anyone called Catholicism “Satanic”, no-one would care. We have some extreme little Protestant sects who have as an article of faith the claim that the Pope is the anti-Christ, but nobody cares.)

    Your freedom to satirise can cause considerable harm by alienating and polarising society.

    Not nearly as much harm as *not* accepting the right to satirise could cause. Self-censorship to avoid “giving offence” is a route to more problems. We have to accept the right to criticise others’ ideas in a free society.

    The West is better off because we can watch a Life of Brian video. (And no, it doesn’t do anyone any harm.)

    Yet no-one would dare make or distribute such a video regarding Islam. Everyone would be too afraid, the Left would avoid it out of not wanting to give offence, and the Regressive Left would shriek “Racist!”.


  3. Daniel Kaufman


    No, by ‘signalling’ I mean people saying things primarily or overwhelmingly for the purpose of signalling to others that they belong to the right (virtuous) group, rather than for the purpose of engaging in discourse, whose purpose is to discover what is true or right.

    And no, I don’t blame Dawkins for the behavior of students and faculty at my school. That’s too many causal-chain-links removed to be persuasive or fair.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “by ‘signalling’ I mean people saying things primarily or overwhelmingly for the purpose of signalling to others that they belong to the right (virtuous) group”

    Well, that’s one interpretation. I assure you that I have no interest in signaling to my group, whatever that may be. I’m genuinely interested in the ethics and politics of skepticism and atheism. And so, I think, are many others here, including Coel. That said, there are some whose behavior may best be explained by your signaling theory, though I find most of those outside of this forum, thank Zeus.


  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Coel wrote:

    The West is better off because we can watch a Life of Brian video. (And no, it doesn’t do anyone any harm.)

    Yet no-one would dare make or distribute such a video regarding Islam. Everyone would be too afraid, the Left would avoid it out of not wanting to give offence, and the Regressive Left would shriek “Racist!”.


    This is absolutely correct and important, and what it shows is how complex these issues are and the extent to which productive, civil behavior in such circumstances depends upon excellence in individual judgment and how little guidance there is, by way of general principles.

    I say this last part, because it is *also* the case that there could be religion-critical movies the having of which would *not* make us better off and which *would* do harm. And also because Labnut is correct, when he points out that what we have a legal right to do may often be far broader than what is wise or decent to do, in any given situation.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Here is what I posted on David Hoelscher’s Facebook page, re Wilson’s collection:

    “The last of the six is well put, correlating religious observance with existential security and income inequality. Now, of course, correlation doesn’t prove causation, even more in social sciences than in physical ones. Nonetheless, a statistical correlation in the social sciences that has multiple directions of explanatory power is certainly worth considering “as if” it is about causal connections as well.”

    He is on FB at

    He’s generally a non-Gnu, liberal-to-leftliberal, non-SJW writer on various issues. Has written for Counterpunch, among other sites.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. tudoreynon

    John Kwok, Massimo

    Thanks for your tolerant and patient moderation Massimo. Let me have one more comment as opinionated as the last. I am a Skeptic but also a Catholic, pretty lapsed but still… So maybe I am out of place here and out of order. I accept your judgement on that in advance.

    Regarding censorship, I make a distinction between being no-platformed, silenced, even informally, by third parties and being dis-invited by a group that invited you themselves; on their own terms if you will. I don’t know if you think that a valid distinction or an important one John?

    Massimo has it right really and I think I am only amplifying his point. I don’t know if he agrees with the distinction?

    Censorship is not what happened to Richard Dawkins in this case.

    There was no third party action of any kind. He was not ‘no-platformed’, if you like, by a third party, informally or formally. He was not ‘shouted down’ or had his speech rights interfered with otherwise by third parties like happened to Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths recently by two seperate parties using different means. Rightly, neither attempt succeeded in silencing her.

    There was little external pressure on the NECSS committee as far as I know? There are cases where those ‘third party’ social pressures can be significant and I take that seriously, not the case here though.

    Am I am being a “…whiney little spastic…”, as the video under discussion puts it, for thinking that NECSS was totally justified in taking action at short notice due to this specific re-Tweet? It was bad enough to justify a breach of protocols, if indeed such there was?

    I am sure, by the way, that Richard Dawkins had not noticed the ‘spastic’ comment in this video. Neither did I until my second time-wasting viewing, partly because the unfunny racism in it was so overwhelming. I doubt really that he watched this video very closely at all or really understood its generally sarcastic, sneering and very un-satirical tone.

    Re-Tweeting this video is part of the strange mix of disingenuity and genuine naivety that Dawkins exemplifies so well. I don’t understand him well I don’t think.
    He did though, I note, manage to put in the ritual self-protecting term, “some” before ‘feminists’ or whatever the proxy target of this misogynistic sneering was. The fact that the proxy was probably a specific individual shows how empty that quantification was as always. For example when we hear , “I don’t mean all Jews are tight fisted of course…”, blah di blah, yeah well.

    Some times words like ‘radical’, ‘racist’ and so on hit their mark, sometimes not, sometimes they are used to close down debate; one has to look beyond the words one might say and at their referents or the best we can do regarding referents.

    There is a right to Free Speech which doesn’t hinge on content anyway and there is good reason for that, in that we avoid constant second-guessing before the fact as it were. I support the Second Amendment as a whole unconditionally and care more for the Secularism embodied there than for the truth or falsity of Atheism these days frankly.

    Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker remains, with caveats, on my recommended reading list: I find the metaphors therein useful.


  8. Massimo Post author


    “There was little external pressure on the NECSS committee as far as I know?”

    None that I can tell.

    “NECSS was totally justified in taking action at short notice due to this specific re-Tweet”

    A lot of people don’t seem to appreciate why the decision was implemented so quickly: registration for the conference had just opened, and the NECSS organizers were — rightly, I think — concerned that if they waited too long to disinvite Dawkins attendees would interpret it as a bait-and-switch: you sign up for the conference (and pay good money) thinking Dawkins is going to be there, but then he isn’t. I thought that was very ethical of them.

    “Re-Tweeting this video is part of the strange mix of disingenuity and genuine naivety that Dawkins exemplifies so well”

    I think that’s the best interpretation. I don’t think even most of his critics think he is doing bad stuff on purpose.

    “There is a right to Free Speech”

    There is. But people keep forgetting that it doesn’t actually apply to private organizations, like NECSS, if we are talking about the legal right (and what other right is there?).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. tudoreynon

    To be totally clear Massimo I don’t think there has been any infringement on Dawkins’ right to speech. I think we agree. Thanks. Technically there is no ‘right’ within NECSS as a private organization.

    I think there is an interesting question regarding what is and what isn’t public space. This is not the time to resolve it. Thanks for you implicit reply too, very much appreciated.


  10. SocraticGadfly

    Tudoreynan says, with Massimo then referencing:

    Re-Tweeting this video is part of the strange mix of disingenuity and genuine naivety that Dawkins exemplifies so well.

    Erm, yes and no.

    This is a negative space side of reciprocal altruism, as reflected in the old maxim, “Once bitten, twice shy.”

    Dawkins has been doing this long enough I’m not giving him any allowance for “genuine naiveté.” I will, at best, make allowance for him by riffing on Daniel Kahnemann and another biological metaphor: He may plenty of very fast fast-twitching neurons and very slow, even disabled, slow-twitch neurons.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. John Kwok

    tudoreyon –

    With regards to what happened to Dawkins, it is a form of censorship when you offer someone a platform to speak, and then deny it for reasons not directly related to your original intention to have that person address your meeting, conference, etc. While it is true that Dawkins has multiple platforms to make his views known, to have him pulled over what is, in essence, a trivial offense would seem to be a form of censorship to even the most casual observer. Moreover, it sets a dangerous precedent in that NCESS can, at any time, opt to deny an invitation to Michael Shermer, Bill Nye the Science Guy, or Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson on what could be viewed as extremely superficial, quite tenuous, reasons. And it is a precedent that is unfortunate for historical reasons since New York City is the very city where printer John Peter Zenger won the first important legal case against censorship back in the early 18th Century.

    Speaking from my own experience in events planning, where I have either led directly or assisted others in organizing events that have included hundreds of people, what NECSS did to Richard Dawkins is despicable and unprofessional. It is despicable since if there were credible, compelling reasons why an invitation shouldn’t have been made, then the NECSS committee shouldn’t have invited him. Having invited him, however, as Michael Nugent has noted, they had a professional obligation to uphold their end of the “contract” by allowing him to speak. Not only did they demonstrate unprofessional behavior by dis-inviting him, but they compounded their error by not consulting with him first, before making the public announcement which surprised everyone, especially Dawkins, since there was no prior warning that such a decision would be rendered. I concur with Nugent’s recommendation that the NECSS committee needs to revisit this, and start by discussing the issue with him. If I was invited to speak at NECSS, I would have to consider seriously, the prospect of declining my invitation in light of NECSS’s abysmal conduct towards Richard Dawkins, not knowing whether I would be subjected to similar treatment if the NECSS committee found out something about me not to their liking.

    I know of no other nonprofit organization – at least here in New York City – that would behave as unprofessionally as NECSS has in its conduct towards Richard Dawkins. This includes not only the American Museum of Natural History, New York Academy of Sciences and the World Science Festival, but also cultural organizations like the Onassis Foundation USA and the two European cultural institutes I mentioned previously; Czech Center New York and Austrian Cultural Forum New York.

    Sincerely yours,



  12. Massimo Post author


    Seems to me that words like “despicable” and “abysmal” are a bit heavy given the facts on the ground. Especially when unaccompanied by criticism of what Dawkins did.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. John Kwok

    Sorry, I made several typos, the statement should read as follows:


    Someone you know – whom I won’t name – told me that it was a despicable act and I am In full agreement. Nor do I think describing it as “abysmal” is overblown, but instead, right on the mark.

    I think you should think carefully about what I said with regards to event planning. I will note that I described what happened to a senior member of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York staff – a diplomat from the Republic of Austria – and that person agreed that it was unacceptable conduct.



  14. John Kwok


    As I said earlier, we will have to agree to disagree. While I have the utmost respect for much of your thinking as I have indicated in prior posts here, I think you are greatly mistaken, especially when others, most notably Michael Nugent, have echoed my observations, and an Austrian diplomat agreed that NECSS’s conduct towards Dawkins is unacceptable.




  15. Massimo Post author

    Incidentally, I wonder where all this outrage was when Neil DeGrasse Tyson unceremoniously and without explanation disinvited David Albert from the annual Asimov discussion at the American Museum of Natural History, likely on the sole ground that his buddy Lawrence Krauss was pissed at Albert’s review of his book in the New York Times.

    If I recall correctly, other than yours truly, the only one who complained was Jerry Coyne.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Massimo Post author


    I’m certainly going to agree to disagree, but I don’t see why an Nugent or an anonymous diplomat should be taken as any authority on these matters. And if you are going to list people who agree with you, I have a long list of my own. I doubt we are going to settle the matter that way…

    Liked by 3 people

  17. John Kwok


    I am not arguing from authority. But when someone you know, Nugent and I find NECSS’s behavior towards Dawkins to be reprehensible, then it shouldn’t be easily dismissed. As for that diplomat, I mentioned it since that person wasn’t aware of the news until I mentioned it.



  18. John Kwok


    The Discovery Institute monitors comments at its FB pages and frequently deletes comments from its critics. If that isn’t censorship, then maybe I am living in an alternate history timeline.



  19. SocraticGadfly

    It’s not censorship. Beyond that (sadly, from my political perspective) companies can tell you at work to stop talking about anything political, unless it’s directly related to union organizing, while forcing you to listen to some candidate on the stump at your office.

    It’s not censorship.


    That said, that gives me the entree to a bigger point. The fact that many, especially in today’s online world, think that things such as moderating comments, even deleting them, is a reflection of … the me-generation, the back-of-hand-to-forehead martyrdom of the social justice types and more.

    People who get butthurt, to use a word, too often, too readily, because someone moderates, or even blocks them, online need to get a clue, and a life.

    Oh, BTW, John? A “nice” profile of you at Rational Wiki.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. jorgelaris

    I just saw that video and the first thing that popped out in my mind was Judith Buttler calling Hamas and Hezbollah part of the “Global left”.



    Are this declarations laughable? I did laugh, and cried a little.

    Did the satiric video went too far? Probably yes.

    Did Dawkings went too far on twitting it? Probably not, after all he did wrote “Obviously doesn’t count for vast majority of feminist, among whom I count myself”. He should had added “It doesn’t apply either to many, many Islamismt” (but then, he would stop been Drawkins)

    Did NECSS went to fat in disinviting Dawkins? I would much rather organize a discussion forum about satire and its limits with him , and some other people who disagrees with his position.


  21. labnut

    John Kwok,
    to have him pulled over what is, in essence, a trivial offense would seem to be a form of censorship to even the most casual observer.

    Censorship is the suppression of speech by preventing its dissemination. Dawkins continues to exercise unimpeded speech. He is able to reach a large audience at will. He can publish his intended talk and it is sure to gain a wide readership, probably larger than before because of this controversy.

    The disinvitation was never, ever intended as suppression of speech and it never performed that function. Indeed it has probably enhanced the appeal of his speech. To call this censorship is to entirely disregard the meaning of the word.

    So what was the real nature of this act. It was two things, first a strong and very public rebuke of Dawkins’ for his conduct. and secondly the NECSS publicly disassociated themselves from Dawkins. It was a powerful and stinging reprimand that has predictably provoked anger. Calling this censorship is an attempt to do two things. It is an attempt to evade the charge and secondly it is an attempt to shift the blame. This is a well worn tactic, everybody tries it and nobody believes it.

    Should the NECSS have reprimanded Dawkins in this way? That is a judgement call. Certainly many people feel Dawkins has become a liability that embarrasses the movement. That is another judgement call.

    Rather than hiding behind plaintive protests of censorship the movement should start to take seriously the implications of these developments. It has been said that the careers of all politicians end in failure and that is generally true of leadership figures. That can be avoided by stepping down early to make space for younger people who can see what you fail to see. Successful leadership always results in hubris, which blinds judgement, leading to missteps and finally failure. Dawkins is following the well worn path of all politicians. He is well past his sell by date and should go into a gentle, obscure retirement so that more able, insightful people can take over the helm.


  22. Coel


    I remind people that, properly speaking, only governments can commit censorship.

    I disagree. The Islamist groups in Bangladesh who are routinely killing atheist bloggers — 4 so far, or is it 5?, I’ve lost count — and who are producing lists of others they’d like to kill because of what they say, are practising censorship.

    What doesn’t help is people in the West then effectively agreeing with them that Islamism should not be criticised, and signalling that by fainting with horror and crying “Islamophobia!” and “Racist!” whenever anyone does.

    This issue isn’t really about Dawkins (despite the antics of the Cult of Anti-Dawkins) — it’s bigger than that, it’s about whether society surrenders to threats of violence by self-censoring. It’s about the Left saying that, ok, if you’re actually going to be offended by free speech then of course we shouldn’t speak!

    Those in the Islamic world wanting reform, such as those being hacked to death on the streets of Dhaka, WANT a society where one can draw satirical cartoons about Islam just as one can on other subjects. That’s what they’re risking their lives for! (A sentence that, sadly, is all too literal.)

    [And don’t anyone claim that the Muslim world is against satirical cartoons in general; the anti-Jewish cartoons that are rampant in the Islamic world are vastly more nasty. This is about who you can and cannot criticise.]

    Those in the West who side not with those wanting religious freedom, but instead with the Islamists, joining them in shouting down criticism of Islamism as “racist”, are betraying the heritage of Mill and Voltaire and Paine and everyone else on the right side of history.


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