This March 24th on the National Mall in Washington, thousands of secular humanists will come together at The Reason Rally. The Rally is billed as "the largest gathering of the secular movement in world history," a sort of "Woodstock for non-belief."
According to a press release, the rally is to be a celebration, and its chief mission is to "combat negative stereotypes about nonreligious Americans."
The keynote speaker is the famous scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. I can't help but wonder if he's the best man for the job.
I am taking up this question for a specific reason, a concern that echoes one I felt when Dawkins held (1995 - 2008) Oxford University's Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science.
But first, an admiring note: Dawkins is a brilliant evolutionary scientist. His many books include The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion and The Ancestor's Tale. Like nearly every other scientist or follower-of-science whom I know, I have read and marveled at Dawkins' own scholarship, and at his ability to convey facts and theories in biology (and other evolutionary sciences) to a wide readership.
His book The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution is a personal favorite of mine. In it, Dawkins regales his readers with the molecular as well as fossil evidence for the action of evolutionary forces in the world. In illustrating his points, he makes use of everything from intra-species variation in Great Danes and Chihuahuas to stunning experiments showing natural selection in generations of lab-grown bacteria to the anatomical evidence for humans' common ancestry with fish.
On the other hand, I dislike the passages in that book where Dawkins jeers at the "fools" who don't accept the facts of evolution. And here we get to the core of the problem.
I'm no saint of patience when it comes to interacting with evolution-deniers. When I picture the thousands of schoolchildren who are paraded through Kentucky's Creation Museum to gaze at the exhibit showing human ancestors and dinosaurs playing together, I get as frustrated as anyone.
Yet each person who denies or struggles with evolution is not a militant creationist who goes so far as to teach kids that our Earth is only 6,000 years old. And Dawkins — considering his stated willingness to engage with a broad public — goes too far in expressing his frustration.
In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, "there's something very evil about faith."
Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.
By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.
Will Dawkins rally The Reason Rally's secular pilgrims with the same scorn towards the faithful that he's shown to date? We'll have to wait and see. If he does, he'll drive a stake in the heart of the Rally's stated goal. He will confirm that some of the negative stereotypes associated with the nonreligious — intolerance of the faithful, first and foremost — are at times aligned with reality.
In the meantime, the rest of us, scientists, science writers, and followers-of-science alike, can opt to rally around a different principle. Whatever our position on the continuum from deep faith to ardent atheism, we can lose the sneers. We can explain and, when necessary, defend science with rigor and passion and genuine civility.
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