Like him or not, Richard Dawkins has a right to offend

Richard Dawkins (AP)

I have never rated Richard Dawkins as a thinker, or indeed as a literary stylist. He is no Jonathan Swift. The fact that so many regard him as our leading public intellectual is regrettable. He may well be an excellent scientist, but he knows very little about religion, and has nothing of interest to say on that topic, beyond the fact that he dislikes it. As Terry Eagleton said: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” Quite so.

This aside, Professor Dawkins has some sterling qualities, which I do admire. He is brave, and he is not a respecter of persons. This is to be commended. Amongst the persons for whom he has no respect number the clergy, which includes me, but as far as I am concerned, that is OK. After all, why should Professor Dawkins respect the clergy? Or, put another way, doesn’t the Professor’s attitude to the clergy show up their sense of entitlement, should they take offence at it?

The other thing about the Professor is that he does not recognise that certain subjects are out of bounds, and in this he is a shining example to us all. Most of us censor our own work because we do not want to get into trouble. Sometimes this self-censorship is not as effective as we would like it to be, and someone tells us that something we have said is “very brave”. But almost alone in this country, Professor Dawkins is not given to self-censorship. He believes in and practices free speech. You never need to wonder what he really thinks, because he has just told you.

Now, this is often offensive and can sometimes make people angry too. I myself was furious when I read some of the things that Professor Dawkins was reported as saying about the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to this country. Furious, but not offended. I was not offended because what the Professor said didn’t really strike me as justified criticism. But it certainly made me angry. But, you know what? That is the price we pay for living in a democracy, and when I get angry as I sometimes do, I do my very best to get over it, and inevitably succeed and quite quickly too. Professor Dawkins’ comments about Benedict XVI made me angry for about three or four minutes at most.

Some souls, however, as just not as tough as the rest of us, it seems. For the Professor has been “no platformed” by KPFA radio in Berkeley, California, on which he was to appear to promote his new book. The grounds for this withdrawal of invitation is that the Professor has been “abusive” in his speech about Islam.

The virtue-signallers over at the radio station tell us:

While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech. We apologise for not having had broader knowledge of Dawkins’s views much earlier. We also apologise to all those inconvenienced by this cancellation.

Professor Dawkins is miffed by this, as well he might be. He asks the radio station:

I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?

That latter question has been asked before now, and we should be grateful to the Professor for raising it once more. But the wider question is more important, namely this: why do some people attempt to ban any speech that might be challenging to people’s assumptions? Are we really so frightened of the effects of free speech and free thought? If someone is offended by Dawkins, so what? Indeed, if that is the case, how do they cope with daily life, which is so full of potentially hazardous concepts?

The truth of the matter is that this is an attempt at censorship. Professor Dawkins should not be censored. He is a national treasure. And if you censor him, who else would you censor? Professor Dawkins has a right to offend, and I and many others, are more than happy to be offended by him. The alternative – that all potentially offensive people should be silenced – is a terrible prospect, not just for atheists, but for religious people and everyone else as well.