Amol Rajan: A brutal price still paid for daring to challenge faith

Tuesday 21 February 2012 11:00
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Proof, if proof were needed, that "militant secularism" isn't having such a great time of it in modern Britain has been in plentiful supply over the past week, during which there has been a sustained and vicious assault in our media on one of our most distinguished academics. Professor Richard Dawkins (FRS, FRSL) presumably personifies militant secularism, and has been made to suffer for it.

In the Daily Mail last week, A N Wilson launched a nasty attack on him, comparing him, among other things, to a "spotty adolescent". The lead interview in The Sunday Times was one long personal attack on his character, rather than an examination of his ideas. My distinguished colleague Mary Ann Sieghart, who at least has met him, described Dawkins yesterday as "puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant". Rod Liddle wrote a blog for The Spectator with the ludicrous title "Dawkins exposed".

But the pièce de résistance was in The Sunday Telegraph, with an unimprovable exhibition of specious logic. Professor Dawkins, it gushed, "is descended from slave owners and his family estate was bought with a fortune partly created by forced labour. One of his direct ancestors, Henry Dawkins, amassed such wealth that his family owned 1,013 slaves in Jamaica by the time of his death in 1744".

Ah yes, of course. Professor Dawkins must be wrong about God because of what his forefathers got up to 260 years ago.

Most of his critics have never met him, of course, or read any of his books (bestsellers or otherwise). I have never met him either, but, regardless, here are some things I know about him. As the first Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford between 1995 and 2008, he did an extraordinary amount to advance the knowledge and position of science in our country, in fields far beyond his specialism of evolutionary biology.

And in that field, he has done more than anyone alive to carry forward the revolutionary work of Charles Darwin. He is author of two beautifully written bestsellers and nine other books. And for decades he has been an inspirational and exceptionally industrious teacher and university don.

These are achievements and contributions to the cause of civilisation that none of his critics can boast. Their assault illustrates the extent to which defenders of religion still dominate our press, the brutal retaliation exacted on clever opponents of faith and the incorrigible stupidity of Sayeeda Warsi's claim about "militant secularism" last week.

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