If anyone should be a fan of Richard Dawkins, it should be me. I've always been an atheist: well, I was a Jehovah's Witness for three hours when I was 8, but only because I had a crush on a believer, so I'm not sure that counts. Being raised by Godless heathens was undoubtedly the reason, but I just could never get my head around key religious tenets. Why had a deity created a vast universe, placed his flock on a tiny rock circling one of trillions of stars, hidden himself from view, and determined that those who opted not to devote themselves to him faced an eternity of damnation? How could he have granted free will when, omnipotent and perfect as he was, he would have known that I would be typing these words and you would be reading this column as he created the Universe? How could I subordinate myself to a superior being who, in the Old Testament, casually engaged in smiting and demanded that men who have sex with men should be executed?
These are all questions that the more patient Christian has time for – as the former university roommate of an evangelical, I should know – but my atheism has never been seriously challenged. When the journalist John Diamond lay dying of throat cancer, he was bombarded with letters urging him to repent and embrace religion. But Diamond responded that it wasn't simply he couldn't believe in God; he didn't want to either. That had a huge effect on me when I read it, and summed up how I felt.
My secularism is uncompromising, too. I think it is anachronistic that a largely irreligious country containing a range of minorities should be officially Christian, the Church still fused with the State. It is absurd that there are bishops in our unelected Second Chamber; we are the only country other than Iran where clerics automatically sit in the legislature. We live in a country where children are separated by the religious convictions of their parents, in so-called 'faith schools'. Religious worship is compulsory in schools. All of this has to go if we are to build a modern secular country.
So given Richard Dawkins is the most famous champion of atheism living today, why do I find him so objectionable? His supporters – and they are a passionate bunch – claim that Dawkins takes on all religion indiscriminately. But this is simply not true. Earlier this year, Dawkins tweeted: “Haven't read Koran so couldn't quote chapter & verse like I can for the Bible. But often say Islam greatest force for evil today.” In a recorded interview, he described Islam as “One of the great evils in the world.” Pretty clear then: he regards Islam as a particularly objectionable religion.
Indeed, Dawkins subsequently tweeted: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read Qur'an. You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism.” He is an intelligent man, and he knows he is making as provocative a parallel as is possible.
Indeed, Europe's Muslim-baiting far-right make this point explicit: the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders directly compares the Quran to Mein Kampf, calls for the book to be banned, to end all immigration from Muslim countries to be ended, and wants Muslim immigrants paid to leave the country. “Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe,” he declares, warning it would mean “the end of European and Dutch civilisation as we know it.” He made a short film, Fitna, which portrays Muslims as inherently violent because of their religion. Here is a man who should be damned by all tolerant people. But Dawkins wrote: “Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.”
Dawkins has a habit of talking about Muslims in the most dismissive, generalising and pejorative fashion. “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” he once tweeted. Another of his tweets accused UCL of “cowardly capitulation to Muslims” because it “tried to segregate sexes” in a debate between Lawrence Krauss “and some Muslim or other.” There's a good test here: replace “Muslim” with “Jew” and tell me you're comfortable.
It goes on. Dawkins has described the burka as being like a “full bin-liner”, and spoken of his “visceral revulsion” when he sees it being worn. He has attacked Mehdi Hasan, one of the finest journalists in the country, who also happens to be a Muslim: “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed [sic] flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” The logical conclusion of this – which Dawkins strongly denied – is that Muslims simply should not be hired as journalists.
It is in this context that Dawkins' latest contribution is so inflammatory. “All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” When he was attacked for tweeting this, his defenders simply made the point it was a fact – how can a fact be bigoted? It is a completely obtuse and disingenuous defence. The point Dawkins was making is that this should reflect badly on Muslims: that, as a group, they had done nothing of worth since the 15th century. Nobel Prizes have disproportionately gone to the advanced, developed countries with lots of money for education and scientific research, which tend to be white and Christian. For example, not many Africans – whatever their religious beliefs – have won Nobel Prizes for this same reason.
Another defence goes along these lines: Muslims are not a race, so how is it possible to be racist against them? If someone was ranting “I hate Muslims” or “Muslims are scum”, is this really a defence that would be used? It is a poor argument for allowing or undermining the seriousness of bigotry against hundreds of millions of people.
In any case, it presumes that race actually exists, rather than being a social construct. Yes, there are different ethnicities, cultures and skin colours: but there is only once race, and that is the human race. There is more genetic variation within what are called “races” than between them. It was in the 19 century, to justify horrors such as slavery and colonialism, that pseudo-scientific theories of “race” became fashionable: for example, the size and shape of human skulls. The Irish were once considered a “race” by their English oppressors. We should simply stop talking about “races” altogether.
What is really meant is that while skin colour is not optional, religious conviction is. This is a claim I simply cannot subscribe to. It understates just how powerful and life-consuming beliefs can be – ironically, something that is simultaneously used as a criticism against religion by anti-theists. Personally, I cannot imagine being me without my atheism or my socialism. For those brought up all their lives in a religious environment, who are strongly emotionally welded to their beliefs, their faith is not something that can simply be switched off. It is beyond unrealistic to describe religious belief as a “choice” like, say, what clothes you should wear to a friend's party or whether to have a ham or chicken sandwich for lunch.
And then there is the broader context of rampant Islamophobia. Europe's far-right – including our own BNP and EDL – now almost exclusively focus on Muslims, and the alleged danger posed by them. Nick Griffin scapegoats Muslims for a range of social problems like rape and drugs, and labels Islam “wicked” and a “cancer”. Studies have shown that media coverage of Muslims is overwhelmingly negative: they generally appear as, for example, terrorists or extremists. The sort of Muslims I grew up with are rarely seen. Polls show nearly half of Britons think “there are too many Muslims”, and over a third believe Muslims pose a serious threat to democracy.
How can comments by the likes of Dawkins really be separated from a broader context where Muslims are feared, suspected and even hated? If we were to look back at literature from 1920s Britain, would we look at statements such as “Judaism is the greatest force for evil today” and divorce them from the atmosphere of then-rampant anti-Semitism?
I'm often asked why I don't take a stronger line against Islamism: that it is one of my blind spots. In truth, I think that issue is pretty much covered. The alleged threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism has been debated to death ever since several Saudi hijackers crashed planes into the Twin Towers over a decade ago. Polls show that support for political Islamism is tiny among Britain's Muslims, and they are as likely to support violence as the rest of us. Terrorism is being dealt with by the security services, and a few articles by me isn't really going to contribute very much. My fear, however, is all I would achieve is magnifying a marginal problem among a small religious minority, contributing to a climate where Muslims generally are portrayed as extremists and potential terrorists.
The idea of religion being the root cause of so many bad things is also something I struggle with. Religion can be used to justify anything: and, in practice, it has. There is Christian socialism: it was Harold Wilson who once claimed that Labour owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. Latin American “liberation theology” was a heady mix of Catholicism and Marxism. There have been Christian liberals; Christian Democrats and more hard-line Christian right-wingers. General Franco justified his right-wing crusade with Christianity. The point is religion ends up being a justification and rationalisation, rather than a motive. Anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East was once dominated by secular nationalism, like Egypt's General Nasser; now it is often expressed through Islamic fundamentalism.
As a non-believer, I want the atheist case to be made. I want religious belief to be scrutinised and challenged. I want Britain to be a genuinely secular nation, where religious belief is protected and defended as a private matter of conscience. But I feel prevented from doing so because atheism in public life has become so dominated by a particular breed that ends up dressing up bigotry as non-belief. It is a tragedy. And that is why it is so important that atheists distance themselves from those who undermine our position. Richard Dawkins can rant and rave about Muslims as much as he wants. But atheists: let's stop allowing him to do it in our name.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies