Richard Dawkins responds to Kerry Walters’s distortions

August 5, 2017 • 10:00 am

Yesterday I reported on a HuffPo hit piece about Richard Dawkins by an academic and Catholic priest named Kerry Walters. I sent the links to Richard, who of course is used to this kind of thing, but wanted to set the record straight about some of Walters’ misrepresentations of his words (Dawkins pulls no punches, calling them “lies”). Richard’s response, which I publish with permission, is below (indented):

There’s not much left of Kerry Walters by the time Jerry Coyne has finished dealing with him. I would add only this.

Walters wrote the following. “Dawkins is also a master of outrageously unjustified moral claims about religion: religious education, he says, is child abuse, religion is responsible for most terrorism (a claim, by the way, that’s time and again proved to be not at all self-evident), and faith makes people “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.” I’ll take his three allegations in order.

First, far from saying religious education is child abuse, I have been a strong and frequent advocate of religious education. I’ve repeated, to the point of tedium, that children need to be taught about religion so they can understand history, current affairs and art. More particularly, I have advocated education in the King James Bible, without which you can’t take your allusions in English literature.

I am opposed to indoctrination in just one particular faith, such as is done in British state-supported faith schools of many denominations. However, I don’t think I’ve ever called even that “child abuse.” What I have called child abuse, and do so again without apology, is terrifying children with threats of hell, and labelling children with the faith of their parents: “You are a Catholic child” or “You are a Muslim child” etc. I have ridiculed this practice by comparing it with “You are an existentialist child” or “You are a logical positivist child” or “You are a Gramscian Marxist child”. I have said that the very phrase “Catholic child” should sound as aversive as fingernails on a blackboard. The proper phrase is “child of Catholic parents.”

Second, the claim that religion is responsible for most terrorism. I agree that it is not self-evident and I have never said it was. I do think an extremely strong case can be made for it, and that is all I have ever said or implied.

But it is Walters’ third allegation that disturbs me most because it is a damaging lie. How could I possibly have said “faith makes people ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked”? To do so would be to insult such respected friends as the former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. If Kerry Walters had read more carefully, he would have noticed this: I wasn’t talking about people of faith but people who don’t believe in evolution! Here are my exact words, in a book review in the New York Times. “It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” I was careful to add that ignorance is by far the most likely cause of non-belief in evolution. We are all ignorant of many things. I am ignorant of baseball and Polynesian nose flutes. In the time of Martin Luther, the Catholic church regarded ignorance of the Bible as a positive virtue. Though neither a virtue nor bliss, ignorance is no crime. In the light of that and the proven fact of evolution, “Anti-evolutionists are ignorant, stupid or insane” becomes not an insult but a simple statement of fact. An evolution-accepting Catholic like Walters cannot logically deny it.

I have paid Walters the compliment of assuming that he accepts the fact of evolution. Yet his garbling of my statement — missing what, for him as a Catholic, ought to be the massive distinction between people of faith on the one hand and fundamentalist creationists on the other — might be revealing if not positively damning.

Anyway what he wrote is a damaging lie against me. I believe it is customary for a lie that is damaging to elicit a public apology. No doubt it will be forthcoming and I shall accept it graciously.

I’ll put a link to this post on the HuffPo site, and we’ll see about that apology. . .

59 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins responds to Kerry Walters’s distortions

  1. The word ‘ignorant’ does become incendiary at times. I think the trouble is that it is frequently used as a form of insult, so when it is used in a literal way people get hold of the wrong end of the stick.

    1. Perhaps it is prudent, shrewd, to hold off calling someone ignorant until sufficient evidence demonstrates that the ignorance is manifestly willful.

      (My ex-stepfather frequently called others ignorant. I silently thought, here’s the cauldron calling the teacup black.)

      1. I think Dawkin’s point is that ignorance need not be willful, so it should not be considered an insult. Or perhaps you’re saying he should only use it as an insult.

    2. By the way, “ignorance” may instinctively sound more aggressive to Germans than it does to English native speakers, because the German word “Ignoranz” usually indicates intention or attitude. For unintentional ignorance we usually say “Unwissenheit” (unknowingness).

      Of course, it depends on one’s own level of experience, but I for my part have to remind myself from time to time to translate ignorance in many (most?) contexts as “Unwissenheit” and not “Ignoranz”. 🙂

      I wonder if there are other languages with this particular effect.

        1. In html, “s” means strikethrough, not sarcasm. This is the first time I’ve ever seen somebody shorten /sarcasm to /s, so don’t be surprised if some people miss it.

        2. Yes, and I do know it. Sheesh. I suspect I just saw something brief below the comment and didn’t really look at it, assuming it was a signature or similar.

          Sorry, darwinwins!

    1. My first thought was good luck with that. On further consideration I think I detect the Dawkins wry wit in the statement, I suspect a young whipper snapper would have rounded it off with 😛

    1. “Bearing false witness” is only reprehensible if the people you’re bearing witness against are members of “god’s chosen people” – i.e. the group to which the witness-bearer belongs. If they’re of a different sept, no matter how marginally hair-splittingly trivial the difference, then there is no opprobrium for there is no crime. Indeed, the person of the wrong sept is generally not considered to be even human.

  2. I would like to know just what kind of a “Catholic priest” Kerry Walters is? Is he a Roman Catholic priest? If not,what sort of “Catholic” is he? According to Wikipedia, he is married. If he follows the Roman rite, he must have converted from Protestantism after he married, or there must have been some other dispensation granted to him for some reason. Calling himself a “Catholic priest” only raises questions.

    Perhaps he’s an autocephalous Catholic priest, which basically means that someone has simply decided to call himself a Catholic priest and runs around in clerical drag. Thee are lots of autocephalous priests around. Anyone can be one. Even a woman — why not? If I recall correctly, Anthony Burgess had a scene in his novel Earthly Powers, featureing some gay autocephalous priests in high drag.

      1. You’re of course right; my point was that this guy calls himself a Catholic priest but there is nothing I can find on him that indicates what kind of “Catholic priest” he is — Roman Catholic or something else? if something else, then what? His Wiki doesn’t mention that he’s a priest. It does state that he’s married. Nothing on his web page that says he is a priest or is married. The vagueness of his claim leads me to question it, especially if he claims to be Roman Catholic. I once saw an old ad (in fact, I have a copy somewhere)advertising a home study course to become a “Catholic worker priest.” Perhaps he took a mail order seminary course.

    1. There wheeled into this club a ridiculously young archbishop in full archiepiscopal robes, ring agleam smirkingly held out for kissing, genuine crosier in hand. The pianist began to play “Whiter Than the Whitewash on the Wall.” The club members were admiring and abusive but not astonished. They campily genuflected and osculated. Lovely material. Must have cost a fortune. Oh, do hear my confession. What do we call you?

      “Autocephalous,” Val explained. “No, cephalous not syphilis. You’ve heard of autocephalous churches, surely you have. Anybody can start one, apparently. Consequence of our break with Rome, or something.”
      – Earthly Powers chapter 32

  3. There’s an important distinction here, that Professor Dawkins of course gets but his critics miss repeatedly — between religious *education* and religious *instruction*.

  4. “I am ignorant of baseball and Polynesian nose flutes.”

    Oh, the appalling lacunae in essential knowledge of even the noblest and most brilliant among us!

  5. It certainly seems to be the case that religion has motivated most 21st century terrorism.
    Prior to that anarchism, separatist movements, and even environmentalist concerns have been major motivations of terrorists.

    1. I do not know about that. One reason, as I remember it, I picked Europol statistics to monitor terrorism besides being local applicable, is that it is well researched. Of course it is a privileged locale, especially regarding religion, but I have no evidence that would tell me religious terrorism is larger than separatist terrorism.

      I had forgotten about the left wing/anarchist terrorism history. It may be historical analog to the current religious genocide, killing, maiming, torturing spike.

  6. Wonderful! I do not think I have seen, or myself have synthesized, the thorough Dawkins’ view on religious education. Point well taken, I hope.

    Also, it was a nice midyear opportunity to update myself on last years war and terrorism statistics. For the former I use the global Uppsala Conflict Data program statistics [ ] of course, for the latter I am myopically looking at Europol statistics [ ].

    First, the good news. The number of war related deaths have continued to drop from 2014 through 2016, and now we can see that the remarkable number of (remaining less lethal) non-state and state conflicts have also started to drop from 2015. (The current spike is of course still shadowed by the tragic 1994 Rwanda+Yugoslavia genocides.)

    Second, the bad news. Terrorism in EU has spiked the number of deaths to old levels. Now, I am pulling this from memory to save time, but still 2014ish when the global war spike peaked the religious terrorism in EU was very ineffective. They killed very few despite the number of arrests were comparable to the dominating separatist terrorism. What changed is that they now stand for most of the deaths and injured, despite number of religious attacks have dropped correlated with the global war statistics. Sadly, while separatist terrorism still rules in EU, the number of right extremist terrorist attacks have increased and the frequency is double that of religious terrorism. I suspect reactive populism and racism is fueling the right extremists.

    1. Also, the attack frequency change is likely not statistically significant, I overreached. At least it is not increasing as was forecast would happen when many religious returned from their wars.

  7. This is important. In haste, apologies for messes :

    The reason this here post and its content is important is :

    On-the-spot / off-the-top-of-my-head, the claims SOUNDED TRUE. I said to myself, “hmmm, yes I remember him saying something like that.” I was not going to scrape the Internet for the references, but I’d carry it around til I get around to reading it again.

    After reading Dawkins’ rebuttal, I said “oh right, THATS what it was!” I might still go read the pieces.

    Clearly, the attacker is purely malicious. I can’t even bring myself to call them a “writer”, any more than any person nowadays can string words together and be half-intelligible.

  8. Professor Dawkins said:
    The proper phrase is “child of Catholic parents.”
    I’d prefer, “a child sentenced to grow up catholic”

  9. I’m surprised – and disappointed – that Richard Dawkins uses the phrase “believe in evolution”. To believe ‘in’ smacks too much of religion, which requires belief without evidence, and Richard as much as anyone living, knows about that.

    1. Belief is simply ‘accept as true’. It doesn’t indicate whether the belief is well supported by evidence or not.

    2. So the pope is not ignorant, he believes
      in evolution as well.
      I think it is not by accident that Dawkins
      wrote only evolution without mentioning natural selection.
      Not militant enough for me.

  10. Not to be outdone by the Huffpo piece, Alternet’s Jeremy Lent lends his voice to the anti-Dawkins crowd:

    He writes that

    “Richard Dawkins and his followers have been responsible for foisting a cruel myth on thinking people around the world: that if they reject the illusions of monotheism, their only serious alternative is to believe in a world that is harsh, selfish, and ultimately without meaning. Their ideas arise from a particular form of scientific thought known as reductionism, which holds that every aspect of our world, no matter how awe-inspiring, is “nothing but” the mechanical motion of particles acting predictably on each other.”

    There’s more, but passage encapsulates his argument.

  11. Second, the claim that religion is responsible for most terrorism. I agree that it is not self-evident and I have never said it was. I do think an extremely strong case can be made for it, and that is all I have ever said or implied.

    I would like to add that Christian terrorism is ignored by most Christians. Whether it is a white supremacist shooting like the Charleston church massacre, or Army of God bombings, or a lone gunmen in Planned Parenthood, these incidents are more often considered “hate-crimes” not terrorism. There is also a lot of Christian terrorism in Africa, Lebanon and India. I think all the acts of Christian terrorism can very well tip the scales towards “religion is responsible for most terrorism”.

  12. Ignorance is a problem is a society that treats it as a personal failing, and the education system in Western countries really do inculcate that attitude. It can be just as insulting to be called ignorant as it does to be called stupid, so it’s easy to see why people take offence to the characterisation. And, I think, it’s exacerbated by the way the label ‘ignorant’ is used to dismiss criticisms (i.e. “that’s an ignorant statement”) without delving into the substance of it. You can accuse someone of simply not knowing without demonstrating what that knowledge is.

  13. I’m not sure I completely agree with Dawkins on the core issues (but agreed Mr. Walters’ has misrepresented him).

    First, it seems strange not to use common vernacular to refer to the beliefs of children as beliefs. Yes true, those beliefs are far more the result of parental and peer influence than reasoned acceptance. I agree to that. But they’re still beliefs. My kid believes mom is the real tooth fairy. But is that incorrect and I should instead say “child of freethinking parents?” SHould we also say “child of parents who taught him he’s an American citizen” instead of “believes he’s American”? And so on? I think it makes more sense just to use the common vernacular (‘child is a believer in X’) and let’s all simply remember that 2-10-year-olds probably haven’t reasoned themselves into any of their beliefs.

    On the acceptance of evolution issue, I think Dawkins’ point is that evolution makes sense to anyone who has studied it. Ergo, if you don’t accept it, it’s because you haven’t studied it in sufficient depth (ignorance) or have some ulterior belief or ‘thing’ (religion, madness, wickedness) preventing you from accepting it. But I think at least some evolution rejection comes from innumeracy and the fact that geometrical and exponential change is not intuitive. Your person on the street is highly likely to underestimate compound interest. But that’s part of what allows evolution to proceed; a parent has a mutated daughter, and the granddaughter is the mutated form of the daughter, not the original. It’s change upon change. So I think a ‘normal human’ who is neither insane, nor wicked, nor religious, no especially ignorant on the subject may still be skeptical about how evolution could produce complex structures in a billion or so years.

    1. As a rather precocious child myself I tend to agree the thrust of your first point, I certainly had beliefs when I might have been considered too young to have properly formed them (I flatter myself that in my particular case, I was not), and had I believed myself religious rather than an atheist at eight I’d have felt a little offended by Richard’s point at a personal level.

      However when one looks at Richard’s published works on the subject of labelling children, which of course the original HuffPo article was misrepresenting, his point is not that a child is incapable of reasoned belief, but that the general public, media, culture label a child with the parents’ belief WITHOUT HAVING ASKED THE CHILD. An automatic label without taking the time to discuss the matter and conclude yes the child has put their mind properly to the issue and has such-and-such belief.

      I of course accept few children could properly have formed a belief but I think the main point is that no one even considers the actual belief of the child, well formed or otherwise.

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