Yesterday I learned that Richard Dawkins was de-platformed from a speaking event at liberal radio station KPFA in the town of Berkeley, where he was scheduled to talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Atheist. The organizers cancelled his talk because of his “comments on Islam” which they categorized as “abusive speech.”
Dawkins has always been a man without a filter, who says exactly what he thinks, without worrying whether it might offend. This means that, in his public statements on politics, he occasionally sounds goofy or politically incorrect or voices a sentiment without considering how it will be interpreted by others. He’s no diplomat, no politician. But his frankness is one of his most important qualities, a manifestation of the passion his new book title alludes to, a passion for truth. He has real integrity: he always says what he believes to be true, unafraid of how it will be received. He sometimes admits he’s wrong and corrects himself but he never self-censors in advance. He always speaks truth to power.
Dawkins is certainly capable of expressing what we might ironically term reverence. He’s no cynic or satirist for its own sake. His book The Ancestor’s Tale is one of the most moving, most poetic works I’ve ever read. It expresses his profound awe and wonder at the natural world or what he elsewhere calls “the magic of reality” in a way that is utterly captivating. It’s a hauntingly lovely and yet scrupulously rational and scientific account of life on this planet, where, against all odds, we have the enormous privilege of living. I’ve often described it as my favorite novel — a novel which also happens to be true.
The clarity of speech which sometimes gets Dawkins into trouble is a facet of the same quality which has made him the Mozart of science communicators, with the rare gift of being able to express complex ideas in the most vivid and simple language. He has probably done more to increase public understanding of science than any other living writer. A few days ago, in a Royal Society poll, participants voted his seminal 1976 work The Selfish Gene, which revolutionized our understanding of genetics the “most inspiring scientific work of all time.”
I most value Dawkins for his scientific books. But his work debunking religious superstition has also been of immeasurable worth. Alongside his deep respect and love of nature is a dismay at human fallibility and mendacity. The irreverent, fearless, even caustic tone with which Dawkins treats religious myth has proved liberating to millions of people worldwide, especially those living under repressive theocracies. (The Arabic translation of The God Delusion has been downloaded ten million times.)
While some in the West dislike the caustic tone with which he discusses religious superstitions, many of those who have suffered under theocracy or who have been oppressed by religious communities or families find his honesty refreshing after hearing so many stultifying pieties, sophistries and half-truths. It’s impossible to overstate how admired and loved Dawkins is among dissidents, reformers and atheists in the Muslim majority world, for example. He has been a role model and a hero to closeted atheists for decades — many of whom have to hide their unbelief for fear of their lives. He has been their fearless champion and voice.
Richard Dawkins’ books and talks have immeasurably enriched my life. Depriving people of the opportunity to hear him is a tremendous shame.
Iona Italia is a former academic who now works as a freelance writer, editor, translator and general wordsmith. With a mixture of Scottish and desi ancestry, she has lived in five countries and speaks four languages. Iona is currently based in Buenos Aires, where she teaches Argentine tango and is completing a book on the culture of the dance. You can connect with her on Twitter @IonaItalia