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An Obnoxious Atheist Insulted Islam, and This is What Happened

Mark Renders/Getty Images

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist and troublemaker, has caused quite a stir with something he tweeted (and subsequently deleted) last week. "All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge," he wrote. "They did great things in the Middle Ages, though." The uproar was loud and quick: Dawkins was pilloried by journalists and commentators, particularly in his native United Kingdom. The responses ranged from the angry ("You are now beyond an embarrassment," wrote the author Owen Jones) to the amusing ("Cambridge has presumably also produced more Soviet-supporting traitors," wrote a legal blogger, in reference to the Cambridge Five). What Dawkins wrote was offensive and inane in about equal measures, but some of his critics need to take a deep breath.

For starters, there are several things seriously wrong with Dawkins's tweet. His defense has relied on the following idea, which he wrote in another tweet: "Interesting concept: a simple statement of undeniable FACT can be offensive. Other examples where facts should be hidden because offensive?" (Dawkins's tone is clearly one of the things that pisses off his opponents, and not without reason.) Anyway, this glibness on Dawkins's part may be intentional, or he may really believe the proposition about "facts" he advances above. (Conservative commentators, such as Roger L. Simon, have responded in the same way.) Suppose I were to tweet out, "There are a lot of greedy Jews in the world," or "There are a lot of black criminals in the world." Both are mere statements of fact (or FACT); every race and religion has lots of greedy people and criminals. But surely Dawkins is not too obtuse to understand that merely tweeting these nuggets is indeed offensive. Intent and context matter.

This leads to one of the other problems with his tweet: namely, that it was a tweet. Trying to have a mature discussion about such matters over Twitter is spectacularly dumb and almost surely counterproductive. He is well within his rights to argue that people should still respond to him fairly, but his Captain Renault-like "shock" over the response is further evidence of his immaturity. He clearly intends to piss people off—witness the snide remark about the Middle Ages—and then he feigns outrage over people's anger.

Finally, there is the tweet itself. It's hard to imagine Dawkins really thinks Islam is the sole reason that Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College. Women have fewer Nobel Prizes than men. What would Dawkins make of this fascinating bit of information? (Actually, I am not sure I want to know.) And what exactly do Nobel prizes really mean, or reveal? There are so many problems with using this statistic to make any sort of larger point that it's hard to even know where to begin. As Nesrine Malik pointed out in The Guardian:

To wearily engage with his logic briefly: yes, it is technically true that fewer Muslims (10) than Trinity College Cambridge members (32) have won Nobel prizes. But insert pretty much any other group of people instead of "Muslims", and the statement would be true. You are comparing a specialised academic institution to an arbitrarily chosen group of people. Go on. Try it. All the world's Chinese, all the world's Indians, all the world's lefthanded people, all the world's cyclists.

The fact that Dawkins considered this statistic some sort of giant discovery reveals more about his way of thinking than he perhaps intends.

And yet, despite all this, there is something not quite right with many of the responses to Dawkins. The point he was trying to make, I would assume, is that Islam is a religion which holds back intellectual development, and thus the Nobel Prize count is skewed towards non-Muslim countries. This might be a silly argument in point of fact, but it is perfectly acceptable to make these types of claims. Religions are man-made things. People choose to follow a particular faith. It would be one thing to say that the color of one's skin sets back one's intellectual development; Dawkins was (I think) trying to say that a belief system human beings choose to follow has impaired their development. Arguments like this should be not only within the bounds of reasonable debate, but are completely necessary. (And please, spare us some of the comparisons, such as the one Malik made in The Guardian piece, between Dawkins and religious fundamentalists being "equally irrational.")

The sense that religion continues to be untouchable was furthered by articles such as the one The Atlantic recently ran which listed of some of Dawkins's more extreme statements, but included comments like, "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." This is, again, rather inartfully phrased, but the point he is making is correct. And it is not, by the way, a "comparison" of Islam and Nazism, as The Huffington Post suggested. His claim is, rather, that you can understand a phenomenon without reading its founding text. (Several years ago, my former colleague Jon Chait expertly explained "the distinction between comparing someone to Hitler and using a historical analogy that draws on the Nazi era.") Dawkins was certainly silly and worse with his particular tweet, but people who immediately run to the barricades the moment religion is insulted might use this actual example of stupidity to ponder why it is they get offended so often.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.