Richard Dawkins is, arguably, the world's most famous atheist. He opposes religions of all stripes as "false," dangerous and anti-scientific. And while that stance has earned him the opprobrium -- and, presumably the prayers -- of many faithful people in many religious traditions, it's rarely gotten him bounced from a speaking engagement.
Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California, canceled an event featuring Dawkins -- in the video above, he uses the rather charming term "de-platformed" to describe it -- because the station didn't like the author's "assertions during his current book tour that Islam is the “most evil” of world religions, Twitter posts denigrating Muslim scholars as non-scholars and other tweets," as a statement from the radio station indicated.
This generated somemainstream media coverage, with The New York Times coming to the fore:
Henry Norr, a former KPFA board member, criticized Mr. Dawkins in a July 17 email to the station. “Yes, he’s a rationalist, an atheist and an advocate of the science of evolution -- great, so am I,” Mr. Norr wrote. “But he’s also an outspoken Islamophobe -- have you done your homework about that?”
Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which is based in San Francisco, also emailed the station last week. She said Mr. Dawkins’s comments give legitimacy to extremist views.
“KPFA is a progressive institution in the Bay Area, and an institution that reflects social justice,” she said in a phone interview on Saturday. “It isn’t required to give such anti-Islam rhetoric a platform.”
Quincy McCoy, the station’s general manager, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a KPFA news broadcast on Friday, he said the station “emphatically supports free speech.”
Except, apparently, when that "free speech" offends followers of one of the three Abrahamic faiths.
Never mind that Dawkins, as the Times article notes, has fired truly nasty salvos at Christianity in years past.
So what's my journalistic problem? In a word -- and one I use quite often here -- context. Dawkins believes the "victims" of his "de-platforming" are the people who wanted to hear him talk about his latest book, "Science in the Soul." He sent the radio station an open letter calling for an apology.
In the Times article, Dawkins makes a case for audiences having the opportunity to hear from controversial, even challenging, speakers:
Mr. Dawkins said he objected to the idea that speakers who might be offensive should be turned away from institutions of higher learning.
“I do think that the business of universities is to expose students to all kinds of views,” he said. “If somebody objectionable like Ann Coulter comes on, they should argue with her.”
Interestingly, though, Dawkins is happy to paint, with a broad brush, those who oppose his staunch belief in evolution. In 2009, Dawkins dismissed the pro-intelligent design (or I.D.) arguments of Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science and geophysicist, in his 2009 book "Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design."
Speaking with conservative talk show host Michael Medved, Dawkins said:
I have never come across any kind of creationism, whether you call it intelligent design or not, which has a serious scientific case to put.
The objection to having debates with people like that is that it gives them a kind of respectability. If a real scientist goes onto a debating platform with a creationist, it gives them a respectability, which I do not think your people have earned.
You won't read about Dawkins' balking against a debate with an intelligent design advocate in The New York Times. And that's a problem, in the context of his current debate about free speech.
If on the one hand, you believe your controversial statements about Islam and Christianity shouldn't trigger being "de-platformed" from an event, and if you believe dissenters should "argue with" an "objectionable" speaker rather than have their event canceled, then why not ask about his not debating Meyer?
One organization that did ask is the pro-I.D. group Discovery Institute, where Meyer currently works. In an article on its Evolution News website, the group notes:
Why, one asks, is it fine to criticize Islam, but not Darwin? Dawkins has fought mightily to “de-platform” intelligent design scientists and anyone who harbors even a shimmer of doubt about Darwinian theology. But now he’s shocked -- shocked -- that defenders of another religion get to silence heretics too.
It's a valid question. And, it's one The New York Times and other media outlets should ask Dawkins. In so doing, and in reporting Dawkins' response (or non-response), they will serve their readers with -- yep -- context, the stuff of which understanding is often made.