Regulars here know I'm no fan of Richard Dawkins, but even I was surprised at his latest article for Boing Boing. Discussing the recent lawsuit between astronomer C. Martin Gaskell and the University of Kentucky, Dawkins goes lower than I thought he dared, stopping just this side of libel against a fellow scientist.
Some background: in 2007, Gaskell was up for a position at the University of Kentucky. He was a hot contender, but one of the members of the search committee researched his religious beliefs and concluded that he was "potentially evangelical." He was questioned about his faith in his interview, and ultimately didn't get the job-- despite, according to one committee member, being "breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience." E-mails sent among the search committee submitted as evidence in the case make it clear that Gaskell's religious beliefs-- which don't play a role in any of his peer-reviewed work on quasars and supermassive black holes-- were pretty much the only factor in the committee's decision not to hire him. Gaskell is not a creationist, and accepts the theory of evolution-- things which would be unlikely to turn up in his work anyway. All of which renders that phrase "potentially evangelical" even more chilling. Gaskell was rejected not because he wasn't the right guy for the job, and not even because his beliefs conflicted with his duties. He wasn't even rejected for beliefs that he actually held. He was rejected because of his membership in a group that also contains individuals whose beliefs are in conflict with a related department to the one in which he was applying to teach. It was a clear-cut case of religious discrimination, and the school has settled the case out of court for $125,000.
Enter Dawkins, who concludes from this that all kinds of beliefs, religious and otherwise, should justly and rightly serve as grounds for dismissal or rejection of employment, laying out several hypothetical cases-- none of them bearing more than a superficial resemblance to the Gaskell case-- in which he feels discrimination would be just. He even laments that "the word 'discriminate' carries such unfortunate baggage." The piece reads like an opening salvo in a witch hunt for "the creationists among us": it is a call for greater prejudice.
The entire argument rests on the faulty assumption that religious ideas are protected and non-religious ideas are not. I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that if I were dismissed from my job because I believe in a subterranean super-race of mole people, I would start taking notes for my wrongful dismissal suit. Unless that belief interferes with my completion of assigned tasks (I am an excavator operator who will not break ground on a building project for fear of angering the mole people) or it interferes with my coworkers, clients, or customers (sales are down at the hardware store because I keep scaring people away with talk of their underground masters when all they wanted to do was buy a hammer). My personal beliefs-- religious or otherwise-- are personal, and if they don't interfere with my job, then there is no cause for termination.
In the Gaskell case, of course, it's even more preposterous: Gaskell doesn't believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old any more than he believes that the mole people are preparing to reclaim the surface world. But Dawkins' entire article is framed to mislead the reader into believing Gaskell is a secret creationist. The attempt to paint Gaskell with the creationist brush has its roots deep in Dawkins' views of religion in general, and the idea of God in particular. Dawkins will only grant that Gaskell "claims... that he is not a full-blooded YEC [young earth creationist]." For Dawkins it can only be a "claim," not a fact, and that use of "full-blooded" shows that he is only capable of considering religious people as holding some degree of creationist ideas. Dawkins includes a selectively-clipped quote from Gaskell, " I have a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible," Dawkins quotes. A-ha! A creationist! But here's the remainder of the quote: "...but I don't believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself, and it certainly clashes head-on with science." Gaskell does what Dawkins cannot: see multiple ways of reading a text.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins misdefines the word "God" as denoting an intelligent designer. He builds creationism into the very idea of belief in God. Thus he is beyond perplexed at someone like Gaskell, who believes in both God and evolution. He simply can't comprehend people who find meaning in the Bible without also believing that the Earth is 6,000 years old. Dawkins has drawn boxes for us all to fit in-- "deluded creationist," "'bright' atheist." When presented with someone who doesn't fit in those boxes, his brain shuts down. This is a fact: not all believers are creationists. The data do not fit Dawkins' theoretical model. But rather than reframe his hypothesis, Dawkins continues to insist that his model is correct. His ideas about faith are nothing more than bad science.
The worse thing, though, is the other thing that Dawkins' article intends to do: to suggest that the Unversity of Kentucky's discrimination against Gaskell was justified. If you read waaaaay down into the comments section, he backpedals, claiming that "Nowhere in my article did I say that Gaskell himself should not have got the job," and that he did not intend to discuss the Gaskell case-- begging the question of why, if his hypotheticals don't apply to the case at hand, he bothered to frame the article with it at all. But even if we take those hypothetical situations as "preposterous examples," we are left with the distinct sense that Dawkins is not content with his quest to rid the world of religion. He also wants to rid the world of the strange, the eccentric, and the wacky. I have long felt that Dawkins must be, at heart, a profoundly boring person, for his insistence that the world must actually be as he conceives it. This article cements that opinion. I would not want to live in Dawkins' perfect world, because it would be a world of profound and fathomless sameness. We need our eccentrics. We need preposterous ideas, for how else will we be shaken out of our false beliefs, unless challenged with what we know must be impossible? Give me the bizarre, the preposterous, and yes, the delusional: better that than the bleak unity of a world squeezed into neat, pseudo-empirical boxes.