Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.
Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.

Is talk of privilege 'lunacy'? On Richard Dawkins, skepticism, and certainty

Last month, Richard Dawkins—perhaps the world’s most famous atheist—tweeted this sarcastic comment about privilege:

He then retweeted a number of mocking replies:

Of his retweets, this was perhaps the most revealing: 

Does Dawkins really consider the idea of raising awareness about the advantages experienced by particular groups a form of "lunacy"?

Through interviews and guest pieces, I've been trying to make more of an effort to host voices in this column that offer perspectives on issues I’m less equipped to address. One recent voice was Sincere T. Kirabo, a Board Member with Black Nonbelievers, who offered the following definition of privilege:

Privilege refers to the myriad of social advantages and benefits associated with being a part of an in-group. Said benefits exist, whether or not one has earned them or consciously vied for them. Almost universally, privilege is something conferred upon one without them having any say in the matter. Thus, when announcing the existence of privilege, it isn’t about shaming someone or pointing an accusatory finger. It’s about awareness and deflating inequality.

Today’s piece is not intended to explore privilege in depth or explain why people should address it—there are many such pieces out there written by people far more capable and qualified. Per Kirabo's definition of privilege, this post is also not intended to shame or accuse. Instead, I want to ask a genuine question: Why are some atheists like Dawkins so willing to be critical of widely accepted religious ideas, but seemingly less willing to extend that critical lens to the broader cultural ideas that perpetuate disparities between groups? 

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008.

Richard Dawkins at the 34th American Atheists Conference in Minneapolis in March 2008. Photo courtesy of Mike Cornwell via Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn't question or criticize particular claims about privilege, or disagree with some of the ideas or tactics of certain activists or institutions. Reasonable people can disagree about strategy or look at the same information and come to different conclusions.

But I don't understand how self-identified skeptics can altogether dismiss discussions about privilege—or react against them with the kind of overt hostility demonstrated by Dawkins.

Last month, skeptic Josh Rosenau offered a suggestion: 

Eight years ago, reviewing Dawkins’s The God Delusion, I argued that one of the book’s central flaws was that Dawkins “doesn’t quite seem interested in understanding the beliefs of people who aren’t Richard Dawkins.” What if that’s still the problem, just translated from religion to a wider range of social issues?

When it comes to social issues, it does seem as if Dawkins has shelved the curiosity that drove him to become one of the world’s most prominent biologists, science communicators, and religious critics.

One of the benefits of white privilege is that, without a willingness to curiously and critically examine it, those who have it don't really have to talk about it or even think about it—which means that combatting its influence must be an active process.

For me, this has involved many wrong turns; times I've engaged in generalizations or been unaware of my own advantages and biases. But I strive to apply my skepticism to my own assumptions as much as possible—and one such assumption is the idea that the opportunities I’ve had are merely the result of my hard work and skills.

I began to better understand that this wasn’t the full story in high school, when I worked with homeless and at risk LGBT youth. There, I noticed that queer people of color regularly faced burdens and struggles I’d never experienced as a white queer person.

My awareness increased when I began volunteering several days a week at a Somali community center in Minnesota, and again when I spent a year coordinating an after school program in Chicago where I worked almost exclusively with Black youth.

In these contexts I heard story after story about experiences of discrimination, both overt and subtle—gradually realizing why it was that I, a white person, had never faced their particular challenges. I started becoming more skeptical about my own opportunities and biases.

Today, I continue to learn from the work of friends and activists who challenge my assumptions and advantages. But it takes constant work.

As an atheist, I recognize that sometimes the explanations we’ve inherited aren’t correct. As a Humanist, I believe that it is up to humans to address human problems. Social imbalances and inequities are human problems, and the explanations for their root causes are often less obvious and more insidious than they seem.

As more people take a hard look at the systemic racism that enabled the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many others, it’s important that we take the idea of privilege seriously. So I'm disappointed by the dismissive attitude of Dawkins, one of the most visible atheists and skeptics in the world. 

When asked how white atheists can better address privilege, Dr. Monica Miller offered this suggestion:

[Some prominent atheists] could do with a dose of humility made possible by a recognition that life is uncertain… White privilege has a lot to do with feeling certain, secure, safe. If atheists want to really tackle such longstanding problems and challenges, then they’d start off well by adopting a brand of atheism or Humanism rooted in uncertainty.

Dawkins and others have already demonstrated that they're not afraid to direct their skepticism toward religious ideas. But the freethinking spirit they strive to embody and promote can't be limited to this one area. Instead of dismissing conversations about privilege, perhaps they should strive to listen more—and feel a little less certain.

Comments

  1. It’s not lunacy to talk about privilege. And people like Dawkins do, in serious interviews, acknowledge that they’ve had lucky lives. The problem with this talk of privilege is what isn’t being said. Under-riding this whole strand of social theory is usually an assumption that privilege is something that has been gained by exploting others and that most forms of inequality are because certain groups have been oppressed historically.
    The problem is, that’s not the only interpretation. And depending on your interpretation, different approaches seem more or less meaningful. Another interpretation is that certain groups have generally achieved “privileged” status because they’ve just had better approaches and better ideas about the world. Given that interpretation, this kind rampant masochism from the progressive left seems almost communist in it’s intent. Punish the successful so we’re all equal. Equally worse off.
    I’m not saying I necessarily buy either side of that. But that’s what the disagreement is.

  2. The multifaceted ignorance that Dawkins spews is so absurd for someone who is revered for his “sober-mindedness”.

    Not only does he not speak for me, but it’s come to the point that his words cause more stagnancy – and even regression – when it comes to social justice and a plethora of matters that haven’t anything to do with hard science.

    These matters that he dismisses, ignores or diminishes in value affect a great number of people who don’t have the same background and advantages as him.

    I’d suggest he shut down his twitter account – in fact, all of his social media outlets he abuses with his insensitive, insular views – and attempt to enrich his impoverished perceptions via something akin to ethnocultural empathy training and like instruction to “bring him up to speed” on all the ways in which privilege (gender, sexuality, white, religious/Christian, class) affects each and every single one of us.

    He needs to have a seat – several seats – and allow those with a far more informed, broadened perspective step to the forefront.

  3. Mr. Dawkins’ attitude regarding privilege seems consistent with an evolutionary world view. If evolution is fact then some individuals will be better adapted to thrive in civilized society. And if race is determined by the proposed creative evolutionary force then racial difference may have caused the white race to adapt better to a more evolved society. Carried to it’s logical end, we should actually then refrain from aiding the less evolved and let natural selection run its course. So the only criticism left for Mr. Dawkins is whether he should be more sympathetic. A pure evolutionist should think not, because doing so would show a misunderstanding to the creative force of evolution. There’s no logical escape from holding that racial superiority is a probability if evolution is true. That doesn’t mean the modern evolutionist can’t engage in doublethink and doublespeak, because that invariably is the solution to this thorny social dilemma. It sounds like this: “I believe in the theory evolution but I’m not racist.” And of course everyone else faced with the same dilemma will agree with that statement, because none but the lower forms would ever want to be likened to Hitler or associated with the KKK, right?

    God’s word, on the other hand, says he made us all of one blood, equal in standing regardless of phenotype or genotype, made in the image of the Creator but still allowing for variations within the “man” kind. We are all born into the same fallen condition and condemned unless saved by “the grace of God that bringeth salvation [that] has been revealed unto all men.” (Titus 2:11)

  4. “Another interpretation is that certain groups have generally achieved “privileged” status because they’ve just had better approaches and better ideas about the world.”

    Care to give a concrete example?

  5. You stumbled the moment you got out of the gate. You decided to engage in one of the most ignorant criticisms of evolution along with guilt by association.

    “There’s no logical escape from holding that racial superiority is a probability if evolution is true.”

    What a load of pure unrefined bullsh1t.

    Racial differences in a socio-economic/political sense have nothing to do with evolution or even biology. They have to do with putting a gloss on long standing prejudices. Even the notion of what constitutes a given race is entirely informed by attitudes of society at a given time.

    God’s word on the other hand has been used as an excuse for racial discrimination, slavery, colonialism and genocide for centuries.
    http://www.openbible.info/topics/segregation.

    Acts 17:26
    “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, ”
    -Quoted verbatim by a judge who upheld state laws against interracial marriage referred to in the case Loving v. Virginia (1960) which struck them down on appeal.

    It is obvious you don’t know jack about evolution and decided to try to paraphrase some Creationist screed. No Dawkins doesn’t say silly thing in public because he is an atheist or evolutionary biologist. He does so because he is Richard Dawkins.

    Your comment is akin to saying that one must be a gullible, uneducated, bigoted person because if they are a Christian. Then to talk about “Pure Christians” or that claims to the contrary aren’t really keeping in step with the true nature of Christian religion. It sounds stupid when I say it, it sounded stupid when you did it. 🙂

  6. Its safe to say that Dawkins has become the New Atheist “drunk uncle you invite to Thanksgiving, out of pity”.

  7. It’s funny. Atheists like Chris here appear genuinely befuddled that the worldview of Richard Dawkins doesn’t precisely align with their own. Yet instead of showing humility, trying to understand what RD means, the context in which he said what he said, and fully grasp his position before critically examining it, he shrugs his shoulders with bemusement, asks a few questions that confirm ignorance, and assume that fault lies with the subject.

    A number of people who attack Dawkins’ for the charge of arrogance may find their accusation sticks more to his critics within the humanist sphere.

  8. I should have mentioned that invectives and ad hominem are commonly practiced by evolutionists when faced with the incongruity of their beliefs with promoting peace between the races. But you’ve illustrated this tactic in textbook-like clarity almost as though we were working together to put on a clinic. Thank you, Larry.

    PS: My username in this reply has a link to describe the “grace of God that bringeth salvation” that was mentioned in my original comment.

  9. Chris, I am unable to decide whether your article was more dishonest, or self-aggrandizing.
    You say “this post is also not intended to shame or accuse”, but then you use words to characterize what RD Tweeted to do just that. It is akin to those who first say they don’t want to offend, then use words that are designed to do just that. I would rather that you had some honesty and the courage of your conviction and just said you thought he was wrong. Better yet offered some examples of him knowingly taking advantage of white privilege.
    Then you go on to tell us how much better a person you are than RD because of your work with those of another color. Well Chris, good for you, and your self-esteem.
    What is deemed white privilege surely exists, as does other social privileges for other people in different situations. Human nature tends to make interaction with those that we see as like us easier than those we see as not.
    However, I think RD was simply saying that he recognized that it exists, but doesn’t agree this is something he should feel guilty about, or pay some sort of a penance for, and I agree.
    We are only able to control how we feel about others, and not how everyone else feels. We should all strive to fight this flaw in ourselves and treat each other as equals regardless of outward appearance, and based on the persons character. Perhaps in order to change your feelings about how you interact with those who are not similar, you need to reinforce it by volunteering in programs designed to help those who are not white. Perhaps he doesn’t need this to understand that we all need to treat people as individuals.
    All people benefit from social privileges given by those who find us the same as them. None of us should feel guilty about that, and all of us should strive to change that, but none of us should throw stones as well all live in the same glass house.

  10. LMAO!

    Invective is more than justified for the baldfaced canned fiction you typed. This way you don’t mistake me for someone who might take what you said seriously.

    Its funny how you don’t even bother to respond to the substance of my post:
    -race is not a biological concept
    -religion constantly justified racism
    -ascribing Dawkins nonsense to being an atheist or biologist is just ad hominem).

    You should also learn what ad hominem means. I was making fun of your post in my last sentence. You were declaring that all people who accept evolution must be racist. That is ad hominem. Your arguments sound even stupider when framed with a different subject. I was making fun of you for displaying obvious dishonesty, ignorance and malice. None of which was ad hominem.

    If your last posts are any indication of your views and writing I have zero interest in your little website. It is obvious you have nothing of value to say.

  11. “Its funny how you don’t even bother to respond to the substance of my post:”-Larry

    Thanks Larry for this opportunity to follow up after my last reply. I realized after posting it that I had omitted non-sequitur as being among the hysterical reactions of evolutionists who are confronted with the uncomfortable conflict that their beliefs cause for race relations. But then really the “substance” you were broadcasting was just more of the mealy-mouthed doublespeak your survival instinct requires in these situations in order to hold faithful to the lie of evolution. Only God’s Word allows for equality of variations between the “races” that formed up after the Lord confounded language to end the rebellion of building the tower at Babel some 5000 years ago. Those variations are by God’s design in order to magnify his own majesty. The nerdy white engineer and the Zulu warrior both have something to say about their common Creator that the Creator apparently thought was important for us to consider. You don’t need to be ashamed of your skin, Larry, and neither does Richard Dawkins. But we should all be ashamed of our sins as defined in the Scriptures, and regardless of the skin color of the sinner.

    I’ve included a link on my username that will help you get to know truth (Ps. 111:10) should the divine invitation ever come to you again. Let me remind you that the opportunity is limited however, and we are cautioned not to take tomorrow for granted. (Prov. 27:1) Fare thee well.

  12. I obviously have to lay things out in easy to digest portions for you.

    1. You don’t know a thing about evolution or biology and were just spitballing about its relation to racism. There is no scientific biological classification for “race”. Claiming evolution is linked to racism is just plain stupid on your part. Obviously you thought so also based on your unwillingness to follow up on it.

    2. You like to spin a little elaborate explanation around a clear statement in the Bible which not only supports racial segregation but WAS USED TO JUSTIFY IT IN THE PAST as I mentioned, but you ignored.

    3. At no point can anything you said about God’s word and the creation of languages be considered as a presentation of facts. Its just a statement your personal religious beliefs. One which does not require anyone to take at face value. There is no evidence to support a word you wrote about races and languages from “5000 years ago”. Claiming the Bible says so is not evidence. It is faith.

    4. I can assume by attacks on evolution and use of “5000 years” that you are a creationist. In that case you are a liar as well. All Creationists are liars by nature. Creationists lie about the nature of their religious belief. The whole point of Creationism is to pretend your belief does not require faith. We both know that is untrue. It is brain-dead religion and does even worse to any notion of rational thought.

    5. You love nothing more than to shill your website. How very tasteless.

  13. Rubbish. Evolutionary theory speaks to one aspect of the physical workings of our world, and actually implies nothing concerning the conduct of human affairs. To argue otherwise these days is to admit ignorance. But I suspect your mind is made up, isn’t it?

  14. The Sting of a Reproach, is the Truth of it.

    — Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, August 1748

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