And now, the final installment in this series of posts (the previous installment is here).
Richard Dawkins didn’t do any damage to himself. Most of the people who were going to buy his books will still buy his books, he’ll continue to pack lecture halls as he travels around giving talks, and he’ll continue to have the kind of influence that he has had for several years now, which is by and large a very positive one, on the way society approaches things like religion, atheism, and skepticism.
But he has probably lost some colleagues. His treatment of both the issues surrounding Elevator Gate and his treatment of his colleague Rebecca Watson was appalling. And yes, Rebecca and Richard were colleagues. The two of them have traveled similar circuits, sat on panels together, and so on. Despite what star struck fans may think, Richard Dawkins does not actually live in an utterly different world than the rest of us. He still puts his pants on one leg at a time, and he is still part of a community of people doing similar, and overlapping things.
A funny thing happened to me a few years ago. Richard Dawkins was passing through town to give a talk about his book, The God Delusion. So, those of us who heard he was comming contacted others to let them know, and pretty soon we had a respectable number of individuals all going to go to the talk. The truth is, some of the people I went with that evening would have not gone to the talk had I or someone else not told them about it, and reserved the tickets for them, etc. Of course, had those individuals not gone, someone else would certainly have taken our place … if I recall correctly, the house was sold out. PZ Myers (of Pharyngula) also went to the talk and a lot of people got together with PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins before hand at a bar. A lot of those people may not have even known about the talk had PZ not announced it on his blog, but again, others may have taken their place.
So a bunch of us parked somewhere, ate, and then walked over to the theater where the talk was to be given. On the way, some guy stopped me on the street corner. Someone I didn’t know. He said, “Hey, do you have ticket?” and I said “Yes, I do! Why?”
He wanted to buy my tickets. I asked him how much he was paying for them, and he said something like “Maybe fifty dollars?”
Holy crap, I thought. I could give this guy my ticket and get fifty dollars. As it turns out, I had an extra ticket with me that I planned on giving to a random bystander at the lecture hall. I could have made 100 bucks and sat out the talk and met my friends later. Maybe some of them would sell their tickets too! Fifty dollars to skip a talk by Richard Dawkins was pretty tempting.
So I said to him, “You would give me fifty dollars for a ticket to a lecture by Richard Dawkins?”
And his reply was, “Richard Dawkins? Who’s that? I’m looking for tickets to the game!”
Apparently there was a game that evening, probably the University’s football team or something.
So it turns out that a ticket to a Richard Dawkins talk is not that big of a deal. It turns out that of all the people with whom I ended up rendezvousing that evening before the talk would probably not bother going to a Richard Dawkins talk today, because of the way he handled Elevator Gate. It turns out that the Gophers are way way bigger than Richard Dawkins. And who knows, a lot of the people at that sports event are going to be praying to god on behalf of their team, or they are going to watch the athlete thanking the Sky Daddy for his divine intervention in their successful plays. And those athletes can do things … bad things … and still attract a large audience.
The problem with Richard Dawkins is that he has a more discriminating audience. And a smaller one. It is unfortunate that he seems to not understand his place.
A point of clarification: Although I make the comparison between audience size (indirectly) that Richard Dawkins may garner or the Gophers, or atheists generally vs. the NFS, I’m not trying to make a point here about competing audience sizes or the effects of an act on readership, viewership, etc. What I’m trying to say is this: The big money, the main stream press, the overall stuff that makes up the day to day activities and various investments of energy by Americans and others is about things like Football (or whatever) and not about the philosophy of religion, atheism, skepticism, etc. We are small fish and our issues are small issues and our activities are largely unnoticed, no matter how easily we may forget that. The things we do as a community are important, but they are small. They are things that a handful of people can do working together. It has been said (by an Anthropologist, of course) that we should never underestimate the effects of the determined activities of a small group of people. But for those small groups of people to have those effects, they can’t be fissioning on the basis of stupid-ass shit that has nothing to do with anything. This is not about Atheists or Skeptics increasing their audience to rival the NFL, or about how many books Richard Dawkins sells; It’s about how many things we can do that have a positive effect, and making those effects meaningful and lasting.
In the end, were you as surprised as I was that Dawkins didn’t come out of his shell to make some sort of helpful statement? To be honest, I’m still expecting it.
This is the last post in the present series, which starts here.