On re-evaluating, atheism, Nightwish and Dawkins

The past months I have listened to Nightwish’s records, especially the last album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and the live recordings of Vehicle of Spirit. I’m aware that the new album features a very contentious guest appearance, namely that of Richard Dawkins. Even though he doesn’t actually attack religion with his quotes (he quotes a phrase of his own about how lucky we are to be mortal, and the end of Origin of Species), a lot of people on the Internet and elsewhere seem to have gone tripping over themselves denouncing Nightwish (not least the few knuckle-headed bible-thumpers who couldn’t interpret The Carpenter correctly).

I have a couple of points to raise when it comes to those criticisms – and I don’t mean at the bible-thumpers. They should go sit in the corner where they belong. This isn’t necessarily a religious debate – okay, to some extent it is, but we already know their opinions. I’m more interested in dealing with the left, because there’s sadly an ideological void on that side of the political spectrum we need to fill. There’s also a whole collective leftist outrage because Dawkins is islamophobic, hates trans people, and is generally a strident voice on Twitter, which with its unfortunate 140-character limit doesn’t actually allow us to provide a measure of nuance to his words. That’s something much more pertinent to address than the few creationists left. And the people of ISIS. Fuck ISIS. Seriously.

First I’d like to state that we don’t have to agree with everything Dawkins does. If you knew Einstein personally, you’d probably disapprove of a few choices he made. That’s no different for Dawkins, and the fact that he’s been a professor of Public Understanding of Science for a whole time of his life (a completely different kind of job from someone performing biological experiments in a lab somewhere in South America) means that his public persona is a much bigger part of his job than it is for sheltered scientists elsewhere. Needless to say, if you delve deeper into his ideas there are certain things we can critique or improve on (such as his memetic theory, or some of his suggestions on explanations of morality), but we can do that with every philosopher or scientist without feeling ashamed of ourselves. We didn’t accept the word of Popper as gospel either, but his falsification theory is widely used because it works. And I’m sure if you delved into a discussion with him in private, not on the limited medium of Twitter, you’d get a much more reasonable debate. But hey, camera’s rolling and we’re on film. Soundbites sell in modern society. We need to take a bit more time than the things we see on twitter before we judge people. That’s one thing. If you wish to disagree with Dawkins, fine – we can have a discussion about that – but please do it on more than a soundbite. Twitter is rarely representative of an entire method of reasoning.

And second – whether you disagree with Dawkins’ ideas or not, it has nothing to do with the artistic use of his voice on an album centred around evolution which has exactly one song that is critical of organized (!) religion. The rest is in praise of the natural world – I’m sorry, but if you’re not in awe at the world we live in, go outside for a change. Take a hike up to Death Valley or the Grand Canyon or go watch a glacier in Iceland. Besides that, criticising religion is not a new topic in Nightwish’s oeuvre. (Please go check Song of Myself if you are uncertain. There are a few others too).

Another thing I’d like to talk about is atheism, politics and trans rights. I’ve noticed that a lot of trans people are very left-wing and this makes sense, because leftist politics traditionally give more weight to social issues and are pro-LGBT. Sensible (and I consider myself left-wing too, though not extremely so). In leftist circles there has been a surge of religious apologetics that defend religious rights based on the notion of respect for religious beliefs. A good example is defending wearing a hijab, usually a sign of Islamic faith. Here’s the thing about hijabs, headdresses, hats, and so on. People should be able to wear whatever they want, including Muslims (and also trans people. Fuck people who stare at me because I wear a skirt on the street. It’s hot, and skirts are cute. Screw you.) Of course it’s ridiculous to attack people or ridicule them for doing so (even though I don’t understand why you would want to bake in a headdress and cover your entire body in layers of clothing in the current heat, but well, that’s just me).

But when we have laws that go for everybody, people can’t get carte blanche for what they believe. It doesn’t work like that. If a Muslim says ”I believe in Allah, and the Qu’ran tells me I should wear a headdress” – fine, you can do so in your private life. You can do so in a mosque where you pray, and fuck, if you want me to cover my head when I enter, so be it. I’m on your territory, it would be respectful. You can even do so on the street if that’s what you desire. But that respect stops where we have to devise laws that apply to every single citizen in a certain country. Why? Because otherwise, we can (and people do) devise strange loopholes in order to get our way when that’s clearly nonsensical.

For example, Muslims can wear headdresses on passport pictures. Jews can wear their kippah too. But if a pastafarian, with equally good reason, asks for the right to wear a colander for religious reasons, their request is repeatedly denied. (Looking at you, various Dutch courts). We can’t, in any way, distinguish pastafarianism from Islam. Islam may be a thousand years older, not satirical, and more widespread, but that doesn’t mean they have a more valid claim to covering their heads. Either you allow all religious headgear, however silly it may seem, or you allow none of it. Favouritism isn’t an option for secular states. (I’m in favour of allowing none, for obvious reasons).

The same with dress codes at schools. A school gives you a dress code, and you adhere to it. It’s not discrimination if you should not wear headdresses in order to make eye contact with students; it is a legitimate concern. Either your dress code allows for it, or it doesn’t. It’s only discrimination if some religions can get away with things others can’t. And if you have no religion? Are you at an advantage then? No, because you still couldn’t cover your head if you wanted to. Religious people are not special and if they get special rights, then we accord them to everyone equally or not at all. Institutions can pick whichever they want, but excepting one religion is favouritism – and discrimination against everyone else.

Now, I think dress codes should be very liberal (in fact I think dress codes are stupid, outdated ways to keep people in line) and I don’t mind people wearing headdresses. If I ran the school, the teacher could wear a headdress as much as they want – as long as they teach the curriculum. (Which means teaching the curriculum, and keeping religion to religious studies classes. Which are world religions classes. Even at religious schools. They were at mine. And I went to a Catholic school. It’s possible. It’s called being aware of the world around you.) My objection is against the principle. As long as we cannot rationally distinguish between the virtues of Islam and those of pastafarianism, they deserve equal rights.

The same should apply to firing a Muslim teacher, by the way – the teacher can be Muslim all they want. They have a job to do. If they teach evolution or ethics, I have no idea how they can reconcile that with their religion, but that’s none of my business and unless they stop teaching the curriculum I couldn’t give a flying dingo’s kidney what they do outside that. Firing them for being Muslim (or worse, not hiring them in the first place) is discrimination, and it happens frequently even in the Netherlands. You can’t fire people for what they believe in – you can only fire them because they’re not giving the desired results.

This applies equally to trans people, by the way. I am openly trans and I discuss my trans-ness with people and openly mention it in conference booklets. I don’t mind people knowing (this way, I can be sure the prospective employer knows the details beforehand, and if they refuse to hire me, and I suspect foul play, I can always sue for discrimination). Trans people are very sensitive (for good historical reasons, I might add), but we’re in a time and place where we need dialogue to move forward, not strictly insisting on rights we might not legally deserve. I talked about trans and non-binary issues, and the rate of people misgendering me went down dramatically after my talk.

Why? Because I allowed for open dialogue. You may be offended, and there’s nothing wrong with being offended. But sometimes, arguments may offend or hurt without being a stab at you personally. And stabs at ideology are hard to differentiate from personal attacks online with 140 character limits. We don’t have be wary of ghosts round every corner anymore. Not everyone is out to hurt us, and the more we build our walls the more they will be inclined to think we’re oversensitive SJW’s who insist on strange rights. Why? Because the other people around us aren’t trans and haven’t the foggiest what’s going on. They have no idea what trans etiquette is like. We have to deal with that – but getting pissy every time it happens, as much as we feel we are right (and perhaps we are right!) is not a socially helpful strategy.

Dissenting opinions are a good thing. The way we resolve these issues is through dialogue and without losing sight of the fact that we are humans and that we need to adhere to social conventions when we engage in dialogue. Safe spaces, not giving people platforms, excluding certain ideologies from debate – we do that in our private homes, where we make the rules. But we don’t do it in public discourse, at universities, or in political arenas. The issues there have to be dealt with using logic and rationality. Universities are not places where you study things and have to be sheltered from opposing opinions. Even therapy teaches us to deal with our fears and problems by facing them, not by shielding ourselves from them.

And that, my friends, is what Dawkins was talking about when he defended Greer’s invitation to speak at a university. I do not agree with Germaine Greer. I think she is a jaded old lady with a wrinkled hoo-hah who doesn’t understand the concept of gender identity, expression and its relation to sex. My bet is that not even Dawkins himself agrees with Germaine Greer, but you have to quote him on that. But our disagreeing, however vehemently, and however wrong she may be, doesn’t stop other people from having the right to invite her and give a talk. 

If you don’t want to hear her talk – if her words trigger you – don’t attend the talk. If you wish to engage her in public discourse – make sure you destroy her in the Q&A section at the end. I don’t agree with the bloody TERF and I never will. But she can be invited by other people and students if there’s a demand – however silly it may be. And you’re always welcome to disagree and destroy her theories politely at a university. That is what universities are for.

But you can’t silence people for being wrong. You can only rationalize and help them into logically seeing what is right, and violently denying them with a NO will never, ever, ever help your discourse.

Science, rational thinking, and progressive discourse allow for the changing of minds. No fact was ever arrived at directly, no theory blossomed directly from zero without change. No great scientist has arrived at their position without facing deserved criticism. The more, the harsher, the better. (A priest may have, but their job isn’t based on receiving criticism. Hah).

Is it silly to deny evolution? Yes. Should it be taught in classroom curriculums? No, because what we teach children are things with established bodies of evidence, and creationism simply doesn’t have that, logically speaking. Can we have a discussion about what creationism means for morality and evolution? Certainly, in open debates and places for public adult discourse, such as at universities. Slamming that door shut is slamming progress shut. And if you don’t want to hear it – don’t attend. Creationists will probably only preach to the choir anyway. 😉

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Om joannavanschaik

Science communication graduate. Music, poetry, literature, travel, science and language collide in this blog.
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