Why Richard Dawkins shouldn’t be cancelled

Spiked have reported that outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, has been cancelled from a booking at the Trinity College Dublin College Historical Society. They have particularly cited Dawkins’ views on Islam and his apparent views on sexual assault. You can read the article here.

What is particularly odd is that nobody who has any knowledge whatsoever of Dawkins’ view on religion, nor who has seen any of his speaking events over the last 20 years – almost none of which centre on his scientific academic area of training – could possibly not have known his views on Islam already. The two religions at which he directs most of his opprobrium are Christianity and Islam. Whoever booked him must already know his views on these things, which makes it decidedly odd that they would cancel the invitation on those grounds.

Interestingly, they have also cited his apparent comments about sexual assault as an issue. But, whatever we may think of his comments, they aren’t a secret. In fact, they are entirely in line with his Atheistic, secular humanist worldview that is driven on by his adherence to neo-darwinian theory. Anybody familiar with his work should be well aware of these things before they booked him. It is also worth noting that Dawkins’ was not endorsing the comments made, but was really arguing that it is difficult to condemn people of the past by the standards of today. Whilst I think there is a rightness to that position, I think he misapplies it to the comments he made about sexual assault (which has always been considered wrong). But that is misapplication of a wider principle, not endorsement of a practice that has been deemed unacceptable.

Moreover, of all the places to be cancelled because of your views, a debating society seems the most ridiculous. The whole point of a debating society is to discuss opposing positions. But if one side isn’t permitted to enter the debate because you do not find their views acceptable, it begs the question what, exactly, the debating society intend to debate? They are ultimately deciding the outcome of the debate at the front end and then insisting that the predetermined losing side shall not be invited because their view has already been rejected. It makes a mockery of the very thing they exist to do.

Now, of course, I don’t share Richard Dawkins’ views on lots of things. But I do think he should be allowed to say them. Whilst I appreciate the College Historical Society wants to take care not to unduly offend, or to make its members unnecessarily uncomfortable, to determine that their discomfort at a view being put – when the person invited is known to have those views – is a very odd decision for a debating society to take. Otherwise, there is no debate to be had. The only discussion that can take place are ones where everybody is happy (to some degree) with either outcome. Which really limits the ability to test ideas and theories.

I, for example, do not like the things that Richard Dawkins’ says about me, my faith and my God. But, of course, he should be allowed to say them if he wants. The only person who looks foolish if I disinvite him because he might say those things is me because I shouldn’t be so stupid as to invite a man renowned for his hatred of religion – particularly Christianity – and then disinvite him because he then says exactly those things he was always going to say. If we disinvite him to a debate that centres on his views about that, I am effectively suggesting there is no debate to be had. The matter is settled already. Which further begs the question why I booked someone who would offer the alternative view if I didn’t want to hear it? It makes us look ridiculous.

We really need to stop cancelling things because we don’t like them. If you think Richard Dawkins’ views are too offensive to hear, don’t cancel him. Just don’t go! Nobody is forcing anybody else into the lecture hall to listen. Nobody is piping his offensive views into your home. If you don’t want to listen, then don’t turn up. But it is over-reach to insist that because I find it offensive, because I don’t want to listen, I’m going to stop everybody else listening too.

The fact is, this line of thinking will not end well for anybody. You may think it a great victory to get him cancelled. But the moment your views are no longer de rigueur you run the risk that the cancel culture you create and uphold today will turn round and cancel you tomorrow. There is a long line of censorious censors who have found themselves on the receiving end of cancellations that they never foresaw. The only way to guarantee that you are not similarly cancelled is to ensure that we are not the ones insisting on the cancellation of others.