To answer your question in good faith, Mr. Dawkins, yes, it is your cultural upbringing. But your tweet wasn’t really about that, was it?
I had the honor of meeting Richard Dawkins at a conference in London once. It felt like an achievement, a symbolic culmination in a series of events. To say that the author and evolutionary biologist had an enormous influence on me in the time leading up to my break with a high-control religion would be an understatement.
He was the embodiment of a deeply personal struggle and it was, among other things, his lectures, his videos on YouTube, his books, his unparalleled ability to articulate thoughts I had been contending with for so long that earned him my utmost respect. It was his performance in debates in which he obliterated, always with the soundest logic, the unfounded claims of the presumptuous that prompted me to side with an atheism that was not merely passive, but active in challenging the myths that were responsible for so much of my guilt, self-harm, and repressed creativity. Faced with an irrational, excessively emotional, and often outright bigoted opponent, there was no doubt in my mind who emerged victor from those televised confrontations.
So to see the latest tweet from Mr. Dawkins is a disappointment, to say the least. There he is, the man I very nervously shook hands with and thanked for all his efforts, sitting under the shade of a tree, across from Winchester cathedral. He writes: “Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”
Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great mediaeval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar.” Or is that just my cultural upbringing? pic.twitter.com/TpCkq9EGpw
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 16, 2018
Sadness was my initial reaction as I thought: Can’t we just appreciate the ‘magic of reality’ and the beauty of the human creative spirit anymore without denigrating others?
This seems to be symptomatic of a larger trend in which atheists, under the guise of criticizing Islam, resort to tactics that betray what could only be described as cultural supremacy. The sort of people who triumphantly (and misguidedly) declare the “West is the Best” and “Some Cultures are Better than Others.” I am not willing to throw Dawkins under the bus; it would seem that the Author has quite the distinct personality from the Tweeter. He has since backtracked with another tweet, one I might consider even more damning, as it is blatantly disingenuous and reinforces an unfortunate association between a phrase used by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Christians alike and the war cry of terrorists.
The call to prayer can be hauntingly beautiful, especially if the muezzin has a musical voice. My point is that “Allahu Akhbar” is anything but beautiful when it is heard just before a suicide bomb goes off. That is when Islam is tragically hijacked by violence.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 18, 2018
To answer your question in good faith, however, Mr. Dawkins, yes, it is your cultural upbringing. But your tweet wasn’t really about that, was it? While it is certainly your cultural background that reserves in your heart a greater fondness for church bells, it is not at all beyond your capacity, as a learned man appreciative of the arts–which know no one culture, but belong to all of humanity– to also acknowledge the aesthetic value in the adhan.
More than this, though, Mr. Dawkins, it is the cultural environment and current climate to which you belong that incentivise you to make a tweet that does your work an injustice. It identifies you with the provocateurs and controversialists lacking substance. Social media favors the provocative. My plea is that you do not fall prey to these divisive tactics that, yes, result in retweets, but contribute nothing to public discourse if not a shameful lowering of its quality. If you can divorce the beauty of church bells from the religion they symbolize, can you not also do the same for the adhan? As you are equally critical of all faiths, I do not see why this should be so hard.
It is entirely possible to not like the adhan at all and think it aggressive. I would not share this opinion, nor think it grounded in any informed critique, but I wonder at what such a tweet intends to accomplish or worse, what it accomplishes. It is an odd observation, not without baggage and implications, regardless of intent. To use an argument of yours: if you had grown up in a Muslim country, it is highly likely you would have appreciated the adhan more. Why, then, compare church bells with the Islamic call to prayer at all if you do not wish to make a point?
Surely Mr. Dawkins is not ignorant of the ugly history of the Church, just as he is not ignorant of the way Islam has been used to commit atrocities as well. It just so happens that the bells were, as the official website for the Winchester Cathedral says, ‘tolled for prisoners before their execution, right up until the abolition of the death penalty in this country in 1965.’ Imagine I posted a picture of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Turkey–truly a testament to the human genius, which has no borders–and wrote, “Listening to the melodious adhan at the Blue Mosque. So much nicer than those cacophonous bells of the West that used to herald death! Or is that just my cultural upbringing?” This would not only be unforgivably stupid, but would very likely result in hyper-defensiveness on the part of Westerners who would be justified in calling it out for what it is: antagonistic.
We have enough to fight about, Mr. Dawkins, without resorting to pettiness. You are better than this. Sit in the shade of a tree, listen to the beautiful bells, and enjoy your time on this planet. If John Donne, whom both England and Christianity gave the world, could wisely recognize the shared burdens and accomplishments of the human race, so can we.
Sarah Mills is a managing editor and writer at Uncommon Ground Media.