Never be afraid of stridency. This was the title of the last ever interview with Christopher Hitchens. It came from advice he gave to Richard Dawkins, his interviewer and guest editor of the New Statesman where it was published in December 2011.
CH: You must never be afraid of that charge [of being a bore], any more than stridency.
RD: I will remember that.
CH: If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out. Stridency is the least you should muster . . .
In the following eleven years or so, Dawkins certainly lived up to Hitchens’ challenge. That is, until recently, in his own interview with Piers Morgan, where he appeared decidedly more reticent than strident.
This is not to say he has become agnostic, or anything of the sort, but rather that he seemed strangely unwilling to display the full strength of his arguments against bad logic, or even sometimes to express an argument at all.
At the start of the interview, for example, when Morgan pressed him on the Big Bang theory, asserting that a ‘super-being-power’ must have preceded it, the strongest response from Dawkins was to defer to physicists who would say that it was naive, or that ‘science starts with simplicity’.
Of course this was partly humility of discipline, but far more than we’re used to. The overall effect was to make Morgan’s contention seem plausible and Dawkins happily resigned. Only a few years ago one would have expected him to incisively dismantle, as he did in his bestselling book The God Delusion, this notion of infinite regress. (If God created the universe, who created God?)
It was as if, after being introduced with the usual sensational epithets: firebrand, controversialist, incendiary, offensive – and later according to Morgan, vehement – he was doing his best to disprove them by being overly passive. Or perhaps he really had changed.
Sensing this possibility, Morgan eventually asked: ‘Have you got milder about this as you’ve got older?’
‘Yes’, replied Dawkins.
To anyone who has followed his work long enough, this is a surprising enough admittance. He was already 65 when he published The God Delusion in 2006. And even those who came to him late will know that one of his hallmarks is to make bald statements of fact on sensitive subjects, if just to inspire debate. Many would inevitably get him wrong in the process, but to Dawkins free speech was always a theory to be defended through practice.
This is what made it so shocking when he point-blank refused to comment on the case of Shamima Begum.
Morgan: ‘There’s been a big debate about this ISIS bride, Shamima Begum – whether she should be allowed to come back to this country. Do you have a view about that?’
Dawkins: ‘I’d rather not say.’
His reluctance to discuss the issue is difficult to comprehend given his erstwhile tireless opposition to theocratic statism, of which ISIS was by its own definition the exemplar.
It is even more difficult when one remembers that he was outspoken on the Begum question specifically, as far back as 2019. In response to a BBC article which referenced a previous interview with her, he tweeted:
This, one might say, is quite strident. In which case, why did he feel unable to be similar with Morgan, to robustly convey his thoughts and afterwards qualify them according to the nuances of the case? He is surely more informed than most people on the matter, many of whom are less willing to make concessions than even he was four years ago. And yet instead he further excused himself from the debate saying he ‘hasn’t studied it enough’.
‘There are areas which you would prefer not to discuss?’ Morgan went on to ask.
‘Yes. I should have said that before we started.’
This was another troubling statement. But what made the moment more so in general was Dawkins’ demeanour, which had shifted from playful to withdrawn, to the point where he barely voiced his monosyllabic demurrals. Eventually, even Piers Morgan, clearly nonplussed at having avoided the fireworks promised by his intro, felt it appropriate to move to another line of questioning.
As a great admirer of Dawkins, it is disappointing to see that he no longer feels comfortable expressing an opinion on certain topics, especially when it is called upon and in a conducive environment. Indeed, at the very start of the interview on Piers Morgan Uncensored, the host put the programme’s premise direct to the interviewee:
‘I assume you will be uncensored?’ To which Dawkins replied, ‘Of course.’
Overriding this disappointment, however, is uncondescending sympathy. It cannot have been easy to be ‘the face’ of New Atheism in the age of new extremism and the incessant threat that comes with it. Nor to have survived long enough to see the actuation of this threat against friends no less, as in the case of Salman Rushdie (as far as someone in hiding across thirty years can have friends).
Further still, he has been let down immensely by those who should have stood by him, most notably the American Humanist Association who, in 2021, withdrew the award they had given him after he pointed out inconsistencies between transgender and transracial rhetoric.
That he, at 82, is still engaged in such debates at all is testament to his enduring commitment to truth and reason. But by the same measure, he is an increasingly lonely voice, among the last of a generation of rigorous thinkers who have either fallen away around him or been forcibly removed from public life. It is only natural that his thoughts would turn to the legacy of his prolific output, which, as he reminds us, contains only two books about religion. He has much more left to defend.
As Hitchens went on to say in 2011: ‘It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.”’
More than a decade on, Professor Dawkins is still waiting.