Richard Dawkins sure does a fine job of placing sticks of dynamite under people’s chairs and blowing them up. I’ve been out of town and I haven’t even had net access for the past day, so nobody can blame me for this latest round of anti-atheist outrage going on in these parts.
Dawkins’ latest op-ed suggesting an alternative reason for not assassinating people like Saddam Hussein was more than enough to provoke frantic scurrying in these parts. Barbara calls him a “fundamentalist atheist” (that tired old slander), Chris is horrified that Dawkins seems to feel “justified in objectifying Hussein” (scientific curiousity being so much more awful than the political objectification that goes on), John talks about “the value of justice over science” (where, of course, the non-scientific approach has certainly demonstrated its nuanced appreciation of justice in this case), and Mike simply agrees with the critics.
I’m not impressed with the complaints. I don’t see that Dawkins was suggesting that the only reason Hussein should have been spared was because of his utility as a guinea pig; what is clear from the very first sentence of his piece was that there are many valid, obvious objections to the executions, and that all he was doing is adding one more small objection. I think that what he actually did was toss out one example of a purely scientific motivation for committing a moral act, the sparing of a man’s life, as part of the whole parcel of demonstrating that an atheist’s and scientist’s position is not an amoral one. I am amused at the people who are freaking out over his comments, as if they represent some horribly evil idea, when the contrast is with a bunch of people who joyfully killed a man while chanting politial and religious slogans. Get some perspective here; who has committed the amoral act?
Just to be on the up and up, Dawkins bounced the op-ed off me and some other people before publishing it. I suggested that there were a lot of people who had their minds made up and weren’t going to react positively to the suggestion at all (yes, I am prescient), but that it was a novel twist that might resonate with a minority of the readers. I did disagree with one thing; I didn’t think studying Hussein would have taught us much. I said,
I’d be more inclined to see a study of the political and social environment in which tyrannical thugs, which are dime-a-dozen, can rise to power as more productive than trying to figure out what’s going on in the head of a petty dictator.
Now that I think on it, though, I realize that we’re also in the middle of demolishing that political/social environment and putting an even more pathological one in its place, so maybe Iraq is one big scientific experiment. Not a benign one like Dawkins’ suggestion that actually makes an excuse for not killing someone, but a grand nation building experiment that in the mind of the anti-science right justifies mass murder and destruction.
Again, I’m baffled by the reaction to a hypothetical observation that demands that we don’t kill, compared to the ongoing massive moral imperative to kill without regret.