Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: this Hobson's not so choice

Last week someone by the name of Theo Hobson expelled a hard, dry turd onto the pages of The Guardian:

Richard Dawkins wants America's atheists to stand up and be counted. He wants them to form a lobby that's capable of challenging the religious culture they inhabit. He says that about 10% of the nation is atheist - if these godless millions unite, then they can begin to influence national politics. Dawkins has even tried to start the ball rolling, by launching a movement called the Out Campaign.


[Quoting Dawkins] "When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous, I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place."


What is it that Dawkins actually wants? On one level the gay rights analogy gives the answer: he wants an end to discrimination against this minority. Apparently Americans distrust atheists more than any other minority group, including homosexuals, recent immigrants, or Muslims. He wants a cultural change, in which atheism becomes seen as a perfectly respectable viewpoint.

But the gay rights analogy is actually less relevant than the Jewish one. The truth is that Dawkins does not want equal rights; he wants what he says that the Jewish lobby has: disproportionate influence. If atheists had more political power, "the world would be a better place". He wants the gospel of atheism to spread; he wants it to change the culture. (Theo Hobson, The Guardian; hat tip, the redoubtable Austin Cline)

The easiest way to respond to this is to restore some of the context from which Hobson ripped Dawkins's views (it's a long pull quote but I want you to see the violence Hobson did to those views):

The OUT campaign has potentially as many sides to it as you can think of words to precede "out". "Come OUT" has pride of place and is the one I have so far dealt with. Related to it is "Reach OUT" in friendship and solidarity towards those who have come out, or who are contemplating that step which, depending on their family or home town prejudices, may require courage. Join, or found local support groups and on-line forums. Speak OUT, to show waverers they are not alone. Organize conferences or campus events. Attend rallies and marches. Write letters to the local newspaper. Lobby politicians, at local and national level. The more people come out and are known to have done so, the easier will it be for others to follow.

Stand OUT and organize activities and events in your local area. Join an existing local neighbourhood atheist organization, or start one. Put a bumper sticker on your car. Wear a T-shirt. Wear Josh's red A if you like it as much as I do, otherwise design your own or find one on a website such as; or wear no shirt at all, but please don't carp at the very idea of standing up to be counted with other atheists. I admit, I sympathize with those sceptics on this site who fear that we are engendering a quasi-religious conformity of our own. Whether we like it or not, I'm afraid we have to swallow this small amount of pride if we are to have an influence on the real world, otherwise we'll never overcome the 'herding cats' problem. If in doubt, read PZ Myers's exuberant hortation at

"Keep" OUT worried me at first, because it sounds unfriendly and exclusive, like the Barcelona Travel Agent whose travel poster, in well-meant English, read "Go Away!" "Keep OUT" here means, of course, keep religion out of science classes, and similar expressions of the US constitutional separation between church and state (Britain has no such separation, unfortunately). As yet another delightful T-shirt put it, "Don't pray in our school, and I won't think in your church." Lobby your local school board. Quote Christopher Hitchens: "Mr Jefferson, build up that wall."

Chill OUT (exhort others to do so). Atheists are not devils with horns and a tail, they are ordinary nice people. Demonstrate this by example. The nice woman next door may be an atheist. So may the doctor, librarian, computer operator, taxi driver, hairdresser, talk show host, singer, conductor, comedian. Atheists are just people with a different interpretation of cosmic origins, nothing to be alarmed about.

What other OUTs might we imagine? Well, suggest your own. Vote OUT representatives who discriminate against the non-religious, the way George Bush Senior is alleged to have done when he described atheists as non-citizens of a nation "under God". Politicians follow where the votes are. They can only count atheists who are OUT. Some atheists are defeatist in thinking we'll never be effective simply because we're not a majority. But it doesn't matter that we're not a majority. To be effective, all we have to be is recognizable to legislators as a big enough minority. Atheists are more numerous than religious Jews, yet they wield a tiny fraction of the political power, apparently because they have never got their act together in the way the Jewish lobby so brilliantly has: the famous 'herding cats' problem again. And the argument applies not just to politicians but to advertisers, the media, merchants across the board. Anyone who wants to sell us anything caters to demographics. We need to stand up and be counted, so that the demographically savvy culture will come to reflect our tastes and our views. That in turn makes it easier for the next generation of atheists. Fill OUT 'Atheist' on any form that asks for your personal details, especially the next census form. (Richard Dawkins, The Out Campaign, my emphasis)

Dawkins expressed these same views in the interview from which Hobson quotes. It's obvious Dawkins is referring to the Israel lobby, although blurring the distinction between Jewish interests and Israeli interests has been a deliberate, conscious and successful tactic of the Israel lobby since the outset. But covert accusation of anti-Semitism, even when veiled, is still a potent rhetorical device, and Hobson doesn't hesitate. In this regard he is the same kind of bottom feeder as AIPAC and he freely borrows their weapons.

Then there's this:

I have been chided in the past for referring to the "militant" atheism of Dawkins and his like. But the desire for one's creed to spread, in order to make the world a better place, surely merits the label. Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed. (Theo Hobson)

The last part, of course, is nothing short of a lie. That a religious zealot like Hobson would have a high tolerance for untruthfulness is not surprising, as promoting falsehoods is their stock in trade. But for the record, Dawkins has unequivocally denied he is in favor of the legal sanctions or coercions Hobson claims he promotes. Austin Cline also highlights the first part, just as outrageous:

Anyone who would claim that simply wanting a viewpoint to spread in order to improve things "surely merits" the label "militant" has passed far outside the boundaries of reasonable discourse or any sort of thinking that is restricted by basic logic. (Austin Cline)

Who the hell is Theo Hobson? Wikipedia describes him as some sort of maverick Protestant theologian ("post-Anglican"):

His principal interests are the relationship between Protestant Christianity and secularism, which he believes is more positive than is generally understood; the relationship between theology and literature; and the post-ecclesial renewal of worship. He thinks that large-scale carnival-style celebration must replace church worship. (Wikipedia)

I'll give him this much: Anyone who wants to replace a church service with a bacchanalia can't be all bad.


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Dawkins' comment even in context isn't really so great. Note that a) There isn't some magical unified "Israel lobby" but rather a variety of different groups with different interests and goals. b) The strength of this lobby(even as a loose collection) is simply put, wildly exaggerated. For example, if it were nearly as strong as many people seem to think Egypt wouldn't be getting nearly as much US military aid as it does. (to the tune of a few billion dollars a year). c) I'd be inclined to argue that the herding cats problem applies about as much to getting Jews to do something in a coordinated problem as it does atheists. d) Many of the people involved in this lobbying effort (such as those involved with AIPAC) are not religious but rather only culturally connected to Israel. Indeed, some of AIPAC's higher ups are in fact agnostics and atheists. And many of the most religious Jews, the Charedim, generally either don't support the state of Israel or are actively against it. e) While some groups such as AIPAC have confused the matter by deliberately combining being Jewish with supporting Israel, many actual anti-Semites make the same equation for their own purposes. Moreover, while it is true that anti-Israel sentiments are not the same as anti-Semitism, they are often interconnected.

On the whole, I suspect that Dawkins simply choose a poor example help his basic point across. This isn't the first time I've seen Dawkins do that so I'm much inclined to interpret his remarks in the most favorable light possible.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

Joshua: I don't think the point (as you acknowledge) is the Israel lobby itself. That's something that is debatable. Dawkins's point was that you don't have to be a huge group to have influence and he deliberately chose a group with religious connections. Evangelicals are not a coherent group either (on any level) but they have a group influence in politics. Many of the things that concern atheists about religion have to do with it being forced on us through political means (e.g., the school system) so Dawkins's example is appropriate. Unfortunately anything to do with the "Jewish lobby" (aka the Israel Lobby) is a political third rail in the US and Hobson knows this and took advantage of it.

So... according to Hobson's definition, is there anyone who isn't militant?

He clearly thinks his views on Dawkins are well-thought-out and wants to see them spread, otherwise he wouldn't have published them in the Guardian. Therefore he's a militant anti-Dawkinsist.

But I'm here criticising Hobson. I clearly want my anti-Hobsonian views to spread. So I'm militant too.

It turns out the only people who aren't militant are those who don't say a damn thing. Thus, his remarks neatly reduce a request that those uppity atheists gag themselves in public.

Cork: Yours is exactly the point Austin Cline made. His commentary is always worth reading. I included the link to him in the post.

Theo Hobson's contributions occasionally pop up in the "Comment is Free" (and worth every penny) section at The Guardian. No one will ever accuse him of being a public intellectual.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 07 Oct 2007 #permalink

For what it's worth, I agree with Orac's recent post on this. Along with the infamous debacle that came to a boil when he signed an ill-worded petition that many took as calling for prohibiting religious instruction to children, this is another example of Dawkins' political ineptitude. I like Dawkins, his writing and what he's doing for secularism right now, but he should damn well know better than to mindlessly meander about the "Jewish lobby" in American politics. Along with being a completely inaccurate characterization of what is really a multifaceted pro-Israel lobby, this left him a sitting duck for accusations of antisemitism.

Tyler: None of us worry about how multifaceted the Christian Right is or that Evangelicals are a heterogeneous group, etc. They have a lot of influence on American politics and we talk about it that way. Dawkins ran afoul of a double standard here. The fact that what he meant is so patently obvious and non-noxious yet he is taken to task for it is about as obvious a demonstration as you can get of the power of the lobby. If atheists' opinions counted for that much it would be a different world. His point exactly. I, for one, will not criticize him for saying the obvious. Remember that the next time you blithely talk about how the Christian right is screwing up our country. It is and you should be able to say it out loud without having your motives, judgment and character impugned. EVen if they are a multifaceted problem and it's an inaccurate characterization. But it isn't "completely inaccurate" and neither is what Dawkins said.


The "Christian Right" is far more specific and monolithic than a generic "Jewish Lobby". In terms of its actual political goals, the multifaceted nature of the Christian Right goes about as far as the willingness of secular elements of the American Right to exploit them for votes. "Jews", however, are a broad group which represents a whole spectrum of political opinion on mid-east foreign policy. An analogous comparison would be if someone "blithely" remarked that Christians are screwing up our country, which would in fact be bigoted. Furthermore, speaking of a "Jewish lobby" in as broad of terms as Dawkins does invokes a long standing and pernicious myth of Jewish control over political affairs. It just wasn't wise, Dawkins screwed up big time.

Tyler: You are entitled to your view. I know there is a huge spectrum of political opinion amongst Jews. I am a Jew. But the political pressure is not applied by those of us who think AIPAC and the ADL are a bunch of thugs. There are many, many liberal Christian Evangeilicals. Like my views, their views have not counted. Yes, Dawkins stepped in it. But what he stepped in was a pile of shit. So he got hurt by it in some quarters. But we shouldn't help them hurt him but fight back on his behalf, not be taken in by the same nonsense.

The fact that what he meant is so patently obvious and non-noxious yet he is taken to task for it is about as obvious a demonstration as you can get of the power of the lobby.

But it's neither "patently obvious" nor "non-noxious," revere. Not at all. First off, the "Jewish lobby" (as Dawkins unfortunately called it) does not monopolize U.S. foreign policy. If it did, we wouldn't be giving billions of dollars a year in military aid to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Whether Dawkins realizes it or not, he's used phraseology very similar to the vilest of anti-Semitic bigots, with his conflating of the pro-Israel lobby with a nonexistent "Jewish lobby" and the insinuation that Jews control U.S. foreign policy. This is not a case of being excessively sensitive, as you would know if you were more familiar with anti-Semitic codewords. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dawkins' quote showing up on anti-Semitic websites before too long.

Personally, I'm hoping Dawkins' mis-step is due to cluelessness.

It's a bad analogy to boot. It's a bad analogy because whatever power the pro-Israel lobby has relies largely on an alliance with fundamentalist Christian Zionists who believe that the State of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Atheists do not have such a a passionate, religiously-inspired ally, nor can they expect one. The analogy just doesn't hold water.

Joshua and Tyler have it right.

Dawkins stepped in it. But what he stepped in was a pile of shit. So he got hurt by it in some quarters. But we shouldn't help them hurt him but fight back on his behalf, not be taken in by the same nonsense.

Fight back on behalf of a stupid analogy and an ignorant statement? I don't think so.

orac: I couldn't disagree more. Maybe it isn't patently obvious to you, but it is to me. Obviously the word "monopolize" is not meant literally (there is no sense in which a literal interpretation could make sense). To deny that the Israel lobby (which does its best to blur the distinction between Jews and Israel) has tremendous and effective influence on US foreign policy is to be willfully blind to the obvious. The Israel lobby doesn't control Mid East foreign policy totally but they influence them powerfully and in a way very detrimental to the people of the Middle East, including the people of Israel. They have been given a pass by too many and you are an example. Worse, you are accusing others of anti-Semitism (implicitly by expressing doubt about Dawkins). The power of the Israel lobby is not just the alliance with the Christian Right. Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Dem leadership aren't pawns of the Christian Right but they are too cowardly to go against the Israel lobby. Attacking Dawkins over that statement is unintended and unnecessary collusion with the enemies of rationality. Personally I am hoping it is due to a case of cluelessness on your part.

Attacking Dawkins over that statement is unintended and unnecessary collusion with the enemies of rationality. Personally I am hoping it is due to a case of cluelessness on your part.

Actually, I was hoping that your defending Dawkins so strongly over such a careless statement was a case of cluelessness on your part. Methinks your extreme dislike of Israeli policy, coupled with your admiration of Dawkins, has blinded you. I know you'll never buy this, but as someone who favors a two-state solution designed around a compromise in which Israel retains more or less what it had pre-1967, I find your in essence calling me a dupe of the pro-Israel lobby or implying that I'm too "cowardly" to criticize Israel offensive by mentioning me in the same sentence as Nancy Pelosi.

I take back not a single word of what I said, either here or at my post on the topic. In fact, having checked back so much later due to seeing a couple of hits come in from this post overnight, I'm now disturbed that you seem utterly unable to comprehend why a reasonable person who is not a Zionist or even Jewish might see what Dawkins said as sounding at least borderline anti-Semitic and that I explicitly stated that I wasn't accusing Dawkins of anti-Semitism (having seen no history that would lead me to think that of him) but only of a tin ear.

More's the pity.