Dawkins and liberal racism

Dawkins and liberal racism

Some quick comments on the latest 'shit Dawkins says on Twitter' row.

Some of you may have noticed the row over Richard Dawkins' latest comments on Twitter, where he took an arbitrary swipe at the achievements of muslims (all of them):

His comments, and subsequent defence of them, have been hammered by everyone from The Telegraph to the New Statesman to the post-nihilist ultra-left. I don't have much to add in terms of debunking his comments. Rather, I want to pick up on Dawkins' claim racism is limited to claims of an "innate inferiority of intellect" of some group.

By coincidence, I've been reading David Theo Goldberg's 'The Racial State'. I'm only part way through, but there's an excellent historical account of the emergence of racial thought which illustrates the current example well. Goldberg argues that in the history of racial thought, which emerges more or less with modernity in general, and the modern state in particular, there have been two main currents: naturalism and historicism.

Naturalism refers to the idea of inherent biological differences between 'races'. Typically these would be hierarchical, with 'whites' at the top, though there are some dubious variants of 'different but equal' knocking around parts of the far right. This is what Dawkins, and pretty much everybody, recognises as racism. When people say 'I'm not racist, but', this is usually what they're disavowing.

Historicism refers to the idea of cultural superiority, of more advanced civilisations. In principle, backwards, uncivilised people could attain civilisation if they abandon their backwards culture and adopt the civilised standards of the West. No claim to innate superiority/inferiority is made here.

Goldberg illustrates this with an argument between Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, in essays - originally published anonymously - on 'the negro question'. Written in the mid-19th century, Carlyle typifies the naturalist position, while JS Mill critiques him from the historicist one.

The point here is that there's a long history of enlightened, paternalistic, liberal racism, to which Dawkins' comments are endogenous. His bluster about 'sociologists' arrogantly defying the dictionary1 therefore only reveals his ignorance of the history of 'race', which has always been a social category bound up with state formation and colonialism, in both its historicist form and when it's had scientific, naturalist pretensions.2

  • 1. LOL, Dawkins appealing to an infallible textual authority rather than reasoned argument.
  • 2. e.g. see Mr Enlightenment himself, Immanuel Kant.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Aug 11 2013 08:55


  • There's a long history of enlightened, paternalistic, liberal racism, to which Dawkins' comments are endogenous.

Attached files


Aug 16 2013 15:13

It may be just a coincidental juxtaposition, but there's also something more than a little stomach-churning about the "new atheists" like Dawkins being smug about how enlightened the "enlightened" West is, with all its commitment to secular virtues like democracy and pluralism, at the very time when the West is publically exposed as supporting the military coup and massacres of unarmed islamist civilians in Egypt at the moment. "Restoring democracy" John Kerry calls the actions of the Egyptian military. Jesus fuck. You'd have to say the global credentials of the superior "secular, democratic" values of the West over the "benighted" muslims of the Middle East, are not looking too hot atm...

Mike S.
Aug 16 2013 19:46

More shite from the atheist "community".


He basically says "extremists" are the majority within Islam.

Aug 18 2013 10:45

Folks may be interested to read Richard Dawkins perspective on the recent 'Nobel Prize-Islam-Trinity College' related controversy. On balance I take him on his word about what he was trying to get at in the original twitter, others may understandably come to other conclusions. Either way it’s worth a read:


Aug 19 2013 00:05

I'm sorry...I don't get it....Dawkins, to me, is a bigot not a racist...he is commenting on a religious/cultural group as misunderstood by another religious/cultural group that he belongs to...even though he believes his god is dead or never existed in the first place...I have a dear friend who is Jewish ...they see their religious/cultural beliefs as being a race... I say they are European at which they get quite mad and not speaking Hebrew themselves I'd say they are not semetic which only infuriates them further so I avoid the subject as much as possible...these people suffer prejudice define glut but to my way of thinking this is not racism....I allow of course that I may be completely wrong and am open to being corrected....

Aug 22 2013 13:09
teh wrote:

There is nothing unusual about Dawkins being defended by a Pakistani "secularist" any more then that, as was mentioned, one of Dawkins's top Muslim critics said the exact same thing about Muslims and the Nobel prize as Dawkins. These are educated Westernized upper class persons and its no more unusual then a Soviet educated technocrat living a friendly or neutral country in "third world" during the Cold War saying that the Soviet system is the height of modernization that is to be emulated.

Hmm. Here's another article from a Pakistani secularist site (taken from the CEMB thread). I don't know enough to say how accurate it is.

Science and Muslims: myths & clichés

Aug 24 2013 17:38
Mr. Jolly wrote:
Interesting that actually anarchists don't seem that arsed about religion anymore as a malevolent force. Probably because it has little power in the countries/communities they speak from.

As far as I can make out this is quite different with anarchists from the arab countries, at least. There's also quite a bit of interest in reconciling anarchism and Islam, but either way questions of religion and secularism seem pretty central.

Edit: As regards the left and secularism here I found this article interesting, if maybe a bit dated:

Secularism is hardly the preserve of the left anymore, where it is often anxiously seen as potentially anti-religious and therefore anti-minority...

Nov 12 2013 10:52

At least 40 are meeting in Istanbul, perhaps a dozen in Ankara and others in İzmir, Eskisehir, Antalya, İzmit, Gebze, and can you name other places?

Jason Cortez
Nov 12 2013 12:28
Choccy wrote:
Decent response from incoming New Humanist editor

Good article but the comments are depressing.

Apr 27 2014 17:14