Opinion: Canceling Richard Dawkins’ talk violates KPFA’s claim to ‘free speech radio’

KPFA has taken Dawkins’ comment about Islam out of context; he is critical of all religions. Despite KPFA’s mistake, the author will continue to support the radio station.

When KPFA canceled their scheduled benefit speech by Richard Dawkins, I was deeply unsettled. Why the intense reaction? The announcement was bad timing for those of us hoping to tone down the intolerance and fear that lead to regular street brawls in our town square. Charges of “hate speech” are becoming fighting words in Berkeley. Peacemaking requires we venture outside our bubble. But it goes deeper. I began to realize that my own fears of authoritarianism were stirred up in a very deep way.

KPFA said its’ decision was based upon Dawkins’ use of “abusive” speech towards Muslims. Dawkins, a scientist and atheist, has for many years criticized religion. KPFA dishonestly took his comments out of context, and gave this example: “Islam is the most evil of world religions.” Omitted from the text was his criticism of all religion, his support for Muslims and opposition to the bigoted policies of Trump. His problem with Islam focuses on its’ implication in misogyny, homophobia and violent attacks including against Muslims. Here’s the full context of that quote, which really deserves a fair read

 

Even though I think KPFA screwed up and wish they’d apologize to Dawkins, I’ll continue to support them. It’s still a valuable news source. They’re not perfect, nobody is. Let’s keep everything in perspective.

Keeping things in perspective, yes, one can find tweets and comments from Dawkins that are rude and disrespectful of believers (and women), but it’s an exaggeration to characterize his overall body of work as “bigoted”, or that he singles out Islam. He’s spent much of his life defending against religious based attacks on evolutionary science (creationism). And as an atheist, he’s sensitive to issues of secularism, religious freedom and human rights.

KPFA has the legal right to uninvited him, but the ethical deliberations are more complicated. Regardless of legal rights, is this decision consistent with the spirit of “free speech radio?” Muslims are under attack, but globally, so are women and LGBT people. (E.g. honor killings, forced marriage, murder of abortion providers, execution of gays, widespread imprisonment, battery and rape of women with impunity) How do we defend simultaneously religious practice, the rights of besieged minorities, and human rights? If “hate speech” leads to violent acts, then doesn’t certain “religious speech” also lead to violence? Couldn’t we find sections of the Quran that constitute “hate speech”?

Many folks, including progressives, agree with Dawkins that monotheistic patriarchal religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) are fundamentally misogynistic. Religion is implicated in major outbreaks of violence, throughout history and into the present. Why is this opinion so widespread? Maybe the claim of causality can be supported by the evidence, maybe not. Perhaps Islam is currently the worst violator, perhaps not. (For varying views, see: Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong, Heretic by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Beyond God the Father by Mary Daly)

Most of our thinking is unconscious and affected by the experiences of our early years. Religious institutions and practices are capable of doing tremendous damage. Anger at religious authoritarianism shouldn’t be dismissed as “Islamophobia”. Of course, neither should it be exploited to fuel bigotry. Better to talk it all out.

At the age of 6, I was enrolled in a school where my religious indoctrination, which occurred daily, was enforced by violence. I was taught hierarchy (God over man, man over women, human over nature). Ours was the one true religion and all the non-believers were condemned to hell. I learned about sins against faith: apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, and idolatry. Sexual sins were especially shameful. Women were not treated equally. Punishments for deviance from orthodoxy ranged from immediate physical punishment to excommunication and a painful eternity in hell. I was frequently told bloody stories of martyrdom, presented with hypothetical tests of faith, and promised heavenly rewards if I chose martyrdom. Questions were forbidden. It was a sin to read certain books. Religious authoritarianism surrounded me, cloaked in long black robes, threatening punishment and instilling terror.

As I live in a secular and pluralistic country, when I grew older I learned that faith communities encompass a wider range of practices and beliefs, dispensing compassion as well as abuse. My former religious tradition, Roman Catholicism, includes Dorothy Day and Pope Benedict, the “Nuns on the Bus” (brave social justice champions) and the Holy Inquisition. I think Islam is much the same. Yet, for good reason, I associate religious conservatism, including Islamic, with violence, and so do millions of us. Hey KPFA! I didn’t learn this from right-wing war-mongering politicians. I learned it when I was 6.

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Marg Hall is a Berkeley resident, a former student of theology, a lifelong progressive activist and, despite everything, a supporter of KPFA.