Professor Dawkins has the right to express his immature, ignorant and bigoted views,
says Dwight Longenecker. But he is irresponsible to express them so intemperately
hree weeks ago in Exeter a 33-yearold engineer named Alistair Scott was convicted of religiously abusive behaviour. Scott insulted Mohammed Hudaib, a Muslim post-graduate student at Exeter University. Hudaib had said that Osama bin Laden was a great man, and that all Americans were stupid and deserved to die. Mr Scott retaliated by saying he hated Muslims because of the September 11 attacks, and then threatened Hudaib's family.
There are several fascinating questions raised by this case. First of all, one wonders why Mr Hudaib wasn't the one charged. After all, in the present climate, to say that Osama bin Laden is a great man and that all Americans deserve to die, might be construed as dangerous and threatening behaviour. But Hudaib did not break the law because he did not insult Mr Scott's race or religion. Mr Hudaib may have insulted Americans, but he did not attack their religion. The outcome might have been different had Mr Hudaib said to Mr Scott, "all Americans are stupid, fundamentalist Christians who deserve to die, and you're as bad as they are".
Even more interesting are the ramifications of this prosecution. Mr Scott was convicted under the Government's new Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act. Among other things, this quickie legislation inserted some amendments into the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. The Crime and Disorder Act had added more severe penalties to existing crimes if they turned out to be racially motivated. The Act also referred back to the 1986 Public Order Act that had made it a crime to harass, threaten or insult someone because of their race or ethnic origin.
The Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act simply added the words "or religiously" to the clause in the Crime and Disorder Act which had described crimes as "racially aggravated". The result is that one can now be prosecuted for insulting another citizen not only for their race, but also for their religion; and Alistair Scott was the first person to be prosecuted for this crime.
Notice that the two men involved in the Exeter upset were not backstreet thugs. As far as we know, the engineer Mr Scott is not a skinhead white supremacist. Neither is the post-graduate Mr Hudaib an ignorant Islamic extremist. My point is that well educated people may also be found guilty of threatening and religiously insulting behaviour.
This leads me to another well educated person who may be guilty of the same crime. The biologist Richard Dawkins was interviewed recently by the Irish journal, The Dubliner. In the article Professor Dawkins outlined his hatred for the Catholic Church. According to Dawkins the Catholic Church is "one of the forces for evil in the world". He finds the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church deplorable, but claims that such practices are "not so harmful as the grievous mental harm in bringing up a child Catholic in the first place". In other words, any parent who brings their child up as a faithful Catholic is worse than a paedophile. Dawkins expresses delight that seminaries are closing in Ireland. He goes on to accuse the Catholic Church of using "brilliant techniques in brainwashing children". He thinks teaching children to fear hell is a terrible crime and "devoutly hopes" that the Catholic Church will die out.
Should Professor Dawkins be the second person to be prosecuted for religiously abusive behaviour? Barrister Jamie Bogle, who is experienced in defending those who are religiously persecuted, doesn't think so. Bogle said, "It is highly unlikely that Professor Dawkins would be prevented from expressing his views however strongly put. Provided he did not seek to threaten, abuse or insult an individual person for his religious views or racial background".
It is true that Professor Dawkins did not threaten or insult a particular person. He insulted a billion people: the world's Catholics. Furthermore, the legislation now in effect doesn't need to include physical and specific threats. For some time the law has prohibited the publication of any material that is racially abusive, insulting or likely to stir up hatred, and the new legislation widens this prohibition to include material that is religiously abusive.
Does Professor Dawkins' interview published in Ireland fall into this category? Ireland is notorious for its long history of sectarian and religious violence. Couldn't it be argued that publishing such inflammatory views in Ireland is very likely to fuel anti-Catholic hatred and incite further violence? To use a parallel example, how would the authorities feel if Professor Dawkins launched a similarly violent and intemperate attack on the religion of Islam in a magazine that was published in Bradford or Burnley?
Indeed, what would happen if Professor Dawkins were to turn his hatred towards the abusive elements of Islam generally? Muslim parents teach their children about hell. Are they also worse than paedophiles? Extremist Muslims are clearly a "force for evil in the world". If Dawkins applied his same critique to Muslims rather than Catholics would he then be prosecuted for inciting religious hatred?
The question becomes more involved for Professor Dawkins and all of us, because the legislation as it now stands may threaten our freedom of speech. Jamie Bogle says, -My understanding of the new law is that it is intended to circumscribe threats or abuse at a personal level. It is certainly not intended to curtail free speech". In fact, I believe the prosecution of Alistair Scott to be wrong, and I would not wish Professor Dawkins to be prosecuted. Like all of us, Professor Dawkins enjoys freedom of religion and freedom of speech. If his religion happens to be a narrow minded form of atheism, and if his religion thrives, like all bigoted religions, on attacking other forms of belief, then he should be free to express himself. We all have the right to be wrong.
As an American, I would be the first one to defend Professor Dawkins's right to express his views, no matter how immature, ignorant and bigoted they might be. But as an American I was not only taught to defend freedom of religion and freedom of speech. I was also taught that the freedoms were hard won, and that with every right goes a responsibility. All of us are likely to lapse into prejudice and bigotry at times. The mature person admits this tendency and tries to curb it with tolerance. He does not indulge it with violence.