Scientist or preacher? Richard Dawkins in the age of Twitter

Richard Dawkins is one of the most famous intellectuals in the world—what you might call a “public intellectual.” His most popular book, The God Delusion, has sold over three million copies worldwide and cemented Dawkins’ reputation as a leader of modern atheism who speaks, writes, and tweets regularly about the perils of religion. He enjoys greater influence than perhaps anyone else trained as a zoologist.

But a 2015 profile in UK newspaper the Guardian hit on a crucial question; have fame and notoriety harmed Dawkins’ once stellar academic reputation?

Dawkins first made his name with the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, which was groundbreaking in the field of biology, and has remained popular, selling over a million copies to date.

The Selfish Gene is a more purely scientific book than many of Dawkins’ 10 subsequent works, and it sets out the important argument that the genetic code of organisms is designed to prioritize its own survival. It is this “selfish gene” that treats the body of the organism as a kind of “survival machine.” Dawkins’s new thinking about theories of evolution first developed by Darwin made the book hugely influential.

But as Elmhirst points-out, Dawkins’s two most important focuses of Dawkins’ career—promoting science and demolishing religion—may not be quite as complementary as he would like.

Dawkins has become a leading—and unrestrained—voice against religion, even condemning it on Twitter as “an organized license to be acceptably stupid.” He has expanded from his study of evolution and personal atheism to develop a public persona as someone who is against religion and belief in God.

Dawkins is clearly well intentioned. He truly believes that his strict stance against religion is about making the world a better place. He has become active on Twitter over the past few years and, with 1.2 million followers, his tweets reach as many people through Twitter as he does with most of his books.

However, Dawkins’ new medium has proved to have drawbacks for him. By definition many of the people who read his comments on Twitter probably aren’t very well-versed in the nuances of his arguments. Given that it’s hard to make a scientific argument of any complexity in 140 characters, he has arguably put himself in a position where his views are increasingly likely to be misconstrued or outright misunderstood.

The upshot of this is that both his academic peers and the general public now regard Dawkins in a different light. While he was once heralded as a great academic mind, he is now known more as a scathing critic of people’s beliefs and as a minor celebrity.

The issue facing Dawkins is a challenge facing many academics today. The very idea of a public intellectual contains numerous contradictions. A public intellectual must be someone who can command great audiences and make their ideas known far and wide. But most people’s idea of an intellectual is someone isolated, existing in a kind of “ivory tower.” So how can these two ideas come together?

Another great thinker of our time, literary and postcolonial theorist Edward Said, spent the later part of his career grappling with the role and responsibilities of the public intellectual. Similarly to Dawkins, Said had a calling that grew from his scholarship, but wasn’t directly compatible with his academic output.

Said wrote his key work of literary theory, Orientalism, in 1978, then followed it a year later with the more overtly political (and perhaps more personal) The Question of Palestine, in which he put forward his views on the Israel–Palestine conflict and the need for Palestinian self-rule. In taking up the Palestinian cause, Said became the target of a great deal of criticism, and these experiences forced him to examine what it means to be a public intellectual.

In 1993, Said delivered the Reith Lectures—the prestigious annual lecture series broadcast on BBC Radio. In his lectures he probed the idea of the public intellectual, introducing and analyzing the inbuilt contradictions. He begins his first lecture with the following declaration that applies brilliantly to Dawkins:

“There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world. Nor is there only a public intellectual, someone who exists just as a figurehead or spokesperson or symbol of a cause, movement, or position. There is always the personal inflection and the private sensibility, and those give meaning to what is being said or written. Least of all should an intellectual be there to make his or her audiences feel good: the whole point is to be embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.”

Dawkins has become the “figurehead” of a global movement for atheism, and in this role he has taken his “private sensibilities” and used them to challenge audiences in a way that ultimately makes him an “unpleasant” character for many.

But, as Elmhirst concludes, this is probably the way it has to be in order for Dawkins to get his message out: “Dawkins is mostly unconcerned by the possible damage he has inflicted on his reputation, but he has moments of self-doubt. “I genuinely don’t know whether I’m going about it the right way,” he said, in the half-resigned tone of someone who probably couldn’t go about it any other way.”


Get a deeper understanding of Richard Dawkins’ ideas

The individual has one purpose, argues Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene: to be a vessel that ensures the survival of the genes it carries. It’s a book of readable—and controversial—popular science.

Gain a deeper understanding of the ideas in The Selfish Gene, and why the book is still important today, on our easy-to-read expert analysis.