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The Selfish Genius?

15/03/2013 13:40 GMT | Updated 13/05/2013 10:12 BST

I've been meaning to write about the Richard Dawkins brand of atheism for a while, but today is definitely the day, after watching the great man's Twitter feed pronounce on the superior worth of an adult pig over a human foetus. I'm not sure I follow his argument, but actually that's not my point. I'm interested in his motivation.

Dawkins loves to tweet and does so copiously, but the impression we get of this great zoologist, geneticist and communicator of science, is of an irritable and combative eccentric. The elegant arguments he made in The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion (that given time, space and the laws of physics, there is no need for an old man in the sky to explain how we, and the universe, got here) are not reducible to 140 characters.

What we get from him instead are tweets of this quality:

Last September, on the Nadia Eweida case on wearing a crucifix at work (which Ms Eweida eventually won):

Such fun being a victim. Waaaah, I'm allowed to wear my crossywoss only INSIDE my BA uniform, where only God can see it.

Last month:

God wants to cure your cancer. But only if you pray lots and lots. Oh, and he's very sorry he gave it to you in the first place.

There was a post the other day about leprechauns and mushrooms, but I think it has been deleted. And this week:

With respect to those meanings of "human" that are relevant to the morality of abortion, any fetus is less human than an adult pig

Which he later explained by saying that the ability to feel pain is his only criterion for whether abortion is defensible:

Pig doesn't have human DNA, human potential or human IQ. It probably does have human capacity to feel pain. Aborted fetus probably doesn't

Dawkins generally uses faultless logic, although I'm not sure about the pig / foetus argument, because I don't remember anyone guaranteeing that a condition of human life is that we should always be free of physical pain. I profoundly agree with him on the rightness of atheism and the outrage that is creationist teaching. He's also extremely brave with his comments on Islam, a position which many commentators are frightened to take. But I do wonder who his Twitter feed and his adversarial attitudes are aimed at. As long as he maintains his embittered disgust with religion and its adherents, he will not convert many of the devout to atheism. Religious leaders learned centuries ago that the way to win people over to their way of thinking is to make them feel that they are valued and that they belong. The deployment of a scalpel-sharp logic and a childishly mocking tone of voice is never going to convince anyone to change their world view. There's a reason why we use the phrase 'hearts and minds' when we talk about convincing people. One needs to appeal to both.

Maybe Dawkins suffers from empathy failure, and some unresolved issues which he externalises as verbal aggression, in which case he probably doesn't understand the effect his derision has on the poor faithful; or he does understand, but he just doesn't care how he makes people feel. Either way, he's not winning converts to his admirable cause by a level of debate that even Glasgow University Union would be ashamed of. The other possibility is that he doesn't mind if nobody joins him to fight under the banner of enlightenment, he just likes to pontificate for his own aggrandisement, and too bad if he makes anyone angry, or miserable, or even more entrenched in their peculiar beliefs than before.

I must have been out of the country when we awarded Richard Dawkins the Atheist Papacy. I certainly didn't get my ballot paper. I'm convinced that this man does the cause of rationalist progress at least as much harm as good, because of the way he goes about his evangelical activities. The scorn and contempt he pours out on believers in his twitter feed is not going to win hearts and minds, but I'm not sure that Dawkins cares too much about that, as long as he gets a pulpit to preach from.

In case he does care about the effect of his tweets of the faithful, here's some advice for Dawkins, from the Gospel According to Bananarama:

It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it / that's what gets results.