Monday, 22 April 2013

Dawkins and the Flying Horse

When religious people complain about Richard Dawkins, they generally have in mind a crude caricature of a sneering, simplistic, arrogant, complacent, rich, intolerant, unimaginative mocker of other people's beliefs. And caricature it is, to anyone who has read the man's finer books or listened to him engage in polite and respectful debate with, for example, Rowan Williams or Jonathan Sacks. (A few weeks ago I was at an event which featured the latter two and remember thinking at one point, What a shame Dawkins isn't here.)

But then Dawkins' Twitter persona is scarcely less of a caricature.

Recently, for example, he complained about his tube train being delayed because, according to an announcement, a passenger had been "taken ill". Why should a sick passenger cause a delay? he wondered. It took others to point out to him that the phrase was code for a very serious medical emergency.

Yesterday, he wondered whether it was appropriate for the New Statesman to print "as a serious journalist" articles by its former political editor Mehdi Hasan, a man who "admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse." Rejecting the inevitable accusations of Islamophobia (as well as the comment by Tom Watson MP that he was "a gratuitously unpleasant man") Dawkins went on to claim that he was merely drawing attention to double standards where religious beliefs are concerned. ("Oh for goodness' sake, I didn't say Muslims can't be journalists. I questioned the credibility of a man who believes in winged horses.")

Al Buraq, the "winged horse" that carried Mohammed to heaven

According to Andrew Brown, "the real comedy comes when he lifts his face from the pie, dripping scorn and custard, to glare at the audience who can't see how very rational he is. Because there are some people who don't understand that everything Dawkins says illuminates the beauty of reason." Sunny Hundal has also leapt on board, accusing Dawkins of indulging in "a bizarre rant" and of turning into "a pathetically confused bigot".

But neither of these pieces is much more helpful than Dawkins' own Tweets in getting to the bottom of this little spat.

For clarity, and at the risk of making it all seem rather more considered than it appeared at the time, here is a tidied-up version of Dawkins' argument regarding Hasan and the winged horse. The words are his but I've changed the order somewhat and removed the names of other Twitter users who engaged him in debate.

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. It's true. He admitted it to me in person and now he has repeated it in print. And the New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist. Would you take seriously a man who believed in fairies at the bottom of his garden? You'd ridicule palpably absurd beliefs of any other kind. Why make an exception for religion? Why?

Conan Doyle did indeed believe in fairies. And has been rightly ridiculed for it ever since. Isaac Newton believed in various occult things. But he did not believe in a winged horse. Yes, a talking snake is as ridiculous as a winged horse. But respectable religious journalists don't believe in a talking snake.

Some people might see no problem with going to a dentist who believes in the tooth fairy. They are welcome. I would change my dentist.

Mehdi Hasan talks a remarkable amount of good sense on most issues. But he believes in a winged horse. A winged horse! The amazing paradox is that the same individual can be very sensible on most things yet believe in a winged horse.

What intrigues me is the double standard whereby we all happily ridicule daft beliefs EXCEPT when protected by the label "religion". A believes in fairies. B believes in winged horses. Criticise A and you're rational. Criticise B and you're a bigoted racist islamophobe. The people disagreeing with me think winged horse is just as absurd as I do. Someone suggests he doesn't truly believe in the winged horse but has to pretend. I'd like to believe that because he's a nice guy and good writer.

Last word: Mehdi's absurd belief in winged horse deserves ridicule. But his being a Muslim of course does not mean NS shouldn't hire him.

That "last word" reads like some kind of climbdown, given the initial complaint that "the New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist." But I don't want to waste time making the obvious point that someone can be competent in one field while holding eccentric or irrational views about something else, especially since Dawkins himself appears to have conceded it. (I'd just say that even a dentist who believed in the tooth fairy could still be a perfectly competent dentist.)

You may, though, be wondering just where this winged horse business comes from.

It's not clear to me why Dawkins' Twitter rant happened yesterday, given that the encounter which provoked it took place last year. Hasan wrote about it in the Huffington Post in December in an article the main purpose of which was to argue that religion was rational, or at least not irrational. Here's how it began:

You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?" That was the question posed to me by none other than Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago, in front of a 400-strong audience at the Oxford Union. I was supposed to be interviewing him for al-Jazeera but the world's best-known atheist decided to turn the tables on me.

So what did I do? I confessed. Yes, I believe in prophets and miracles. Oh, and I believe in God, too. Shame on me, eh? Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have "belief in something without evidence". This, however, is sheer nonsense. Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

Slight ambiguity here. Does Mehdi Hasan believed in winged horses or not? You can watch the encounter on YouTube.

"Do you believe that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse?  I'll do you the compliment of assuming that you don't."
"No I do. I believe in miracles."
"You believe that Mohammed went to heaven on a winged horse?"
"I believe in God. I believe in miracles. I believe in revelation."

Again, Hasan certainly implied that he believed in the winged horse story, but he didn't explicitly affirm it, either.  In a Tweet yesterday he finally declared that he was "not sure if I even do believe in winged horses but I do - Hot Chocolate! - believe in miracles."

To be fair to Dawkins, Hasan gave the distinct impression that he believed something that's patently ridiculous; and his attempt to make it seem all part of some wider, less obviously daft, belief in God and miracles was a bit clumsy.

It's worth asking at this point what belief in Mohammed's winged horse would actually entail. We're not talking about the general existence of Pegasus-like creatures. The existence of such a mythical beast isn't merely unsupported by scientific evidence, it would break all the laws of aerodynamics. Rather, the reference is to the significant event in Mohammed's life known as the Night Journey. In Islamic tradition, at one point in his ministry Mohammed was spirited at night to Jerusalem and thence taken on the tour of the heavens in the company of the Archangel Gabriel. In the course of the journey, which has structural similarities to that described in Dante's Paradiso, the prophet has meetings with Biblical characters including Moses and John the Baptist. The most significant part of the story, from the theological point of view, comes when Allah makes a demand that human beings pray fifty times a day. Mohammed, with a bit of help from Moses, argues that this would be a bit much, and succeeds in haggling his way down to what became the canonical Islamic practice of five prayers a day.

The story is alluded to in the Koran, but the fullest accounts are two passages in the Hadiths (the collected sayings of the Prophet, which have the status of secondary scriptures in Islam). They are fascinating in themselves. The story has features that many people would instantly recognise as shamanistic. As in a shamanic initiatory ordeal, for example, Mohammed's body is broken down and reassembled: "A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief."

We are clearly in the realm of visionary experience. The journey takes place, by Mohammed's own account (as recorded in the Hadith) "while I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness." The Night Journey might be described in modern terms as a lucid dream; certainly the prophet seems to have been in a state of consciousness associated with strange experiences, a state in which modern people sometimes report alien visitations or out-of-body experiences and earlier generations had encounters with hobgoblins and vampires. The commonest form of the experience is known as sleep paralysis: if it's happened to you, you know exactly what it involves. If you haven't, imagine being fully conscious while under general anaesthetic and struggling, but failing, to move.

The prophet's mode of transport, we are informed, was Al Buraq, described as a white animal, "smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey." The texts don't explicitly say it was a horse (in fact, it seems to be smaller than a horse); they merely offer equine comparators as to the scale. However, in art Al Buraq is invariably depicted as something like a flying horse (usually with a human face, indeed, which would make Dawkins even more apoplectic, I suspect). Again, Al Buraq seems to have shamanic antecedents. Comparison might also be made with Sleipnir, the eight-hoofed horse of Odin in the Norse myths.

As should be obvious from all this, to believe in the Night Journey is not at all the same as believing in a flying horse in a literal, physical sense. Rather it is to believe that Mohammed was vouchsafed a vision of heaven, a vision that was more real than an ordinary dream, a vision that came from God and that may therefore be described as being "real". To suggest that, in his physical body, Mohammed climbed astride a physical winged horse and was carried to first from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence through the seven heavens, where he had physical encounters with physical dead prophets and was then ushured in the presence of an equally corporeal Allah, with whom he proceeded to haggle like an Arabian carpet salesman, would be absurd indeed. I don't think Mehdi Hasan actually believes that (though he's free to correct me) and I don't think any other Muslim believes that either.

To believe in the Night Journey in this literal sense would entail more than the existence of a magical horse. It would entail belief in a cosmological set-up that was disproved when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew to the Moon, or indeed when Galileo looked through his telescope. And if the story were literally true God himself would cease to be God and would be just another thing in the universe, sitting up there on his cloud, someone you can go and visit if he lends you his flying horse.

Dawkins is right that a belief in flying horses would not be rendered respectable or beyond by the mere fact that it features in the scriptures of a major world religion, or that it was many people's "sincerely held" belief. And there's plenty one can validly (and far more relevantly) object to in Islam, as there is in other religions. But his singling out of the flying horse story, without apparently bothering to find out what the story relates to or what believing it it actually means, is depressingly typical of his recent descent into attention-seeking superficiality.