An open letter to the persons who named Richard Dawkins the top thinker in the world

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To the Editor, Prospect Magazine,

Dear sir, it has come to my attention as a citizen of the internet, that your, until recently, esteemed publication has named polemicist Richard Dawkins as number one on your “world thinkers” list for this year.

I understand that this poll is, in essence, well in every sense, a popularity contest, and thus is not really indicative of the intellectual lay of the land… or globe. Even if some 70% of practicing “philosophers” are atheists according to a recent study, Richard Dawkins isn’t even atheism’s top thinker. Alain de Botton, and Lawrence Krauss must surely trump him in the brain stakes. Ricky Gervais tops him in the wit stakes. And Penn Jillette tops him in the making magic appear to happen when he opens his mouth or moves his hands stakes…

Far be it from me, an unpublished writer of an unpopular, by any real measure, blog, to call your judgment into account when it comes to publishing this sort of list after soliciting advice from an expert panel constituted of “the masses” (I understand your survey drew more than “10,000 votes from over 100 countries” in “online polls”) but I just wanted to humbly remind you that this is, after all, the same internet that attempted to send Justin Bieber to North Korea, sent Pit Bull to Alaska, and continues to be enamoured with web polls that present opportunities for Pharyngulation. This feels a lot like one of those events.

You see, dear Prospect, there is a real chance that in proclaiming that the person with a large social media presence is the world’s foremost thinker, in a study that is a result of a poll conducted on the Internet, that you may open yourselves to being considered what the youth of today might call a “numbnuts”… such polls aren’t just open to manipulation, they lend themselves to manipulation, and your analysis of the poll which trumpets the power of social media essentially invites manipulation.

Dawkins, as much more learned people than I – like literary critic Terry Eagleton – would attest, is guilty of a little bit of overreaching when it comes to lambasting his opponents, and underreaching when it comes to, well, thinking… As Eagleton puts it (in the London Review of Books):

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be…

…Dawkins holds that the existence or non-existence of God is a scientific hypothesis which is open to rational demonstration. Christianity teaches that to claim that there is a God must be reasonable, but that this is not at all the same thing as faith. Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster. This is not to say that religious people believe in a black hole, because they also consider that God has revealed himself: not, as Dawkins thinks, in the guise of a cosmic manufacturer even smarter than Dawkins himself (the New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator), but for Christians at least, in the form of a reviled and murdered political criminal. The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God, but this does not mean that after debating the matter at a number of international conferences they decided to endorse the scientific hypothesis that there existed a supreme architect of the universe – even though, as Genesis reveals, they were of this opinion. They had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.”

In Dawkin’s defence – he doesn’t have time to worry about sky fairies, or publishing intellectually credible and honest works – he’s lining his pockets with the proceeds of the angry anti-religious screeds published in the guise of popular science or philosophy books – and as you point out in his bio, appeasing his horde of Twitter disciples with cameo turns on the Simpsons. He is a busy gent. He’s too busy to debate serious opponents, and he’s been far too busy to publish original academic work in a peer reviewed science journal since 1980. You know this. Because your own biography of the world’s leading thinker has almost nothing to say about his capacity as a thinker.

When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.

How deliciously ironic that in trying to feed an internet culture predicated on the popularity of memes, and the sharability of lists, that you’ve given top billing to this English gentleman and then damned him with faint praise. Is this the biography of a leading intellectual? I’ve bolded the bits that refer to his contributions as a “thinker” rather than as a rabid attack dog operating in an area in which he has only the credibility afforded him by his tribe of minions.

37 years ago he had a good idea. And now he’s a crotchety old man with a megaphone. Here are ten “public intellectuals” with more Twitter followers than Dawkins who you might like to consider for next year’s list. I’ve put stars next to the ones who have been on the Simpsons.

  1. Justin Bieber (approx 39.1 million)*
  2. Lady Gaga (approx 37.3 million)*
  3. Katy Perry (approx 36.5 million)*
  4. Rihanna (approx 29.6 million)
  5. Taylor Swift (approx 27.8 million)
  6. Britney Spears (approx 26.9 million)*
  7. Shakira (approx 20.6 million)
  8. Justin Timberlake (approx 20.2 million)* (in N Sync)
  9. J-Lo (approx 18.2 million)
  10. Kim Kardashian (approx 17.8 million)

I hope this helps. I look forward to reading a more rigorously and well thought out (ie not dumb) approach to identifying “world thinkers” in the future. Unless your link bait strategy was to be very clever and ironic and I’ve missed the joke.



An Open Letter to Guy Sebastian about Jesus

Dear Guy,

I like you. Despite myself. I even kind of like your music. I can’t really admit that in public though, but you’ve essentially forced my hand here. Generally, I don’t really like the reality TV music career pathway, but you’ve proven yourself, your music has grown, and you’ve grown on me. I probably said or thought unkind things about your success in the past – and though you’ve never met me, I’m sorry about that…

I’m also sorry to hear that you’re “reconsidering your religion” as this article puts it – that’s a shame. But it’s not like people didn’t see it coming for a while – so it shows real integrity for you to acknowledge your struggles publicly. Thanks for doing that. It must be tough to disappoint the people who have invested lots in you on the basis of your “Christian” brand, but your honesty is refreshing.

Plenty of people will try to point out that not only would you be nothing without the God who gave you the musical talent that you rely on, but that you’d be nothing without the votes you won from Christians who like to vote for Team God, given the opportunity. I’m not going to go there – though I think God gave you your voice, he gives everybody life, breath, and being – and I think, all issues with the reality TV process aside, you’ve earned your musical career. So well done. You used to think this too. Remember when you told the ABC:

“I remember when I was young and um, and at Solid Rock and um, it was when I, I think I’d been to a few meetings already and slowly getting the point, slowly getting to this point where um, where kind of God sort of almost kicked me in the butt and said, you know, this is, this is what I’ve got for you and this is the future I have for you and you can take it or leave it.”

I’m sad to hear you’ve moved away from the spot you occupied during Idol, and the post Idol touring – you were so open about what your faith meant to you, and I always appreciated that. It has to be tough sticking with Jesus when fame, fortune, and opportunity comes knocking – especially in an industry where being a faithful ambassador for Christ, as Paul calls Christians, probably comes not just at a cost in terms of the things you have to say no to, but in the opportunities you might have to turn down, and the career sacrifices you might have to make – not to mention the pressure of consistently needing to turn the glory for your hard earned success back to God… The whole premise of “Idol” makes that difficult. But you were so humble, for so long, and I was really encouraged by that.

I’m sad to hear that you feel like you were lied to. It sucks when people lie to you, or manipulate you, especially when they do it while claiming to speak for God. The God card is no fun. I’m sorry if that happened, if you feel like your popular Christian personality was built on a lie.

You said:

“My views are more based on life and discovery and research than just what I’m told,”

“Because what I was told in regards to so many things was so wrong. I’ve gone from a place where I was told there was one way and only one way, to being more in a place where I don’t think anyone has the right to say what they believe is more important or more significant.”

I found that a pretty interesting take on things. For a couple of reasons… I also wonder why you’ve misrepresented people who oppose gay marriage like you have (you said: “I don’t think anyone has the right to tell someone who they can and can’t be in love with”), typically people who oppose gay marriage are saying something a little more sophisticated than that – they’re saying that being in love with someone isn’t actually the basis for deciding who can marry who… but lets get back to the lies you were told.

I’m really glad you’re interested in a journey of discovery based on research, especially when you say you still believe in God – that’s really the best kind of life – Augustine called it “faith seeking understanding” – I’d really encourage you to make sure you look at who Jesus was, and what he said, and whether the gospels are reliable – read the guys who don’t think that’s true, like Bart Ehrman, and then read the rebuttals… weigh up the evidence. Make a decision. The truth of Christianity hangs on whether Jesus was who he says he was, and did what people said he did – especially the resurrection. If you’re not going to buy that, then eat, drink, and be merry – because not only is Christianity not the way to God, there’s probably no way to God.

The person you’re really questioning when you were told there’s only one way to God is Jesus (well, you could question John’s account of what Jesus said too, but hopefully you’ve done that in your research above)… he says, in John 14:6:

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

That’s a big claim. An arrogant claim. But it’s the claim Jesus makes about himself, not one that people thousands of years later have made up to make some extra dollars out of their church by twisting arms out of joints, or manipulating people with any sort of intolerance building fear mongering.

Jesus claims Christianity is the only way. I think you’re right that we mere mortals can’t claim that. We don’t have that sort of authority – we should probably approach any truth claims with a degree of humility and uncertainty, especially those based on a faith that other people don’t share (that’s probably got some bearing on the gay marriage debate)… if anybody has a right to say that sort of thing though – to make an exclusive claim – it’s the guy who claims to be the son of God. A couple of verses before that quote, Jesus calls God “my father,” and in the next verse he says if people have seen him, they’ve seen God – it’s that sort of position that means, if you take his claims seriously, we have to speak about him as being the exclusive way to God.

You know all this – you’ve believed in God for a long time, you’ve been part of a church for a long time, you’ve called yourself a Christian for a long time (I’m partly writing for other people here – who are wanting to figure out what Christianity means in the context of your statements). I hope you can separate the need for Christians to be tolerant of other beliefs, and the people who hold them, while politely and graciously disagreeing, from the idea that all beliefs are equally valid. Because they can’t be – some contradict each other. It’s a shame that disagreeing with somebody is so often construed as not loving the person these days, don’t you think?

It seems you’ve struggled with the relationship between individual views, and Christianity’s exclusive claims for a while. I read some things you said when you were a Christian, stuff like:

“I think at teenagers at Paradise, they get a real sort of fresh way of looking at God, there’s so many different views on what God should be or what He is and I think it’s a real personal thing, so, so people come to a youth group and they sort of find this freedom and find this um, almost like a, “Ah, man, this is not what I thought it would be like,” and they meet some great people and, and have some great worship and stuff like that and so, yeah.”

That sounds a lot like what you’ve said today.

But then I found this video. Where you said:

“I can search for the rest of my life, but I know I’ve found, in Christ, everything that matters to me. And he is the reason why I do everything I do. He has saved me from a time when I called out his name, and he came and he gave me purpose and he gave me direction. And you know because he lives, and because I know that… we celebrate today that he rose from the dead. And out of that grave he didn’t only become a man, but became a man that took all my sins, took all my worries, and I know I can face any day, no matter what comes, because he lives.”

That’s such a clear articulation of the gospel… you even sound certain there – based on your experience of God’s faithfulness to you when you called out to him. It’s sad that you’ve lost that. It’s sad for the rest of us – we haven’t just potentially lost a brother, but a guy who was prepared to publicly champion Jesus, and what being a follower of Jesus involves…

I just want you know that I prayed for you tonight. That God would give you wisdom as you seek truth, and that you’d find truth at the heart of Christianity – in Jesus – rather than in what other people have told you is necessary. I’m sure others are too. But again, thanks for your honesty – if people were more open about what they believed, and more prepared to have conversations about faith, conversation in our country would be richer for it.

In him,


An open letter to Australia’s Television Networks Regarding the Royal Wedding

Dear Seven, Seven2, Nine, Ten, 11, ABC, SBS, Mate, Go, Gem, 1HD, and anybody I’ve missed,

I don’t care about the royal wedding. I’m sure there are thousands, nay, millions of other men and women out there in the Australian populace who feel the same way. On a scale of one to “I really don’t care about this stupid wedding” I’m about a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I would rather have my eyelids removed with a potato-peeler than keep them peeled to your stupid coverage featuring irrelevancies like Ita Buttrose, and Dame Edna, who you’ve dragged out of the closet to cover the circus. Only it’s not a circus. There are no monkeys. Actual monkeys I could tolerate. I could even tolerate the Arctic Monkeys – and they are British.

The royal family are, always have been, and always will be, an anachronism. Foisted on us by history. Irrelevant except that they adorn our currency, provide us with an annual public holiday for the Queen’s Birthday, and open the Commonwealth Games. Which are like the Olympics, only we win.

Please stop. Resume normal coverage. Stop blabbering on about dresses. British etiquette. Telemovies about the lovely romance of two boring English people. Don’t take me through the empty house that Kate once lived in as though it is news and not just some PR consultant’s attempt to jack up the price of British realty. And stop interviewing the bogans who went to England for the wedding as though they are normal Australians. They are freaks.

I would prefer a bunch of Biggest Loser outtakes, Eddie Macguire game show pilots, anything with Sam Newman, or whatever non-ratings dregs you can drag up to fill the air – even endless repeats of old seasons of NCIS – and I’m sure I’m not alone. This charade has gone too far. I’m calling it what it is. Television for the lowest common denominator, by the lowest common denominator.

If we were to score some sort of public holiday from this process I’m sure we could come to some sort of agreement.

That is all.

P.S – Seriously. Channel 10, I know you think you’re really clever juxtaposing the “food is fuel, not pleasure” mantra of the Biggest Loser with the “we need more butter and amazingly decadent desserts” mantra of MasterChef – but surely some crossover episodes could have been arranged where the contestants from the former learn to eat healthy, but tasty food, and those from the latter learn to cook the same…

That is really all. Seriously.

iPad critics should take a tablet

Aha. Worst. Pun. Ever.

An open letter to whinging geeks,

Whinge. Whinge. Whinge. It seems the more of a tech geek you are the more you don’t like the Apple iPad. It doesn’t do what you want it to do. So it’s a bad device. Wrong. It’s a good device precisely because it’s simple and it will revolutionise the way the rest of the tech world (ie “normal people”) do things online, and read media. You think too small.

You know what. Nobody makes hardware for hardcore geeks. They know you just want to pull it apart, overclock it, or install pirated software. All I hear about from my geek friends, and tech geek blogs, is that the iPad is a terrible piece of equipment and Apple are the anti-tech. Apple have pretty strick policies about what can and can’t be installed on their phones, and now on the iPad. I say good on them. They know their stuff best. Perhaps they don’t want you to install background apps because they’ll slow the processing speed of your phone down and ruin its performance. And then you’ll complain. Because you’re (geeks) whingers. They say (or at least Steve Jobs does) that part of their rationale is to keep pornography out of the hands of children (and adults) and I commend them for that.

Apple didn’t invent the super duper tablet computer that you were wishing for as you sat on Santa’s knee last year. But so what. You’re not their market. You’re such a small corner of the market that you are insignificant, and you’ll probably buy one anyway, just so that you can whinge about it not living up to your expectations. It’s their call. They’re a company. They have responsibilites to shareholders (and customers) to make products that make money. They make money when people want to buy their stuff. People want to buy Apple’s stuff. They’re pretty good at what they do.

If you want a tablet computer that meets your needs – build it yourself. Oh that’s right. You can’t. You’re not capable of fitting everything they do into a manageable size. You’re all talk. For now, you should just obey these ten commandments (when the iPad reaches Australian shores)…