This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Honest Mistakes or Willful Mendacity

Honest Mistakes or Willful Mendacity - Comments

BicycleRepairMan's Avatar Comment 1 by BicycleRepairMan

Hi, you linked to the wrong article, (the Ipod book, instead of the article on Cornwells book), you'd better fix it before he uses it against you ;)

here's the link to the news article on the Cornwell book:,761,The-Fourth-Flea,John-Cornwell

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 07:50:00 UTC | #64706

JackR's Avatar Comment 4 by JackR

These are some of the latest examples of the tiresome but traditional tactic of the religious apologist: to shamelessly twist, misrepresent and - sometimes - tell outright lies about what atheists say, believe and argue. They do this for a very simple reason: it's so much easier to beat straw men than real ones.

I've long been used to it in my battles with the religious and their defenders, and it's annoying but sadly predictable to see it happening in print with regard to the contents of TGD and the other recent "New Atheist" works.

We just have to keep nailing them whenever and wherever they appear, as you've done here. It's a constant game of Whack-a-Mole!

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 07:58:00 UTC | #64716

jamerg's Avatar Comment 2 by jamerg

Wow. I just listened to the Today Programme was was genuinely scandalised - I can't imagine how Richard felt. Cornwell was simply totally misrepresenting things as RD's opinion (eg. Richard Dawkins thinks that any form of religion is the same as paedophilia). It was really quite breathtaking and I imagine the book to be more of the same.

It's hard to believe that someone who has witten a book rebutting The God Delusion hasn't actually read it, or that Cornwell isn't clever enough to understand it. It seems to me that he must therefore be being outright dishonest.

If I was you, Richard, I'd be taking legal advice re: defamation/slander but I'm a lawyer so that's probably my answer to everything...

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 07:58:00 UTC | #64714

Shrunk's Avatar Comment 3 by Shrunk

This seems to be a recurring phenomenon among the religious: Misrepresenting or misconstruing quotations to mean something very different (and often the exact opposite) of what the original writer intended. I often wonder the degree to which this is deliberate. Certainly, the examples RD cites here suggest that Cornwell (of whom I know nothing) is either very stupid or very dishonest. I think the preponderance of the evidence is in favour of the latter (although, of course, the two options are not mutually exclusive.) If the religious are indeed resorting to such duplicitous tactics, it may be a sign that even they are beginning to realize that there are no valid arguments to be made in defense of their beliefs.

In other instances, however, it is not clear to me whether any deliberate misrepresentation is occurring. I'm sure we have all had arguments with fundamentalists where it seems that they are simply not grasping what we are saying. I often wonder if fundamentalists actually have an impaired ability to comprehend abstract thought, to understand irony or sarcasm. This is, after all, how they approach their religious texts: The written words mean exactly what they say. There is no such thing as allegory, context is irrelevent.

If this is true, it would be interesting to find out if there are specific cognitive deficits in verbal comprehension that predispose to fundamentalism. Or, alternatively, if the fundamendalist mindset becomes so engrained that it begins to affect how people read all texts, not just "sacred" ones.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 07:58:00 UTC | #64715

Dutch_labrat's Avatar Comment 5 by Dutch_labrat

Lying for Jesus. Someone really should write a book with that title. Either a very vitriolic atheist or an honest christian apologist (if such a thing exists.)

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:03:00 UTC | #64717

BicycleRepairMan's Avatar Comment 6 by BicycleRepairMan

Wow. I just listened to the Today Programme was was genuinely scandalised - I can't imagine how Richard felt.

I just did the same thing, and I couldnt believe it, its one thing if the excerpts Dawkins here pulls from his book were Cornwells occasional blunders, something I could possibly forgive, but hearing him accuse Dawkins of this ridiculous nonsense on air it makes me downright angry, I just have one thing to say about such deceptive nonsense, and I cant think of a nicer way of putting it:

What an asshole.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:09:00 UTC | #64719

epeeist's Avatar Comment 7 by epeeist

There have been a number of comments here and in the forums on this mornings interview. I think mine was the most generous, I called Cornwell intellectually dishonest.

I think you are wrong in assuming that your critics are reading your books with prejudice. I think what they are actually doing is actively looking for content which they can exploit to your disadvantage. In brief, they are trying to discredit you, or at the least shut you up.

I don't know how you get around this except by removing any trace of ambiguity or humour from your books and interviews. This would of course play straight into their hands, it would lead to dullness and who reads or takes any notice of a dull book?

I think one of the ways forward is to assume that your position on religion is known and try to explore how society can move forward with this in mind. How do we ensure a moral civic society whose members can see through the many falsities that beset them.

Incidentally - I think by his behaviour Cornwell showed that their isn't that much difference between the moderate and extremist religite.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:10:00 UTC | #64720

Geraint's Avatar Comment 8 by Geraint

No doubt clunking sarcasm about a position your opposite number doesn't hold, like

Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.

is what passes for featherlight footwork among theists.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:19:00 UTC | #64723

Prufrock's Avatar Comment 9 by Prufrock

I am a little surprised that Professor Dawkins is shocked by the ability of the faithful to simply distort and lie. Any healthy and sane skeptic who has found himself in the midst of believers will know how intimidating it can be to attempt to intelligently question the premises of belief in their company. I tried to get a couple of christian acquaintences to read TGD, in return I would re read their doctrines. I may as well have told them I wanted to be the virgin mary's first. It aint gonna happen and that is a non-negotiable. You see it my way or bye way. Why do you need to understand anything when you already know the answer is god? They only want to win the argument, not tell the truth. These people will never ever play the position. They only play what they believe should be played and it's the same in all positions. Unfortunately, life is not a game of chess; hypocrisy and lies often win this game. These people have been misrepresenting reality all of their lives. Professor Dawkins should know this and should really expect more of the same and some. These people are not nice!!!

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:22:00 UTC | #64727

The author's Avatar Comment 10 by The author

"You refer to believers as "faith sufferers", and you refer to you and your associates as "we doctors"."

As our treatment is voluntary, it's the choice of believers if they want to be cured of nonsensicality or not. In Cornwell's case I'd recommend a double dose.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:23:00 UTC | #64729

Teratornis's Avatar Comment 11 by Teratornis

Well, who can be surprised when a religious person tells a lie? Religion is founded on a lie: the claim that believing in something makes it true. And not just "something," but a fantastically detailed theology, which claims to reveal the nature of God in depth (a contradiction in terms itself, because if God is supernatural, that means he cannot have a "nature" in the ordinary sense - something is "natural" if humans can perceive order and predictability in it, getting to "know" it, understanding its "nature." If God has a "nature" then God is "natural" just like the rocks, trees, and other things we can comprehend.) Compulsive gamblers test the efficacy of faith every day (betting because they believe they will win) and find it wanting each time the laws of probability assert themselves. Given the amount of utter nonsense and moral obscenity in holy books such as the Bible, consider the sacrifice of honesty a person has to make to consider it divinely inspired, while systematically struggling to interpret away all the awkward parts. So, rather than be surprised when we see yet more misinterpretation by a professional misinterpreter, we should expect the believer to continue doing what he has been trained to do, and therefore we must craft our words more carefully than the Bible authors did, to make them harder to misinterpret.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:30:00 UTC | #64730

TrashcanMan79's Avatar Comment 12 by TrashcanMan79

Lying for Jesus. Someone really should write a book with that title. Either a very vitriolic atheist or an honest christian apologist (if such a thing exists.)

There is a book, though not with that title, that does expose Evangelical deceit in their so-called 'counter-cult' ministries. *According to wikipedia* the author is agnostic.

See if your library has a copy. I couldn't imagine anyone willing to shell out $80 for it.


Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:30:00 UTC | #64731

drive1's Avatar Comment 13 by drive1

9th Commandment, isn't it .. Thou shalt not bear false witness? I believe I hear the faint crackle of Mr Cornwell's polyester trousers bursting into flame.

Richard, bearing in mind Mr Humphry's recent article declaring his distaste for atheistic certainty, the distressing falsehoods of Mr Cornwell, the technical failure, and the shortage of time, this listener thinks you handled the situation with admirable calmness and clarity.

However, now that apologists know that playing the man, not the ball (a classic political trick) makes 'good copy', expect more of the same. Have a chat with Hitch (or a seasoned performer like Derren Brown) and get some good 'anti-heckler' ad-libs in your armoury.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:37:00 UTC | #64733

Daniel_Greenwood's Avatar Comment 14 by Daniel_Greenwood

I recently participated in a debate between different schools about darwin related issues for Shrewsbury's 'Darwin Day'. I was surprised at how many people mentioned Richard Dawkins in their presentations, and how many gave unrepresentative quotes. Two groups even claimed evolution was just random chance, something I enjoyed pointing out was not! We are all under 16 so not the best informed, but generally I think that people's ideas are being misrepresented in many fields.

Does anyone have a youtube link to the today show episode which seems to have cropped up often?

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:41:00 UTC | #64735

jimbob's Avatar Comment 15 by jimbob

This gives me the opportunity to post what I wrote privately to RD a few days ago. What about the idea (below) Richard?

It has often amazed me that the more that religious folks thump their bibles claiming god as the source of morality, and the 10 commandments as holy law -- then the more likely they are to ignore #9 in the decalogue by deceiving, distorting, or just plain lying to support their dogma (In the US the religious right do this all the time to advance their political agendas).

Thus, my suggestion is to have a dedicated section on the website. Maybe call it the "Oops, there goes #9 again" section?

My feeling is that such a section would bring considerable attention to both the invalidity and hypocrisy of claiming religion as the basis for morality.

(Hey Hitch, if RD doesn't like the idea, then how about using it as the title of an article?)

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:43:00 UTC | #64736

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 16 by Richard Dawkins

Lying for Jesus. Someone really should write a book with that title.

The Australian geologist Ian Plimer (quite a hero) has written a fine book called Telling Lies for God.


Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:46:00 UTC | #64738

Paula Kirby's Avatar Comment 17 by Paula Kirby

Someone on another thread (sorry - can't remember who) has already flagged up the parallel with the wonderful Far Side cartoon:

It's beautifully apt. My dog, too, has the knack of selective (mis)understanding. "Poppy, come here" when I've just put my boots on to take her for a walk can be depended upon, it would seem, to be instantly comprehensible. Yet the same words spoken towards the end of her walk regularly result in a look of suspiciously innocent bafflement, which is clearly meant to convey the notion of, "No, sorry, the words seem vaguely familiar, but I can't quite place their meaning just now. It might come to me if I just go and chase this rabbit."

I agree, Richard - John Cornwell does not appear to be either illiterate or particularly stupid, and you write in terms that are not remotely confusing or ambiguous, so it does not seem possible for his version of your arguments to be the result of sincere misunderstanding.

Some of his comments this morning struck me as having gone even further than other misrepresentations I have heard: the implication that you were advocating the sort of persecution last seen in 20s and 30s Germany; the direct accusation that you were inspiring religious hatred; and the impression that religionists should fear for their safety if the sort of secular society advocated by you were ever to come into being. It seemed to me that these comments were coming very close to the point where you would have to challenge them formally.

When I get my copy of Cornwell's book, I'm planning to go through it line by line and cross-reference it to what's really written in TGD. Two columns: "What Dawkins wrote" and "What Cornwell claims Dawkins wrote", and post it on this forum for reference.

I've just re-read Salley Vickers' review in the light of Cornwell's performance this morning, and I have to say it now seems even more bizarre. Did he display "featherlight footwork"? [EDIT: Sorry Geraint - I hadn't seen your remark when I wrote mine.] Did he come across as "deliciously wise, witty and intellectually sharp into the bargain"? Can we imagine him in the guise of a "gracefully admonishing seraph"? Or being entitled to protest at the use of "violently biased language"?

There's more than one way of being deluded, it would seem.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:49:00 UTC | #64740

jonecc's Avatar Comment 18 by jonecc

I think something slightly subtler may be going on.

There was a cleric whose name I'm afraid I forget, who gave some sermons a few months ago against RD that were reproduced in here. In one of them, he said that the religious experience was less like science than like literary analysis. I think he used the specific analogy of Shakespeare. It struck me at the time that this is a useful insight into the religious mindset.

When religious people think, particularly the less literal kind that we often label moderates, they don't seem to analyse as such. Instead, they weave dense webs of allusion in which anything can mean virtually anything else, and the experience of saying it or thinking it is of more interest than its truth value.

They imagine that we are incapable of weaving such webs, which is the basis of suggestions like the one made by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown the other day that we simply don't see the beauty in a seascape. What they don't understand is that actually we can weave them perfectly well, but we choose to keep the techniques of literary criticism for literary criticism. When we want to establish what is true, we use the techniques of establishing what is true, and when we want to watch the sea we probably do something fairly similar to what she does, but without the tooth fairies.

When RD argues, he means something precise by everything he says. His clarity of exposition had a profound effect on me when I first read The Blind Watchmaker twenty years ago. People of a spiritual bent just don't see that precision, which is the mark of a mind which has been through a certain kind of training, any more than you can just intuitively get car mechanics if you've never stuck your hand under a bonnet.

They grasp onto RD's words as if they were lines in a play, and throw them into a big melting pot, from which they pull them out as required. They do this to his words because they do it to everybody's, including each other's. We see straw men, and mendacity, where there may only be inadequate training in the rigour of proper argument.

Or maybe he's just a big lying liar, of course.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:52:00 UTC | #64741

helen sotiriadis's Avatar Comment 19 by helen sotiriadis

alternative source

sounds to me a lot like panic.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:56:00 UTC | #64742

hungarianelephant's Avatar Comment 20 by hungarianelephant

On the bright side, doesn't it show just how desperate the religites are becoming that they have to resort to these tactics? The edifice is crumbling.

Cornwell's original article reminded me of Jill Paton-Walsh's novel Knowledge of Angels. Although unlike Palinor, no one really wants to burn Richard Dawkins. (Maybe the Hitch.)

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:56:00 UTC | #64743

Ophelia Benson's Avatar Comment 21 by Ophelia Benson

"Does Cornwell seriously imagine that I would applaud Social Darwinism? Nobody nowadays applauds Social Darwinism, and I have been especially outspoken in my condemnation of it (see, for example, the title essay that begins A Devil's Chaplain)."

Funny you should mention it - I've quoted from that article more than once at Butterflies and Wheels precisely in disputing outbursts of windbaggery from people who insist on just this kind of misreading. Over and over and over again I have pointed out, through gritted teeth (okay on a gritted keyboard then), that Dawkins has said that as a biologist he's a Darwinian and as a moralist he's an anti-Darwinian, as was Darwin; and then I quote from that article and from the Darwin letter. But people go on and on and on making the identical false accusation. (Not that I expect them to see my efforts, but the endless recycling of a stupid tendentious evidence-defying piece of nonsense does get very irksome, to put it mildly.)

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:58:00 UTC | #64744

dbunker's Avatar Comment 22 by dbunker

I don't know why we continue to expect a different kind of response from the intelligent and educated than from the willfully ignorant. When people are forced to examine strongly held beliefs, the reaction is often anger. The difference between them seems to be in the tools they use to fight back. I'm more comfortable with the raised voices and profanity I sometimes recieve than the apparently cold blooded misrepresentation of TGD that Cornwell seems capable of.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 08:59:00 UTC | #64745

Teratornis's Avatar Comment 23 by Teratornis

To elaborate on the professional misinterpreter theme just a bit, Prof. Dawkins should take some pride in sharing company with the very Son of God! Because what the professional misinterpreters do to Prof. Dawkins' words is not unlike what they do to the inconvenient sayings of Jesus. When Jesus states in plain English (or Aramaic) bothersome commands such as to take no thought for the morrow, to cut off one's hand if it causes one to sin, to give all one's possessions to the poor as the price of entry to the kingdom of heaven, that Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword, etc., a whole army of faithful equivocators sets to work telling us how Jesus did not really say what he plainly said. So all the same machinery of rhetorical tricks (which works so well on audiences unschooled in critical thought, who generally wouldn't recognize a logical fallacy let alone know its name in Latin) that dispatches Jesus so neatly should have no trouble with a mere professor.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:09:00 UTC | #64746

JackR's Avatar Comment 24 by JackR

hungarianelephant: thanks for giving the wonderful "Knowledge of Angels" a mention. That's a superb novel and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's certainly one that atheists will appreciate.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:14:00 UTC | #64748

Paula Kirby's Avatar Comment 25 by Paula Kirby


When religious people think, particularly the less literal kind that we often label moderates, they don't seem to analyse as such. Instead, they weave dense webs of allusion in which anything can mean virtually anything else, and the experience of saying it or thinking it is of more interest than its truth value.

I think that is an incredibly perceptive post, jonecc. That makes perfect sense to me (a former Christian). Christians claim to base their understanding of God on how he reveals himself in the Bible; but, of course, they all interpret that "revelation" in different ways, and at the end of the filtering process they all manage to be left with the bits that best accord with whatever image of God they started out with anyway.

This is why Christians can (with unimpeachable sincerity in many cases) use the Bible to prove anything at all: that God is loving, that God is angry, that God is endlessly forgiving, that God is vengeful and jealous and not the sort of guy you'd want to bump into in a dark alley; that there is a hell; that there isn't a hell; that salvation only comes through faith; that salvation comes through faith + works; that God longs to punish us; that God longs to forgive us ...

Each individual Christian makes God in his or her own image, and then naturally homes in on the passages in the Bible that reinforce that image, and relegates any contradictory passages to the mental filing cabinet labelled "metaphor".

So yes: when they read TGD, they are performing the same kind of (quite possibly subconscious) filtering. A mind that has mastered the art of transforming "I command you to slaughter every last one of them ..." into "God is all-good and loving" is in a good position to perform a kind of reverse alchemy on "Labelling children by the religious affiliations of their parents is a form of abuse."

Hmm, you've given me a lot to think about there ...

(None of this is intended to let Cornwell off the hook, mind you - as a journalist and historian, you may be sure he knows EXACTLY what he's doing where words are concerned.)

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:23:00 UTC | #64754

waxwings's Avatar Comment 26 by waxwings

When defending the imaginary, one often must choose an imaginary opponent. Straw men are critical to apologetics for this reason.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:28:00 UTC | #64756

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 28 by Steve Zara

I agree with jonecc, but I think there is something else more important going on as well. I think this is a matter of self-delusion. Believers often have a feelings towards their religion that is much like love... some may have a mild feeling like this, as if religion is an old family friend, but for others religion is like a new lover, and their feelings are intense. Just imagine what it is like trying to persuade someone that their love is false and corrupt. What you will get is a hostile reaction; you will get disbelief, and people will clutch at all sorts of straws to not quite hear what you are saying, or to accuse you of lying or falsifying evidence.

I think this is precisely what we are seeing with articles and comments from people like Cornwell.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:30:00 UTC | #64758

robotaholic's Avatar Comment 27 by robotaholic

If I were personally quoted and misrepresentated I'd be irritated also. However this kind of thing is very common:
I remember a book "Life - How did it get here? By Evolution or by Creation" by Jehovah's Witnesses and they kept using examples which misrepresented evolution claiming it only depended on chance (jabbing a stick into a stereo and asking Do you think this will make the stereo play better? - of course not - that is what mutation can be likened to) - of course it said nothing about evolution by natural selection... and I used to think most religious people just couldn't understand evolution - but in retrospect - no they were just lying and deliberately misrepresenting evolution. Violating if you will #9. lol - the reading of it is very annoying - I can only imagine if I MYSELF were misquoted and then reading THAT!

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:30:00 UTC | #64757

John P's Avatar Comment 29 by John P

Oops, there goes #9 again

Here's my contribution to this:

On a blog recently, a particularly tenacious theist, who claims he's actually a Ph.D. chemist, though I have my doubts, consistently made this statement:

"Science and atheist (sic) has led Richard Dawkins to state that it is better to molest a child that to take him to Sunday School."

Now, we pointed out to him, by citing the appropriate page #, that you did not say that in The God Delusion. But it's like knocking your head against a brick wall. He continued to say the same thing.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:31:00 UTC | #64759

Friend Giskard's Avatar Comment 30 by Friend Giskard

Willful Mendacity

Why the Latinate periphrasis? Just call him a liar. Since he demostrably is a liar, to do so should be quite lawyer-proof.

Thu, 06 Sep 2007 09:34:00 UTC | #64760