Richard Dawkins, you’re an ass. Brandon Flowers, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

Sigh. I wasn’t going to write about this.

It’s all happened before. Richard Dawkins publicly confronted a believer, in this case Killers frontman and believing Mormon Brandon Flowers. They slipped rhetoric past each other with predictable acrimony. Faith and reason collided! Beyond the huggability of Dawkins’ quarry, there isn’t anything new here.

Then, on Monday, Dawkins went on an hours-long twitter tirade (“twirade?” Yep, this is a thing) against Mitt Romney, arguing that belief in gold plates makes a person too gullible for public office. It pushed me over my irritation threshold, and I decided that I needed to write something, novel or otherwise. Let’s take a look at both incidents.

Dawkins v. Flowers

By now you probably know the story. The Killers were the musical guest on the Swedish/Norwegian show “Skavlan,” and the host interviewed Flowers prior to their performance. The discussion turned quickly to his Mormon faith, and after a few minutes of chit-chat about the dissonance of leather pants vs. shirts and ties, Richard Dawkins emerged from offstage, apparently for no other reason than to excoriate Flowers for Believing the Wrong Things.

The folks over at Times and Seasons gave Flowers a hearty attaboy for his response – perhaps simply because he managed not to break down in tears — but I find the exchange cringe-worthy all around. Dawkins has demonstrated repeatedly that he has no idea how to engage productively with a believer, and this is no exception. But Flowers fails to exhibit even the slightest ability to convey his beliefs to non-Mormons. When questioned, he speaks in Mormon code — “You have to gain a testimony for yourself”, etc. — which is unintelligible to outsiders. To be sure, I cut Flowers a lot of slack. He didn’t ask to be a spokesman for Mormonism, and he appears understandably shaken by Dawkins’ presence, let alone his unbalanced assault. But it takes a pretty thick set of Mormon goggles — insert your urim and thummim joke here — to conclude that Flowers did anything but reinforce the polite-but-gullible Mormon stereotype.

Here’s the exchange, which begins around 9:55 in the embedded video. (A few interruptions, false starts, etc. have been edited out for clarity. )

Dawkins: There is far more beauty in the real understanding of the reality of nature than there is in reading some ancient book, or than reading some modern book, which is what the Book of Mormon is. I have to say that when I read the Book of Mormon — recently; I didn’t read it all — what impressed me was that it’s an obvious fake.

This statement slams the door on well-intentioned debate. Instead of leading with a piece of contrary evidence — some reason to disagree — Dawkins hits Flowers with a bald assertion. It signals both an unwillingness to consider challenges and the belief that Flowers is not only wrong, but also stupid. No wonder Flowers’ face contorts into a little sneer.

Dawkins: This is a 19th-century book, written in 16th-century English — “and it came to pass”, “verily I say unto you”, and things like that — that’s not the way people talked in the 19th century. It’s a fake. So it’s not beautiful. It’s a work of charlatanry.

That’s it? Pseudo-Jacobean English is your proof? I can think of five or six better challenges to Book of Mormon historicity off the top of my head — and I’m not even a professional anti-theist! This is weak — far too weak to tell an adherent of a faith you’ve only superficially studied that he is delusional.

Flowers: I have to say, the book’s been studied, and torn apart, and looked at, and — and I’m not one of the professors that have done it. But to call this man a charlatan, I do. I take offense to it.

Flowers takes his line from the Holland playbook: Smart LDS people have studied the Book of Mormon and refuted all challenges to its historicity. It’s insular, oh-so-Mormon, and completely contrary to the facts. Even if they are not irresistible, one cannot avoid that there remain credible challenges to Book of Mormon historicity.

Dawkins: But he was a convicted charlatan. He was a convicted con man.

Dawkins apparently refers to Joseph Smith’s 1826 trial for being a “disorderly person and an impostor” while treasure-hunting for Josiah Stowell’s silver mine. It’s rather circumstantial evidence against Mormonism, and there remains some controversy as to whether Joseph was actually convicted of anything, but Dawkins’ statement has basis in fact.

Flowers: No, no. These are all falsehoods. You should do your research.

Sorry, Brandon. You should do yours. Again he makes a particularly in-Mormonism statement: Criticisms are merely mean-spirited lies. But this approach isn’t credible to a non-Mormon audience, and it’s certainly not in keeping with the facts. All Flowers has done is make himself look defensive and uninformed.

Dawkins: Well, I think I have. [audience applause] 

Someone in the Killers’ management must have been frantically working to get Flowers pulled offstage. Shortly after this point in the program, the host informed Flowers that he was needed backstage to “help get ready” for the musical part of the show.

Dawkins v. Romney

Now for the twirade. Dawkins’ tweets go as follows:

No matter how much you agree with Romney’s economic policy, can you really vote for such a massively gullible fool? He is a Mormon BISHOP!

Romney’s prophet Joseph Smith a fraud. Romney falls for it.

Bible & Koran genuinely old, written in the language of their time. Book of Mormon written by 19thC charlatan. Romney too stupid to see it.

And it came to pass that the lot was cast for Mitt and Mitt did verily reign in the land and there was rejoicing in the corridors of Mammon.

Dawkins, of course, finds Mormonism’s truth claims implausible. But it isn’t clear why Romney’s belief in what Dawkins finds implausible entails the intellectual deficiencies Dawkins sees in Romney. I suspect that Dawkins takes for granted that some things are too implausible for any halfway intelligent person to believe, and of course a less-than-halfway intelligent person is unfit for public office. That list, evidently, includes the truth claims of Mormonism.

Curiously, however, that list does not include mainstream Christianity, or at least liberal forms of it. Several readers challenged Dawkins on his failure to indict Barack Obama’s beliefs, to which Dawkins responded:

The fact that he professes Christianity means nothing. He’s an elected American politician and if you fail to profess some kind of religion you are not an elected American politician. Even if Obama is Christian (which I would estimate at about 50/50) he most certainly is not the kind of Christian who believes in Adam and Eve. If he is Christian, he is surely the kind of Christian who regards biblical “miracles” as “symbolic” or “metaphorical” rather than literally true.

In other words, Obama gets a pass because of context. America is a predominantly Christian country, so a smart man — one who seeks political office, at any rate — can be forgiven for believing in the ridiculous. At least, so long as it isn’t too ridiculous.

Christianity, even fundamentalist Christianity, is substantially less ridiculous than Mormonism (and Obama, if he is Christian at all, is certainly not fundamentalist). Christian scriptures are genuinely ancient… The Book of Mormon is not ancient and the language of its alleged “translation” is ludicrously anachronistic. 

When we hear that a belief is ridiculous, the first thing we should ask ourselves is: ridiculous to whom? If we intend to infer a person’s intelligence from his or her beliefs, the question is not whether or not those beliefs are ridiculous to outsiders, but whether they are so ridiculous that there are no intelligent insiders. Dawkins “forgives” Obama his Christian beliefs because Christianity is not ridiculous to Americans, and there are plenty of smart people who profess it. Yet he is unwilling to do the same for Romney’s Mormonism. He should ask himself whether or not Mormonism is so implausible that it fails to retain intelligent adherents. Even a small sampling of Mormons would be enough to answer the question in the negative.

A few discussion questions:

  • What would an ideal response from Flowers (or any believing Mormon) have looked like?
  • How should a disbeliever who sees harmful aspects to religion participate in the public square?