An Open Letter to Richard Dawkins on the New College of Humanities

Posted on June 8, 2011


The situation in the United Kingdom is quite instructive on the effects of austerity measures: they lead to disaster. Canadians would do well to learn from this; Cameron’s policies are a good indication of what Harper has in mind for Canada. Take the education reform bill which was their first meaningful flashpoint in the history of David Cameron’s Cameron’s austerity measures.  One minute it’s a fair compromise, and the next minute there’s New College of the Humanities opening up, with a star-studded faculty list and a massive planned tuition of £18,000 per year. More details at Bright Green Scotland:

It was, of course, inevitable. For years now, UK governments have massively underfunded higher education. We sit in the bottom quarter of OECD countries for public funding for universities. But the launch today of the private ‘New College of Humanities’ in London is still shocking. The £18,000 a year fees are still horrifying. We knew this was precisely what the Tories were hoping would happen, that this was the inevitable end of the road down which Labour sent us. But it is still surprising how quickly we have arrived.

Grayling talks in his email of hard facts. It is because of these hard facts that many of us have been fighting for university funding for years now. And so today’s rollcall of collaborators [Richard Dawkins among them] serve as a reminder of the failure of passive liberalism – of what happens when leading thinkers simply accept the cards laid out by the government. We have always known that ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it’*. But today, Britain’s leading public philosopher has done worse than only interpret. He has accepted the role of executioner.

UK Uncut is targeting Richard Dawkins for an e-mail campaign, asking him to give up his post there, thereby depriving the school of his tacit support. On thinking about this, I realized something important:

This is not just an issue for British Social Democrats. This development is a profound threat to the Secular movement.

As noted by Blag Hag, the secular movement is increasingly being dominated by a privileged white men. This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon. If the prevailing image of an atheist convention is a room full of upper-middle class white guys, then it will become more and more difficult to make other segments of society feel comfortable. The whole thing could descend into irrelevance if we are not careful. Dawkins’ teaching at the New College of the Humanities is a very unfortunate step in this direction, because as the movement’s most prominent spokesperson (for better or worse), he risks making it seem even more exclusionary by signing up to teach at a college reserved for the children of the wealthy. It should therefore be of interest to atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, and secularists all over the world, regardless of political persuasion, to dissuade Dawkins from this move. Accordingly, I have joined UK Uncut’s campaign. Here is my letter:

Mr. Dawkins,

Were I to have written this open letter a few years ago, it would have been very angry. I was a Christian at the time, and I was eager to accuse you of atheist fundamentalism and historical and theological illiteracy whenever your name came up in conversation. Thankfully, I never wrote you such an e-mail, as it would have been very embarrassing for me today. Thanks to the work of writers like yourself, I have jettisoned my religious convictions and now consider myself a strong agnostic, a humanist and a freethinker. While I still disagree with much of what you have to say, I am nevertheless proud to be a part of a movement in which you have played a very large role.

It is therefore very disappointing to me that I have to write you this letter today. I am writing to strongly discourage you from taking up the post you have been offered at the New College for the Humanities. Your membership on the faculty of this institution will serve as a tacit endorsement of the increasing economic stratification it represents. A voice as influential and revolutionary as yours should not be shut behind a financial barrier that is insurmountable to all but the wealthiest of prospective students.

My reasons for writing to you are not restricted to the health of the British education system. I am, in fact, Canadian, and so my words on the matter do not carry very much weight. I am actually more concerned over what this will mean for the future of the secular movement, which is at this moment having some difficulty being more inclusive. Nonbelievers are starting to be seen as a rather exclusive group. Worldwide, we non-theists need to work hard on being more inviting to members of all races, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds. Freedom from the constraints of religious doctrine should be open to people of all backgrounds. Your choice to teach at NCH is counterproductive in this regard, as it continues to project the unfortunate image that atheism is a pastime for the wealthy.

Whether or not it was your intent, you have become a role model for nonbelievers everywhere. This gives you certain responsibilities to the movement that you helped to create. By choosing to work at NCH, you are harming the secular movement by making it appear more exclusive at a time when it needs to desperately needs to be less so. Accordingly, I will not be attending any of your speaking engagements or buying any of your new books if you insist on accepting your new post. This would sadden me greatly; I thoroughly enjoyed both The Ancestor’s Tale and The Greatest Show on Earth, and I would hate to make intellectual engagement contingent on financial concerns. I therefore strongly urge you to reconsider your decision, and politely decline your offer of to teach at this establishment.

Yours Sincerely,

Cameron Roberts

Halifax, Nova Scotia

You can send your own letter using the form found here. I strongly encourage any non-theists who are reading this to do so, regardless of their nationality.