I have written the following letter to the American Humanist Association.
Please reconsider your decision to publicly withdraw from Richard Dawkins the Humanist of the Year award that you gave him in 1996. By doing this you are sustaining a pattern in recent years of people unjustly portraying Richard as something of a cartoon villain.
You are of course entitled to publicly disagree with or dissociate from Richard’s opinions. Indeed, your executive director Roy Speckhardt wrote an article in 2014 that criticised both Richard and former AHA Honorary President Gore Vidal for what Roy called “arrogant atheism.”
However, retrospectively withdrawing an honour made a quarter of a century ago undermines the integrity of nearly seven decades of your awards process. It turns a public recognition of contributions to humanism, which many people have accepted in good faith, into an ongoing threat of public censure for decades into the future.
This is an escalation of the recent tendency of groups inviting and then disinviting speakers. It is perfectly okay to not invite a speaker, or to not give a person an award. But once you have publicly done either, you should require overwhelming reasons to reverse it. Otherwise you harm your own credibility as a body that can be trusted to keep to its word.
In this case, your stated reasons are uncharitable opinions about the intent and implications of some of Richard’s statements, and an unsubstantiated claim that his clarification is insincere. I don’t share this view. I think Richard is honourable, rational, respectful of rights, and passionately inquisitive. But I accept that you sincerely believe your opinions.
On this basis, you have concluded that Richard “is no longer deserving of being honoured by the AHA.” Yet your website says that:
The Humanist of the Year award recognises the accomplishments and work of the individuals reflecting humanist values up to the date of the award and in concert with the prevailing humanist thought of the time. Since humanism is an evolving philosophy where we continually strive for improvement, some awardees we recognised in the past would no longer meet our current standards. As humanists we also recognise that people are imperfect and may at times lose sight of the values and ethics that previously guided their humanistic behaviour.
Presumably this more charitable approach to humanity explains why you have not publicly withdrawn the same honour that you previously gave to other awardees, including:
- An awardee from the 1950s who supported eugenics and spoke publicly of the need to put an end to breeding by the unfit.
- An awardee from the 1960s, a former AHA President, who lobbied Stalin to promote his utopian dream of positive eugenics in a classless society.
- An awardee from the 1980s, a former AHA President, who was notorious for groping women and whose own autobiography describes him as “the man with a hundred hands.”
- An awardee from the 1990s, a former AHA Honorary President, whose authorised biography cites friends and relatives describing him as cruel, nasty, and scary.
- An awardee from the 1990s who promoted a book by David Icke which includes conspiracy theories about Jews and alien space invaders.
- An awardee from the 2000s who has repeatedly used violent rhetoric and written that he hates or despises named people and groups, and who has now published a photo of himself with his AHA award in a blog post titled “I still have mine.”
By contrast, Richard Dawkins has not engaged in any behaviours like these, yet you have chosen to withdraw his award. You did not do this when he made statements that made religious people uncomfortable, but you have now done so when his critics are secular.
As I have said, I don’t share your genuinely-held beliefs about Richard’s statements or his sincerity. But even if your beliefs were correct, why are you treating him less charitably than these other previous awardees?
Do you now intend to retrospectively test all of your previous awardees against the standard you are now applying selectively to Richard? If not, can you please reconsider your decision to withdraw your previous award to Richard?
You can then continue to criticise his opinions and his style of communication, and ask him to reconsider his beliefs and behaviour. And he and others can do likewise with you. That is entirely within the spirit of humanist values.
I would welcome a response that outlines your thoughts on this.