Dawkins on Martin Luther King, Jr.

Some time ago I started a thread asking for the justification behind Richard Dawkins’ statement about the death of Alan Turing. Since not much justification was provided, I’m forced to conclude that it was a falsehood. Now some people say that a single outright lie is enough to discredit both a book and its author. While I understand the logic behind this, I don’t quite agree. I’m willing to extend a “we all make mistakes” attitude in cases like this. When an author goofs once, it may be an innocent mistake. When he lies constantly, we can be sure it’s not. With that in mind, I want to look at another Dawkins statement.

During a discussion on religion and morality, Dawkins say that Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement did not arise from King’s Christian beliefs. Rather, Dawkins says that King based his philosophy of non-violent resistance on the teachings of Ghandi.

As it happens, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (I can’t imagine why Dawkins fails to use his full and correct title) was kind enough to tell us what his political philosophy is based on.

He was also kind enough to tell us why he had chosen to lead the movement of resistance against segregation in Alabama.

He was also kind enough to tell us which examples of people engaging in non-violent resistance to unjust laws were a personal inspiration to him.

And he was kind enough to tell us who he credits for the use of non-violent tactics.

Now if past threads are any guide, someone will soon accuse me of taking King’s words out of context. I did not do so. Everything I’ve written accurately represents what King said. (The quotes are taken from his Letter from Birmingham Jail.) King does express admiration for other groups of protestors in history besides those biblical examples. He mentions Socrates and the Boston Tea Party. But his focus on the laws of God as expressed by Jesus Christ as the source of both his moral vision and his political tactics dominates throughout the letter. Moreover, King’s vision and beliefs remained remarkably stable throughout his life. One finds the same ideas in both his earliest and his last writings and speeches.

It’s true that King did read the works of Ghandi, did admire Ghandi, and did often quote Ghandi as a source of inspiration. But to say that King’s philosophy was “based on” the teachings of Ghandi is flat-out incorrect. King based everything he said and did on Christian principles.

(Two other facts that Dawkins omits are also worth mentioning. King first encountered the works of Ghandi while studying at Crozier Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. If he hadn’t been studying to become a Christian preacher, he might never have encountered those works at all. Second, Dawkins neglects to mention how heavily Ghandi was influenced by the Bible and by many Christian writers.)

Based on what you’ve written and quoted and without knowing what exactly Dawkins said about King, at worst it looks to me like Dawkins was mistaken. What’s the “outright lie” part and how and to what extent would it discredit Dawkins to “some people”?

Dawkins and King are (were) both complex people. This is like those arguments about whether or not the founding fathers (or Einstein, or Hitler) believed in god: there is a lot of evidence on both sides. Obviously Dawkins is going to see things through atheist-colored glasses; I don’t think you can call that an outright lie.


Although given that it’s written in a different alphabet, there’s only so much you can argue about the spelling.

It’s only written in a different alphabet when it’s written in a different alphabet. It has a standard English spelling as well, with the location of the <h> in that spelling actually indicating a significant aspect of its native pronunciation (granted, not an aspect that matters in English phonology, but it’s not as though the Romanization is arbitrary on this point).

It would have been helpful if you had provided a cite here (and, btw, had spelled Gandhi’s name correctly). Frinstance, this quote from Dawkins’ The God Delusion by historian Stephen Tomkins:

I’m guessing that that was what you meant.

By that logic, you should be calling Dawkins “Professor Richard Dawkins, FRS”, or at least “Dr. Dawkins”. Seriously, you do know that an author isn’t expected to use honorifics for historical figures (or even contemporary public figures), right? You say “Newton rejected the vorticist philosophy of Descartes”, for example, not “Sir Isaac Newton rejected the vorticist philosophy of Monsieur Rene Descartes”.

I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. The question of King’s inspiration for his nonviolent struggle is not an either-or issue, and he may very well have based his philosophy both on Christian principles and on the teachings of Gandhi (which themselves were significantly influenced by Christian principles, at least in their popular formulation and propagation).

No, Indistinguishable is absolutely right. The standard nagari script in which North Indian names such as “Gandhi” are written distinguishes very clearly between the aspirated guttural sonant “gh” (as opposed to its nonaspirated form “g”) and the aspirated dental sonant “dh” (as opposed to nonaspirated “d”). The name “Gandhi” as written in its native alphabet contains the latter, not the former.

Given that there exists a standard transliteration system for representing nagari in the Roman alphabet, the spelling “Ghandi” is unequivocally wrong.

Actually, I tend to be of the opinion that each claim requires some form of evidence otherwise before i’m willing to believe it is false. A series of claims, linked as in this case in a book, may be “tainted” in our minds because some are untrue - but that does not mean we get to condemn all other claims in that book out of hand.

For example, i’ve disagreed with you on many occasions. By that justification, I should have dismissed this thread; the taint from those times I have thought you wrong should mean I do not need to read it to know your arguments are incorrect. Yet, I agree with you on this, if Kimstu’s quote is representative. I don’t consider King’s Christianity incidental to his actions or philosophy. I’m unconvinced that Dawkins is a liar, on the other hand. Were I to have dismissed you out of hand, I wouldn’t have been able to agree with you now. You point out that to go with a single lie is foolish; likewise, it’s foolish to set a certain limit and say that that is an acceptable amount of wrongness before everything else connected with it is tainted and does not need refuting.

Oh, and as already pointed out, your apparent confusion at why Dawkins does not use a full title for the man is somewhat hypocritical in the face of you failing to use his, or indeed Gandhi’s.

What did Dawkins say about the death of Alan Turing?

Thats simply not true, it is as incorrect to airbrush out influence of Gandhi on MLK as it is to airbrush the influence of Christian teachings.

King BASED his philosophy on the non-violence resistance of Gandhi, and the non-violence inherent in Christain teachings.

I also would like to know what Dawkins said about Turing.

Well, I found this:

I don’t know whether that’s what ITR champion is referring to, and if so, I don’t know what he objects to about it, because I don’t know anything about the facts of Turing’s death except vaguely that it’s said to have had something to do with his being persecuted for homosexuality.

Sounds like a pretty acurrate summary of the events leading up to his death. I’m fairly familar with Turing’s life, he was a founding member of the Computer Science department I went to and have read several descriptions of his life and work (including the excellent Code Book)

It’s been a while since I read The God Delusion, but I’m pretty sure Dawkins knows and states that King was a Christian who was inspired by his faith. He simply points out that King’s political beliefs had many sources, including the Bible and Gandhi, not to mention the experience of being an oppressed minority, an experience that makes you acutely aware of the value of civil rights.

Here’s the thread in question.

What, suddenly you’re a prescriptivist? :wink:

“Inherent” in Christian teachings ? Quite a few of the people who have been killed for Christ, and who’ve done the killing in his name over the last 2000-odd years would disagree.

I can’t profess to be aware of any Christian revolutionaries who used civil disobedience prior to Gandhi. Post-Gandhi, yes, but not prior. So if the argument is that civil disobedience came from Christian doctrine more than it came from the little bald dude, I think you’re going to have to explain why it never arose of its own from the scripture until ~1955 years after Jesus died.

I suspect that Dawkins slightly overstated his case to support his beliefs and that ITR champion is slight overstating that point, to make his point.
::: shrug :::

I would also respond to both of their statements with a separate observation of my own:

In my perspective,
King was prompted by the injustice he faced, (regardless of religious beliefs), to take some action;
King chose to respond in a non-violent fashion based on his own views of his Christian faith;
King employed tactics for his non-violent protests by studying Gandhi.

(If Dawkins was going to make a serious case that it was Gandhi who provided the complete motivation for King, then we can simply contradict him by pointing back further to King embracing the beliefs of the American Henry David Thoreau.)

The tactics employed by the freedom marches ,were certainly those of Gandhi. To stand quietly in the face of those who hate and will hurt requires inner discipline and control. It is a scary experience. To sit and wait for the police to come and abuse you ,is not a thing done on a lark.