Nazis, earthworms and dodgy journalism

Reporting on the 2010 Global Atheist Convention, Fairfax journalists Barney Zwartz & Jacqueline Maley, in their respective articles “Dawkins delivers the sermon they came to hear” (The Age, 15/​3/​10) and “Dawkins derides sainthood as Pythonesque” (SHM, 15/​3/​10) both misquoted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which has resulted in a misunderstanding being propagated throughout the entire Australian media at the detriment of Richard Dawkins’ name.

Their articles are also terribly biased, guilty of quote mining and thus fully misrepresent what actually took place at the convention, but more on that later. First, let’s get a few simple facts straight.

MARY MacKillop’s canonisation by ”Pope Nazi” was ”pure Monty Python”, the world’s most famous atheist told the world’s first global atheist conference in Melbourne yesterday.

… so reads the opening paragraph of Zwartz’s article.

A few more paragraphs in, Dawkins is quoted as saying

”When I’m accused, ‘Why are you going after easy targets, the fundamentalist nutbags, why don’t you take on the real theologians?’, well, the real theologians like Pope Nazi believe in miracles.”

Barney adds:

Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Ratzinger, was conscripted into Hitler Youth, as were all German boys, when he turned 14.

Maley similarly stated:

Dr Dawkins said he was often criticised for attacking easy targets such as Christian fundamentalists instead of serious theologians such as “Pope Nazi”, a presumed reference to Pope Benedict.

Let’s get our facts straight, Richard Dawkins did not label Pope Benedict a Nazi. That is something both Fairfax religion reporters got utterly wrong.

Check out what Richard Dawkins actually said — thanks to footage provided to the Young Australian Skeptics by the media team at the Global Atheist Convention.

[vimeo]http://www.vimeo.com/10226561[/vimeo]

Blatantly evident in this clip, Richard Dawkins uses “Pope Nazi” as a shorthand descriptive phrase for “that Pope whose name I’ve forgotten (Pope Pius XII) — who’s also up for canonisation and was aiding and abetting the Nazis during the war”. See below. Not Pope Benedict.

Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli (later to become Pope Pius XII)

Alas, many journalists (who were not at the Global Atheist Convention mind you, but read the Fairfax pieces and thus felt obliged to add their measly 2 cents as it no-​​doubt suited their pre-​​existing positions and biases) continually repeated this misquotation, adding to the defamation of Richard Dawkins and to the erroneous idea that convention was made up mostly of name-​​calling and ridicule — which could not be further from the truth.

Andrew Bolt in his blog post “No faith in their hatred” (17/​3/​10) writes:

I’d have hoped that the Atheists Convention’s speakers would have reassured me not just by fine words but finer example that a godless society will nevertheless be a good one. But the convention’s speakers managed to confirm my worst fear.

No, it’s not that God may actually exist, and be cross that I doubted. It’s that if the Christian God really is dead, then there’s not much to stop people here from being barbarians.

But what did they show me instead? First there was the world’s most famous atheist, former Oxford don and Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins, who smeared Joseph Ratzinger as the “Pope Nazi”… The insult to the Pope is truly vile. As a 14-​​year-​​old, Ratzinger was conscripted by the Nazi regime into the Hitler Youth, then compulsory for all German boys.

Melanie Phillips wrote in “Dawkins preaches to the deluded against the divine” (The Australian, 16/​3/​10):

LIKE revivalists from an alternative universe, 2500 hardcore believers in the absence of religion packed into the Global Atheists Convention in Melbourne last weekend to give a hero’s welcome to the high priest of belief in unbelief, Richard Dawkins.

The bestselling author of The God Delusion was similarly fawned over by the Australian media, which uncritically lapped up everything he said.

This was even after (or perhaps because) he referred to the Pope as a Nazi, which managed to combine defamation of the pontiff with implicit Holocaust denial.

The Sydney Morning Herald published the following letter (Letters, 16/​3/​10):

It seems that when their argument fails to convince, atheists turn to personal abuse and hyperbole. The Pope is a Nazi, Steve Fielding is less intelligent than an earthworm and sophisticated theologians are no better than fundamentalist wingnuts because they ”get doctors to provide testimony that someone was cured from cancer” (”Dawkins derides sainthood as Pythonesque”, March 15).

The present pope was not a Nazi. He was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at the age of 14. To equate this with Nazism is not rational. I seriously doubt that Senator Fielding, whatever his failings, is less intelligent than an earthworm. Ridicule is a poor substitute for reason. And as a ”sophisticated theologian”, I know of no colleagues who have sought testimony from doctors on miraculous cures. This is something the church undertakes and does not require the attention of theologians…

Neil Ormerod Professor of Theology, Australian Catholic University, Strathfield

The Herald Sun jumped on the misquote in “Creating saints ‘pure Monty Python” (17/​3/​10):

RICHARD Dawkins unleashed his infamous bluntness, likening the impending canonisation of Mary MacKillop to a Monty Python skit.

The Oxford professor and devout atheist also referred to the Pope as a Nazi.

In The Age (Letters, 17/​3/​10)

RICHARD Dawkins is just another fundamentalist windbag. Intolerance brings division and hate. It’s time we were all more accepting of each other. What we need is more reasonable debate and less sticks and stones.
Nick Sibly, Archies Creek [Vic.]

Now, onto earthworms. I would like to remind everyone that Richard Dawkins did not proclaim that Steve Fielding has the IQ of an earthworm — at least not on stage at the Global Atheist Convention. It was of course a private utterance he made to Robyn Williams following the ABC’s Q&A on Monday night. Not really relevant to Dawkins’ presentation at the Global Atheist Convention, is it?

So, why are we hearing all this crap about earthworms and Nazis in the opening paragraphs of articles reporting about the convention? Why is Fairfax failing so miserably to objectively report fairly about the convention? Why are they misquoting, and quote mining?

In my opinion, Zwartz and Maley should offer a formal retraction and apology to Richard Dawkins. Also, if Fairfax would like an example of objective reporting, I have found an excellent example: Chris Mulherin, an Anglican Minister with degrees in Engineering, Philosophy and Theology. He blogged about the convention via the ABC Religion Blog.

Here’s what he had to say about Dawkins’ presentation in “Giving thanks in a vacuum” (14/​3/​10)

“The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact you will ever have to face. Don’t you ever get used to it.”

With those words Richard Dawkins launched an interesting, and less-​​polemical-​​than-​​the-​​others, talk spanning the origins of species, of life, of the universe and perhaps of billions of universes.

The universe we live in and the fact of our existence is truly a cause for gratitude. Gratitude for our individual existence and for the process of evolution which from the blind forces of physics produces all that we know and gives it the illusion of design. [more]

Does he mean to say that Richard Dawkins’ presentation wasn’t a militant call to arms and an outright mocking of religious believers? Richard Dawkins’ presentation was actually a humble one about science, the origin of life, and how lucky we are? Wouldn’t have known that after reading Fairfax!?

In the comments section, Mulherin even takes the chance to clarify Dawkins’ comment in the Q&A:

With the regard to the “Pope Nazi” comment, this was in relation to the creation of saints. Richard Dawkins was saying it was ridiculous to make Mary MacKillop and the Pope of the Nazi era, Pope Pius XII (who was also up for beatification around the time Mary MacKillop was), into saints. Unfortunately, he forgot the Nazi-​​era Pope’s name and referred to him as “Pope … Nazi” (with quite a gap between the words “Pope” and “Nazi” as he tried to remember the correct name). He wasn’t calling the current Pope, Benedict, a Nazi (or even Pius XII for that matter).

Zwartz, Maley, this guy is running circles around you.

In a further example of actual journalism, Ian Robinson via On-​​Line Opinion (16/​3/​10) wrote:

Dawkins spoke of the gratitude we should feel for our good fortune in being the products of an evolutionary process that could have so easily not resulted in us, then posed the question, “gratitude to whom?” He then discussed how at first human gratitude was directed towards imagined gods, but as human’s evolved they came to realise that this was not justified and their gratitude is more and more turning towards the universe itself, and our duty to nurture and care for those parts of it within our power.

Also,

…after Dawkins’ talk, when one of the questioners identified herself as a Christian, some people in the audience were tempted to shout her down — but Dawkins silenced them and insisted she be heard, listened respectfully, and gave a detailed answer to her question.

What a different picture these two pieces paint? One from an atheist, one from an Anglican, no less.

I am very much looking forward to the retraction and apology from Zwartz and Maley in all Fairfax newspapers, and also in all subsequent newspapers that got it wrong, in the very near future.

Jason Ball is the President of the Freethought University Alliance and the University of Melbourne Secular Society. He also serves on the committee of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Update: Barney Zwartz has admitted it was an honest mistake, and apologised to Richard in the comments section of his latest blog post. He has also succeeding in his request to his news editor to have a correction printed in tomorrow’s edition of The Age, after such a request was made by Richard Dawkins himself.

Jacqueline Maley on the other hand refuses to accept any responsibility, she claims using the word “presumably” excuses her from making what was in actuality a tremendously false presumption. In her brief communication with me she also added that “Richard Dawkins is big enough to take care of himself, although your concern for him is touching!”

Chris Latta (a reader) actually made the initial correction about Pius XII in the comments section of the ABC Religion blog, not Chris Mulherin, as I had thought. Chris Mulherin however, has since made the correction in his blog post.

Andrew Bolt has publicly refused to correct his mistake. To be expected, I guess, he doesn’t have very good history of fact checking, nor admitting when he’s wrong.