From Televangelists to Dawkins; the Selfish Genes will prevail?

Well, yesterday I wrote a short piece on a character who long time readers of this blog may recall, Josh Timonen, and the case filed against him in Californian courts by Richard Dawkins. You can read the 18 page complaint here if you are fascinated by such things — PZ Myers first posted it on Pharyngula, and seems sensible enough. Last time Josh came up as a topic of controversy, over the (totally unrelated)  closing of the Richard Dawkins forum (see many previous posts) PZ defended his friend, as did Dawkins, which is fair enough.I posted Timonen’s blog “The Ultimate Betrayal” yesterday – here it is again if you missed it. Where the truth lies I still have no idea.

Now the story has got big: The Independent has carried it, and I expect many other papers will follow as people either love or love to hate Dawkins it seems. Me, I’m just exhausted after ploughing through seventy odd pages of comment on RationalSkepticism while trying to get some important work done for a deadline today.  I’m getting a few hits from people looking for Josh Timonen related stuff – I wrote a post called “In Praise of Josh Timonen”, the rather poor joke being I could find nothing to say. However that was over the mangled handling of the forum closure, and Dawkins made it clear Timonen was in that instance only following orders, resulting in a few amusing press stories back in February (many inaccurate). Hers is Dawkin’s defence of his friend, since taken down

Outrage : A Message from Richard Dawkins about the website updates

Imagine that you, as a greatly liked and respected person, found yourself overnight subjected to personal vilification on an unprecedented scale, from anonymous commenters on a website. Suppose you found yourself described as an “utter twat” a “suppurating rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum. A suppurating rat’s rectum inside a dead skunk that’s been shoved up a week-old dead rhino’s twat.” Or suppose that somebody on the same website expressed a “sudden urge to ram a fistful of nails” down your throat. Also to “trip you up and kick you in the guts.” And imagine seeing your face described, again by an anonymous poster, as “a slack jawed turd in the mouth mug if ever I saw one.”

What do you have to do to earn vitriol like that? Eat a baby? Gas a trainload of harmless and defenceless people? Rape an altar boy? Tip an old lady out of her wheel chair and kick her in the teeth before running off with her handbag?…

None of the above. What you have to do is write a letter like this:

Dear forum members, 

We wanted you all to know at the earliest opportunity about our new website currently in development. will have a new look and feel, improved security, and much more. Visits to the site have really grown over the past 3 1/2 years, and this update gives us an opportunity to address several issues. Over the years we’ve become one of the world’s leading resources for breaking rational and scientific news from all over the net and creating original content. We are focusing on quality content distribution, and will be bringing more original articles, video and other content as we grow.

The new will have a fully-integrated discussion section. This will be a new feature for the site, similar to the current forum, but not identical. We feel the new system will be much cleaner and easier to use, and hopefully this will encourage participation from a wider variety of users.

We will leave the current forum up for 30 days, giving regular users an opportunity to locally archive any content they value. When the new website goes live, you are welcome to submit these posts as new discussions. The forum will then be taken down from the web. You will not loose your username on the new system.

The new discussion area will not be a new forum. It will be different. We will be using a system of tags to categorize items, instead of sub-forums. Discussions can have multiple tags, such as “Education”, “Children”, and “Critical Thinking”. Starting a new discussion will require approval, so we ask that you only submit new discussions that are truly relevant to reason and science. Subsequent responses on the thread will not need approval—however anything off topic or violating the new terms of service will be removed. The approval process will be there to ensure the quality of posts on the site. This is purely an editorial exercise to help new visitors find quality content quickly. We hope this discussion area will reflect the foundation’s goals and values.

We know that this is a big decision. We know some of you will be against this change. We ask that you respect our decision and help make this transition as smooth as possible.

We’re confident that these changes will improve the site experience and we look forward to seeing what you do with the new system.

Many thanks again.

You will notice that the forum has in fact been closed to comments (not taken down) sooner than the 30 days alluded to in the letter. This is purely and simply because of the over-the-top hostility of the comments that were immediately sent in. Note that there is no suggestion of abolishing the principle of a forum in which commenters can start their own threads. Just an editorial re-organization, which will include a change such that the choice of new threads will be subject to editorial control. Editorial control, mark you, by the person who, more than any other individual, has earned the right to the editor’s chair by founding the site in the first place, then maintaining its high standard by hard work and sheer talent. The aim of the letter is to describe an exciting new revamping of our site, one in which quality will take precedence over quantity, where original articles on reason and science, on atheism and scepticism, will be commissioned, where frivolous gossip will be reduced. The new plan may succeed or it may fail, but I think it is worth trying. And even if it fails, it most certainly will not deserve the splenetic hysteria that the mere suggestion of it has received.

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?

Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.

If you are one of those who have dealt out such ludicrously hyperbolic animosity, you know who should receive your private apology. And if you are one of those who are as disgusted by it as I am, you know where to send your warm letter of support.


This is taken from the excellent thread by Gurdur on the HeathenHub, “The Closure of the Dawkin’s Forum, as it went down, in quotes”. It is of course also given in full on this blog in the posts about the closure, but Gurdur’s log has many more quote and perspectives and so you should read it if interested. I find it curiously amusing and ironic now, but still feel sorry for all concerned.

Now of course, the closure of the forum has bugger all to do with serious legal charges of embezzlement, or disputed IP and “work for hire” agreements.  However understanding all this explains why a vocal part of the atheist community lacks sympathy for either party now.

Josh Timonen and Richard Dawkins, photo by Elze Hamilton (click for link)

Josh Timonen and Richard Dawkins, photo by Elze Hamilton (click for link)

Hey, but I’m not an atheist. I’m an Anglican. I can be all smug right? 🙂

Well not really! Let us turn to the wonderful wikipedia List of Christian Evangelist Scandals. Hours of good reading in there; not all financial, many are sex, or other “inappropriate behaviour”, but still, you get the picture. Even if the claims were true, this is small beer. And compared to the claims of Vatican led cover up  of sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church (and let’s face it every Church has its abusers, not just the Catholics), this is just insignificant. Google News reports 5 cases from the last month for “stole church money” — well it reports more, buts some were burglaries or the church helping out those who had been stolen from.  I suspect financial crimes are even as common in other areas – “defrauded charity” gives seven results.

Now we don’t actually know that fraud or embezzlement took place here; it is merely alleged by the plaintiff, Richard Dawkins.  Even if it was found to be true, and Timonen’s defence was spurious (and possibly based on a misunderstanding, given oral contracts are mentioned in the case filed?) – that tells us nothing about atheists, atheism, or morality.

Yes of course we all know that. I think it was Sartre who said the existence of God would not resolve any important moral issues; that secular humanists can be extremely committed to humanist ethics no one doubts, and that humanist ethics are often admirable, when they are based in a genuine concern for ones fellow beings, again I think we can agree.  But I expect some people will take this as a chance to attack atheism as somehow inherently leading to greedy, unscrupulously and criminal behaviour. I would ask those people to look to the lessons of history, and the Churches record, rather than engage in uncomfortable hypocrisy.

Of course atheist organisations have a history of fraud, litigation, feuding and misery – I touch on this in a former post None of those petty rows however compare with the ultimately tragic story of the life, frauds and eventual murder of Madalyn Murray O Hair. That is one hell of a story!  Yet really it’s just humans being human, and financial fraud has always occurred when there is money to be grasped.

What is obvious here is this is NOT a religious or atheist thing: it’s something inherent in human nature, that given ready access to money some people will take and run, and indeed one could argue such behaviour, while deplorable, does provide “adaptive advantage” – if you can get away with it. OK, I’m joking, and I know what adaptive advantage means – but should it really be a surprise to the author of The Selfish Gene, the final chapter of which reminds me of St. Paul in its call for us to rise above our “original sin”, or base mammalian instincts, and embrace altruism and compassion, that some will perhaps act in a manner that betrays others but assists their own success?

We have no idea that has happened here; the truth is for the courts to decide, and from the little I have seen it is less than clear-cut, hence the case. But ultimately, we have no winners, and it’s just another depressing incident of a type all too common, and all too human, but very little to do with atheism or theism at the end of the day.

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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6 Responses to From Televangelists to Dawkins; the Selfish Genes will prevail?

  1. Balanced and well-written. Good job, CJ!

  2. Sityl says:

    Not enough gloating in this post, Jerome. I’m disappointed :nono:

  3. DaveD says:

    When I eventually get round to covering this on my blog, I might as well just link to here. Good work Chris!

  4. Pingback: The Timonen Saga « DaveD's Blog

  5. Adrian says:

    Nice and balanced. People should really take a close look at their history before pointing out the mistakes of other groups (:

  6. Panagiotes Koutelidakes says:

    I have to say that this is, indeed, as Dave said, the best possible account I have come across so far, but I might be doing no small disservice to someone out there, whose own version of the story I have not read; if that is the case, I am sorry, but this is an excellent piece on the subject.

    Despite all that, I must pitch in by stating my concern that the charge might be just that bit more founded than many people might like, and just enough to feed the gloating of a number of people who felt extremely betrayed. Pardon me, but I don’t feel Dawkins got that much of a blow at us to believe that he and, worse yet, the Foundation deserves all that was entailed by this… The most founded form of Schadenfreude one could level at him would be to say that he deserves it for having trusted and defended a fraud, if they believe just that — and yet even this seems so base and ridiculous to me in the long run: would they want to be dealt likewise, I ask?

    From my own past experiences, however faulty such assessment can generally be, I am inclined to give Dawkins at least partial credit, mostly because the behaviour displayed by Josh is not at all different from how he treated me and a number of other people back during “Forumgate.” I should check around if I could dig up the bit where we were royally dismissed, and compare this to our pleas to discuss the suggested shift.

    Many times have I commented, and even discussed in the forum, how fraud is quite a viable means of survival, so long as the subject avoids retaliation (if not detection); the messages you wrote about are very important and well deserved. May justice prevail…

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