Wednesday, 14 November 2007

The New Humanist cartoon controversy

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Richard Norman's cover story on the New Atheists from the new issue of New Humanist has attracted a great deal of attention online. The atheist biologist PZ Myers linked to it on his lively Pharyngula blog alongside his own comprehensive response, and the article was republished on Both postings have led to lively discussions from readers, many of which tie in to the debate over atheism and humanism triggered by Sam Harris's recent speech to Atheist Alliance International conference.

An interesting, and to us surprising, side issue has arisen in those discussions over Martin Rowson's illustration for Norman's article.

On Pharyngula and in two places on Richard Dawkins' site (here and here), some have accused the cartoon of bein offensive, and not just generally offensive to Dawkins and Hitchens – "This cartoon is aggressive and mean. I reserve fat jokes for people I truly despise." (Dr Benway, – several readers have interpreted the depiction of Dawkins as homophobic. One poster kindly listed the reasons why he is offended:

"It is clearly trying to illustrate a link between the 'out' campaign for atheists and the campaign for gay rights (a valid link), by making Dawkins look like a figure of fun - a grinning limp-wristed effeminate. It is offensive on so many levels. It says 'look - Dawkins is funny because he is like a gay man'. In other words, gayness is something to laugh at. It is not offensive because it attacks Dawkins and Hitchens - that kind of cartooning has a long and distinguished history. It is offensive because of the way it does it." (Steve99,

Ok, though he could of course have noted that the link to the campaign for gay rights is not something we invented, but an inevitable result of calling a campaign "Out". Richard Dawkins himself recognises this in this article.

Encouragingly, several participants in the discussion have leapt to the cartoon's defence, most notably one "Cartomancer". In one post he identifies himself as gay, and here's a selection of what he had to say:

"I thought the cartoon wasn't all that bad really. Grossly and exaggeratedly parodic perhaps, but then again that's what cartoons, and indeed satire in general, are for. I do not believe that Dawkins is being presented as a gay stereotype, rather his characteristic exuberance and sense of wonder are being exaggerated ... I see it as mildly affectionate even - portraying him as a daft, batty old uncle figure, a harmless, sandal-wearing innocent enthralled by the wonders of nature in a very child-like fashion. I would not see that as a terrific disservice to the man. It certainly makes a change from the shrill, ranting demagogue of popular myth." (Cartomancer,

What do you think? Is the cartoon offensive, or even homophobic? Let us know by leaving your comments on this post and voting in our poll at the top right of this page.


Hugh Caldwell said...

Martin Rowson can do no wrong. This is a particularly funny cartoon for those who have the wit to see it.

Anonymous said...

What do I think? I think you are manufacturing a controversy to promote readership of the New Humanist.

STX said...

I laughed out loud when I saw this cartoon. In fact, it was a nice, deep belly laugh. Frankly, it's less insulting than the hundreds of cartoon images that portray George W. Bush as a monkey. Lighten up a little!

Jem said...

It's a great cartoon and I'm glad the vote reflects that. It's a similar story at where they also have a poll and a discussion about it. Here's the thread:

Jem said...

OK, the url I posted doesn't work. Just go to the forum and find it if you're interested. Out of 22 voters at the moment, only one finds it offensive.

Joel Pelletier said...

It's insulting to me as an artist, as it is an example of lazy and unsophisticated gross caricature by way of bigoted stereotyping. Of course the artist is saying SEE HOW FAT AND DISGUSTING HITCHENS LOOKS (when in fact he is not grossly overweight by any standard) and LOOK AT THE FAG DAWKINS. Regardless of the artist's modest technical abilities, his idea of satire seems to have stalled at the 3rd grade level. The absolute lack of any sophistication in the piece says much about the artist and nothing about the subjects being libeled. I am shocked that the New Humanist would have commissioned such a thing at all, and I wonder what instructions were given by the editor. If I was given this assignment, I would have refused immediately. Oh well, just because we are humanists does not mean our judgment on other issues would necessarily be any more evolved than most...

But I can still hope.

Jamie G. said...

I didn't by the whole "atheist fundamentalist" or "militant atheist" tags, but if there are people out there actually offended by this....well..... I might just start believing it.

Actually, Dawkins looks like he was drawn by a Disney cartoonist, not a homophobe trying to make a point.


I like it, and I am a proud and out atheist!

Anonymous said...

If we can't poke fun at ourselves, and have a good laugh on ourselves, the what the heck is humanism for?

All the artist's method and delivery aside, this is simply an editorial cartoon. If some are offended by it, I dare say the artist has acheived at least part of his goal.

Know what? I'm jealous as hell of Dawkins and Hitchens. I only wish my voice (small and godless) had as much impact as theirs, that they should become the target of parody.

Immitation, some say, is the highest form of flattery. Well, maybe so, but if so, parody sure runs a second-best.

jeepyjay said...

The issue here in my view is not the cartoon but the article by Richard Norman that it illustrated. It is an attack on one humanist figure (Dawkins) for being a humanist by another (Norman) who wants to pussy-foot rouund the poor religionists in case we upset them too much. There is far too much of this in humanist movement. We should be attacking the enemy, not our supporters.

John said...

I don't think jeepjay's actually read the article. If he had, he wouldn't be claiming that Norman wants to pussy-foot around religions in case we upset them too much.

Norman rightly criticises those who over-generalise about religion. Doing so does us no favours and quite a bit of harm.

The cartoon's cool as well.

Anonymous said...

The point about the cartoon should be that it looks nothing like Christopher Hitchens!!! Since when has he had a full beard and sideburns, let alone black hair? Without the accompanying narrative I would never have identified him. The cartoon is crap.

Anonymous said...

I took the cartoon as showing Dawkins as a hippie/New Age naif.

Hitchens sometimes appears to be rather slovenly, which I think the was the cartoonist's aim. But of course Hitchens isn't grossly fat and isn't bursting out of his clothes.

Not very nice to them, but not cruel. Political candidates get just as bad.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not too fussed one way or the other.

I don't "read" the Dawkins figure or the "Hitchens" figure as using a gay stereotype (though if Dawkins' wrists had been turning the other way ...).

As I said at, Dawkins is made to look like some kind of hippie (for some reason that's not clear to me), while Hitchens looks like a stereotypical trade union thug with a beer belly (this might make sense if Hitchens with his aggressive style is thought to be a kind of enforcer for the atheist movement). I'm not sure what the intention was, or exactly what resonance the "Out 'n' proud" sign carried by the thuggish Hitchens was supposed to have. Perhaps it's having a dig at the Dawkins OUT campaign, suggesting that the comparison with gay rights campaigns is somehow inappropriate or incongruous.

Overall, the cartoon is confusing more than anything.

Hugh Caldwell said...

"Overall, the cartoon is confusing more than anything." Russell Blackford.

A joke dies if analysed.

jeepyjay said...

Contrary to John's opinion, I did read the article, and I've now published a full response to it:

On the Leicester Secularist blog.

Rick Miller said...

Dawkins espoused the "Brights" movement, which is explicitely emulating the "gay" PR campaign, and then he comes up with this "out" idea... so it's obvious that he's more than just coincidentally aligning with homosexuals. He obviously WANTS to align with homosexuals.

It makes me wonder why.

(I had trouble initially recognizing the caricatures too.)

Harry said...

I think the cartoon is about average in terms of representational skill but I am concerned that it appears to depict the supporters of Dawkins and Hitchens as a moronic mass of unthinking Dawkins clones. I find that offensive to me personally - and I suspect also to most of the readers of New Humanist who pay out good money for it in the expectation of being shown a little respect.

Robin Edgar said...

"Oh well, just because we are humanists does not mean our judgment on other issues would necessarily be any more evolved than most..."

Well said Joel! I could not agree more. In fact the lack of judgment shown by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other anti-religious fundamentalist atheists (I won't say Humanists here) in some of their offensive attacks on religion and/or religious people is ample proof of that. ;-)

Clearly some people do find the cartoon to be offensive so I guess that it is effectively offensive regardless of whether or not it was intended to be offensive. As far as being homophobic goes I do not see it as being particularly anti-gay. Indeed it could be interpreted as being quite gay-positive.

Now about those two birds hovering around Richard Dawkins' brain. . . Could there be some subtle hidden meaning in that? ;-)

Arnfinn Pettersen said...

Harry, that is meant as a joke, isn't it?

bassman said...

Offensive cartoons....isn't that a Danish thing?...imo a cartoon isn't funny unless it offends someone along the way.

Anonymous said...

isn't it interesting how the athiests have usurped the anarchist's red "A"??

Dave said...

Please don't take offence, but I'm not gay, I'm not fat, I'm not Richard Dawkins and I'm not Christopher Hitchens, so as far as I'm concerned, it isn't my place to comment beyond saying that if I was any of those, I wouldn't take offence.

Manometrosexual said...

I am an Atheist and I think this is an excellent cartoon. It is in the spirit of James Gillray, our skin cannot be that thin that we cannot take gentle lampooning.

We often challenge the superstitions and fantasies of the religious naives so this is the least of our concerns.

Ryan said...

@anonymous (21 July)

isn't it interesting how atheists have usurped the scarlet A used historically by the puritans (most notably in the Plymouth Bay Colony, Massachusetts) and symbolically in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, used in the express purpose that Hawthorne would have liked to see it used?

Nina said...

the cartoon works for me - and I am a fat lesbian.

It's not "funny" that athiests use the A - it's an ironic taking back - much like gays and lesbians reclaiming the pink and black triangles from the Nazi death camps.

So, it's taking a negative symbol and changing the meaning into a pride and not shame one.

Athiests are natural allies with gays and lesbians - have a common foe who often uses the same arguements against both camps (we're not moral, et al).

And, we back each other up - when they aregue against gay marriage because it's religious - then we can counter with that they aren't denying marriage to straight atheists.

As for Dawkins being made to look silly, well, he's not shown as a competant drag queen - he's not in drag and the make up is soo poor that I first thought his face was pink with sheer excitement of being in a majority group

a very exicting thing when you're in a capacity crown of like minded folk