Over the past two days, the blogosphere has been in an uproar over the revelation that Richard Dawkins had signed an on-line petition that called for an end to religious indoctrination and classification of children in the UK. I've expressed that in a way designed to bring out the ambiguity - was the petition merely talking about reforms to the British school system (such as the abolition of religious instruction classes) or did it intend the criminalisation of all efforts by parents to teach their religious beliefs to their children?
Dawkins himself was contacted, saw the problem, clarified several points, including the fact that he'd not intended to support any coercive actions against parents, and withdrew his name from the petition. Since then, he has further clarified his position here at The Panda's Thumb, where you can find an excellent summary of the whole thing.
Considering the uncharitable interpretations being placed on his motives by some detractors, Dawkins has displayed remarkable grace and dignity, and has emerged reasonably well out of the whole kerfuffle. Indeed, objective onlookers should conclude that his willingness to admit a mistake has added to his stature. It does, however, show how careful you have to be when in the public eye for promoting highly controversial views. At one point Dawkins himself notes ruefully that he can see why lawyers and diplomats need special training - and it's clear that he looked at what he was signing in a spirit of generosity, not while taking the cramped defensive posture of a lawyer. That is hardly a criticism - such defensiveness is not what we want from our leading public intellectuals.
Still, it all shows how careful you have to be these days if you are prominent in public debate over large, symbolically important issues. From this incident and others, I have a sense that Dawkins, in particular, is now in a position where his every move will be narrowly scrutinised in real time; every effort wil be made to discredit him, if there is the slightest opportunity. Even much lesser intellectual lights could find themselves in a situation where they come under a potentially destructive level of scrutiny if they achieve some success in popularising unpopular ideas. This environment is not especially healthy for public deliberation and debate, but it is the unavoidable downside of the wired-up world that we now find ourselves in. Somehow, we all have to adapt.