The College Historical Society (the Hist) has tonight rescinded its invitation to Richard Dawkins to address the society next year.
Auditor of the Hist Bríd O’Donnell announced the cancellation in a statement on her Instagram page, saying that she had been “unaware of Richard Dawkins’ opinions on Islam and sexual assault until this evening”, adding that the society “will not be moving ahead with his address as we value our members comfort above all else”.
“The invitation to Richard Dawkins to speak at the society was made by my predecessor and I followed up the invitation with limited knowledge of Mr. Dawkins”, O’Donnell said. “I had read his Wikipedia page and researched him briefly. Regretfully I didn’t look further into him before moving forward with the invitation.”
“I want to thank everyone who pointed out this valuable information to me”, O’Donnell added. “I truthfully hope we didn’t cause too much discomfort and if so, I apologise and will rectify it.”
Dawkins is a famous author and academic known for his books on evolution, such as The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, which is credited with bringing the gene-centred view of evolution into the public sphere.
As a staunch atheist, Dawkins is also known for his controversial criticisms of religion. He has come under fire in the past for his comments on Muslim faith schools, saying they had a “pernicious influence”. This came after the Muslim Council of Britain said it was unreasonable to expect schools not to teach fundamental theories of faith.
Dawkins has also said that when teaching evolution his “colleagues lecturing in universities lament having undergraduate students walk out of their classes”, adding that these students are “almost entirely Muslims”.
This is not the first time the Hist has landed in hot water over invitations to speakers. In 2018, former Auditor of the Hist Paul Molloy came under fire from members of the society’s committee over inviting Nigel Farage to address the society.
In a statement, posted in the Hist Facebook group at the time, Molloy said: “The Society plays host to numerous individuals of divergent views, many of which our members feel strongly and passionately about. This is the nature of free enquiry in a democratic society. It is by that enquiry the strength of ideas and the validity of beliefs are challenged and upheld.”
“We recognise, however, that many of these individuals hold controversial and unorthodox views, but ultimately we must recognise that they are figures who are in the public discourse.”
In an open letter to members, 23 ordinary members, including three former Auditors of the College Historical Society (the Hist), condemned the move to invite Nigel Farage to speak.
Molloy later backtracked, saying: “It was wrong for me to extend an invitation to Nigel Farage in the manner which I did. I offer my sincerest apologies for any offence which has been caused from doing so.” The Hist subsequently decided not to confer the society’s Gold Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse on Farage.
In an email statement to The University Times, O’Donnell said: “I was not previously aware of the harmful statements made by Richard Dawkins. The invitation was issued in advance of this committee’s tenure, and we are deeply grateful to the members and students who brought this to our attention.”
“The comfort of our membership is paramount, and we will not be proceeding with Professor Dawkins address. I apologize for any distress caused by this announcement, and the Hist will continue to listen and adapt to the needs and comfort of students”, she added.
The Hist, one of Trinity’s two debating societies, is the oldest student society in the world, having been founded in 1770.
The society hosts high-profile speakers every year, and holds debates every Wednesday. Figures such as Winston Churchill and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have addressed the society.
A stream of the biggest names in Irish history have passed through the Hist, including Edmund Burke, Theobald Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett.
Correction: 11:35pm, September 27th, 2020
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bríd O’Donnell’s statement was made on the Hist’s Instagram page. In fact, it was made on her own Instagram account.