Janet Heimlich would like to get Richard Dawkins to withdraw a comment he made about how we should view people who abused children a few generations ago. She explains in a post at her blog at Religious Child Mistreatment.
Dr. Dawkins made the comment after he was asked about his downplaying of having been fondled by a teacher at his boarding school in Salisbury, England. Calling the molestation “mild pedophilia,” Dr. Dawkins said that he didn’t think that he, nor other boys who experienced the same molestation by the teacher, suffered “lasting harm.” Then Dr. Dawkins stated,
I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.
I am surprised that Dr. Dawkins holds this view, especially as someone who often chides religious people for being nonsensical, irrational, and sometimes, unethical. The Bible talks about such crimes against children as mass killings, cannibalism, incest, starvation, rape, and sacrifice with little condemnation of those actions. Are we to look back on those abuses and not condemn them, simply because they happened a long time ago? Can we not even say that what happened to those children was wrong?
It’s tricky. I think I know what he’s getting at. There can be too much of a “gotcha” game about pointing out how wicked people were in the past, combined with a smug feeling of self-cuddling for being so much better than that. It can be too quick, too glib, too unaware of what people could or couldn’t know, and the like.
But at the same time…there’s a problem with avoiding all that and charging off too far in the opposite direction, too. Think of the way the Irish church ran the industrial “schools” for example. I was re-reading a bit of the Ryan report this morning, the part about the punishments, with the long cold frightening waits on the landing for the nun to come up the stairs and beat them; the part about the punishments for bed-wetting; the prevarications of the nuns testifying. Reading it gives you such a sense of duration. Years and years, decades and decades, children isolated, miserable, frightened – made to stand on a landing for hours awaiting a beating, forbidden to sit, freezing cold, the urine running down their legs from fear.
You can’t just not see that as immoral. You can’t – that is, you mustn’t – let yourself be callous about all that needless misery inflicted on children for the crime of being poor or born to an unmarried mother or some other accident. You have to judge. You can say “maybe I would have done the same thing in that situation” if you want to, but you have to judge. If you don’t know that’s wrong, how will you prevent yourself from doing something similar if chance puts you in a situation where you’re expected to?
Janet puts it this way:
Ethically speaking, we are a more evolved people than those who came before us. It would be a travesty not to apply the standards of today in judging abusers of the past. Sure, we can give reasons why people have acted unethically, yet we should not hold back on clearly stating that child abuse, as well as racism, homophobia, and other such actions are—regardless of the era—immoral. And the same holds true to what happened to Dr. Dawkins as a boy. I’m glad that he was not adversely affected by having been molested. Yet, regardless of the fact that, back in his day, sexual abuse was not discussed as a violation of children’s rights, I have no problem saying that the teacher who molested those boys (among other things) acted immorally.
To underline the point, and to persuade Dawkins, she cites and quotes from a lecture by Nicholas Humphrey.
The lecture dealt with the immorality of indoctrinating children with religious teachings and failing to criticize cultures that abuse children. To illustrate his point, Dr. Humphrey talked about a American television program that featured the discovery of the body of a young Inca girl who had been sacrificed about 500 years ago.
Dr. Humphrey was infuriated by the way the individuals interviewed on the program discussed the ritualistic killing:
No one expressed any reservation, whatsoever. Instead, viewers were simply invited to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the TV programme was, in effect, that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention—another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.
Dr. Humphrey found the program’s glorification of the sacrifice of the Inca girl to be unconscionable, even though the killing took place hundreds of years ago: “How dare they invite us—in our sitting rooms, watching television—to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder?” said Dr. Humphrey. “How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?”