‘Mild paedophilia’: Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth »« Lady Gaga and the burqa: it’s personal

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation

NB: contains personal accounts of adult-child molestation, graphic reference to domestic violence and corporal punishment.

Imagine a senior Catholic official – a British archbishop, say, or a cardinal in Rome – spoke to the Times about his childhood church. Imagine he described a village priest who ‘pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts’, claiming this priest molested other boys regularly. Imagine that, while calling this ‘extremely disagreeable’, the Catholic official then said ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.’ Imagine he stressed this happened in the 1940s, arguing ‘you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours’, cautioned ‘we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket’, and suggested according to the newspaper ‘that recent child sex abuse scandals have been overblown’.

How would atheists online react? Not well, I’m sure.

The Catholic official could count, in John Berryman’s words, on being nearly crucified. Twitter’s atheists would pour vitriol on him; blogging atheists would spell out, painstakingly and once again, why That was another time! is a terrible argument, as terrible here as when used to justify biblical atrocities, and some forms of molestation being worse than others (or some victims’ lack of major trauma) no reason to deny its categorical abusiveness and unacceptability; the forums at RDFRS would, collectively, hold a feeding frenzy.

Except it wasn’t a Catholic who said this. It was Richard Dawkins.

The interview itself is paywalled, but the Times story on the ensuing backlash has been shared at Dawkins.net, as has the interview itself. There are several things I want to say.

Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism recently. I criticised his tweets about Islam this August, then many others did, and he doubled down with a response that overlooked all relevant points and made things worse; more recently, Sarah Moglia criticised him for trying to block Rebecca Watson’s invitation to 2012′s Reason Rally as a speaker. (The year before, he infamously mocked Watson’s discomfort when propositioned in a lift, and was duly criticised for that.)

All this, and still I can’t quite comprehend his comments here. It’s one thing being reckless, unguarded or imprecise, as all of us occasionally are; it’s another thought entirely, and frankly skull-jangling, that someone paid for years as a communicator with the public, since then a bestselling global author and media fixture, could put their foot so absolutely firmly in their mouth. No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post [Edit 12/09/13: oh look.] – but how could anyone make these remarks and not foresee a PR storm?

One notable defence of Dawkins recently, fisked on this blog, came from Nick Cohen at the Spectator, who called the criticisms at hand pathetic, discreditable and a distraction from combating Islamism – imploring readers in particular to shut up about Dawkins and protect Nahla Mahmoud, a UK ex-Muslim threatened with violence. (He signed the relevant petition the day his article went out, three and a half weeks after I had. Make of this what you will.)

I don’t accept we need choose between critiquing Islamists or Dawkins, but anyway: if now isn’t a good time, Nick, then when? If we can’t take him to task for calling sex abuse ‘mild’, insisting not all child molesters be ‘lumped together’, when can we chastise Richard Dawkins? (Molestation, and not ‘paedophilia’, being the operative term.)

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

We’ve seen these double standards from him before: Dawkins lays gleefully into religious sexism, but shows little interest – or outright contempt – when atheist women cry secular misogyny; he pales at domestic violence (and ‘pales’ is instructive) so long as it’s religiously inspired, bolstering his antitheist case, but won’t fully condemn the caning of 1940s schoolchildren. When girls in Sharia states are beaten till they bleed by parents, as Marwa Berro was, it’s because Islam is planet Earth’s greatest evil; when eight-year-olds in British-run prep schools were hit with wooden sticks till welts and bruises formed, it was just another era. (Note that in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, a culture of systemic abuse is special cause for condemnation; in 1940s British-colonial Rhodesia, it’s an excuse.)

When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. (This meant, apparently, that I was unwilling to criticise religion/soft on Islam/racist/PC/a freedom-hating commie.) If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the ‘earlier era’ argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.

Commenters, please see this request.

Comments

  1. says

    Well said…. I call it the Paula Deen defense…. which generally implies that people of her age ALL reacted to racism with indifference or support. Of course this is garbage as even people 30 years her senior took sides and acted morally or immorally in the context of their times. Paula Deen is 10 years younger than my parents – and they are not loud mouth racist assholes.

  2. Maureen Brian says

    The more frequently Dawkins does something as obtuse and insensitive as this the more I worry that being about the same age and living in the same country might lead me down the same primrose path to irrelevance. (Not really: it’s my legs which are going, not my moral sense.)

    When will those who so determinedly need a hero to worship realise that nothing – not academic excellence, not brilliant books, not a million clever speeches, not his FRS or other honours, and certainly not his own personal experience – qualifies Richard Dawkins to pronounce on another person’s experience or the validity of that individual’s reaction to it?

    I blame Niko Tinbergen. People taught by him seem strangely unable to grasp that because we live in so many different societies and corners of those societies and because of the sheer size and complexity of our brains the old “this stimulus produces this response which serves this purpose – which works perfectly fine for birds – will never be applicable to humans, no matter how eminent the self-appointed Gatekeeper of Approved Reactions.

  3. mofa says

    Open season on Richard Dawkins? Your political agenda requires you to put your red jacket on, slip on your black boots, take your whip in hand, mount your horse and request the release of the hounds. You have had a good go at Dawkins, strawmanned him. You have not actually explained to your readers what Dawkins has said (in context) or what he was trying to communicate in the article you have provided a link to. A number of your readers will not ‘click’ the link and journey to it and read what Dawkins had to say. They will just assume that Dawkins is a bad guy. Others will have a quick look and the linked article and not absorb Dawkin’s real message and think of him also as a bad guy. And why is he is your enemy (or adversary)?….is it because he is an anti-theist?….is it because he can clearly see that Rebecca Watson is a narcissist?….is it because he doesn’t particularly like the Islamic religion ?…some other reason maybe?

  4. cartomancer says

    The problem I have with all this is that Richard’s very personal reminiscences of his own childhood (from an interview about his autobiography) are being taken as his considered opinion and programme to tackle child molestation and abuse today. As if he had written a book or editorial explicitly arguing for universal lenience towards child abuse and begun lobbying for changes in the law, rather than answered questions about his childhood from a Times journalist, which were then written up into a piece by someone else.

    From what I gather, Richard seems to be thinking about two things in this context. 1. He is saying that, personally, he was not all that badly affected by his childhood experiences, and from a position of sixty years’ hindsight he cannot summon the energy to treat that specific instance of misconduct as a serious problem. He even says that, were it to happen today, he would consider it flagrantly unacceptable (“to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today”). 2. He is saying that there are degrees of harm in child abuse cases, with some being much nastier than others, and that there is a tendency in modern culture (or some parts of it) to conflate all cases and assume them to be universally as bad as each other, not admitting of degree or nuance.

    I can see how easy it is to conflate the two and assume that he is therefore saying “we as a society should not worry about the lesser instances at all (as I didn’t with my childhood abuse), and just go after the serious ones”. But he isn’t. Those are two separate observations. He doesn’t say “nobody should condemn historical instances of child abuse” or that they are inherently less serious or less worthy of attention – just that, in the context of his own life and his own experiences, this episode does not loom large. One would imagine that as the victim in this case he is entirely entitled to decide on his own reaction and response.

    Indeed, this seems to be the core of Richard’s approach to the question of abuse – to allow the victims themselves to dictate the response, rather than having cultural and media outsiders do so for them. It is unquestionably true that some victims suffer more than others. Some, like Richard, don’t suffer very much. In his case I suspect the twee cloud of chummy 1940s public schoolboy privilege has helped to soften the blow considerably. Does this mean he is trivialising the experiences of those of his peers who really did suffer? I don’t think he is. “That wasn’t my experience of it” does not automatically predicate “and so it cannot have been yours either”.

    Likewise, he doesn’t actually say that we shouldn’t condemn historical racism, just that we generally condemn it in a different way to current racism. Which seems unremarkable enough really – we recognise it as having been harmful and dangerous, but we understand the reasons it persisted in past societies. We operate as historians, not social justice activists. Injustice in the present can be addressed and ameliorated so as to prevent injustice in the future, injustice in the past has already happened, and the best we can do is make amends after the fact. As an approach to the two phenomena goes, that’s a pretty different mindset, a pretty different mode of condemnation.

    I do think Richard suffers a certain (perhaps inevitable) lack of perspective on social issues thanks to his background and upbringing. I have myself tried to engage with him on his lack of familiarity with medieval history and the ins and outs of how historical cultural change occurs in the context of Arabic and European learning. His appreciation of that initially came straight out of Whiggish 1940s ideas of progress and enlightenment, which is entirely unsurprising. Richard is, after all, a wealthy septuagenarian from a family at the heart of the English establishment. And he is clearly very fond of his situation in life, and remembers his schooldays through rosy spectacles. But I think it is a mistake to condemn him for having such fondnesses, or for expressing them in public. Much more so to assume that he would cite this nostalgic fondness for his childhood as a legitimate reason to treat child abusers more leniently today.

    In fact, what strikes me most about Richard is the degree to which one can see him trying to engage with issues here, albeit very often through the distorting lens of his own presumptions. There is clearly a disjunct – child abuse is roundly condemned as horrific, but my own experience of it was nothing to write home about, so what is going on here? Why have I been so comparatively unaffected? Why do I not have it in me to condemn? Also, Richard is well aware that the Daily Mail inspired media lynch mob is trying to call the shots as far as our national discussion on child abuse goes, and quite understandably wishes the issue could be discussed with less bluster, prejudice and victimisation. Which seems very sensible, given that apoplectic public witch-hunts never make an issue any better, and create cultures of shame, secrecy and silence that exacerbate abuse.

  5. says

    Watson, a narcissist? Well, she hasn’t to my knowledge named a major charitable foundation (actually two) after herself, accused her critics of libel or blackballed them from speaking at events, so… I’ll take my chances with her.

    I’ve linked to the source of these comments; I’ve pointed readers to the original, paywalled source of them. I don’t feel I’ve misrepresented Dawkins, but I also don’t feel I’m responsible for whether or not people follow the links. Anyway – how can I, or anyone, know what he was trying to communicate or what his ‘real message’ was? I’m not a mind reader, and I shouldn’t have to be. What he said is troubling regardless of intent.

    Whenever I’ve criticised him, I’ve specified precisely why. What makes you think I must have some hidden agenda, beyond not gaining atheist ‘leaders’ a free pass from scrutiny? It says a lot about your need to hero-worship him that you assume I must have some ulterior, personal motive for not applauding everything Dawkins says or does.

  6. says

    Others will have a quick look and the linked article and not absorb Dawkin’s real message…

    Your failure to explain what his “real message” was, pretty well blows the credibility of your argument. We don’t even have to get to your calling Watson a “narcissist,” which is even lamer.

    In fact, what strikes me most about Richard is the degree to which one can see him trying to engage with issues here, albeit very often through the distorting lens of his own presumptions.

    So why bother with him at all, when there are so many other educated people who can engage with the same issues (and more) without such a distorting lens?

    1. He is saying that, personally, he was not all that badly affected by his childhood experiences, and from a position of sixty years’ hindsight he cannot summon the energy to treat that specific instance of misconduct as a serious problem.

    The problem here is that MANY child-molesters and supporters of same will take Dawkins’ “educated” and “measured” words, and use them to silence victims who have indeed suffered worse than he did. Every allegation of child-sexual-abuse can now be brushed off as “it’s some uneducated nobody’s word vs. the Great Professor Dawkins, and the Great Professor says being molested wasn’t really that bad, and he was speaking from first-hand experience, so quit your whining and shut up, that’s why!” We all know that wasn’t Dawkins’ intent, but Dawkins should have known that the words of a famous professor like himself can, and will, be so misused.

  7. says

    Here’s another problem: if Dawkins “cannot summon the energy to treat that specific instance of misconduct as a serious problem,” then why did he “summon the energy” to talk about it at all? Why couldn’t he simply have taken a pass and let those who suffered worse than he did have their voice? Why the fuck did he bother injecting his voice into this at all? If he really didn’t think his experience was worth making a lot of noise about, then the only reason left for making any noise is that he wanted to shout down less-famous voices that didn’t align with his opinion.

  8. Pen says

    Well, here’s a hypothesis – Dawkins is from a privileged socio-economic class, and surely nobody is ignorant of the idea (right or wrong) that this kind of abuse, along with corporal punishment, is virtually a traditional part of childhood for that group of people. My hypothesis: that abuse which is linked to privilege isn’t perceived as abuse by the victims. Or isn’t experienced as abusive (a subtle difference). It’s also a cliche that it nevertheless damages them and causes them to go on to damage other people. That could explain a lot, couldn’t it?

  9. Edward Gemmer says

    What he said is troubling regardless of intent

    The only troubling thing is that some people seem to think they get a vote on how Richard Dawkins should feel about things that happened to him.

  10. skemono says

    some people seem to think they get a vote on how Richard Dawkins should feel about things that happened to him.

    Who has said anything remotely like that? No-one that I can see.

  11. says

    Also, Richard … wishes the issue [of child sexual abuse] could be discussed with less bluster, prejudice and victimisation.

    Does your dear friend Richard actually believe that “victimization” is being done by the people DISCUSSING the issue? You really need to explain your choice of words here. Who is “Richard” accusing of “prejudice” or “victimization?” I’m sure you’ll get an answer pretty quick, since you seem to be on a first-name basis with the good professor. Give him a call, we’re waiting…

  12. Edward Gemmer says

    The entire article is about his thoughts on some abuse that happened to him and how he felt about it and continues to feel about it. And no, you don’t get a vote on how he should feel about it.

  13. says

    We’re not voting on how he “should feel,” you moron, we’re voting on WHAT HE SAID and HOW IT MIGHT BE MISUSED. If you can’t see the difference, then you’re really not grownup enough for this conversation.

  14. skemono says

    And no, you don’t get a vote on how he should feel about it.

    Once again, I have seen no-one try to do so. In fact, I have seen dozens of people say the exact opposite.

    I have empathy for anyone who has been subject to sexual assault. Yes, anyone is free to process their assault in any way they like. That said, you miss the point entirely.

    While Dawkins is free to feel any way he likes about his sexual assault, what he does not get to do is extrapolate his personal experience onto everyone else. He’s not free to handwave sexual assault as no big deal, either.

    [T]he problem is not Dawkins dealing with his experience in his own way. I, for one, support that 100%. If it helps him to deal with it that way, then more power to him! He is not just allowed, but encouraged to handle his experiences in the way that he feels it is best to deal with them for him.

    What is NOT okay is insisting that other victims deal with similar experiences the same way he has. Perhaps his experience didn’t cause lasting harm. I can totally accept that and seriously… good for him! That’s great stuff!

    That does not mean he gets to excuse digital rape (which, make no mistake, is what happened) as “not rape” and “not harmful” when it happens to others because it didn’t harm him. He does not get to dictate how others handle it when they are violated in similar ways. His method of coping is his and his alone. He doesn’t get to prescribe it for everyone else.

    I’m honestly glad that Richard Dawkins has not suffered overmuch from what he experienced. …I’m happy to take him at his word. I’ve also met some women who experienced molestation, and even rape, but didn’t have the stereotypical brakedown reaction. … And, you know, I’ve got no problem with raising awareness–”raising consciousness”, to steal the term Dawkins stole–that not all victims of childhood sexual abuse or rape (or physical abuse and domestic violence, etc.) react the same way or view their experiences in the same light. That’s fine. Maybe that’s a discussion that needs to be had.

    But where Dawkins seriously fucks up is trying to extrapolate his own experience universally.

    Dawkins is welcome to deal with his experiences in the way that he feels is best for him. I support him 100% in that. If his experiences did not cause any kind of lasting damage (and I do honestly believe him), that is good for him. That he has been able to so easily recover from being victimized is wonderful and great and maybe even inspirational.

    That does not give him license to assume that his experience is somehow universal. People could suffer personal-privacy violations even more “mild” than that and be affected worse than he was effected and their way of dealing with it would be entirely justified for them. Their experiences are not universal, and neither is his. But he seems to assume that they are.

    Dawkins’ way of dealing with his abuse might suit him just fine. What people object to is his implicit assumption that the other people who were victimised by the same person dealt with it the same way as he did. What he did was to minimise other peoples’ experiences by assuming his experience was universal.

    I mean, it’s terrific that he doesn’t feel he suffered any lasting harm as a result of childhood sexual abuse. Really, that’s great. Speaking for others on the subject, not so much.

    Richard Dawkins is completely within his right to tell his tale and feel about it as he feels, But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s making general statements and he’s excusing the abuse. That’s something different.

  15. says

    Dawkins is entitled to his feelings, and to express them as he sees fit. The problem is not that Dawkins doesn’t have a right to his feelings, it’s that in this particular issue, it is wildly inappropriate and potentially harmful to others to say what he said the say he said it.

    If I had had a pleasant or not-very-bad experience of being sexually molested as a child, and others were describing experiences that were extremely hurtful or traumatic to them, the LAST thing anyone would need is me piping up and saying “Well, the same thing happened to me, and I didn’t think it was all that bad, so maybe you all should be a bit less judgmental.” Can any of you imagine how those other victims might react to that? I could, and I’ve never even had such trauma in my own life! It would contribute nothing to the policy debate, and would serve only to belittle the feelings of those more victimized than me — whether or not that is what I intended when I opened my mouth. And that’s pretty much all Dawkins accomplished here: just another instance of the privileged professor poo-pooing the irrational little people and pretending he has some special insight that has to be weighed against their less-refined emotions.

  16. Birric Forcella says

    Most of these comments strike me as a wee bit amazing.

    Aren’t you all pulling a big fat “Muslima” on Richard Dawkins?

    Just because he thinks his experiences were less damaging, he can’t voice them? The reason being that over here, there is so much more damage?

    See the hypocrisy?

    I think nobody has a right to tell Dawkins how to feel about an incident in his life. And nobody has a right to force him to advocate specific consequences. Silencing him because your concerns seem so much bigger is exactly what Rebecca Watson accused him of doing in the celebrated “Muslima” affair.

  17. says

    No, I’m not – and specifically, I’m not telling him how he should deal with or feel about what happened to him. But I am saying to describe it as ‘mild’, as if this is a matter of fact rather than how he personally feels about it, is trivialising – it implies it’s mild irrespective of the person’s feelings to whom it happens.

  18. says

    I think nobody has a right to tell Dawkins how to feel about an incident in his life.

    If only that basic courtesy were universally recognized and extended. If Dawkins were following it, he would not be putting the world “mild” in front of “pedophilia,” because he would recognize that although his personal experience with molestation was mild, many victim’s experiences are not. If Dawkins were following it, he would never have had the gall to tell Rebecca Watson that a thing she thought was bad was actually “zero bad.”

    I see that this is going to be the new talking point. “Stop telling Dawkins how to feel!” That’s not what’s happening. Dawkins can feel however he wants. He should not extrapolate from his feelings to imply or assume that others feel the same way about their experiences with child sexual assault.

  19. Edward Gemmer says

    We’re not voting on how he “should feel,” you moron, we’re voting on WHAT HE SAID and HOW IT MIGHT BE MISUSED. If you can’t see the difference, then you’re really not grownup enough for this conversation.

    This makes no sense. If people misuse his words, then attack them for being dishonest. But attacking Dawkins for talking about his own abuse and feelings seems pretty low. He doesn’t talk about all child abuse, he makes it clear he isn’t talking about all child abuse. So why keep going on as if he is?

  20. says

    Birric, no one has done what you accuse us of doing. Are you sure you’re commenting in the right thread? Or do you simply not understand the concept of inappropriate conduct?

  21. says

    Gemmer, for the umpteenth time, Dawkins wasn’t just talking about his own exsperiences, he was talking about those of others. Here’s the direct quote, you moron:

    He writes that the episode was “extremely disagreeable” and that other boys were molested by the same teacher, but concludes: “I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.”

    If you want to accuse someone of “telling others how they should feel,” accuse Dawkins — he’s the only one actually doing that.

  22. says

    If people misuse his words, then attack them for being dishonest.

    That’s what we’re doing with Dawkins: attacking him for misusing words and being dishonest. Why is this a problem for you?

  23. says

    Aren’t you all pulling a big fat “Muslima” on Richard Dawkins?

    Actually, Dawkins is pulling the same shit he did with Muslima.

    But I am saying to describe it as ‘mild’, as if this is a matter of fact rather than how he personally feels about it, is trivialising – it implies it’s mild irrespective of the person’s feelings to whom it happens.

    As with the Muslima thing, Dawkins seems to be saying that his opinions override what everyone else feels about such things.

    Dawkins is absolutely free to decide for himself that what happened is “mild.” But if he’s trying to say that the things that happened to him that are the same as what happened to other children are all mild, regardless if they happened to him, then he doesn’t get to make that call.

  24. says

    He’s also, in a sense, being very inconsistent: he told Rebecca Watson being propositioned was ‘zero bad’, because the connotations of ‘coffee’ were all in her head (according to him, the same way crackers’ body-of-Christ status is only in believers’ heads). Here, on the other hand, he describes his molestation and others’ as ‘mild’, as if this characterisation of it is a matter of plain fact, not a subjective experience.

  25. chasstewart says

    The priest analogy doesn’t really work, does it? The priest would be speaking about his own history inside of the church that he now represents. Therefore, his motivations for making these statements would be far different from Richard Dawkins.

    Maybe Dawkins still knows many of his childhood friends who were also abused and they too found that it doesn’t affect them today. I’m very close to a person who was abused more viciously than Dawkins was and she’s far less removed from that time yet feels like she’s no longer carrying the weight of that violation. We could be just a bit more charitable towards Dawkins and not take this moment to vitiate him. He openly spoke about his abuse and we should be able to understand that Dawkins is not an authority figure on sexual abuse but was proudly able to speak openly about it.

  26. says

    chasstewart: why does Dawkins deserve — or need — charity, when he’s so consistently unwilling to give any to anyone else? Asking for “charity” implies he’s in some kind of trouble and thus needs to be judged by a lower standard than would otherwise apply to him. Is that what you’re saying about Dawkins?

  27. says

    @Raging Bee. The Times interview this comes from suggests he was talking about recent UK scandals involving Jimmy Saville and the people caught by Operation Yewtree. It could just be an editorial interpretation though. The actual full interview is behind a paywall.

  28. says

    Aren’t you all pulling a big fat “Muslima” on Richard Dawkins?

    Are you fucking kidding me? No one is belittling Dawkins’ own suffering but Dawkins himself!

    I really find it amazing that a professor like Dawkins can attract so many fanboys and defenders who are so consistently immature and stupid.

  29. says

    Note that in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, a culture of systemic abuse is cause for special condemnation; in 1940s British-colonial Rhodesia, it’s an excuse.

    This is an excellent point. It’s an incredible double standard: When it’s *their* culture, it means the culture is wrong; when it’s our own culture, it’s an excuse for people’s actions.

    I remember when the pope visited the UK in 2010, and Dawkins gave a speech (“Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity”). He cited many wrong things done by the Roman Catholic Church, the sex abuse scandal among them.

  30. cartomancer says

    “So why bother with him at all, when there are so many other educated people who can engage with the same issues (and more) without such a distorting lens?”

    Because one might be interested in exploring the psychology of Richard Dawkins for its own sake. Which is kind of what one reads an autobiography for, and kind of what an interview about one’s autobiography is supposed to reveal.

    “Here’s another problem: if Dawkins “cannot summon the energy to treat that specific instance of misconduct as a serious problem,” then why did he “summon the energy” to talk about it at all? ”

    Again, because he was asked a question about his reminiscences of it in an interview. An interview about his autobiography. He was asked how he feels, and he responded. This is the context that all of these comments were made in – reminiscence about his own past.

    “Does your dear friend Richard actually believe that “victimization” is being done by the people DISCUSSING the issue? You really need to explain your choice of words here. Who is “Richard” accusing of “prejudice” or “victimization?””

    Who? The Daily Mail brigade and their tabloid hysteria machine. When they discuss the issue (and they are among the most prominent voices to do so in our society) they most certainly do try to smear people with prejudice and victimisation. Sure, child abuse is something we all want to stamp out, but you don’t do that by lingering over the lurid extremes and screaming at the top of your lungs that people should be hanged. You do it by having a much more sensible conversation and being aware of what the problem really is and how it arises.

  31. says

    After reading the excerpt from his book (linked by Alex @31), I have to wonder if maybe the reason for his sympathy towards the person who did this to him and his friends at his school is partially due to the fact that the person later killed himself. Still, it’s not right for him to assume others weren’t hurt by it, based on his own experience, and advocate this idea of not judging molesters harshly because of the time period. The more Richard Dawkins says, the more disappointed I become; though I enjoy his writing, the frequency of his ignorant and ludicrous comments is too high. I have to wonder if part of the reason I liked his criticisms of religion is because I was excited to find someone who was actually criticizing religion (because his was the first atheist book I read).

    When I first heard about this, I remembered a passage in “The God Delusion” in which he wrote something similar, so I decided to go looking for it. It’s in Ch 9 (“Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion”) under the section “Physical and Mental Abuse”, starting on p. 354 in the paperback. I remember being disturbed by it. I think at the time, most of the criticism was for the part where he wrote, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place” (p. 356). He supported this with a quote from someone else who said (paraphrasing) that believing her friend was going to hell caused her more distress than being fondled by a priest. The fact that he was emphasizing that the psychological abuse could be equal to, or even worse than, the physical abuse lead to people (especially atheists) defending him against criticism, to point out that teaching kids about hell could be abusive. And people kind of overlooked some of the other comments, similar to the ones here, in that section, probably especially since he was critical of the Roman Catholic Church for the sex abuse.

    The point of all this being: This isn’t the first time he’s said something like this. And perhaps I should not be surprised.

  32. says

    Commenters, your attention please:

    I’ve yet to publish a formal comments policy – it’s on my near future to-do list – so won’t hold people to retroactive account, but I’d like to lay down a ground rule at this point, specific to this thread (and whatever related discussions ensue):

    Please don’t let’s speculate about Richard Dawkins’ motives or psyche.

    The messages he’s sending here, and the ideas he’s promoting, are harmful and deserve sharp criticism. This being said, he’s entitled to feel how he wants about what happened to him, and not to be questioned/face conjecture about why. His emotions regarding what was done specifically to him are valid, and they’re his business.

    Let’s keep our discussion to what he’s saying and its impact, not try to (armchair) psychologise him by speculating about how molestation/experiences around it may or may not prompt his statements.

  33. says

    @Alex (#38): Understood. Taking into consideration what you’ve said, I shouldn’t have speculated the way I did in my first sentence @37. I obviously can’t read his mind, and that’s not the point of the discussion anyway.

  34. mofa says

    @6
    Richard Dawkins a narcissist? We have all seen and heard enough of the man to know him (or at least his public persona). Yes, he has put his name to foundations and charities because he can see that his name, his fame, can be used to raise money for good causes and to promote reason and science. The promotion of reason and science has been a life long project for him. Watson on the other hand, semi-famous narcissist, uses her (semi) fame, her name, not to promote science or raise money for charity but instead to book her next free flight to the next conference appearance, where the free accommodation, free food and free booze awaits. I doubt that she actually cares about much…she may not even be a feminist…she will do what ever ‘it’ takes to make herself more (semi) famous and is ever on the lookout for the ‘gravy train’. She is a ‘Watsonist’, all she really cares about is her self. To compare her with Richard Dawkins is extremely amusing…oh, and this opinion I hold makes me a ‘fanboy’? (as other commentators have suggested of those who defend Dawkin’s character and legacy in this thread) – Are there ‘fangirls’ for Dawkins too? Or is this just a sexist term that some here like to throw at their adversaries? I can’t imagine someone here calling a female a ‘fangirl’ if she was to be defending Dawkins in any way…so I guess it is just a sexist term then.

  35. says

    The issue isn’t that Dawkins puts his foot in it, but that he insists on keeping it firmly planted there, resisting any kind of learning process. If he engaged with the criticism, and then corrected his views and statements, that would be setting a good example.

    For the current debacle, the important distinction is between judging people and judging actions. Judging people of former times is both unhelpful and hypocritical as we can be fairly certain future generations will look back in horror on our times. But defending or trivialising actions like child abuse is harmful, not to mention painful and insulting to those who suffer from its consequences.

  36. says

    mofa, please take your pointless obsessive axe-grinding hatred of Rebecca Watson somewhere else. Seriously, what did she do to you to justify any of that hate? She has nothing at all to do with the subject of this thread, and calling her a “narcissist” merely because she spends her paycheck on herself only shows what a pathetic obsessed lowlife you are.

  37. says

    Another thing, mofa: are you actually saying we shouldn’t criticize Dawkins because of his charitable works? Isn’t that how the Catholic Church tries to insulate itself against its critics? Has Dawkins done even one-tenth as much for the poor as the Raping Children Church? Have you?

  38. says

    Judging people of former times is both unhelpful and hypocritical as we can be fairly certain future generations will look back in horror on our times.

    Actually, that’s a non-sequitur. What are we supposed to do — never judge anyone at all? How do you think future generations would judge us for that?

  39. says

    @Raging Bee
    Judge / criticise actions, not people.
    The idea that we can/should judge people is one of the most pernicious legacies of religion. Instead, we can foster a culture of responsibility vs. blame.

  40. says

    Forgive me if you’ve heard this before.

    I am stunned by the way the atheosphere as assiduously avoided discussing the claim RD brings up – the reason he brings up child abuse, his and the victimization of others…. the claim is this: Sunday school is WORSE than molestation and child rape.

    That is his point. Putting everything else aside…. it’s appallingly stupid on it’s face.

    I had some religious training. I was never molested.
    I would not trade one for the other.

    Would any of you?

  41. says

    @47 cityzenjane

    I am stunned by the way the atheosphere as assiduously avoided discussing the claim RD brings up – the reason he brings up child abuse, his and the victimization of others…. the claim is this: Sunday school is WORSE than molestation and child rape.

    That is his point. Putting everything else aside…. it’s appallingly stupid on it’s face.

    As it was over 30 years ago I barely remember Sunday School apart from big colourful storybooks about people like Jonah, Daniel & Samson and the general frustration of being kept inside a small on a Sunday morning when there were cartoons to be watched and invading aliens in the bush to be annihilated with sticks. For most of the intervening time, lacking any memory of why we stopped going, I imagined my brothers and I had waged a successful campaign to be excused from Sunday School, citing general boredom and irrelevancy of the content (we were actually getting taught similar stuff in “Religious Instruction” at actual school). Two years ago, however, our mother (bless her) revealed she’d promptly removed us from SS after she’d learned her three under-9 boys were being taught about Hell and the horrors therein. She wisely decided it’d be better to just put up with three minor demons on a Sunday morning than to have us be taught such ghastly doctrines.

    But really, as far as I can recall, all SS did was bore my brothers and I and offend my parents. It’s probably safe to say that both of those situations are far more preferable to being assaulted or abused.

    That is of course my own experience; I realise others might’ve had a much more traumatising time on their wasted Sunday mornings and I wouldn’t want to minimise their experiences by assuming mine are universal – but then, I suppose that is the entire fucking point, isn’t it, O mighty defenders of Prof Dawkins.

  42. says

    Judge / criticise actions, not people.

    Sorry, Delft, you really can’t separate the two. If a person keeps on saying things we judge to be lies, sooner or later we will inevitably judge that person a liar, and treat him accordingly. We have to protect ourselves from various forms of harm, and that forces us to make the best judgements we can of the people we deal with, so that we can avoid the people whose actions indicate they’re harmful in one way or another.

  43. says

    I am stunned by the way the atheosphere as assiduously avoided discussing the claim RD brings up…[that] Sunday school is WORSE than molestation and child rape.

    I am stunned by your failure to see that many atheists have, indeed, discussed this claim, with no overt signs of avoidance.

  44. says

    @Raging Bee
    Sorry, I wasn’t clear.
    I’m not talking about judging = assessing, e.g. judging someone likely to lie, and taking protective measures.
    I’m talking about judging as in moral-highground-condemnation.
    When RD says something like “find it in my heart to condemning people of former times… by our current standards” I take it we’re talking moral high-ground, not assessment. What happened is not in doubt here.

    Especially where an action is horrific, such as child abuse, this becomes an important distinction. Condemning the person who commits these horrific acts as evil, a monster etc. is othering, clouds the issue, and actually makes it harder to take the proper measures to protect ourselves. E.g. because we don’t believe people we think of as “nice” can be guilty of such acts, and dismiss accusations. Or because we focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation.

    I have asked audiences which hypothetical they would choose, a simple procedure that would make certain a criminal would never commit a crime again, and would instead be a productive member of society, or a procedure that would punish that criminal harshly, with no effect on future behavior. A strong majority go for the punishment.
    - Cuttlefish on Public Whippings

  45. says

    I’m not talking about judging = assessing, e.g. judging someone likely to lie, and taking protective measures. I’m talking about judging as in moral-highground-condemnation.

    How can you have one without the other? Once you accept that certain choices are morally better than others, how can you avoid the conclusion that choosing the better course puts you on a “moral high ground” WRT someone who made worse choices?

  46. says

    Condemning the person who commits these horrific acts as evil, a monster etc. is othering…

    It’s perfectly valid othering, as long as it’s based on his having been duly convicted of one or more serious offenses. Just as locking a guy up for murder is perfectly valid othering.

  47. says

    @Raging Bee
    You can protect yourself without making a value judgement on the human being, or seeing them as “other”. You can consider that there may be reasons why you are able to make better choices than they are, which are outside their control.
    Or you can simply condemn them as evil, and see yourself as better. That is your choice.

    There are both practical (see previous comment) and philosophical reasons why I prefer the first.

    A thought experiment: Let’s say in a century or three people think about eating sentient creatures / putting apes in zoos / killing people in wars / buying non-essential consumer goods while there are children starving or lacking health care / non-sustainable use of the earths resources much they way we think of slavery or child abuse. We are certainly both complicit in at least some of these. Does that mean you and I are just more evil than the people who will live then?

  48. says

    @Raging Bee
    Sorry, I just realised “That is your choice” is ambiguous. I meant “You have the choice”.

    And while I prefer the first option and try to see people that way (though not always successfully), I do see the second may be helpful as a form of self-protection, e.g. when someone has done you great harm.

  49. says

    RagingBee…what I’ve seen is people taking him to task over generalizing from his experience of ranking traumas in the context of molestation/rape and experiences of violation.

    I’ve missed people addressing the claim that Sunday school is worse than molestation. I don’t mean to deny they exist..it would make me very happy to see those points being the focus. But perhaps we’re looking at lots of different discussions and posts…

    I would be very very happy indeed to be wrong on this count.

  50. Mike Ross says

    “When girls in Sharia states are beaten till they bleed by parents, as Marwa Berro was, it’s because Islam is planet Earth’s greatest evil; when eight-year-olds in British-run prep schools were hit with wooden sticks till welts and bruises formed, it was just another era.”

    I think that’s 100% correct and hits the nail on the head. The key words being ‘were’ and ‘are’. The point being, what was accepted in 1950s British schools is anathema in Britain today; we’ve evolved and moved beyond that.

    Some aspects of Islam and Sharia haven’t; some bits are firmly stuck in the middle ages, at least in some schools of thought, and in what is practiced all too often. If in doubt, ask Marwa Berro, and any British prep school kid.

    In a soundbite: Islam is in desperate need of a reformation.

    I wouldn’t quarrel with that at all,

  51. says

    I think that’s a very wrong-headed line to take. (I also think Marwa might have something to say about it.)

    The so-called Muslim world has evolved just as much in the last fifty years as Britain has: countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia look very different now from how they did in the 1960s, and specifically far more theocratic and hyperconservative. Treating contemporary Islamism the way Dawkins and much of atheism does, as an ‘unevolved’, essentialistic version of Islam rather than a specific cultural product of a certain period and political movement is incredibly naïve and oversimplistic, as is any commentary pitting a mass homogenous Western ‘we’ against a mass homogenous Islamic ‘they’. (Moreover, what would an Islamic reformation involve, exactly? What would be reformed, in a religion with no central church?)

    And my point stands, irrespective of your comment: being merely a symptom of a mass culture of violence is something Dawkins seemingly considers to make child abuse worse in Sharia theocracies, but less bad in British-colonial prep schools.

  52. says

    You can protect yourself without making a value judgement on the human being, or seeing them as “other”.

    No, we really can’t. We can limit the scope of our value judgements, and we SHOULD ALWAYS be honest about what our judgements are based on, and the limits of applicability of such judgements; but we can NOT simply refuse to make such judgements altogether.

    I’ve missed people addressing the claim that Sunday school is worse than molestation.

    That claim has been addressed at various times on FTB, and on its predecessor SB. I can’t speak for the many and various things said about it, but I will add that we can speak of Sunday school and the teaching of irrational beliefs to children as a form of “mind-rape” while acknowledging that this is rhetoric, not a literal comparison between religious “education” and sexual molestation. And we’ve also pretty much agreed that those two issues are, rhetoric aside, separate and distinct, and must be dealt with separately.

  53. says

    @Raging Bee
    Yes, you can.
    Just like you can protect yourself from forces of nature or animals without judging them to be evil, you can protect yourself from people with certain behaviour patterns without condemning them. Assessment that something or someone is dangerous or harmful does not need to come with moral condemnation. In fact putting the two together is a typically religious idea: X is dangerous or tempting, so it comes from the devil.

  54. says

    First, Delft, that’s an invalid comparison, because animals are not sentient enough to be capable of the same moral agency we ascribe to adult humans. And second, “protect yourself from people with certain behaviour patterns without condemning them” is, for all practical purposes, a distinction without a difference. When you take action against a person based on a preiously-observed pattern of behavior, then you are, in effect, condemning him and judging him “evil,” at least for purposes of your decisions, whether or not you use this or that label, because your actions, right or wrong, have the same effect either way. That’s why “it’s nothing personal” is one of the most meaningless things a Mafia hit-man can say to his target.

  55. says

    @Raging Bee
    You were arguing that protection without condemnation is impossible, and the comparison disproves that.

    The distinction makes an enormous difference because it strongly influences which steps we take to protect ourselves (see 52 incl. the Cuttlefish article), how we scrutinise our own behaviour, and how people react when we address theirs.

    Personally I’d choose a bullet through the head over being tortured to death by someone who thinks I deserve to suffer, so “it’s nothing personal” isn’t as meaningless as you think.

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