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.

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