Petitioning Richard Dawkins: Retract your trivializing statements regarding victims of sexual abuse


Content alert: Childhood sexual abuse, trivialization of childhood sexual abuse

Petitioning Richard Dawkins: Retract your trivializing statements regarding victims of sexual abuse

In case you didn’t see it: Richard Dawkins recently gave an interview to the Times of London, trivializing what he referred to as “mild” sexual abuse of children, and saying that we couldn’t judge behavior in the past by the moral standards of the present.

No, I am not making this up. Quote:

He said that he could not condemn the “mild paedophilia” he experienced at boarding school. “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours,” he says in an interview published today in The Times Magazine.

“Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th 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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

Professor Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, describes in a new autobiography how a master at his Salisbury prep school “pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”. 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.”

It sickens me to think of how statements like this contribute to the shaming and silencing of sexual abuse victims — especially the victims of sexual abuse in childhood. Dawkins is entirely entitled to express his own experience with sexual abuse however he experienced it — but he is absolutely not entitled to tell other victims that their abuse “didn’t do any lasting damage.”

And it appalls me to think that the world will see this as representative of the atheist community — and will use it as yet another example of how atheists have no morality. (The story is already up at the Washington Post as well as the Times of London.)

There’s a petition up — asking Dawkins to retract his statements, but also demonstrating to the world that these ideas absolutely do not reflect the values of the atheist community, and that we utterly repudiate them. Please sign — and please spread the word.

FYI, there are some excellent articles up about this, with very sharp and perceptive analysis, and I highly recommend that you read them:

Alex Gabriel at Godlessness In Theory:

Imagine a senior Catholic official – a British archbishop, for example, 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.

PZ Myers at Pharyngula:

Just when did it stop being OK for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkins shorts? I presume it would be an utterly intolerable act now, of course — at what age do the contents of childrens’ pants stop being public property?

Comments

  1. R Johnston says

    This is as bad coming from Richard Dawkins as if it came from a bishop.

    Sadly true. Once upon a time this would have been worse coming from Dawkins than from a catholic bishop; alas, the days when Dawkins can be expected to be a better person than a catholic bishop are long gone.

    Dawkins is just another faith-based right-wing lunatic who shits all over people who don’t adhere to his wingnutty faith. Dawkins’ religious faith commands him to make an ass of himself any time he finds out that someone, somewhere believes that racism is wrong, that abuse is wrong, or that women are people. That his right-wing religious fundamentalism is atheistic doesn’t make it any less of an example of right-wing religious fundamentalism.

  2. says

    Signed.

    Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism…

    Um…where has Dawkins been all my life? That’s exactly how my grade-school, junior-high-school and high-school history classes treat people in past centuries: by admitting that the things they did are wrong by today’s standards, and by also pointing out that many people in those centuries were saying they were wrong too! Where does he think today’s standards come from? They come from yesterday’s experiences!

    Yet another point where “professor” Dawkins turns out to be dead fucking wrong where he should have known better.

  3. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    I’m trying to imagine a a recent era and culture wherein the obvious standards of a society indicated that child molestation was a good thing. I mean an active standard, not ignoring or excusing after the fact, or thinking one can get away with it if they have enough privilege.

  4. says

    @Raging Bee (comment #4):

    Um…where has Dawkins been all my life? That’s exactly how my grade-school, junior-high-school and high-school history classes treat people in past centuries: by admitting that the things they did are wrong by today’s standards, and by also pointing out that many people in those centuries were saying they were wrong too! Where does he think today’s standards come from? They come from yesterday’s experiences!

    Yet another point where “professor” Dawkins turns out to be dead fucking wrong where he should have known better.

    This. I think people (including Dawkins) wrongly conflate *explaining* a person’s actions as being influenced by the society/time period in which they lived and *excusing* a person’s actions because of it. And, conveniently, they’re usually using it to pardon those who do wrong, while not giving the same understanding to those who are angry about the wrongdoing (referring to them as being too angry or overreacting). And, as Alex Gabriel points out over at his blog, they do this only for their own society, not for others.

  5. ludicrous says

    His language is revealing; ” “I am very conscious that you can’t condemn ….” He does not simply declare that you can’t condemn, does not say ‘I believe you can’t condemn’ he refers to his awareness, and not merely ‘I am conscious’ but ‘very conscious’ I think he is saying “I very much want to believe that you can’t condemn..” Perhaps “I do not consciously condemn my teacher” would be closer to the mark.

    He minimizes further in the way he describes the incident, “he put his hand inside my shorts”. Well, you don’t merely put your hand inside someone’s shorts and take it out again. He obviously omitted “and fondled my genitals”. Why would he leave the essential aspect out of the report?

  6. ludicrous says

    PZ Myers at Pharyngula:
    Just when did it stop being OK for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkins shorts? I presume it would be an utterly intolerable act now, of course — at what age do the contents of childrens’ pants stop being public property?

    Sending the following note on the petition:

    Richard,

    When next you go into the office there will be waiting for you an eight foot tall, 400 pound man who will pull you up on his knee and put his hand inside your shorts. I don’t know what will happen next I guess you don’t either. Maybe you can figure out a way to prevent this happening to you. Little Richard could not. But afterwards you can tell yourself it is of no conswquence. Good Luck

  7. Phillip Hallam-Baker says

    TW: Rape etc.

    Of course you can condemn. We condemn Jefferson et. al. for their participation in the institution of slavery all the time. Or at least we should. There are plenty of folk who ascribe views to the founders they obviously never had and then claim that anyone who disagrees with them must be evil unpatriotic etc.

    The problem with Dawkins is that he has become a caricature. He is certainly a liability. There is plenty that can be said about the peculiar reaction of the British media to allegations of pedophilia and he manages to find something incredibly stupid.

    I think the main reason he went off as he did on elevatorgate is that he can see RW is going to be a serious threat to his position in his declining years and wanted to slap her down and put her in her place. What he can’t see is that his declining years are already upon him.

    The problem with making stupid statements about rape is that it is the mental aspect that distinguishes it from other physical attacks. The impact on the victim is not just a product of the attack itself, it is a combination of the attack and society’s peculiar attitudes to sex.

    The law is a blunt instrument when it comes to mental harm. Anyone who has experience of rape trials in the UK knows that a huge part of the trial is likely to revolve around the defense trying to rebut the prosecution claim that penetration took place. Which to me seems an unnecessary trauma for the victim. Treating penetration as an aggravating factor for purposes of sentencing would deter that particular line of interrogation.

    But the law has to focus on objective evidence and so a single offense can cover a range of behavior from the despicable to the harmless. Put a cameraphone in the hands of a 15 year old and they are going to be sending pictures of the genitals to their friends. Which turns out to be a mandatory minimum 5 year sentence in many countries.

    The problem I have with pedophile priests is that the harm they inflict is amplified many times by the religious claptrap they are peddling, especially Catholic dogma with the lurid tales of everlasting damnation and spurious sexual injunctions. It is hard to imagine how anyone could really expect to inflict more mental damage than by telling children that sex is the deadliest possible sin and then abusing them.

    Society of the day may not have recognized pedophilia but mostly because the priests and others engaged in professional moral outrage largely succeeded in suppressing all discussion of sex and sexuality. But in any event priests profess to be in the business of making moral judgements and explaining them to people. So Dawkins could hardly be more wrong. Whatever the social values of society, the priests claimed to be living to a higher standard that they repeatedly attempted to inflict on the rest of us. The fact that they were failing is very important.

  8. BrainwashingGoddess-----Mind Control for the Evil IllumiNaughty Agenda says

    I was sexually abused as a child, I just…I can’t even begin to comment on the horrific nature of these comments Dawkins has made, so I’ll stay away from this thread for the sake of my sanity. This is totally insane and morally bankrupt behavior by Dawkins.

  9. says

    Signed. I could understand if Dawkins only expressed how he was able to get past his own abuse and move on. Good for him. However, he really does seem to lack the empathy to realize that other people who have suffered a similar experience do have long lasting issues, and that the perpetrators must be held fully accountable for their actions.

  10. says

    Mike Haynes @11:

    However, he really does seem to lack the empathy to realize that other people who have suffered a similar experience do have long lasting issues …

    This. Dawkins’ errors paint him for me as somebody without the empathy to understand that other people have very different experiences and life histories than he does, and that his own simply do not apply to anybody else. Even if he does recognize this, he doesn’t have the knack of presenting his own experiences without making them blanket pronouncements.

    It’s not quite the same thing as privilege, but closely related, especially in the execution.

  11. Ichthyic says

    It’s not quite the same thing as privilege, but closely related, especially in the execution.

    yes, Dawkins reaction to his experience could be entirely predicted, given the hostile scholastic environment he himself experienced (and even described in some detail). You are taught to treat abuse as “inconsequential”; stiff upper lip and all, which is just a way of maintaining the power structures that created the abusive atmosphere to begin with. No difference between that and the same things that were happening within the CC as a comparative institution; or with other types of physical abuse (corporal punishment), or even more general bullying behavior. The patterns were long established, and this trivializing behavior is one of the very things that keeps it going.

    The real disappointment comes in that Richard, with the friends and knowledge he has at his disposal now, of all people SHOULD know better than to do the very thing those who abused him WANTED him to do!

    it’s quite sad really. He needs to really open his eyes, if it’s simply not too late.

    all that said…

    Dawkins is just another faith-based right-wing lunatic

    hyperbole much? fuck me, but that’s just ridiculous.

  12. adaml223 says

    To me this lack of empathy for others screams lasting damage from suffered abuse.

    To me Dawkins is saying “I went through this and I’m fine, so everyone else should be fine too.” This becomes the zero sum game where your suffering doesn’t count because someone else is suffering worse.

    I see this as the essence of his reaction to Rebecca Watson: women elsewhere have to suffer awful genital mutilation, so your feeling unsafe in an elevator doesn’t matter. Or in other words, once we wipe out FGM and it is no longer a problem (and any number of other worse problems according to Dawkins), then we will address guys who come off as creepy in an elevator. Everyone needs to wait their turn.

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