Sep 10 2013

Ask Dawkins to reconsider his evaluation of the harms of “mild pedophilia”

I would very much like it if people stopped treating Dawkins as the Secular Pope. We don’t want any “leaders” in this movement, and yet friends of the secular movement will bow and scrape, and foes will treat him as the King of Atheism whose decrees are handed down from on high for all to internalize. Hell, half the time we can barely decipher what he’s saying. Take Twitter for example. A 140 character limit does the man no justice whatsoever — he does not wear “pithy” well.

His recent misstep is, as I’m sure you’re all aware, less than pithy — he’s been given plenty of time and space to bring this intellectual pursuit to full flower, and this is what he’s come up with: his recent suggestion that being sexually assaulted as a child is less bad than being brought up religious, and that one shouldn’t condemn sexual assault done in another era under different social mores.

Those of you who are actually members of the online atheist communities in which we reside should already know that he’s said that since at least The God Delusion. A number of us have been throwing real science in his face over this repeated diminishing of actual sexual assault victims, in fact, to no avail. He’s been saying this for years and years and not one word of the counterarguments against his statement have entered into his consciousness or forced him to reconsider his position, or even acknowledge the existence of these arguments. In fact he seems to rather fetishize the idea of applying scalar values to certain experiences as being more or less bad than others, as though he’s in an objective position to meter out what’s relatively more or less harmful without any eye to the circumstances of any one event.

And now, suddenly, he’s getting press over his repeated minimizing of the harm of so-called “mild pedophilia” — which he’s so argued because he didn’t personally feel victimized when he was himself diddled by a school teacher. Theists are quick to say “see, see, being an atheist leaves you with no moral compass!” As though a large and vocal contingent in the community — arguably the larger portion of the community, in fact, since we’re engaged in a sort of culture war between hero-worshipping dudebros and those atheists among us who have functioning senses of empathy — haven’t been arguing against it for exactly as long.

A petition is now circulating expressing the sentiment that he does not speak for us in this mistaken projecting of his own experience on others.

I signed:

I am grateful for the work he’s done in the field of evolution, which you’ll note comes from deep study and scientific inquiry. He is not speaking from merely the experience of having evolved.

In the case of his speaking about relative harm between being brought up religious, and being sexually assaulted as a child, he speaks only to his experience. Since there exists real academic science explaining the relative psychological harms these childhood incidents have on a person, it seems to me that he is extrapolating from his sample size of one — his own experience — and universalizing that experience. That is morally repugnant, insofar as it deprives child sexual abuse of its gravity and could lead to worsening the psychological trauma suffered by victims who DO experience trauma, unlike Dawkins, by depriving them of necessary resources by virtue of his having made light of the severity of the crime.

Richard Dawkins does not speak for me. As an ethicist, he makes a decent biologist. As a humanist, he makes a decent antitheist. Our philosophical differences run deep, despite neither of us believing in any gods.

Someone else signed this petition fairly early on, though, with an absolutely hilarious and fractally wrong paean against the REAL witches: the Freethought Bullies.

Witchfinder General LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM about 21 hours ago Like 0
I refuse to support the notion of this petition because it has the support of various factions from FreeThoughtBlogs.

These factions are associated with bullying and harassment, several have accusations of rape or sexual harassment hanging around them. They have been banned from several atheist/skeptic conferences because of their behaviour, and leaked emails from their “backchannel” has seen evidence of pre-planned malice and plans to intimidate women.

Sexual assault of children is a truly mild crime when compared to having an organizational mailing list, I guess.

(“Pre-planned malice and plans to intimidate women”? I’m pretty sure Thunderf00t is actually a cis male!)


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  1. 1

    I wash my hands of Dawkins. I actually did so when he unapologetically produced the Dear Muslima insult, and this just buttresses my belief that I made the correct choice. I won’t buy his books, I won’t go to see him speak, I won’t attend any conference at which he is featured. You’re right, Jason: we don’t need “leaders”. Especially leaders like this.

    The standard we walk past is the standard we accept.

  2. 2

    Clarification: Dawkins abuser was a teacher by his account. Not a priest.

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Yeah, you’re right. I think I’m misremembering it as being a Catholic school teacher, but now I can’t find his original account to verify.

  4. 4

    Theists are quick to say “see, see, being an atheist leaves you with no moral compass!”

    This deist’s inclined to say “Being Richard Dawkins signifies you’ve a seriously fucked up moral compass, and would regardless of whether you were atheist or theist.”

  5. 5


    In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did


    that help?

  6. 6

    also, for reference, an article he wrote back in 2012:


  7. 7

    Dawkins is speaking relatively close to where I live next week. If it was free, I’d attend just to raise his attitudes towards sexual harrassment during the Q&A, but I don’t want to pay to do so.

  8. 8
    Ant (@antallan)

    “It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The New Millennium Edition

    Idolising Dawkins, anyone, is wrong, but so is vilifying him. Refusing to read his very good books on evolution &c. because his ideas about pedophilia, misogyny, &c. are wrong, or because he rewards sexual favours inappropriately, is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Polanski’s sins are surely greater than Dawkins’s, but should you refuse to watch Chinatown because of that?


  9. 9

    Richard Dawkins has said some unpleasent things lately. These things, taken together, suggest a rather cavalier attitude about physical contact in general.

    The thing about this paeodophilia thing is this is not new at all. Anyone who’s read Dawkin’s books, especially recent ones, probably winced a bit internally when reading over a few out of place diatribes about paeodophilia being a “witch hunt”. In fact, this very story is one he’s told before too. It isn’t new, but only now has it got enough widespread attention for people to really catch “oh wow, he actually DOES mean it that way”.

    As I said before, if he didn’t get hurt by it himself, and considers himself well adjusted, that’s great. I can’t judge him for being able to survive such encounters unscathed, but that isn’t always the case. What of those who have experienced exactly what he has (I can name a few I personally know) who WERE far more hurt by it? What is his opinion of them? “Buck up, I got along fine so any emotional scarring you got from the act is just your own personal weakness.”? No thank you Richard. Different people react to this things in different ways. I’m not going to play psychologist and say this event CAUSED you to be callous, it may well be you were callous to this beforehand which led to you not thinking much of it. Doesn’t matter. I’m also not going to put myself in your shoes and say what you “should” do, like you “should” sue that priest who did this stuff to you and your friends (and who knows what else). Some of us have been there, had to make that choice, and didn’t want that particular struggle in our lives if we could just walk away. However, I won’t support trivializing it either. It was still a gross violation, in all meanings of both of those words.

    Let’s not forget that this sort of trivializing of things is a normal affair for Dawkins. It is a sort of old school thinking, grow a thicker skin, let’s focus on bigger issues, that sort of thing. Dawkins, being able to survive such incidents is not a bad thing, being strong is a trait we all want. It is one I had to develop for myself. However, strength is only a virtue in light of the fact that bad things happen to us. The strength to endure bad things only has value so long as bad things happen. Eliminate bad things, and the emotional strength to endure those things becomes vestigial. I’d prefer to do things that way instead of praising stoicism all the time.

    I hate to have to switch topics here, but PZ Myers has a few things to answer to himself. Namely, PZ has casually dismissed the problems of incest. To be fair, I don’t think PZ understood exactly what he was dismissing when he said it. This was in a post where he criticized the slippery slope arguments of the anti-gay crowd. You know the tired old arguments, accepting homosexuality “leads to accepting incest”, that sort of thing. Stupid, but PZ sort of stuck his foot in his mouth when he countered it with a cavalier “well, frankly I don’t see anything wrong with incest either, so long as it is consensual”. Superficially, that argument makes sense, but when you think about it, no it doesn’t, it only makes as much sense as saying paeodophilia isn’t wrong “if it is consensual”. The problem PZ missed is that incest, by its very nature, precludes the possibility of consent. Let’s focus purely on adults, ignoring that most incest involves children. Even then, a parent has a built in imbalance of power over their children. Even as an adult, the child in that relationship is very likely to agree purely because it is the parent asking for such a thing. That alone muddies any conception of enthusiastic consent at all. If you move along to siblings, the same sort of thing exists. Even as adults, a sort of built in deference to the elder siblings in matters is simply built in psychologically, purely based on growing up together with those roles firmly in place. In what way can consent ever be determined for sure there? Ignoring any “gross” factors (the only ones PZ considered at the time, and rightly dismissed), the basic allegory here is to a boss attempting a sexual relationship with a subordinate. The power differential between those two people is simply too great for that to be considered a consensual relationship. Sure, MAYBE such a consenting relationship can exist, but it would be indistinguishable from the noise. That’s why it is sexual harassment for a boss to try to initiate sexual things with a subordinate, and it is exactly why incest should stay illegal. Not for “gross out” reasons, but for the power differential, the fact that the vast majority of cases of incest are going to be about a parent or older sibling abusing their psychological power over the one below them to gain sexual favors.

    I say all this because I think PZ needs to rethink his stated position here. Homosexual relationships are nothing like incest, because one is consensual between equals, and the other is not. I’m sure if he had given it more thought, he’d have reached the same conclusion, since he seems to really care about power differentials in these casees.

  10. 10
    Jason Thibeault

    I think “incest is okay as long as there’s consent” implies that any incest that does not include consent is NOT okay, in fact, especially since most of the images conjured up by the word “incest” implies the sort of pedophilia we already condemn due to inability to consent in an informed manner. Frankly, this seems like splitting hairs and a tu quoque, but you have to note that I’m not “tu”. I’m Jason, not PZ.

    Ultimately, yes, there are a large number of power imbalances inherent in the very concept of incest, and that does create a lot of static that makes any individual case difficult to pick out from the rest of the noise. I think it’s a general derail, though. We can talk about it another time, if you point to a specific place where PZ has argued that way, and I can certainly ask him to clarify his thoughts on the matter if he hasn’t already done so directly to you.

  11. 11

    Even as adults, a sort of built in deference to the elder siblings in matters is simply built in psychologically, purely based on growing up together with those roles firmly in place. In what way can consent ever be determined for sure there?

    you’re making a slippery slope argument yourself.

    let’s back it up a bit…

    move out of the realm of immediate familial relationships.

    how about 1st cousins?

    it’s incest. Is it then by fiat always lacking real consent? I’m sure you can imagine situations where all the rules of consent would apply.

    FWIW, here’s a reasonable set of consent rules from MIT:

    Effective Consent is:

    – informed;

    – freely and actively given;

    – mutually understandable words or actions; which indicate a willingness to participate in mutually agreed upon sexual activity.

    my point being that it isn’t just an issue of consent in the case of incest, you’d have to take it on a case by case basis.

  12. 12

    Homosexual relationships are nothing like incest, because one is consensual between equals, and the other is not.

    again, if the issue is pure consent, that applies to ALL relationships, hetero and homo alike, whether closely related or not.

    you can find power inequalities contributing to relationships where it would invalidate the concept of consent regardless.

  13. 13

    Geez, if you have had bothered to do some research, you would have found out he haven’t had said anything to the extent of the topic. But hey, join the bandwagon. The easy way to avoid intellectual integrity.

  14. 14
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]



  15. 15

    @Ant 38

    Refusing to read his very good books on evolution &c. because his ideas about pedophilia, misogyny, &c. are wrong, or because he rewards sexual favours inappropriately, is cutting off your nose to spite your face. Polanski’s sins are surely greater than Dawkins’s, but should you refuse to watch Chinatown because of that?

    I, for one, have chosen not to watch Chinatown. It’s almost as though I am free not to consume media if I don’t want to support the creator.

    There are always other movies and there are always other books. There is no great hole in my life if I should choose not to consume some, because there are always more to consume than I am capable of consuming. I am not bereft of the ideas, concepts, beauty, or facts conveyed by that specific media because they are available through other sources.

    So yeah, I honestly don’t understand how a particular work can be considered so precious that it is impossible that it would be a sin/crime for me to boycott the creator because I disagree with their harmful public actions/statements. <rhetoric> Must I also watch Fox News in order to behold their amazing skills of deception and misdirection? </rhetoric>

  16. 16

    I would very much like it if people stopped treating Dawkins as the Secular Pope. We don’t want any “leaders” in this movement, and yet friends of the secular movement will bow and scrape, and foes will treat him as the King of Atheism whose decrees are handed down from on high for all to internalize

    A good way to get people to stop treating Dawkins that way is to ask people to ignore him, instead of asking to send him signed petitions by the thousands saying that he is wrong

    I like Dawkins in print. On the subject of biology. Evolution. In debates or on atheism and secularism in general? Not so much.

    A petition is now circulating expressing the sentiment that he does not speak for us in this mistaken projecting of his own experience on others.

    Fred Phelps does not speak for me as a human or an American or as a male or even as an old male when he condemns homosexuality at funerals. Should I be signing a petition addressed to him to indicate that, or should I just go about mocking the old coot?

  17. 17
    Jason Thibeault

    Not unless someone tries to damn you for being a fellow human or a fellow American or a fellow male or a fellow old male for his views, like what everyone’s doing with the group “atheist”, assuming The Dawk is the equivalent of The Pope.

  18. 18

    You mean people who damn you for being “just like the Dawk” will stop doing that? Like all the Muslims who have been asked to condemn terrorism and do so/have done so are no longer considered terrorists themselves?

    Or will an retraction from Dawkins convince such people that he is not our Pope?

    Again, I’d suggest that the best way to stop treating someone as the Pope is to ignore them, or mock them for their fuckwitry.

    Suppose Dawkins was to say “I was unequivocally wrong about trivializing pedophilia. It is a serious and a horrific offense, and there are no mitigating circumstances” (because that would be a desired outcome of mass-petitions), do you think that he loses or gains his stature as a pope?

  19. 19
    Jason Thibeault

    There is, actually, an apology from Dawkins, though it comes at the end of a very long explanation of why he’s not REALLY wrong. Regardless, jerks will still consider him The Atheist Pope, but having a number of us vocally and visibly fighting against his nonsense undercuts that perception.

  20. 20

    Dawkins himself experienced sexual abuse as a child and he did not find it overly harmful. This might well be a minority experience but Dawkins is entitled to his opinion on the matter. I am not familiar with much credible research on the effects of religious indoctrination (though there may well be some) so I don’t know what it means to say that there is scientific evidence that sexual abuse is worse than religious indoctrination. I would be largely confident that such studies have not been conducted in the communities most likely to do harm, i.e. the very religious.

    I worry a little that sexual assault has been turned into the kind of crime where everyone has been convinced that if they are not severely affected by it then there must be something wrong with them. I think this perspective is most perversely expressed in the sentiment (and I have seen this expressed many times) that rape victims would be better off if they had not survived. I am glad to say though that this does not seem to me to be a majority view. As I can expect that these previous statements will not be read as they were intended and will be deliberately misconstrued by some and accidentally so by others, I will state my position to remove all doubt.

    I think sexual assault is a terrible crime. I think it is especially so when perpetrated against children who lack the fortitude that adults have.

    I sympathise with the poster urging Dawkins to change his mind as I suspect the poster feels that Dawkins could be sending a dangerous or easily misinterpreted message. I have seen many people misrepresent Dawkins position as being something like “Mild paedophilia is OK!” which I don’t believe he has ever said. I took his position to be something along the following lines:
    “Not all sexual assault is a life ruining experience for everyone, especially when the abuse is relative mild. While society will crucify anyone found to be abusing children in any sexual form, no matter the severity; society routinely ignores the life destroying damage that religious indoctrination can inflict.” The quotes on the previous sentences are not intended to be taken as a quotation of Dawkins. They are merely intended to delineate my interpretation of his position.

    Personally I think that this is an unwise message to attempt to send. Particularly now. Sexual abuse is simply too incendiary an issue to try to use as a counterpoint. I think RD is using it because it is seen as so serious an issue. Ironically, because it is seen as so serious, all it will do in this comparison is leave the door open, for those so inclined, to paint Dawkins as a monster who is completely ok with a little child sexual abuse.

    Incidentally, I couldn’t help noticing the comment about the dear Muslima thing. This apparently egregious lack of respect shown by Dawkins to the experiences of women is seem by many as unforgivable. The general thrust of most of the opposition I saw to his dismissal was something like this
    “Nobody denies that women in devout Muslim countries generally have a much harder time than women in western democracies. This should not in any way mean that the negative experiences of women in western democracies should therefore be ignored. Essentially: just because group A has it worse than group B, it is crass to ignore the issues group B faces.”
    Fair enough.
    Some people did seem desperate to rephrase his objection to something like “Women should just ignore harassment, after all Dawkins has to tolerate gum chewing” and similar, deeply dishonest, representations of what he actually said. While I agree that the charge of dismissing one groups issues because another has much greater problems could possibly be made to stick, though even this would take some work, I couldn’t help notice a huge hypocrisy on this point. When the whole Dear Muslima thing was a hot topic, I noticed PZ excoriating Dawkins’ position, including the bit about group A’s problems don’t negate group B’s lesser problems. He had quite a few commenters second his opinion. What I found hypocritical was that these were exactly the same people who had dismissed the concerns of the men’s right movement on this exact basis; including the usual snark (“poor menz” etc). How Dawkins could be castigated for doing this and those doing the castigation could be guilty of exactly the same species of dismissal was disappointing to me. I was naive enough then to expect better of the atheist community. I have since learned better.

    Note: As mentioning the men’s rights movement seems to be akin to talking about holocaust denial on some of the blogs on FTB, I want to make a few things clear. I am not involved with the men’s rights movement. I don’t know an enormous amount about them. I am sure there are plenty of bad people in the movement, as is true of all movements. I do think that some grievances are legitimate (such as child custody issues) but others may not be, I don’t know. That is about the sum of my knowledge of the movement.

    As an aside: It would have seemed to me that feminists and men’s rights activists would be natural allies. Both groups at least claim to want equally between the genders. It seems however that both sides are determined to misrepresent and attack each other. Human nature perhaps?

  1. 21
    The Perfect Victim » Lousy Canuck

    […] of the major themes hit upon by Richard Dawkins’ most recent attempt at creating an objective scale of relative harm, much to the detriment of everyone who’s been harmed by things he’s decreed as zero […]

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