The Richard Dawkins Facepalm Watch

When I last wrote about Richard Dawkins, it was to report on the backlash over some clumsy, badly-judged remarks that he made about Islam. I was hoping that, at the very least, he’d learned a lesson from all the criticism he received and would watch his words more carefully in the future. But alas:

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

…He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 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 pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

Like the last time, if you turn these words and squint at them just right, it’s possible to discern a valid argument buried somewhere in there. I’d agree that not all cases of child abuse are equally harmful, and that there should be degrees of punishment depending on the circumstances. For example, consensual sex between a teenager and an adult, like a teacher, shouldn’t be punished with the same severity as the violent rape of a child.

But again, like the last time, he’s managed to couch this point in probably the worst possible way. Even if we atheists were determined to be charitable in our interpretation, we can be sure that Dawkins’ many enemies won’t be, and will use these remarks to paint both him and the larger atheist movement in a poor light, or to deflect attention from their own moral failings. As I said on Twitter, the next time a priestly pedophilia story breaks, we can be almost certain that some Catholic apologist will say, “This is no big deal, and you’re just trying to exaggerate how serious it is to embarrass the church. See, even Richard Dawkins says it’s not always so bad!”

Dawkins’ opinion apparently stems from the fact that he himself was molested by a schoolmaster as a child, but didn’t suffer any lasting harm from it. That’s a fortunate thing for him, obviously. But we can’t assume, as he seems to, that everyone who has a similar experience came out similarly unscathed. For one thing, it’s almost never assumed that men who suffer sexual abuse must have been asking for it, nor are they treated as if they should share in the blame. But these assumptions often are made about women who are raped or molested, and that can’t help but worsen the harm inflicted. (This is another example of how Dawkins’ own privilege has repeatedly blinded him to the lived realities of others, to his detriment.)

What’s even worse is that Dawkins gave his endorsement to the notion that child abuse wasn’t always understood to be wrong, and that we can’t judge the past by the moral standards of the present. Yes, we can, and we should! To accept this terrible argument would require us to excuse all kinds of evils – from genocide and slavery to mundane racism and sexism – on the grounds that the people of the past didn’t know any better. How can he not see that this even badly contradicts his own arguments, made on so many occasions, about the historical harm done in the name of religion? (As Alex Gabriel says, if it had been a Catholic bishop saying these same things, there’s no doubt that the reaction from the atheist community would be blistering.)

There’s a parallel here to the way that scientists who study evolution ought to be judicious in their public statements, and not make arguments that can be seized upon and quoted out of context by creationists. When you’re under scrutiny by people who are eager for you to make a mistake, it’s vital to carefully weigh your remarks so as not to speak in ways that can easily be used against you. Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand this, and it speaks poorly of him that he keeps committing these unforced errors. I have no explanation for why he can’t see that he’s harming not just his own reputation, but the entire secular movement that, for better or for worse, he’s widely assumed to speak on behalf of.

Courtney Caldwell has started a Change.org petition calling on Dawkins to retract these awful remarks. I’ve signed my name, and I encourage you to add yours, although I think most of the damage has already been done.

* * *

On a related note, my friend Sarah Moglia has revealed that she witnessed an angry, vindictive outburst from Dawkins during a meeting for the planning of the Reason Rally:

As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.

In response to this, American Atheists put out a statement on Facebook in which they state that there were never any plans to invite Watson in the first place, but if there had been, they wouldn’t have acceded to a demand to blackball her. That’s good to hear, and it’s exculpatory for American Atheists and the other Reason Rally organizers – but not for Dawkins.

This is just further evidence of why Richard Dawkins is unsuited for a leadership role within the atheist community. Making tone-deaf and embarrassing public statements is bad enough, but throwing his weight around in an attempt to bully conference organizers and suppress other voices – especially the voices of women – is unacceptable. We need better leaders than this.

UPDATE (9/12): Richard Dawkins has apologized, saying: “I cannot know for certain that my companions’ experiences with the same teacher were are brief as mine, and theirs may have been recurrent where mine was not.”

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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