Richard Dawkins Isn’t Defending ‘Mild Pedophilia’… but That Doesn’t Make His Comments Okay

***Update***: Dawkins has now responded to the criticism. He acknowledges that many other victims of sexual abuse have suffered serious trauma, while still explaining that his own experience hasn’t had the same result. He also points out that some of his childhood friends, subject to the same abuse, may have suffered as a result, but none of them have said as much yet. I’m sure people will still complain this isn’t enough, but Dawkins did exactly what I hoped he would do. I only wish he had said it like this in the first place.

Today we read, almost daily, of adults whose childhood was blighted by an uncle perhaps, or even a parent, who would day after day, week after week, year after year, sexually abuse a vulnerable child. The child would often have no escape, would not be believed if he/she told the other parent, or told a teacher. In many cases it is only now, when the abused children have reached adulthood, that these stories are coming out. To make light of their stories, even after all these years, might in some cases re-awaken the trauma of not being believed at the time when it was all happening, and when being believed would have meant so much to the child.

… 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. That’s why I said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. We discussed it among ourselves on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was indeed general agreement that his gassing himself was far more upsetting than his sexual depredations had been. If I am wrong about any particular individual; if any of my companions really was traumatised by the abuse long after it happened; if, perhaps it happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that I endured, I apologise.

Richard Dawkins is no stranger to saying provocative things that he finds harmless that also manage to offend plenty of other people. It’s fine, of course, when he’s criticizing religious beliefs or bad public policy. It’s harder to defend when he types out a tweet like the one he put out last month:

While technically true, it’s easy to see how that could be interpreted as a criticism of Muslim people (and a slam on their intelligence) and not something about, say, a repressive culture in many Islamic countries that doesn’t allow all people to reach their full potential.

He managed to outdo himself this past weekend as he prepares for the release of his memoir An Appetite for Wonder. His (to put it mildly) inarticulate way of talking about a sensitive subject has led to all sorts of well-deserved criticism today.

In an interview with The TimesGiles Whittell, which is behind a paywall but which you can read in full here, Dawkins recalled a teacher he had who was sexually abusive to students, yet Dawkins can’t bring himself to fully condemn him:

“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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

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, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

The actual excerpt from his memoir dealing with this topic looks like this:

One day — I must have been about 11 — there was a master in the gallery with me. He pulled me onto his knee and put his hand inside my shorts. He did no more than have a little feel, but it was extremely disagreeable (the cremasteric reflex is not painful, but in a skin-crawling, creepy way it is almost worse than painful) as well as embarrassing. As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.

A generous interpretation of all of that would be that Dawkins personally experienced sexual abuse, something that was sadly not uncommon at that time, but it didn’t traumatize him. It wasn’t okay, but it didn’t do him any lasting damage. Even though Dawkins takes a leap when saying his classmates felt the same way he did — an irresponsible statement that should not be assumed so easily — he’s not saying that the same experience might not have been traumatic for someone else.

A less generous interpretation would be… well… pretty much everything that’s making news today.

Like this over-the-top headline from Salon (which was also used by Raw Story):

I find that one particularly egregious, because when I’m reading Dawkins’ comments, I’m not seeing anything that even suggests “defending pedophilia,” mild or otherwise. Dawkins isn’t condoning what happened. Nor is he suggesting that others who experience the same thing today should just “get over it.”

What he’s guilty of is what he’s always been guilty of — being insensitive, inarticulate, and unsympathetic. He’s trivializing something others rightly take very seriously because he’s found a way to get past it. As someone who once held the title of “Chair for the Public Understanding of Science,” he’s doing an awful job of bringing people over to his side. Good educators know you have to meet people where they’re at before you can move them in your direction and, by basically downplaying his own abuse, he’s showing a callous disregard for how others might interpret the same situation.

Other children who have been touched the way Dawkins was have suffered. The timeline of when it happened, 50 years ago or now, is irrelevant, as Trevor Grundy noted in a piece for Religion News Service when he interviewed someone who is an expert in these matters:

Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ remarks “a terrible slight” on those who have been abused and suffered the effects for decades.

“Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”

That, to me, is a better handle on what Dawkins got wrong. While he is able to see what happened to him through a generational lens and move past it, he just doesn’t do enough to say how wrong the behavior was or admit that other students may have been seriously harmed (psychologically, if not physically) by what their teachers did.

Homophobia is homophobia, hateful and harmful, no matter when it happened. Same with racism. If we’ve become better on those issues today — and that’s arguable, I know — it’s because we no longer let it slide when we see it or hear it. Similarly, sexual abuse is sexual abuse and it must be condemned no matter where a certain act may sit on a fictional spectrum of mild to serious. I’m glad Dawkins got through it without any lasting effect (that he would acknowledge, anyway) — but he missed a golden opportunity to point out how the same scenario could have seriously damaged someone else’s life.

Back in April, there was a powerful article in the New Yorker by Marc Fisher about the sexual abuse of students that took place decades ago at the Horace Mann School in New York City. The boys at the school practically worshipped one of their teachers to the point where they would sometimes visit him, alone, at his apartment, and the teacher took advantage of that trust and isolation. The level of abuse and secrecy involved were just astonishing. More relevant to us, while the abuse described in this article was far more than just touching, the trauma stayed with the victims for a long time. Still does, in fact. Here are just two passages from the piece:

For years, [student] Stephen Fife kept what happened with [teacher Robert] Berman mostly to himself. He told his mother only that he was depressed and unable to sleep, that he was in trouble and needed to see a therapist. He recalls her saying that in their family one did not tell secrets to strangers. She urged him to take classes with other teachers, and suggested that he transfer to a different school for his senior year. For Fife’s eighteenth birthday, his parents gave him the twenty-four-volume complete works of Sigmund Freud so that he could figure out what was bothering him. During the next several months, he read volume after volume.

“People don’t understand,” [former student] Gene told me. “People think of child abuse as a moment in a shower, like Sandusky. They don’t think of it as essentially abducting and brainwashing. This was a cult of art, literature, and music, a cult that was revered in some circles. And being in a cult is seen as a sign of weakness.” Once a week, Gene goes to a meeting of adult survivors of childhood abuse. Others attend for a few months and move on. Five years later, Gene is still going.

If you want to get a better understanding of the lifelong effects of sexual abuse by a teacher, read that piece. I hope Dawkins does, anyway.

By the way, none of Dawkins’ statements are new information. He spoke openly about his teacher’s sexual abuse in 2006. Remember: when the God Delusion came out, one of the more controversial aspects of the book was his argument that “Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.”

Again, while that may be true for some people, it’s certainly not true for all people. Unfortunately, in the years since, Dawkins hasn’t learned any better.

On Twitter this morning, Dawkins attempted to respond to his critics. He kept arguing that “mild touching” was bad, but rape was far worse. But that’s not the real issue here. The issue is that the mild touching, even though it could be much worse, must still be taken seriously because of the lasting impact it can have on victims. Dawkins didn’t treat it with the appropriate level of condemnation, regardless of what his own experience was.

If the Pope said the same thing, no matter how he framed it, we’d all condemn it and criticize it. I think Dawkins would, too. There’s no reason to let these comments slide just because they came out of Dawkins’ mouth (or computer). No matter his intentions, his words hurt people and he ought to acknowledge that. As a scientist, he should be on the lookout for evidence that he could be wrong and be willing to change his mind if necessary. When it comes to abuse, even “mild” abuse if we can call it that, there are too many people whose experiences have been different from Dawkins for him to not at least change the way he speaks about the topic.

I’ve reached out to Dawkins for comment. I’ll let you know if he responds.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.