Richard Dawkins created his own controversy in a recent interview when he spoke almost nonchalantly about his own childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his teacher. My big issue with him wasn’t that he was able to get past it to the point where he said he “couldn’t find it in [himself] to condemn” his teacher. My problem with his comments were that, in speaking so casually about such a deadly-serious topic, he gave the impression that other victims who went through similar (or worse) situations should also be able to get past it. He didn’t mean to do that. Of course he didn’t mean to minimize sexual abuse. But he effectively did, and he of all people should know the power of his own words.
Yesterday, in response to the controversy, my (Christian) friend Rachel Held Evans noted that she didn’t hold Dawkins’ words against all other atheists and called on us to make a deal with her:
How about we Christians agree not to throw this latest Richard Dawkins thing in your face and you atheists agree not to throw the next Pat Robertson thing in ours?
Now I’m not saying we just let these destructive words and actions go — not at all. It’s important for both believers and atheists to decry irresponsible views and hateful rhetoric, especially from within our own communities.
But what if we resist the urge to use the latest celebrity gaffe as an excuse to paint one another with broad brushes?
I’m willing to bet that the same collective groan emitted by millions of Christians each time Pat Robertson says something embarrassing on TV sounds a lot like the collective groan emitted by millions of atheists when Richard Dawkins rants on Twitter.
I understand where Rachel is coming from. Her heart’s in the right place.
But she’s totally wrong on this.
If this were an SAT analogy — Pat Robertson:Christianity :: ______? — then Dawkins:Atheism would be a tempting-but-incorrect answer.
There are key differences between the cringe-worthy things that Dawkins has said and the cringe-worthy things Pat Robertson (and so many other notable Christians) have said.
Let me go through just three of them.
1) Dawkins is frequently taken out of context. The Christians we quote are not.
Rachel cited this tweet as another example of Dawkins saying something offensive:
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
People were angry because they saw this as an attack on Muslim people, as if they were not intelligent enough of achieving such high academic goals. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Dawkins was criticizing the culture of Islamic countries and the way they hold people (certainly women) back from achieving their full potential. Was it a sloppy way to do it? Yep. But it’s Twitter. There’s a character limit. There’s not much space for nuance. I’m not excusing Dawkins, but I am giving him the benefit of the doubt here. You have to twist his words completely to accuse him of Islamophobia.
Similarly, when it came to his comments about pedophilia, this is how Salon put it:
Again — totally wrong. Dawkins didn’t “defend” pedophilia of any kind. And he wasn’t saying it couldn’t cause lasting harm to others; he was only referring to himself, saying it didn’t harm him or, as far as he knew, his classmates.
This is the sort of thing Dawkins has to deal with on a regular basis. People want to knock him down, so they put his words in the worst possible light, even if that means changing the intent of what he was trying to say. Dawkins bears some responsibility for not being more clear, but the burden really lies on reporters and journalists who want to use Dawkins as a punching bag and will do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if it means bending the truth so much that it’s doing backflips.
Meanwhile, when atheists quote Christian pastors or leaders, we don’t have to make shit up!
Pat Robertson really said that gay people in San Francisco spread HIV by cutting people with special rings. Bryan Fischer really believes that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened because there’s no more mandatory prayer in public schools. Pastor Mark Driscoll really did mock “effeminate” pastors on Facebook for not being “manly” enough:
Point being: Dawkins almost always has to be taken out of context to look bad. Popular Christians just have to be quoted accurately.
2) When Dawkins said something upsetting, atheists immediately called him out on it. When popular Christians say something legitimately awful, too many Christians remain silent.
As soon as Dawkins’ words went viral, atheists online were quick to condemn him for it. (I said on this site that I thought he was being unfairly maligned, but I, too, was upset by his choice of words.)
But how come when a popular Christian says something anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-science, or anti-doubt, we hear so many damn crickets? Why are Christians so afraid to criticize their own pastors? Or other pastors? Why do relatively few comment on the awful things said in and done by the church? Or are they just so numb to it all that they’ve given up?
I feel like Christians, especially younger ones, are getting better about this. They won’t hold back when it comes to criticizing Westboro Baptist Church or Creationist Ken Ham or in-your-face street preachers. But, by and large, the popular Christian leaders who hold abhorrent views on things like homosexuality and evolution and sex education still get to skate by without much pushback.
(I swear, even some progressive Christian media outlets and bloggers seem to be waiting for Rachel to call other Christians out for saying something stupid before they maybe follow her lead.)
Point being: Some Christians are fighting back against the things done in the name of their faith, but they’re in the minority. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of Dawkins criticism to be found in our own ranks, and when he slips up and says something wrong, he knows we’re not going to let him slide.
3) Dawkins apologized and explained himself. Christian leaders rarely, if ever, do the same.
Dawkins responded to his critics in a public statement a day after his comments really blew up online:
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.
We can argue over whether the apology was enough, or whether it was too little too late, or whether he really meant it, but he responded to the criticism.
When has James Dobson ever apologized for his anti-gay rhetoric that has ruined so many lives?
When has Mark Driscoll ever apologized for treating women as inferior to men?
When has Pat Robertson ever apologized for being Pat Robertson?
It doesn’t happen. Because they really believe what they’re saying. They don’t think there’s ever anything for them to apologize for because the Bible absolves them of wrongdoing and justifies their words and actions.
This idea that Richard Dawkins is an atheist “extremist” is ridiculous.
The idea that Christians are doing us a favor by not suggesting we all think the same way as Dawkins makes absolutely no sense. Dawkins isn’t our Pope. We don’t believe in the same Gods — that’s about the only thing we definitely have in common. As far as other opinions go, he’s on his own.
Meanwhile, all Christians believe in the same Bible. They justify their beliefs with the same book. They believe in the same God. They believe in prayers and miracles and the Resurrection and the afterlife.
Believe me, I wish more Christians were like Rachel, able to see past the words in the Bible and trying to reconcile faith with reality as we know it, but I can’t accept her deal. It’s built on a faulty premise.