Richard Dawkins is Not the Atheist Version of Pat Robertson

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:


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.

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.

  • Atheist for human rights

    So if got this straight Dawkins is not a crazy bigot like pat Robertson but when Dawkins says crazy bigoted things atheists condemn him. So which is it does he say crazy bigoted things or not? There is almost as much glaring contradictions in your blog post than in the bible.

    And Mehta your criticism of Dawkins is extremely mild. You spend more of your time performing mental backflips rationalizing his crazy and/or bigoted rants than you do criticizing him.

    • Paul Reed

      The way I see it, he certainly says things that can *look* crazy and/or bigoted.
      Then everyone gets in an uproar, and he sighs and writes a clarification.

    • h2ocean

      It’s simple: Dawkins can say things that can appear insensitive or bigoted (sometimes because of poor wording, others being blatantly taken out of context, or both), which are later clarified. Atheists criticize his choice of words and what they might imply or suggest. There’s no contradiction.

    • Glasofruix

      Well, he uses some big words that average christians don’t understand or have a bad definition of, then they get pissed and misquote the shit out of him…

    • Heidi McClure

      AFAICT, Dawkins is kind of a dick. He’s also a brilliant scientist and a pretty decent writer, who is sometimes, but not always, taken out of context.

  • guesy

    Well, I’m glad he’s apologised. That’s something, at least.
    The main difference between Dawkins and Christian leaders is that Dawkins is not in charge of anything. He’s a biologist. No-one elected him official spokesperson for atheism and we’re all free to disagree with what he says.

    • Libby

      THIS ^^

      There is no atheist Pope. There never could possibly be one.

      • Mackinz

        Actually, I think I have to disagree.

        The Pope could be an atheist. Being in power does not make one necessarily religious.

        • Travis Myers

          Even if the Pope were atheist, he still wouldn’t be the atheist pope. He would be a Pope of the Roman Catholic Church who happened to not believe in God.

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            Pedantically, that would be “there is no Atheists’ pope”.

            Making an atheist pope is pretty easy, courtesy of the Discordians and the wonders of the Internet.

      • Fred

        Darn! I thought when Father Guido Sarducci made me Pope it would stick. :(

      • Librepensadora

        Libby, didn’t you mean “a leader of atheists with the same power and authority the pope has in the Catholic church”? That seems to be the problem with comments. You mean one thing and it is misinterpreted by someone else.

        • Libby

          Yes, but I was in a hurry. ;)

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        If atheism were a religion we’d have more denominations than the Christians. In fact practically every atheist would claim his own brand of atheism. Anyone who thinks otherwise obviously doesn’t know more than one atheist.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Now the question is, how many of those special snowflakes would mainly legitimate, thought-out “denominations”, rather than being validations of the person’s unexamined prejudices?

          I suspect the answer would be “Few enough that it would be disappointing, but still a damn sight more than with religious denominations.”

      • Pseudonym

        There is no atheist Pope.

        However, in the sense intended by Rachel Held Evans’ analogy, Atheism : Richard Dawkins :: Christianity : Pope Francis.

        Some consider him a leader, many don’t. Charming and sensible in many respects, but don’t let the charm fool you.

    • Spuddie

      Unlike Robertson, Dawkins does not have a multimillion dollar media empire to spread his influence. Robertson can’t be taken put of context because he has the power to broadcast exactly what he means to the public without filtering it through the pov of someone else

  • 3lemenope

    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?

    These questions kinda answer themselves. Christianity, in the vast majority of its incarnations (like, everyone but the Quakers, pretty much), relies on a very straightforward hierarchical power structure. Such structures only function if normativity flows down-hill (along with other things).

    FWIW, I agree on the chorus of crickets from Christians upon encountering an especial stupidity in their own house being problematic, even if it is understandable. But on at least two other points, I find myself actually agreeing with Ms. Evans more than you.

    Atheists are not nearly as saintly as we apparently think we are when it comes to dealing fairly with opposition arguments; not uncommonly I find myself, even here, sometimes defending such arguments, not because they are right–because they aren’t–but because they’ve been distorted beyond all recognition by the people ostensibly arguing against them. Most of the intellectual sins that atheists accuse Christians of committing get committed only in a slightly different form in communities of atheists ourselves.

    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.

    On Dawkins, I think it is a bit on-the-nose to make excuses for the guy and then claim that you’re not. You are excusing it pretty point-blank. The text that he posted on Islamic people, which because of Twitter is *actually contextless* so I’m not entirely sure what context people should be looking to to help parse it, can be and indeed probably is most naturally interpreted as an attack on Islamic people and not upon the culture. He had to explain because without the explanation, those 140 characters really do come off as remarkably and baldy racist.

    The only reason Christian leaders don’t do the same is that they are insulated by being in a more secure social position. If they were not buffered in effect by being part of a mushy majority, they’d have to run out in front of every stupid thing said by any of them too. Much as, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses did around the turn of the 20th century when everyone else was gunning for them. Ditto Mormons, a bit further back.

    • David Kopp

      I think the point about Dawkins and Islam is that there is a very plausible and reasonable explanation for his comment that is not hate based. It’s called giving the benefit of the doubt. It could easily be (and most likely is) a critique of Islamic state culture rather than individuals. The statements made by many Christians leave no room for that kind of charitable interpretation… otherwise I’d be the first to sign up that maybe they meaning it as bad as it comes across.

      The difference is that Dawkins is excoriated because everything he says is twisted into the worst possible light, every time. Christian pastors and so on are all given a pass in most media because there’s no way a good Christian could be hateful.

      • 3lemenope

        It’s called giving the benefit of the doubt. [...] The statements made by many Christians leave no room for that kind of charitable interpretation.

        I generally agree with giving the benefit of the doubt. I heartily disagree with the second assertion. In my experience, most atheists, perhaps through (justified) anger and exasperation at seemingly having to repeat ourselves all the damn time, get really really lazy when it comes to parsing opponents. It’s not that the charitable interpretation doesn’t exist, it’s that the parser doesn’t really look for it.

        The difference is that Dawkins is excoriated because everything he says is twisted into the worst possible light, every time. Christian pastors and so on are all given a pass in most media because there’s no way a good Christian could be hateful.

        I think the difference is even simpler than that. Dawkins is a member of a socially-disapproved minority, while Christian preachers enjoy the privileges of the majority. Had they swapped spots, their behaviors, most likely, would be exactly mirrored, much as minority Christian sects in less tolerant times and places did. The behaviors at issue (except for the Christian reticence to question Christian authority figures directly) aren’t very well explained by religious differences but are fairly well explained by sociological factors.

        • David Kopp

          How do you parse gays using rings to infect people with aids differently?

      • UWIR

        It could also be read as a critique of the Nobel Prize Committee. It’s rather hard to read it as racist, given that Islam is not a race. Then there’s the fact that the statement is, denotatively, entirely and completely true. There’s a world of difference between a true fact that perhaps was brought up for bigoted reasons, and a lie or a statement with no real truth value.

    • Leigha7

      My reaction to the idea that people took that as meaning Muslims were inherently less intelligent was, “Wait, what? How in the world do they get that from what he said?” Because if that were the case, how would they have played such a major role in the formation of math and science? It’s a fact that the Middle East (where a large percentage of Muslims live) has not been contributing as much to the scientific community as they used to, and I can only assume it’s due to social, economic, and especially educational problems in those countries. That has NOTHING to do with the citizens of those countries (aside from how it affects their lives, of course), but rather their governments.

      It was phrased poorly, and I’m not sure why he bothered saying it in the first place, but it doesn’t seem racist to me. Inflammatory, yes, and needlessly so, but not racist.

      I’m also taking it solely by itself, not in the context of anything else he may have said about Muslims previously. I can’t remember if he’s the one who’s made disparaging remarks or if that was Hitchens (or both). I don’t pay much attention to either of them. Presumably, however, people who follow him on Twitter do.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        1000 years ago or so the Islamic world was the hotbed of scientific and mathematical learning and discovery while Christian Europe was the cultural backwater. Same religions, different outcomes. A more careful look at those cultures, though, shows that the Christianity practiced in medieval Europe was more like the brand of Islam practiced today in the middle east. This is a cultural issue, not a religious one. There was a time when Muslims were advancing fields like mathematics (note the etymology of algebra and our use of arabic numerals) because their culture fostered such advances while the medieval Catholic Church discouraged any such questioning and discovery.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I think another difference is the Dawkins doesn’t always speak or write about atheism. In this case, he’s talking about his own memoirs. Robertson’s comments almost always are voiced in the context of explicitly Christian television ministry.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      And Dawkins doesn’t claim to speak from any authority other than his own. Robertson claims to speak on behalf of an imaginary deity who will send you to hell if you disagree with him. Really not the same thing. I have no fear of disagreeing with Dawkins. In fact, I often do, especially when he leaves his area of expertise.

  • cryofly

    Did that lady really try make a deal with the atheists? But we do not negotiate with terror mongers in guise of peace makers.

    • baal

      While her equivalency is false, I am loathe to call all christians (especially the moderates) terror mongers. In the common usage in the U.S., ‘terrorist’ is becoming a category equivalent of ‘not human’.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    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.

    Groaning is quiet.

    When Dawkins says something artless, absurd, or insensitive, atheists are all over him like a rash, publicly and loudly. When Robertson says something vicious and crazy beyond comprehension, Christians groan.

    Please direct me to the Christians who are publicly and loudly decrying and repudiating the hateful, lunatic lies that week after week, year after year Robertson has amassed into volumes of toxic bile. I’ve somehow missed that.

    Hey Rachel, I have some deals to offer for your consideration:

    How about atheists continue to clean up the errors in their own ranks, and Christians start?

    How about atheists continue to describe reality, and Christians face reality?

    How about you write something saying Joe Klein is an obtuse bigot and an equivocating weasel, and I …buy you a sandwich?

    • Mackinz

      Tell me what state you live in, Richard, and I’ll go there and buy you a sandwich. :D

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        California. So the sandwich will probably have avocados in it. :D

        • Mackinz

          Oh, sweet, we’re in the same state then. Now to wander the vast desert in search of Richard.

          • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade
            • Mackinz

              *wanders around desert with sandwich*

              RICHARD

              RICHARD WHERE ARE YOU

              *collapses from dehydration*

              • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

                Waiter, can we have some water here? My friend is thirsty. Oh, do you have Arrowhead?

                • Greg G.

                  Old Pun Alert! If you’re wandering in the desert, you can eat all the sandwiches there.

                • UWIR

                  Seeing as how it’s a restrictive clause, it should be “All of the sand that is there.”
                  /grammar pedantry that misses the point

                • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

                  “Room service… room service!”

              • Chris Harmon

                yep, you are in Ca..

          • Artor

            Of course, California is still 3 times the size of all England, so you may have a bit more wandering than you’d like.

        • islandbrewer

          Also, our baked goods have kale.

          Ahhhh, California.

          • Spuddie

            So whole wheat can have truly colon blowing properties there!

    • UWIR

      When Klein says something artless, absurd, and insensitive, TIME not only doesn’t criticize it, it prints it, and refuses to apologize for doing so.

  • jdm8

    I don’t remember a single prominent Christian that has ever chastized Robertson, Dobson, Franklin Graham or even the late Falwell for their absurd chronic public verbal diarrhea.

    While it’s good there is finally a movement that “we’re not all like that”, but it’s still in its infancy, and I have to ask, why did it take so long to form? For all this time, the silence sure seemed like a form of assent.

    • UWIR

      I’m having trouble of thinking of a prominent Christian other than Robertson, Dobson, Graham, or Falwell, let alone one who has chastised them.

  • Autumn Treadwell

    He’s not an extremist – but he’s so arrogant and so insensitive I do NOT want anyone saying he represents me, and I’m ready for him to retire and let others take his place at conferences and speaking tours. I’ve read his comments about child sexual abuse in full, and this isn’t a matter of taking things out of context: his insensitivity is jaw-dropping – even in light of his jaw-dropping comments about Rebecca Watson and women’s safety. I do not want anyone ever thinking Richard Dawkins represents me, and I *do* most certainly identify with my many Christian friends who freak out every time Pat Robertson opens his mouth. If he’s on the bill of a conference, I will not go.

    • Leigha7

      Saying he was “defending pedophilia” is definitely taking it out of context. He was absolutely being insensitive, but he wasn’t defending anything.

      The problem with what he said is, saying he isn’t bothered by it is fine (though I can’t help but wonder if it’s entirely true, because I’m not sure why you’d bring it up if it didn’t matter), but saying no one else is/was is not. If he’d worded it more clearly (as he did in his apology) that he’s talked to them about it and none have seemed bothered, that would be acceptable, but you’d have to be careful not to imply that no one should be bothered by sexual abuse.

      But he DID imply that no one should be bothered by it, and even in his apology he implied that a single instance of molestation isn’t significant (go ahead and re-read the last part if you didn’t catch that). He did call his experience “disagreeable,” so that’s something, I guess. But what he said, both initially and in his apology, is still problematic and DEFINITELY insensitive.

  • Nox

    The main reason Dawkins is not analogous to Robertson is that christianity has a set of beliefs. There’s all the variation you would expect from a religion where every adherent gets to make up their own interpretation, but there is still a fixed holy text, and a somewhat fixed set of beliefs.

    All of Pat Robertson’s vilest and wackiest statements come right from the bible.He may be an embarrassment to more sensible believers, but he’s not an anomaly of christianity. He’s the natural result of christianity.

    It isn’t that he represents all christians. Just that he is representative of something which is a trait of christianity. Many modern christians like Evans like to think their organization has always been about love and peace, and guys like Robertson are just carpetbaggers coming from outside to corrupt their benevolent institution. Even a cursory reading of church history will tell you the church has always been guys like Robertson saying the same type of things Robertson says today.

    I’d rather know someone like Evans than Robertson. I’d be more likely to approve of christianity if her version was representative of the whole. But Evans is absolutely wrong about Robertson. She is the anomaly here.

    • Anathema

      A lot of the awful things that Pat Robertson said come from the Bible, but I think that it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that all of the vilest and wackiest things that he says come from the Bible.

      For instance, Pat Robertson recently claimed that there’s a group of HIV-positive gay men who go around trying to infect others by wearing rings that are designed to cut open the finger of anyone they shake hands with. I don’t think that Pat Robertson got that idea from the Bible.

      • allein

        How the hell would that even work? Even if you managed to cut someone with a ring, shaking hands with them is unlikely to pass on HIV. The virus doesn’t live long outside the body; you’d have to put enough of some kind of bodily fluid that carries enough of a viral load onto your hands or the ring just before shaking hands. Such an action seems unlikely to go unnoticed… Seriously, how do people come up with this shit?

        • ZenDruid

          Like ‘the fool says in his heart’ thing:

          The preacher says in his gut that the Other really wants to kill him. It kinda digests from there.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    No, let’s do the opposite of that deal. We’ll continue to throw Pat Robertson in Christian’s faces until they rebuke him, and they’ll continue to throw Richard Dawkins in our faces until we rebuke him. Perfectly fair, and fine with me.

  • vatreehugger

    The first thing that came to my mind when I read his comments, which I am very surprised no one else seems to be considering, is that Dawkins was the VICTIM of the sexual assault.

    Seriously, how common is it for victims of such abuse to try to defend their abusers or rationalize or downplay what happened to them? Paradoxical gratitude or stockholm syndrome or selective memory loss or whatever else you might find in the grab-bag of coping mechanisms. Especially when you consider that he is an older fellow who grew up in a time when it was much less acceptable to speak up about such incidents.

    • Eli

      Yes, in this case at least, as I see it, Dawkins is speaking as a victim, with all that entails, not as an atheist, even though he is one. Robertson typically is speaking as a Christian leader, not as someone who has an experienced-based opinion and happens to also be a Christian.

    • Ewan

      Quite. It’s astonishing that anyone at all, but especially people on ‘our side’ think that the appropriate response to a victim of child abuse speaking about their experiences is to attempt to silence them because what they’re saying makes people uncomfortable.

    • Leigha7

      A lot of people, in their criticism, seemed to overlook that part. There were quite a few comments saying things like, “Oh, he doesn’t think pedophilia is that bad? I bet he’s just trying to excuse his own pedophilia!”

      Honestly, it said RIGHT THERE that he was saying he wasn’t bothered by BEING MOLESTED. How do you not read that correctly? (Of course, being molested doesn’t mean it’s impossible for someone to be a pedophile, but there’s no reason to jump to that accusation from such a straightforward statement.)

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      How much do such defenses contribute to the “cycle of abuse” theorized in current psychological literature?

  • GodlessPoutine

    Thank you for dealing so well with her post, Hemant. I was going to take a crack at it on my blog, but this pretty much sums up what I was going to say anyway! Thanks!

  • smrnda

    Listen Xtians, go ahead and throw whatever Dawkins says at me and ask me to repudiate it if deserves to be. I will, but the difference between Dawkins and me and Robertson and Christians is that aside from both disbelieving in gods and using science, there’s no more common ground between me and Dawkins; we aren’t operating from many of the same assumptions.

    With Robertson, there’s this thing called ‘the Bible’ that contains some pretty nasty stuff. Robertson can find passages to defend his nastiness in that Bible if he wants to, and the *nice Christians* can find some nice passages but they’re still stuck having to explain away the nasty bits. They’re linked to Robertson by far more than I am linked to Dawkins – they’re linked by far more shared assumptions that are problematic for them. So when I point out something Robertson says and get the NALT response, the problem is that the NALT-Xtian has to explain away the bits of the Bible that support Robertson’s views. There’s no *book* that Dawkins is using that I’ve accepted that plays the same role.

  • The Irish Atheist

    I like Rachel, I do, and I really think that she’s a great example of what a Christian should be, if you have to be Christian at all. But I do agree that she’s totally off on this one.
    Dawkins makes gaffes like everyone else. He makes mistakes. He says things in a less than professional way.
    But he doesn’t make a living or a ministry based on those things. Pat Robertson does. Bryan Fischer does. Scott Lively does.
    And Dawkins has never, ever, advocated the legal repression of people who think or act differently than him.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Dawkins is brilliant in his own area of expertise. He’s not only knowledgeable but quite eloquent. When he leaves that area he’s something of a clod. He often doesn’t say exactly what he means, especially in addressing controversial social issues, leaving himself open to criticism from both the hysterical left and the hysterical right. Most of the time people are either misquoting him or taking his words out of context, but even so he’s smart enough and eloquent enough to be more careful about what he says and what he tweets to avoid some of that. (Though not all because in many quarters simply criticizing Islam makes you a right-wing Islamaphobic nutjob, which he isn’t.)

    • CottonBlimp

      Dawkins also doesn’t exploit public ignorance, or create fake charities to con people out of money, or profit from diamond mines worked by child slaves.

      They are so fucking desperate to find some false equivalence to excuse their lack of thought, and it’s not just unfair to public atheists like Dawkins, it grossly minimizes the evil inherent in people like Robertson as well as the complicity of the Christian layman.

      • Nomad

        I was waiting for someone to mention the diamond mine scam. YES. That is what is so offensive about this comparison. People say they respect Rachel Held Evans in general. I sure can’t if she’s going to employ such blatant false equivalences.

        No, Rachel, you cannot compare someone who said he personally was not effected long term by being molested to someone who works to dehumanize an entire class of people just for their sexuality. But that’s not enough, he convinced people to give him money by saying it would go to providing medical care for needy people, instead he siphoned it off to support his own personal diamond mining operation. And Rachel, you’re defending this. You’re not offering him up as a terrible Christian, you’re trying to minimize the horrible things he’s done by saying it’s the same thing as someone commenting on his own experience of being abused but phrasing it poorly.

  • bmorejoe

    Much ado about not much IMO. I think Dawkins is right in that we need to be able to talk openly about sexuality across the board and we need to understand how perpetrators are made and understand gradations and contexts. Currently the topic is so loaded that all sexual abuse gets the same emotional response regardless of context or degree. And other, IMO, equally damaging forms of abuse, e.g. shaming, belittling etc. get little attention. This porno/puritan coin needs to be unpacked and processed, not stifled with cries of “Off with his head!” IMO.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      I watched the freakout occur on twitter and facebook. I couldn’t help but think that it might have been more useful for his critics to start a discussion about such abuse and it’s effects, be they great or small, instead of calling for his head. I understand what he meant. I think he’s probably wrong (he probably does suffer from some negative effects from the abuse even if they aren’t debilitating). But in our current culture we don’t have intelligent discussions about such important and serious topics. We have screaming matches and that’s what ensued. And tell me, how exactly does that help either the victims of abuse or the public at large that could benefit from a rational and thoughtful discussion of the issues surrounding this topic?

  • TCC

    I don’t agree with the equivalence, either, but I think that Dawkins is given too much credit when it comes to making easily-misunderstood statements. I really enjoy Dawkins’ writing, but he has a real penchant for saying things that sound horrible with very little effort. (I also think that he gets genuinely taken out of context on occasion, such as when he was basically relabeled an agnostic after his debate with Rowan Williams. In that case, it was a complete non-troversy among atheists.) It seems perfectly reasonable to criticize Dawkins for his inability to communicate himself in such a way that they are not prone to such misunderstandings, if they are in fact that (and to be charitable, let’s assume that they are).

    But the differences in #2-3 don’t bear on Dawkins at all. People like Bryan Fischer and Pat Robertson don’t generally apologize for or clarify their remarks because they don’t get called on their worst statements by their base. This is more a reflection on atheists than it is the kind of Christian who would listen to Robertson and his ilk, so I don’t think that Dawkins really deserves any credit for that.

    • baal

      I’m firmly of the opinion that Dawkins should curtail his tweets or have some third party vetting them before posting. That said, I don’t find him quite as odious as his detractors do. There seems to be a subset of atheists who go out of their way to take full advantage of Dawkins’ iffy statements to paint him in the worst light.

  • stanz2reason

    When I read this article over at CNN I thought the exact thing, basically that Rachel lost her mind. Saw your name mentioned in the article and was about to send you an email pointing this out, but it seems you’re aware. Glad you addressed it. It’s such a silly comparison (Dawkins with Robertson) that it’s frustrating having to address it at all. Taking someone out of context, or thinking it’s somehow an even trade of sorts when Prof. Dawkins doesn’t choose his words correctly (and he didn’t, though I understand the sentiment) is just dopey.

  • MrJolly

    Dawkins post about his experiences with his teachers reminded me of the posts made on many sites when the crimes of the British TV personality Jimmy Saville were revealed On Digital spy and many other sites people of Dawkins age posted in much the same shrugging manner that when young they’d been warned to stay away from Saville as he was dangerous to kids – some had friends that had revealed they’d have encounters with Saville but the view was that he was big and powerful and that he was untouchable so get on and deal with it and stay away.

    What saddened me about the whole thread was the very matter of fact it was spoken about, the way that whole generation talked about it, that they were expected as kids to almost ignore it or just forget about it, their parents warning them to stay away and almost putting the responsibility on them. Before she died, I talked about this with friends mum, an ex-teacher who was mentioning how things were back then, how she felt powerless at times for multiple reasons and that at that time there was almost an acceptance that some men were a bit “gropey” and that some girls were a bit wayward and you couldn’t do anything about it.

    If you read these forum postings you’ll see why his generation have this almost resigned attitude to what happened to them as kids, it’s the way the country was and I guess they’re dealing with it by simply not getting angry about it, especially as most of those who committed these crimes are long gone.

    • Leigha7

      See, I think his statements should have prompted a discussion about this. We should be talking about how views of childhood sexual abuse have changed over time.

      We should probably also be talking about how people’s perception of their own abuse differs, and that’s okay. Some people, even now, aren’t terribly distraught by their experience. Others are. Those who are, naturally, are the focus of most public discussion, but there’s some indication that constantly focusing on how devastating being abused is can make people feel like they aren’t supposed to be okay, that they’re always supposed to feel victimized. We should be using this as a starting point to say that people are allowed to feel however they feel about their own experiences.

  • http://penciledinexistence.wordpress.com/ Carly Jurica

    The “collective groan” of Christians comes from knowing, deep down, that every time crazy grandpa Pat opens his mouth, they lose. We atheists have all heard Christians whining, “but we’re not ALL like that!” Yes, we know. We also know why–they base everything on a compilation of ancient documents that are so contradictory that they can justify just about anything with it! And the more stupid shit Christians say, and the more other Christians argue about whether it’s biblical or not, the more people will realize how crazy it all is and just walk away.

  • Andrew Hackman

    This reminded me of conversations I have had with my friends on the political Right. They too want to make the case that BOTH sides have their share of crazies:

    “Yeah, we have crazy voices on the radio – Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, and such; but you have…. uh….. you have…. ummmm…. YOU HAVE NPR!!”

    And from this, they want to frame equivalencies.

    http://mrhackman.blogspot.com/2013/09/facebook-faith-26-not-fair-exchange.html

  • Breandán Mac Séarraigh

    I remember the 1970s and 1980s. Teachers and priests molesting children was a regular theme for comedy. People laughed about it. It was widely suspected but no one thought it a big problem. In fairness attitudes to domestic violence, racism etc were fairly blasé and relaxed too.

  • Nemo

    I disagree. Back when I was a Christian, I did denounce guys like Robertson, once to fellow Christians who were more conservative than I. Although I’m an atheist now, so make of that what you will.

  • UWIR

    Is Obama supposed to be an example of a reasonable Christian? In his speech announcing the death of bin Laden, he attributed the killing, and all of America’s success, on this being “one Nation under God”. So, atheists have some guy in Britain saying insensitive things, and Christians have the president of the United States supporting bigotry.

  • Roger Peritone

    For comparisons sake, read about Bart Thompson, a xian apologist, formerly of “Apologetics Press” who got caught and admitted to sex crimes. Look at the tone the AP people take with him compared with the tone atheists take with Dawkins just making an insensitive remark.


    “We are deeply grateful for Dr. Thompson’s longstanding warfare against the
    sinister doctrine of evolution, with his eloquent affirmation of the biblical account of Creation,” Miller wrote in an open letter to Apologetics Press supporters.
    “Truth is truth, even if those who defend it eventually succumb to personal sin,” Miller wrote.


    At that time, Thompson confessed his sins and asked for forgiveness, according to those present. At his church the next night, he responded to the invitation and again asked for forgiveness.

  • David Trueman

    Well said Hemant. Prof. Dawkins has a great mind but like all we evolved humans he is a creature of his age, time and conditioning. He is a prominent atheist because he wrote some books, he is not our “dear leader”. Being human he will be misunderstood or make gaffs from time to time. I actually have liked him more since the gaffs, he always use to remind me of rather pompous english born school teachers I had as a child prior to this.

  • Erp

    Strictly speaking not all Christians believe in the same Bible. Protestants don’t include the Deuterocanonical books that the Catholic and Orthodox include and the Ethiopian church has quite a few more books in their Bible. Also not all Christians consider their Bible inerrant.

    Robertson also has little love for certain other Christian groups. I suspect his statements such as “You say you’re supposed to be nice to the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians and the Methodists and this, that, and the other thing.
    Nonsense. I don’t have to be nice to the spirit of the Antichrist.” lets Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists off of having to renounce him as speaking for them. Those groups still have to deal with their own leaders’ statements, and, there are plenty of tares even with that limit.

    • allein

      How many of the average Episcopalians/Presbyterians/Methodists/etc. even pay attention to Robertson? I’m an atheist, but I know I would never hear a word he says if Hemant didn’t post his idiocy here (same goes for Steven Anderson or Mark Driscoll or Bryan Fischer, etc.), and I suspect he’s not on the radar of many mainstream Christians out there who just go about their lives and don’t really worry about what the other Christians are doing. I know when I was growing up we went to church (Methodist; I guess I’ve always been in league with the devil) on Sundays and that was about the extent of my religious involvement (outside of youth group, which wasn’t really a “religious” activity, and confirmation, not long after which I pretty much stopped going to church). I didn’t think about it the rest of the week, and that includes paying any attention to what was on The 700 Club or any other religious broadcasting.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Great post.

  • Spongman

    I like the way he shoved two fingers up at those who tried to take his words out of context and blame him for making general statements. No, he continued to talk about his own personal story.

  • Buster Fixxitt

    Hemant, thank you for this post. It has made me rethink my position on Dawkins. I DO have one minor request/suggestion for you. Please consider using the word ‘and’ in place of the word ‘but’. It sounds like a meaningless silly thing, but it changes the sentence.

    Too often the word ‘but’ completely negates what has come before it, whereas ‘and’ allows both the former and the latter parts of the sentence to be true.

    Also, keep up the good work. I really enjoy your blog, and hope you’ll continue for many units of time to come!

  • brandon

    I’d like to point out that Dawkin’s is not an Atheist leader of any sort. We do not have leaders or churches we report to and pay tithes to. He is simply a respected scientist (and not even by all) that happens to be an open Atheist. He is no more a leader than I am or any other Atheist. Atheism is NOT an organized religion.

  • baal

    “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.”
    This is what happens when folks don’t read with charity. I somewhat blame the language but also blame folks for not thinking and going with their personal biases instead.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Dawkins really should know better. He’s a scientist after all. I assume he means that he and many others don’t feel permanently damaged by their experiences, but surely others were. In addition, since he can’t run a simulation in which one Richard Dawkins is molested and the other is not so that we could compare the outcomes, there is no way of knowing if he suffered any ill effects or if so how severe those effects might be. I think we can all agree that it would be better if such things did not occur at all even if some are more negatively impacted than others.

  • Rational Conclusions

    http://www.minddisorders.com/Ob-Ps/Pedophilia.html#ixzz0iQulgGTp

    Sick as it might sound:

    “A survey was administered to 193 male undergraduate students
    regarding their sexual interest in children, as well as their responses to a
    number of questions theoretically relevant to pedophilia. In total, 21 % of
    subjects reported sexual attraction to some small children, 9% described sexual
    fantasies involving children, 5% admitted to having masturbated to such
    fantasies, and 7% indicated some likelihood of having sex with a child if they
    could avoid detection and punishment. These sexual interests were associated
    with negative early sexual experiences, masturbation to pornography,
    self-reported likelihood of raping a woman, frequent sex partners, sexual
    conflicts, and attitudes supportive of sexual dominance over women. The data
    did not, however, support clinical theories regarding sexual repression or
    impulse-control problems among potential pedophiles.”

  • Rational Conclusions

    Some science involving pedophilia:
    http://www.minddisorders.com/Ob-Ps/Pedophilia.html#ixzz0iQulgGTp

    “A survey was administered to 193 male undergraduate students
    regarding their sexual interest in children, as well as their responses to a
    number of questions theoretically relevant to pedophilia. In total, 21 % of
    subjects reported sexual attraction to some small children, 9% described sexual
    fantasies involving children, 5% admitted to having masturbated to such
    fantasies, and 7% indicated some likelihood of having sex with a child if they
    could avoid detection and punishment. These sexual interests were associated
    with negative early sexual experiences, masturbation to pornography,
    self-reported likelihood of raping a woman, frequent sex partners, sexual
    conflicts, and attitudes supportive of sexual dominance over women. The data
    did not, however, support clinical theories regarding sexual repression or
    impulse-control problems among potential pedophiles.”

  • Robster

    The silly nonsense trotted out by preachers of all the many religious flavours are expected be, well, nonsense, nothing more. These are people that’ll look you in the eye and tell you the baby “jesus loves you”. How a long dead magic jew who may not have ever existed can love anything is pretty dodgy. But they choose to believe it, perhaps because of indoctrination from an early age. That’s why the catholics love running schools. Many potential victims.

  • Nick Bell

    “Dawkins isn’t our Pope.”
    Herein lies the problem. Protestant Christianity doesn’t have a pope either. In a very real sense, many denominations hardly fit the categorization of organized religion.
    Now Catholics, they have a pope. And at least right now our pope is pretty awesome, and doesn’t say stupid things. But Catholics really don’t have much of a reason to speak out against the protestant pastors and speakers. At least not in the sense you meant that one speaks out from within against their own group. If we decried their words it would – perhaps depending on the topic – be similar to an atheist dercrying their words. It would be coming from the outside. In many cases speaking out would be coming from our basic humanity, and not because that pastor is seen as an authority.
    But protestants…they hardly see their pastors as authorities. The Bible is the authority. Not the pastor. And the pastor makes his claim. He supposedly bases this claim on the Bible. Others may disagree with him, also based on the Bible. They may challenge him biblically or they may not. But if they spent all day challenging people on their beliefs biblically, they’d never finish. Protestant Christianity still hasn’t come to a consensus on infant baptism, for example. Should Christians decry the hateful speech of pastors? Sure.
    But your premise – that they are considered a pope or otherwise an authority to us – is flawed.

    Just as atheists don’t see Dawkins as anything special – at most they respect him for his scientific knowledge, Christians don’t see these protestant pastors as anything special – at most they respect them for their bible knowledge. And even that may be a stretch because many will consider them not to even have knowledge of the Bible.
    Yes, this might be different if you stayed within the Catholic Church, within the domain of organized religion proper. But that is not the topic of the article you wrote.

  • B Iqbal

    I think Dawkins should better restrict his comments on the twitter to what can be expressed in a short sentence with no room for misunderstanding. A while ago I saw his comments regarding Israel and Palestinians and got completely pissed off. Subsequently in response to my objection he explained that it was not his intention to defend Israeli terrorism.


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