And now, a newsworthy word from the Rt. anti-Rev. Dawkins

First things first.

Wait just a minute: Richard Dawkins said what?!?

By way of a news story from Religion News Service, readers learn:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) – Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

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.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

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.

OK, after the shock of reading that, several questions popped into my rapidly aging brain.

Please understand that my first question in no way should be seen as a slight on the Religion News Service piece itself, which is basic, solid daily news reporting. No immediate journalistic complaints.

However, after reading the piece, am I the only one who wondered precisely what the religion angle was in this story?

Let’s think about that for a moment.

Is it that the Dawkins quotes somehow — SOMEHOW — might be seen as relevant to coverage of child sexual abuse cases in a wide variety of secular and religious institutions, including large numbers of cases in public schools and the Roman Catholic Church? Is there anyone out there trying to minimize the damage in these cases, in terms of arguing that they are not as evil as they appear to be in the clear light of day? If so, was that what Dawkins was saying?

Also, does the fact that Dawkins — as one of the world’s most press-friendly atheists — said what he said automatically make this news story (and it is a news story) a RELIGION news story? And if this is a religion story because of his role as a de facto atheist prelate, then what is the logical connection between his beliefs about religion and his beliefs about “mild pedophilia”?

I would really love to hear from agnostic and atheist readers on that point. What think ye of this subject and of Dawkins as an automatic religious spokesperson for your, well, anti-faith? Is it fair for reporters to do that?

As for the content of the Dawkins statements themselves, I was particularly struck by the following comments at the end of the story:

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.”

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and himself a victim of abuse, told The Times that Dawkins’ comments were worrying and unhelpful, adding: “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs.”

Yes, I know that atheists argue with each other on the origins of our religious and cultural concepts of good and evil. Is that subject relevant to coverage of Dawkins and this proclamation? Should newsrooms that covered this story have sought the moral insights of other atheists, turning this into and actual debate about good and evil and the issue of child abuse?

Just asking. Very interesting story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Maybe the RNS writers and editors sadly take for granted that pedophilia is a problem only among religious people. Thus they assume stories of such are religion stories.

    • tmatt

      No, I think they covered this — accurately — because Dawkins is a religious-TYPE leader among atheists and the coverage of atheists is a valid beat within religion coverage.

      No, my question is the nature of the hook to religion in this case, and what atheist readers think of the connection.

      • Kate Cousino

        Seems like a perfectly natural example of a materialistic, moral relativist stance to me. Morality changes? We can’t judge others by our own standards? This is pretty standard atheistic thought, I would have said, if rarely applied consistently.

  • FW Ken

    “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse,” he added.

    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/04/23/famed-atheist-richard-dawkins-forcing-religion-on-kids-is-child-abuse/

    Interesting that neither article made the obvious juxtaposition of this quote with the bit about sexual abuse.

    I didn’t catch either article (or Dr. Dawkins) using “pedophilia” accurately, either. It’s a clinical term describing sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children. It certainly exists in “mild” forms – grooming or fondling, vs. more forms of rape, murder, and cannibalism. It’s all “pedophilia”.

  • Danielck

    “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” This is Dawkins we’re talking about, right?

    • Jack

      Maybe this predator did not hurt the young Ricky Dawkins in a lasting way. God be praised if this is so. It is true that some children are more resilient than others. But Dr. Dawkins is in NO position to speak for all the victims among his peers, or all other vicitms of such abuse, who HAVE been damaged.

      • Danielck

        You are helping to make my point that Dawkins has not looked in the mirror at himself in light of the comment, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm”.

  • Jim

    Though it strains to conceal itself, evil cannot help but think itself triumphant. We now know where and how the demon entered into Mr. Dawkins. His conversion to God is now an easy process for he identified the attachment for us.

  • Howard

    Maybe it is because so little of the debate between believers and unbelievers is about substance and so much of it is ad hominem. If Dawkins were an atheistic baker who writes books instead of an atheistic scientist who writes books, there would be less interest in his books. As long as the argument is between personalities and not about ideas, any insight into the personalities might be seen as fair game.

  • cvg

    The Atlantic’s Wire provides a very insightful quote from Dawkins where he contrasts a friend’s experience with sexual and, what he terms theological abuse.

    “She told me, of those two abuses, she got over the physical abuse; it was yucky, but she got over it. But the mental abuse of being told about hell, she took years to get over. ”

    The Atlantic article also does a good job highlighting the way Dawkins’ anecdotal reasoning is at odds with his professed scientific ??theology??.

    I like Kate’s relativistic angle. While moral relativism is definitely a factor to consider when judging history, Dawkins sure comes across as extremely naive of the skeletons its application enables.

  • David M Paggi

    It certainly would be interesting to know to what degree Dawkins is recognized by atheists as a spokesman or proponent of their cause. Actually, Dr. Dawkins is better described as an anti-theist. The few athesist with which I am familiar care a great deal about what they believe or don’t believe, but little about others’. Dawkins, on the other hand, very energetically promotes the idea that religion in and of itself is bad.

  • RayIngles

    Should newsrooms that covered this story have sought the moral insights of other atheists

    Of course they should have. It’s not like they’d have had to look far or anything, either.


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