Dawkins and Presentism

From Religion News, Richard Dawkin’s latest controversial statement:

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.

I’m really uncomfortable with this.

By all means, let’s avoid presentism. Let’s not assume that the school directors flogging children were doing so because they were sadistic (they might have been, but barring other evidence let’s not conclude that.) They believed that harsh corporal punishment was necessary for maintain order and teaching respect.

But as we respect the earlier eras, let’s also respect our own. Let’s not discard our current convictions. Let’s say that the teachers who caned their students were wrong in their beliefs, but they could not have know that.

As for teachers groping young children, I’m very skeptical that this would have been seen as acceptable at the time. It might have happened frequently, but that’s not the same as saying it was acceptable.

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