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.

  • evodevo

    It was commonplace in the Catholic Church, too, and it resulted in a criminal coverup and the devastation of numerous victims’ lives all over the world. It certainly WASN’T common in the American school system, thank goodness, and any teacher caught sexually molesting a pupil was dealt with forthwith. I don’t know what it is about the Brits that they put up with this s&*t.

    • Jim

      Are you inferring that theists are the main perpetrators of child molestation? because its well documented in study after study that this particular crime, including child pornography, is solidly in the atheist corner along with serial killers. Many atheists refuse to honestly study the history of atheism and its lifestyles and unbiasedly engage the reason why most humans throughout history believe in God. They would prefer to think its because they didnt understand lightening. ha

      It also quite clear that because of the C churches policy on non marriage that it attracted homosexuals in large numbers. I can remember in school, hearing many times from students, that if they were gay they would become a monk. Perhaps you’ve heard this popular notion before?

      Its only a guess but it seems the origin of this thought is so they would never actually engage in homosexual behavior and could explain their celibacy in guise of the church. However, it seems this strategy failed for some and they became corrupt. Of course some deviant homosexuals entered the church so they could stalk children. But to infer that Christianity is the problem is just confused and biased.

      Homosexuality is one cause obviously. I know, I have a brother who abused my other brother and he also rejected God as well. The 2 together are a potent mix. Im not one of those “God hates gays” freaks who are not fighting for Christ but against him. Its a terrible burden to bear but lets not pretend its a British thing —Dawkins view stem from the denial of objective moral values inherent in humans because there is a lawgiver that has placed those truths in us–otherwise evolution cannot account for this inherent knowledge. He has been defeated decisively in debates on this topic and now must adhere to the notion that these moral crimes are not truly crimes.
      The moral argument for Gods existence is very powerful and unlike many atheists who have no engaged it fully–Dawkins *does understand he has no defeater for it but admitting Hitler was not wrong in the eyes of evolution.

      • Psycho Gecko

        There are a lot of citations needed for this. Citations would be needed to show that somehow atheists are the ones doing all the child pornography and serial killing and child molestation, especially in light of the Roman Catholic Church for…well…all three crimes, actually.
        Then you equate homosexual with atheist for some reason, you claim the Catholic Church is full of homosexuals based on anecdotal evidence, and then you somehow think that priests are the same things as monks. Also, you somehow seem to think that homosexuals and pedophiles are the same thing.
        You have to remember, though, that even if all this were true, it would make your God (we’re going with the rest of your fiction, might as well include your deity in it too) even less moral seeing as he allowed every bit of it. Not only did he order the slaughter of babies, the continuation of slavery, and genocide of cultures in the Old Testament, but apparently every child molestation, every serial killer, every dictator like Hitler who claimed to be doing the work of God while his soldiers marched with “God With Us” on their belt buckles, all of that would have been either part of his plan, or something he had the power to stop but didn’t.
        I mean, heck, as evolution naturally moves towards increased diversity and doesn’t tend to reward inbreeding, what Hitler did was wrong not only morally, but scientifically as well.

      • Nox

        “Because its well documented in study after study that this particular crime, including child pornography, is solidly in the atheist corner along with serial killers.”

        Then perhaps you could provide us with some of documentation for this claim. Unless you’re just trying to paint atheists as immoral by accusing them of the same transgressions the church keeps committing. If you cared whether your words were true you would have looked at the numbers before claiming this. You obviously didn’t.

        “Many atheists refuse to honestly study the history of atheism and its lifestyles and unbiasedly engage the reason why most humans throughout history believe in God. They would prefer to think its because they didnt understand lightening.”

        Lack of information combined with coercion combined with the promise of an unverifiable eternal reward. If it was just lack of information, the belief would have gone away once people had more information available to them.

        “But to infer that Christianity is the problem is just confused and biased.”

        Where did those priests get their power? Who sent them their victims? Where did anyone get the idea that you’re supposed to do everything the priest says? Why would these christian parents think it was a good idea to entrust their children to priests? Why would people who knew that their children had been raped by priests continue to send their children to those priests? Why was the church able to effectively silence their victims by threatening them with excommunication and hellfire? Why did so many who knew of the crimes of the church believe it was a sin to speak against them? Why do people who know that the church abetted the rape of thousands of children still give money to this church and continue to insist it is an institution which has never done anything wrong?

        It must be because christianity wasn’t the problem.

        “Dawkins view stem from the denial of objective moral values inherent in humans because there is a lawgiver that has placed those truths in us–otherwise evolution cannot account for this inherent knowledge.”

        Evolution is only part of the explanation for evolved moral values. Still if you understand the concept of natural selection it should be pretty obvious that two people can bring down bigger game than one.

        “The moral argument for Gods existence is very powerful and unlike many atheists who have no engaged it fully–Dawkins *does understand he has no defeater for it but admitting Hitler was not wrong in the eyes of evolution.”

        The moral argument for god’s existence is a powerful tool for reassuring the faithful and keeping them from ever thinking about whether this ‘god’ thing really makes any sense. It’s not a powerful argument. Sure if you define “morality” as “god’s will” then you can’t have “morality” without god. But that doesn’t mean anything. Following the will of god (the stated motive of Hitler) is a dysfunctional metric for morality. And no one has ever established that divine commands are a necessary component of objective moral values (based on the wishes of one entity is exactly the opposite of objective)

      • Michael

        Are you inferring that theists are the main perpetrators of child molestation?

        He is neither inferring it, nor, as I assume you meant to ask, implying it. Rather, he said that the RCC has covered up countless cases of child molestation, which is indisputable fact.

        because its well documented in study after study that this particular crime, including child pornography, is solidly in the atheist corner along with serial killers.[citation needed]

        I seriously hope you’re trolling. There is no such study, and if you think there is, I challenge you to find it. I don’t think that any such study on child molestation rates by religious affiliation has even been performed, and the studies comparing violent crime rates with individual religious affiliation generally show no correlation within a particular demographic (though cross-national studies show a positive correlation between popular religiosity and violent crime).

        Many atheists refuse to honestly study the history of atheism and its lifestyles and unbiasedly engage the reason why most humans throughout history believe in God. They would prefer to think its because they didnt understand lightening. ha

        Your characterization of what “many atheists” believe is hilariously misinformed. Perhaps you should actually ask atheists what they believe yourself.

        It also quite clear that because of the C churches policy on non marriage that it attracted homosexuals in large numbers.

        Perhaps you would like to back this claim with actual data instead of your high school friends’ counterfactual musings. And I find your implication that gay people are more likely to molest children offensive and statistically false.

        But to infer that Christianity is the problem is just confused and biased.

        You literally just explained how the RCC’s policy is–according to your own reasoning–responsible for the molestation. Nobody else here has said this, but you just did. What evodevo was suggesting was that the RCC’s policies are responsible for covering up instances of child abuse (indeed, child rape), which again is incontrovertible.

        Dawkins view stem from the denial of objective moral values inherent in humans because there is a lawgiver that has placed those truths in us–otherwise evolution cannot account for this inherent knowledge.

        All social animals exhibit ethical behaviors appropriate to maintaining their social order. Many of these behaviors are trivially easy to explain. For instance, societies which do not murder their own citizens are more succesful than those which do. Evolution can also explain what we now consider to be immoral behaviors, such as war, as bellicose societies will overwhelm peaceful ones. It is religion which cannot explain misbehavior, as it believes that a perfect creation (man) rebelled against God almost immediately (original sin).

        He has been defeated decisively in debates on this topic and now must adhere to the notion that these moral crimes are not truly crimes.

        Stating that someone “lost a debate” does not make it so, and as was already pointed out, Dawkins never defended child molestation or claimed it was “not truly a crime.”

        The moral argument for Gods existence is very powerful

        It is a laughably inadequate argument that completely mischaracterizes and misunderstands the nature of morality. It asserts that people simply would not be able to figure out how to treat each other well if not told by a very specific king. You admit that we have an intrinsic understanding of morality, and while it seems apparent to me that this stems from basic empathy and guilt (among other emotions), the argument asserts without justification that it can only come from God. This is no different from other arguments for the impossibility of ordinary experiences, such as the claim that we could not think without a god (despite the fact that this is an increasingly well-understood function of the brain), that we could not exist without god (despite the fact that this is an already extremely well-established result of evolution), and so on. It is by definition an argument from ignorance. “You can’t explain X, therefore God exists” is never a good argument.

        And it raises so many more problems. If the definition of “good” is merely God’s instructions, then what does it mean to say “God is good”? By your definition, such a phrase is tautological, meaning literally “God is godly.” For what reason is God therefore worthy of praise for his intrinsic nature? He can’t help but be what he is. Not to mention that this justifies literally any action if you believe God willed it. Far from being a basis for objective morals, this perspective allows EVERYTHING according to a single entity’s whims.

        Worse still, the actual morals it claims are important range from arbitrary to ridiculous. The first four of the ten commandments are purely ego-driven by an admittedly “jealous” God. Harmless private acts such as sex are condemned as inherently evil. The sins of parents are passed on to their innocent children. The one unforgivable crime is not to believe a story on bad evidence. And the only way to forgive any other sin is through the blood sacrifice of a godman. People who do not believe a book, or who believe the wrong book (that is, the vast majority of people), are condemned to eternal torment, while those who do believe it–no matter how wicked–are blessed with eternal joy.

        To loosely paraphrase Dawkins, this isn’t just an immoral system, it is the most immoral sytem in history.

  • R Vogel

    I thought the same thing as you – what kind of a scary creepy place was England in the 1950s if ‘mild pedophilia’ was an acceptable practice? Perhaps 5th century BC Greece, but 1950s England?!

  • guest

    I get the feeling none of the atheist blogging circuit actually read The God Delusion. He said all this years ago, and you’re all shocked by it now?
    It was a stupid thing for him to say, but it’s weird how all of a sudden this is a thing. Almost like you all copy stories off each other…

    • LesterBallard

      No, I’ve never read The God Delusion, so I’m a little surprised. I was an atheist long before I had heard of Richard Dawkins.

  • Retiredbiker

    I’ll have to go back and reread The God Delusion, as I certainly don’t remember Dawkins offering any apologetics for “mild pedophilia.” Aside from the fact that the term is oxymoronic, for even fondling, without penetration or oral contact, by ANY person is a position of authority, is humiliating and destructive, and stays with the victim for life. I speak as a 77 year old male, who spend three years (1941-44) in a Catholic orphanage.

  • Nox

    The original interview that RNS was quoting sheds some light on what Dawkins said. He wasn’t defending pedophilia. He was using the shifting attitudes toward pedophilia as an illustration of the shifting moral zeitgeist.

    • JohnMWhite

      I find it sad that so many, apparently including Vorjack, just swallowed the deliberately contorted quotes that are floating all around the Internet and apparently never bothered to read the full thing. Dawkins’ point was much more nuanced and complex than “mild paedophilia was ok”. He never actually said that, nor did he say that his schoolmaster assaulting him did him no harm. The ‘no lasting harm’ was actually a reference to what older students tried to do to him. Dawkins probably should have kept his mouth shut, though, because the interview is only really viewable at his site or behind a paywall at the Times, so he should have realised that all the vast majority would hear would be the choicest misquotes about a subject that people cannot discuss rationally. Which, ironically, was his own main point: people react so strongly to any hint of paedophilia at this point that they see fondling a fifteen year old’s bottom as the exact same thing as raping and murdering a four year old.

      Cue downvotes and lazy idiots completely not understanding that I did not say either of these things were good or acceptable.

  • Jim

    “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”
    said the guy who believes the universe popped out of nothing and designed itself who goes around belittling people who believe in God(just about everyone who has ever lived) as stupid superstitious fools.
    This is where atheism takes the mind when it is confronted with the excellent arguments against it.
    He MUST say this or he is open to Objective Morals.
    He must deny freewill (which cant be denied for logic thought to exist) because it requires mind moving matter.
    He must deny something cannot come out of absolutely nothing.
    He must deny DNA code is intelligent information
    First he denied the fine tuning–he must–because he saw no solution
    Now he must believe in the comic book multiverse.

    The list goes on. Nothing fits reality. he must deny he is even real to adhere to the slop he is peddling. Dont defend this guy.

    • Psycho Gecko

      You can be wrong about one thing and still be right about the science. You may also notice a lot of other atheists not being fans of this attitude about pedophilia.
      It’s not like we’re all part of some giant group with dogma that claims that merely believing and following this dogma will make us good people automatically, even if we were to rape, slaughter, and enslave. What do you take us for, Christians?

    • Nox

      And this right here is why it’s more necessary to vet a Dawkins quote than an average quote. We are talking about a person who has said some legitimately objectionable things. But we’re also talking about a person who shares a name with a character in christian folklore and has had more words put into his mouth than anyone else.