Outrage and confusion over atheist scientist Richard Dawkins' recent comments about "mild pedophilia" continue to abound. His contentious statements were made in a recent Times Magazine interview during which he discussed the sexual abuse he experienced as a child.
In his upcoming autobiography, the 72-year-old evolutionary biologist described his own ordeal, noting that he does not believe that it had a lasting impact on his life. His comments on the matter, of course, have created quite a bit of contention among experts and advocates who feel that what Dawkins said is patently damaging and wrong-headed.
Headliner Richard Dawkins, founder of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, spoke during the National Atheist Organization's 'Reason Rally' March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images North America
In the Times interview, he recalled how one of his former school masters once put him on his knee and "put his hand inside" of his shorts. Here's how the event is written about in his coming memoir, "An Appetite for Wonder" (as per the Friendly Atheist blog):
One day — I must have been about 11 — there was a master in the gallery with me. He pulled me onto his knee and put his hand inside my shorts. He did no more than have a little feel, but it was extremely disagreeable (the cremasteric reflex is not painful, but in a skin-crawling, creepy way it is almost worse than painful) as well as embarrassing. As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.
Clearly a traumatic event, the atheist took a different take on how it should be understood.
"I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins told the Times. 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."
Then, he added that he believes that the experience didn't do him or any of the other students who were abused by the teacher "lasting harm." The Daily Mail adds that Dawkins also essentially distinguished between varying levels of pedophilia." In the scientist's view, "mild touching up" should not be compared to other violent acts that include rape and murder.
The interview and his comments almost instantaneously sparked angst and outrage.
"Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way," said Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, told Religion News Service. "But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday."
And Watt isn't alone in his critique. National Association for People Abused in Childhood founder Peter Saunders added, "Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil, and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs."
Even Hemant Mehta, known as the Friendly Atheist blogger, agreed with the critique that Dawkins received. Of the fallout, he wrote, "His (to put it mildly) inarticulate way of talking about a sensitive subject has led to all sorts of well-deserved criticism today."
But Dawkins doesn't seem to be backing down, as he took to Twitter this week to try and defend his claims:
Mehta also took the time to note that he doesn't by any means believe Dawkins was defending pedophilia, as some have claimed.
This isn't the first time that Dawkins has made curious comments about abuse. In an interview last year, he highlighted two different types of abuse: sexual and theological. The Atlantic provides a transcription of his comments during which he seemingly decried the latter more than the former:
"There are shades of being abused by a priest, and I quoted an example of a woman in America who wrote to me saying that when she was 7 years old, she was sexually abused by a priest in his car.
At the same time, a friend of hers, also 7, who was of a Protestant family, died, and she was told that because her friend was Protestant, she had gone to hell and will be roasting in hell forever.
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."
Watch this intriguing commentary, below:
Dawkins' book, "An Appetite for Wonder," comes out this month.