Seriously. I know he has been incredibly important to the atheist movement, but let’s take a step back and ask if it’s worth listening to somebody who apparently thinks that we can’t judge pedophiles before a certain arbitrary date because they didn’t know any better.
In a recent interview with the Times of London, Dawkins described his own early schooling and pointed out that he was molested as a child by a master at his boarding school.
Professor Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, describes in a new autobiography how a master at his Salisbury prep school “pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”. He writes that the episode was “extremely disagreeable” and that other boys were molested by the same teacher, but concludes: “I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.”
He also describes this as “mild paedophilia” and says that you can’t judge people in the past by your own moral standard.
“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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”
Ok, first of all, how the fuck would Richard Dawkins know if any of his schoolmates who were also molested by this creepy schoolmaster suffered “lasting damage?” As Greta Christina points out, he can speak for himself, not for them. Considering his demonstrable disdain for the the science of human behavior, he probably wouldn’t accept the opinions of people who say that molestation can and does inflict lasting damage on many, many children.
Secondly, in exactly what year did it become no longer ok to touch children’s genitals for sexual pleasure? I’m really kind of curious. PZ touched on this as well, but I would like to point out that one of the many arguments that atheists use to counter the “the New Testament got rid of all that Old Testament stuff” is that the Old Testament stuff was never moral to begin with. The premise of the argument is that a perfect god would never have ordered the wholesale slaughter of thousands of people, or the capture and rape of young girls, or the stoning of any number of people, including those who had the audacity to gather firewood on the Sabbath. A perfect god would have outlawed those things to begin with rather than wait a few thousand years and then correct that error. Just saying, “Well, things were different back then, cultural context, it was the only way to protect them, blah, blah, blahty, blah,” doesn’t actually make any of those things ever a good or moral thing to do. It’s an effective tactic because the person making the argument must either admit that god wrote those things, but is not perfectly moral, or that men wrote them in the cultural context in which they lived and as they grew more enlightened, they started to correct their self-serving, barbaric behavior by claiming that a perfect deity changed its mind.
So to hear Dawkins say that there was a time when child molestation was a-ok basically undermines the argument that immoral behavior remains immoral whether or not the pervading opinions of the time hold it to be so. In other words, I damn well do hold the racism of the 18th and 19th century against the people holding those opinions. I may recognize that they were not in possession of the wealth of thought that I have available to me to formulate the conclusion that race is a bullshit idea with no bearing on a person’s potential except inasmuch as they must deal with racism, but that doesn’t mean that I will blithely excuse their terrible opinions or wave them off as insignificant. It means that I will engage their racism as I do with any of their other arguments and demonstrate why its wrong, even if that person may be right about other things.
Knowing Dawkins, he will spend the next couple of days on Twitter trying to explain how everybody just doesn’t understand the nuances of what he was saying, then trying to describe those nuances in 140 characters or less, but I sincerely hope that maybe he surprises us and actually learns from this that there are no degrees of pedophilia, that you absolutely can and must judge the past by the new information we have today, and that he doesn’t get to tell us whether his schoolmates suffered because of what happened to them.
UPDATE: Dawkins has clarified his statements and apologized for his presumption about his classmates’ reactions or experiences. I am, frankly, surprised, and while there’s a lot in there that suggests that it’s our fault for not getting it, he seems contrite on the important points, and that seems reasonable.