Why Do We Keep Listening to Dawkins?

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.

6 thoughts on “Why Do We Keep Listening to Dawkins?

  1. Way to take on paragraph out of context and write an essay condemning him. Do you have too much time on your hands?

    Are you all just jealous or something? What is the need for constant attacks on such an important man in our society? Get over yourself. You think your view should be heard, but that he is not allowed to have his own views?

    What a joke.

    • Link is right above. Can you please show me the context in which what he says doesn’t say there are degrees of molestation or that there are time periods in which it’s ok to do things like touch children in that way?

      If I took him out of context, that implies that something around those quotes makes it seem less awful, so please show me how that’s the case. I’ll happily concede the point if you do so.

    • From what I’ve seen of Dawkins, I’d argue that context makes it even more damning. If this were an isolated incident, I might charitably give him a pass. People do, after all, react to potentially traumatic situations in different ways, and something that causes Person A permanent psychological issues may only cause Person B to be mildly annoyed. And lacking evidence to the contrary, it is common – not correct, but common – for people to assume others respond to things the same way they do. So if Dawkins wasn’t damaged by this incident (and I’m glad for his sake that he wasn’t), he could understandably assume that others weren’t either, and therefore draw mistaken conclusions. I might still think his reasoning is wrong and that his words, no matter how innocent, are likely to hurt people, but he’d be cast in a much better light.

      However, this is not an isolated incident. Dawkins has a well-known, very public history of much of the same behavior he displays here. He ignores the personal experiences of anyone other than himself. He ignores the potential consequences of his words and actions, including who may be hurt by them. He spouts off on topics well outside of his own realm of expertise, setting himself up as an authority even when he is demonstrated to be harmfully ignorant on those topics. He makes assumptions and extrapolates from very little data, even to the point of ridiculousness. He engages in some truly insulting logical fallacies. He is, in short, a dick.

      So no, this is not something that was taken out of context. This fits depressingly well into the greater context – the context in which Richard Dawkins is arrogantly sure that he is right, and that other people’s pain doesn’t matter.

    • Who said he is not allowed to have his own views? The whole point of this essay is that Dawkins -IS- allowed his views, but he shouldn’t try (as he usually does, and AS HE IS DOING IN THIS CASE AS WELL) to diminish the experiences of those who had a different experience from him.

      Next time try reading what you’re responding to before shooting off a knee-jerk reply.

  2. Pingback: Words Mean Things: “Out of Context” | Reasonable Conversation

  3. TO AN EXTENT, I can be more sympathetic to someone in an earlier era for their faults. I don’t expect anyone to be a superhero. In the American South in the 1830’s, for instance, if you were white you probably grew up being taught, from infancy on, that you were literally and provably superior to anyone with darker skin. You probably did not receive any messages to the contrary, and if you did, they very likely came across as the 19th-century equivalent of a poorly-formatted Geocities page about the latest conspiracy theory. The message was then reinforced – because most American Blacks were born and raised in either slavery or poverty, their education and manners would have seemed “inferior” to you. Further, there was a considerable amount of pressure on you to continue believing this way – publicly treating Black men and women as equals, or speaking in favor of equality or prohibition, could net you severe social censure. And in a society with no safety net, losing the approval of your peers could literally have extremely negative, even potentially lethal consequences.

    Did some people rise above that, form their own conclusions, and act fearlessly on them? Yes, and kudos to them. But it was rare for a reason, and if any given person from that era was not able to so completely put aside their entire education and inculcation, ignore their own self-interest, sever ties with their friends and families, and put themselves and their families at risk, y’know… I’m not gonna condemn them for that. I can examine HOW they expressed their racism, because obviously some ways were more harmful than others, but I’m not gonna blame an individual person in a deeply racist society for being racist.

    HOWEVER. A) that only applies when you’re examining the person perpetrating the racism. From the POV of the person experiencing it, I don’t suppose it hurts less just because everyone is doing it. In fact, it probably hurts more, because you can’t brush off the pain by assuming it was just an isolated incident. The reaction the victim DISPLAYS may change, because if society is so biased against them, showing pain or outrage isn’t going to make anything better and will probably just make things worse, but that is rightly seen as just more violence against said victim – not proof that it somehow magically didn’t bother them. So claiming that Bad Thing X in the past was a-ok because it was common just completely ignores the victim.

    And B) one of these things is not like the other. Racism and bigotry has been sadly common in many places, many times. Outside of Ancient Greece/Rome, however, I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when it was just considered ok for grown men to feel up boys. Not that it didn’t happen, not even that it wasn’t common – but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that even a few decades ago, people were not blithely assuring themselves that teachers putting their hands in their students’ pants was all fine and dandy and proper. That – no. That didn’t happen. I realize I’m too young to speak from experience, but I feel pretty confident in my assertion. So this teacher wasn’t innocently ignorant. He knew, he had to know, that what he was doing was AT BEST an abuse of power. He maybe felt safe in doing it because he knew it was common, he may have justified it to himself by going “well, I put up with it from the other side when I was a student, it’s my turn now,” whatever… but he knew it was wrong, and he did it anyway.

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