Richard Dawkins defended "mild pedophilia" in an interview this weekend. And while the quote itself is quite jarring, especially to those who look to Dawkins for his influential writings on atheism (but haven't noticed some of his other strange stances), it's far from the first time that the scientist has launched a defense of the behavior — or talked about his own abuse at the hands of boarding school teachers. First, here's what Dawkins said to The Times magazine, as condensed by the Religion News Service:
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.
He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
His reasons for defending the behavior seem to focus on three points. First, that "hysteria" over a fear of pedophilia is overblown by society; second, that instilling a child with fundamentalist religious beliefs is actually a worse way to abuse a child; and third, that he personally overcame childhood sexual abuse, meaning it must not be that big of a deal for anyone else who was subjected to similar behavior.
In April of this year, Dawkins compared two forms of what he sees as priestly abuse in an interview with Al Jazeera: sexual and theological. This exchange became pretty well-circulated in the conservative press.
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. "
This line of thought goes back at least to 2006 for Dawkins, when he wrote "we live in a time of hysteria about paedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692," in his popular book the God Delusion. He continued:
All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affections for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).
The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America… We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. This is so counter-intuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.
There's more. In 2012, a few conservative publications finally noticed what Dawkins wrote in 2006, and dredged it up. Dawkins then defended pedophilia, again, in defense of those earlier remarks:
I was myself sexually abused by a teacher when I was about nine or ten years old. It was a very unpleasant and embarrassing experience, but the mental trauma was soon exorcised by comparing notes with my contemporaries who had suffered it previously at the hands of the same master.
The following quote, from the same defense, drives home what's so off about Dawkins's argument here, beyond the knee-jerk recoiling of the idea of defending a pedophile. Dawkins, a scientist, relies on anecdotal evidence and speculation to "prove" his point:
Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.
Anecdotes and plausibility arguments, however, need to be backed up by systematic research, and I would be interested to hear from psychologists whether there is real evidence bearing on the question. My expectation would be that violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse, especially by a family member such as a father or grandfather, probably has a more damaging effect on a child’s mental well-being than sincerely believing in hell. But ‘sexual abuse’ covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered.
Dawkins gave the Times interview that put him back in the news this week in relation to his autobiography, by the way, comes out later this month.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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