I am a fan of Richard Dawkins. I admire him as a biologist, as a straight-talking atheist, and as an advocate for victims of religious child maltreatment. He devotes a chapter in The God Delusion to the religious abuse of children. In June, I had the honor to be introduced by him at the American Humanist Association conference in San Diego where I spoke on a panel that he moderated on the subject of religious fundamentalism and child abuse. Dr. Dawkins praised my book, Breaking Their Will, and stressed how important it is that we recognize that religious belief can be a risk factor in cases of abuse and neglect. I also applaud Dr. Dawkins for personally donating £10,000 toward a fund to build a legal case to prosecute Pope Benedict XVI for his part in the Catholic church covering up cases of child sexual abuse committed by priests.
But I do take issue with a comment he made about child abuse. Actually, it concerns how we should view those who abused children in previous generations. Dr. Dawkins made the comment after he was asked about having been fondled by a teacher when he was attending boarding school in Salisbury, England, an incident he describes in his memoir An Appetite for Wonder. Calling the molestation “mild pedophilia,” Dr. Dawkins has said that he didn’t think he, nor other boys who experienced the same degree of molestation by the teacher, suffered “lasting harm.” Then he said,
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 eighteenth and nineteenth 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.
This statement leaves me with many questions…Mainly, why on earth can’t we condemn people who have committed despicable acts against children, just because the abuses happened in the past? And if we can’t condemn them by our standards, then just how to are we to judge their actions? To my knowledge, Dr. Dawkins has yet to criticize his abuser for acting immorally. Are we to not judge abusers of the past at all?
The Bible talks about such crimes against children as mass killings, cannibalism, incest, starvation, rape, and sacrifice with little condemnation of those actions. Are we to look back on those abuses and not condemn them, simply because they happened a long time ago? Can we not even say that what happened to those children, as well as what happened to Dr. Dawkins, was wrong?
Ethically speaking, we are a more “evolved” people than those who came before us. That is why we no longer allow racism, caning, and sexual abuse to the same degree that we permitted it years ago. The way I see it, it would be a travesty not to apply the standards of today in judging abuses of the past. Sure, we can give all kinds of reasons why abuses have occurred before our time. ”My parents did the best they could,” is often what survivors will say. “They didn’t know any better.”
I certainly don’t want to dredge up an issue that Dr. Dawkins would, understandably, like to remain in the past. But then again, he has chosen to talk about the abusive incidents and then justify his perspective by giving a blanket statement about how he thinks we all should assess child abuse that was perpetrated years ago. And that concerns me, for it’s statements like his that make victims feel unsure about reporting abuse. After all, how many victims have talked themselves out of reporting abuse based on the rationale, “It’s in the past. I don’t have a right to press charges or file a lawsuit.” How many religious organizations have fought changes in statute of limitations laws based on this premise?
When I first read Dr. Dawkins’ position, I so wanted him to budge on the issue, and I hoped to get him to do so by pointing to a lecture given by a man he greatly admires. At one point, the lecturer takes a view that is contradictory to Dawkins’. The lecture—given originally in 1997 in Oxford and as a Pufendorf Prize Lecture at the University of Lund in 2011—is entitled, “What Shall We Tell the Children?” and was delivered by Dr. Nicholas Humphrey. Dr. Humphrey is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the London School of Economics, a visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities, and a Senior Member at Darwin College in Cambridge. The talk deals with the immorality of indoctrinating children with religious teachings and failing to criticize cultures that abuse children. (A transcript can be found here.)
To illustrate this last point, Dr. Humphrey refers to an American television program that featured the discovery of the body of a young Inca girl who had been sacrificed about 500 years ago. Dr. Humphrey was infuriated by the way the individuals interviewed on the program discussed the ritualistic killing:
No one expressed any reservation, whatsoever. Instead, viewers were simply invited to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the TV programme was, in effect, that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention—another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.
Dr. Humphrey found the program’s glorification of the sacrifice of the Inca girl to be unconscionable, even though the killing took place hundreds of years ago: “How dare they invite us—in our sitting rooms, watching television—to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder?” said Dr. Humphrey. “How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?”
And to top off his point, Dr. Humphrey added,
Immoral? By Inca standards? No, that not what matters. Immoral by ours.
I thought, if I point out to Dr. Dawkins (via the Internet) what Dr. Humphrey concludes, he might then see things differently. As I have said, Dr. Dawkins holds Dr. Humphrey in high regard. He has posted on his own website videos of him interviewing Dr. Humphrey. But then I learned that Dr. Dawkins discusses Dr. Humphrey’s lecture in The God Delusion. In fact, he specifically writes about the comments concerning the sacrificed Inca girl. Excitedly, I pulled out my copy of his book and found the mention in the chapter, “Childhood, Abuse and the Escape from Religion.”
But I was in for a disappointment. Dr. Dawkins omits Dr. Humphrey’s quote about “what matters” and does not comment on his point about using today’s ethical standards to assess morality of those who came before us. Instead, Dr. Dawkins remains consistent with what he would note years later: He includes Dr. Humphrey’s comment criticizing the TV program for glorifying human sacrifice and then writes:
The decent liberal reader may feel a twinge of unease. Immoral by our standards, certainly, and stupid, but what about Inca standards? . . . . The Inca priests cannot be blamed for their ignorance, and it could perhaps be thought harsh to judge them stupid and puffed up.
After receiving tremendous criticism for his failure to denounce the molestation of his youth, Dr. Dawkins put out a statement making clear that he cares about victims of sexual abuse and that it would have been insulting to those who suffered more severe abuse than he did to speak negatively about “my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s.” But he did not reflect on his feelings about condemning people who are not our contemporaries.
I’m glad that Dr. Dawkins did not suffer great psychological harm by having been molested. Yet, regardless of the fact that, back in the 1950s, sexual abuse was not discussed as a violation of children’s rights, I have no problem saying that even “mild pedophilia” perpetrated back then was no less wrong than when it occurs today.
Regardless of how abusers and those around them view their actions, victims suffer. They always have, and they always will.
Perhaps if Dr. Dawkins were to reread the words of his colleague and friend Professor Humphrey, he might take a different position. I hope that he does. For if we are not to condemn those who abused children before our time, what hope do we have toward protecting the children of tomorrow?