Proving Richard Dawkins wrong

richard dawkins

Dr. Richard Dawkins

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. He describes the incident in his memoir An Appetite for Wonder. Calling the molestation “mild pedophilia,” Dr. Dawkins stated 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 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, even those guilty of serious offenses?

The Bible talks about abuses against children, including 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, is wrong?

Ethically speaking, I believe that most of society is more “evolved” when it comes to the human rights of children. That is why we no longer allow racism, caning, and sexual abuse to the same degree that we permitted it years ago. In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child 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 occurred before: For example, people who lived during biblical times knew next to nothing about child development.

I certainly don’t want to dredge up an issue that Dr. Dawkins would, understandably, like to forget. 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 such statements can make victims feel they don’t have the right to report abuse or file lawsuits, falling back on the rationale, “It’s in the past. I’ll only hurt people by bringing up what happened to me. In fact, many religious organizations have fought changes in statute of limitations laws based on this very premise.

Harkening back to the words of an old friend of Dr. Dawkins

nicholas humphrey

Dr. Nicholas Humphrey

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 a half-century 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 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 it would be if perpetrated today.

Regardless of how abusers and those around them view their actions, victims still 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?







  1. In this humble minister’s opinion, I find it rather fascinating to see how Mr. Dawkin’s supposedly seamless atheist morality breaks down at such a point in historical review of the abuse and exploitation of children and youth.

    While completely disagreeing with most of his fundamental atheist philosophy, there’s plenty of agreement I can have with the observations and outrages he expresses about the abusive practices stemming from religion itself, regardless of the credo. I don’t buy his wholesale demonizing of religion per se, of course, but that is beside the point. But Mr. Dawkins’ selective sanitizing of the moral impact and gravity of ancient forms of child abuse is clearly something I won’t buy for a second.

    When he sets out to qualify cultural values of one era in contrast to another and then excuses objectionable ones on the grounds of historical progression, he’s only being consistent to what many – but not all – atheists do in regards to viewing human culture itself as a social construct continuing to evolve. The logic he displays is drawn from his view of morality as the product of bio-genetics, a neo-Darwian position resulting in moral relativism that is “proven” by the advance of time from one society to another. It’s coming from the closed loop of his perspective which eschews the notion of moral absolutes while still, inexplicably, pointing TO them to argue the “right” and “wrong” of institutions like religion itself.

    Regardless whether you are theistic, agnostic, or atheistic, the abuse of any child is wrong, evil and inexcusable in ANY epoch. The systematic raping of little girls by Hindu avatars in ashrams under their control 700 years ago is no less evil than the sacrifice of Aztec children to the priests of Tlaloc .. or the punitive abuses of a Pearl-addled fundamentalist or Remnant Fellowship couple. Just my two centavos from my “closed” loop.

    • Rev Martinez should read Richard Dawkin before he calls him a ‘supposedly seamlessly atheist'; Dawkins himself says he prefers to be called an agnostic who would be willing to belive if he were given proof.

  2. I tend to approach from a ‘trying to understand the other’s POV’ The fact that Mr. Dawkins chose to talk about his abuse publicly is interesting, then he minimized it, which some of us are trained to do-we don’t want to seem like big babies and whiners when so many suffer so much more! He may not realize he was injured by that short event. He may also, like so many others, be empathizing with his abuser. As brilliant as he is he may be unable to see any effects of that “30 seconds” of abuse on himself, simply due to the fact that he is like everyone else when it comes down to the damages inflicted by abuse… I am curious about what is moving you to bring all this up in a blog post Janet?

    • Stacy,
      That’s an interesting question. Those who oppose the ritualistic genital cutting of children have also wondered the same thing in observing how Dr. Dawkins (who has acknowledged he is circumcised) has minimized the ill effects of male circumcision, as he has compared it to female genital cutting, making the assumption that the female version is always less severe than the removal of the male foreskin.
      Thanks for your input,

      • Janet
        I suggest you compare Wikipedia sites ‘circumcision’ and ‘FGM’.

        • Fiiona,
          My research into male and female genital cutting rituals goes far beyond Wikipedia. Is suggesting that I go to those sites your way of communicating an idea you do not wish to articulate here? I might suggest you also do some reading, such as my chapter on male and female genital cutting which appears in my book, Breaking Their Will.

  3. Interesting. For me the central puzzle is in these words
    — 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 —

    On the one hand, if you consider this with reference to slavery, I strongly disagree; I find those 18th century slavers as abhorrent as I find modern slavers.

    On the other hand, do we really whole-heartedly condemn the day-to-day behavior of 99.9% of all white English and American citizens of the time? Don’t we often read their great works of literature, cringe at the occasional racist remark, but recognize they were “a product of their times”? Somebody with their attitudes today wouldn’t just provoke a cringe; they’d be barred from polite conversation.

    Doesn’t that show a sliding scale of what we recognize as morally unacceptable behavior in the past? We can claim that the parts about pedophilia and human sacrifice are not sliding . . . but where is the boundary between awful behavior (which we “place in context”) and Really Awful behavior (which we judge by absolutes) by our ancestors?

    • I think racism is a special case, because people in a non-mixed culture could be brought up
      (a) being taught that their race was superior,
      (b) (this is critical) lacking evidence to refute the superiority hypothesis, because
      (i) They might never see a person of the Other Race, or
      (ii) They might see only slaves, uneducated, poorly dressed, demoralized, whose wretchedness seems to confirm their beliefs.

      Evidence is the key word. For slavery, the institution is its own evidence. You don’t need special powers of observation or viewing opportunities. The definition alone reveals all you need to know. And thus we judge slavers as abhorrent, because they should have known better.
      For racism, people might lack evidence. They were raised with no awareness of a reason to change their beliefs. Many whites who heard Frederick Douglass realized immediately they had to rethink everything they’d been taught about race. To those who didn’t, once presented with the evidence, we still give our just contempt.

      Back to Dawkins’ remark – – his logic only stands if earlier generations were raised in a culture that specifically praised child abuse, consistently taught that it was good, and never showed evidence of harm to the victims.

      English culture of 60+ years ago DID teach behaviors of absolute crushing domination over children – – spare the rod, spoil the child; children should be seen and not heard – – and crushing domination is very close to other forms of abuse. And since the sexual abuse was secret, it would be hard to recognize evidence of its harm, since you could not correlate result with cause.

      If this logic holds up, then Dawkins may be right after all.

  4. Thanks Janet.

    Regrettably the fact that Richard Dawkins’ persistently talks up the case of the barbarity of female genital cutting, whilst at the same time downplaying his own personal experience of male genital cutting is all too typical of so many men. I have become used to the barrage of invective from such men when I protest for the rights of males to enjoy equivalent legal protection to that which females are afforded under such statutes as the FGM Act 2003 in the UK. It is all the more remarkable when one considers his atheist credentials that would presumably suggest he should have no qualms dismissing the theists ongoing obsession with this blood ritual. What is most surprising is the fact that he is ostensibly a highly intelligent individual, unlike many others with limited mental acuity that I have encountered. For someone who has such an enquiring and open mind, it seems somewhat incongruous that he does not protest with equal vigour the right of both males and females to live their lives with the whole body that they were born with, and not be reduced to debating which is the most barbaric form of mutilation or greater abuse of human rights.

  5. alcaponejunior says:

    Are we *really* more evolved than those who came before us? I often wonder about exactly this. We may have reformed our laws somewhat, and the moral standards have changed somewhat, often for the better, but in many cases I think we’re just looking for something to feel smug about rather than experiencing true “evolution” (obviously in the rhetorical sense, not biological).

    Condemning slavery from eras gone past is great, as is condemning mass murder of children. But then we’re condemning our own children to inherit a world that’s vastly over-populated with both people and the waste products of the people living today, We’re setting our planet on a fast rise to significantly higher temperatures through glow-ball warming, with all the consequences thereof, and topping off their heaping plates with polluted land and seas and air. Meanwhile, we’ve got denialists for everything sensible and reasonable, not to mention scientific and credible. AIDS? There’s denialists for that, despicable as they may be. Glow-ball warming? Tons of denialists from that, many with clear financial stakes in not reducing their own carbon footprint. And what about the single most successful public health initiatives in the history of mankind, the advent of vaccines? Plenty of denialists for that too, people who are more than willing to inflict as much suffering (and even death) upon their children and other people’s children as any religious fanatics. These people, destructive as their actions may be, believe they are “evolved” too.

    So while I’m not disagreeing that Mr. Dawkins could have taken a different stance than he did on the issue of religious child abuse, I don’t know exactly what words I would have chosen for him to say. Perhaps better he re-consider the issue for himself, and make clarifications as needed. Nobody is immune to improvement, not even famous scientists.

    But to say that we’ve evolved, that might be a bit of a stretch. Maybe check on the attitudes of our descendants in 60 or 120 or 200 years, and see what they say about our overall behavior today (which many of us feel is perfectly “evolved.”).

    BTW I much appreciate your hard work in combating religious child abuse. It’s a very worthy thing to do. There are many of us out there who may not have been as deeply affected as the worst cases you have seen, but who have still, in some way, been victimized by religion. Even with the lack of physical abuse or severe emotional trauma, our attitudes sometimes suffer as a result of the insidiousness of religious dogma. Perhaps Mr. Dawkins is one of these people too.

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