Richard Dawkins defends the indefensible

*Massive trigger warning for sexual abuse and related crimes*

There I was sitting in a waiting room, scrolling through my twitter feed when I happened upon the Salon article reporting on how celebrated atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins has decided that “mild pedophilia” does not cause “lasting harm.” Say what?!

In a recent interview with the Times magazine, Richard Dawkins attempted to defend what he called “mild pedophilia,” which, he says, he personally experienced as a young child and does not believe causes “lasting harm.”

Dawkins went on to say that one of his former school masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts,” and that to condemn this “mild touching up” as sexual abuse today would somehow be unfair.

“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.

Plus, he added, though his other classmates also experienced abuse at the hands of this teacher, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

Child welfare experts responded to Dawkins’ remarks with outrage — and concern over their effect on survivors of abuse.


Wait. What?!

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I hardly know where to begin with this. Do I humanize the survivor’s experience by sharing explicit events that happened to me? Of course, that’s something I never do BECAUSE IT’S REALLY FUCKING TRIGGERING AND DAMAGING TO MY MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL HEALTH. (Sort of like writing in all-caps.) And also, I shouldn’t have to peddle my misery to get people to open their eyes and understand how damaging sexual abuse — or any other form of physical or sexualized violence — is to a person. Indeed, a sticking point for Dawkins seems to be that what he calls “just mild touching up” — aka, someone sticking their hand down your pants when you don’t want them to — is not as bad as rape or murder.

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.”

I need a moment. How about I let an expert offer a rebuttal:

Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ remarks “a terrible slight” on those who have been abused and suffered the effects for decades.

“Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and himself a victim of abuse, told The Times that Dawkins’ comments were worrying and unhelpful, adding: “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs.”

I would venture to call Dawkins’ remarks “a terrible slight,” is an understatement. Since I have come out, so to speak, with my story about being abused I have heard from dozens and dozens of survivors. They come from all walks of life — students, CEOs, stay-at-home parents, teachers, clergy (yes, clergy!), politicians, working-class folks, one-percenters, and so on. Every kind of person. Every ethnicity. Every gender. Every sexuality. Every walk of life has had someone who has survived sexual abuse.

It’s a silent epidemic. And this epidemic so disgusts our society that we constantly seek ways to shield our eyes from it. We want to minimize it. We want to ignore it because it makes us squirm and worry that we are somehow complicit. And what we get are people like Dawkins who make headlines for negating our experience and subsequent pain. And the implication is clear: Shut up. We don’t care about you.

I mean, have you ever noticed how there are Slut Walks and rallies against rape culture and Take Back the Night and so many other events like that and there are no walks or rallies or protests for sexual abuse survivors? In a lot of ways, we walk alone. We walk in solidarity with other sex crime victims, but nobody really walks for us. Nobody riots in the streets for these atrocities committed against kids every day. Indeed, we’re often the punchline of some late-night talk show host’s monologue or an inappropriate jab at the Catholic Church. Just think about that for a second. How bad is a crime that nobody even wants to offer solidarity with you? And as many times as I’ve gone off on athletes and businesses for putting out or allowing rape jokes, I’ve yet to see a major organization take on someone for telling a sexual abuse joke.

If it was no big deal, then it wouldn’t matter when people like Jerry Sandusky are found guilty. We survivors feel a sense that it’s one for the team. It’s a victory for all of us — especially the ones who couldn’t face saying the words out loud or speaking about the horrors of the shade.

I don’t know Dawkins. I don’t know his work. And while I am Christian, I have no beef with his atheism. If the sexual abuse he experienced as a child left no permanent harm to him, I’m happy for him. But to say that his experience is somehow universal is beyond insensitive. It’s damaging. It is the equivalent of telling people that they should just get over it. I assure you, after at least a decade in different therapies and with a sincere motivation and drive to just get over it, it was not that easy for me. And what worked for me, does not work for everyone else. Surviving sexual abuse — and dare I say many forms of sexual violence — is a complicated process that is not one-size-fits-all. And it is not helped by insensitive responses like Dawkins’. And might I add, how dare Dawkins claim to understand how his fellow classmates felt?!

Likewise, I whole heartedly rebuke him for suggesting that different forms of violence deserve different levels of after-care or even remorse. This suggests that pain — physical and emotional — is only justified to certain degrees for certain crimes and experiences. Who is to say if it should take five minutes or a lifetime to get over being sexually abused, raped, or beaten? Who is to say how or what that survival should look like? Who is to say that how one person experiences a violent or sexualized crime is better or worse or “right” or justified? Not fucking Richard Dawkins, I can tell you that.

I sometimes wonder about professional atheists. I use that term “professional” for a reason here. (And I will add that I worry similarly about “professional” faith leaders.) While I respect everyone’s right to determine their own spiritual or non-spiritual preferences, I sometimes get the sense that professional atheists like Dawkins take it upon themselves to push the envelope and shock people by displaying an almost psychotic form of dispassionate “reason.” Perhaps Dawkins would never consider sexual violence to be “evil,” as Peter Saunders referred to it. That’s all fine with me. Evil is just an adjective, after all. Call it dehumanizing, criminal, damaging, a shame, abhorrent, repugnant, a blight on the human experience. Those are void of religious overtures, but convey just as effectively how intensely we should deride sexual abuse. Remember, reason and logic absent of compassion — or worse, played for shock value — are not better than what Dawkins calls “superstition” and faith. Dawkins has not proven himself in better command of the mind because he denies that sexual abuse can hurt people. He has not shown himself to be a superior intellect because he refuses to acknowledge the suffering of others. You don’t have to believe in God to be a person who values compassion and emotional intelligence. And being an atheist is not an excuse to be an asshole.

To my fellow survivors and anyone who loves a survivor, please know that there are resources for you. RAINN has a 24-hour hotline available every day and an internet-based hotline you can access via a computer (just be sure you are in a safe place). Take care of yourselves. And don’t let the bastards get you down.

2 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins defends the indefensible

  1. Dawkins needs to stick to evolutionary biology. He’s good at that. But when he wades into social issues, he is clueless. As one who watched the whole Elevatorgate thing unfold, this is just another instance of Dawkins assuming that because he is knowledgeable in one area, he is an authority in all.

  2. Pingback: Richard Dawkins defends the indefensible | Fem2pt0

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