Catchy title, huh? Well, I am glad you took the time to find out what REALLY happened! When this little piece was hot news, several news outlets had taken the opportunity to completely slander Richard Dawkins and, as they always do, distort the facts.
There was quite a bit of internet squawking over Dawkins’s interview with The Times Magazine last September. He apparently said he didn’t have an issue with what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.
Richard Dawkins made a lengthy response here
“In my memoir, An Appetite for Wonder, I wrote the following, about an incident at boarding school.
I would watch games of squash from the gallery, waiting for the game to end so I could slip down and practice by myself. One day – I must have been about eleven – there was a master in the gallery with me. He pulled me onto his knee and put his hand inside my shorts. He did no more than have a little feel, but it was extremely disagreeable (the cremasteric reflex is not painful, but in a skin-crawling, creepy way it is almost worse than painful) as well as embarrassing. As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage, but some years later he killed himself.
This paragraph, together with a subsequent statement to the Times that I would not judge that teacher by the standards of today, has been heavily criticised. These criticisms represent a misunderstanding, which I would like to clear up.
The standards of today are conditioned by our increasing familiarity with the traumatising effect that pedophile abuse can have on children, sometimes scarring them psychologically for life. Today we read, almost daily, of adults whose childhood was blighted by an uncle perhaps, or even a parent, who would day after day, week after week, year after year, sexually abuse a vulnerable child. The child would often have no escape, would not be believed if he/she told the other parent, or told a teacher. In many cases it is only now, when the abused children have reached adulthood, that these stories are coming out. To make light of their stories, even after all these years, might in some cases re-awaken the trauma of not being believed at the time when it was all happening, and when being believed would have meant so much to the child.
Only slightly less culpable than the abusers themselves are the institutions that protected them, of which the most prominent examples are to be found in the senior hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. This is why I personally donated £10,000 of my own money towards a fund, instigated by Christopher Hitchens and me, to build the legal case for prosecuting Pope Benedict XVI for his part (when Cardinal Ratzinger) in covering up sexual abuse of children by priests. Our initiative, for which I paid 50%, the rest being raised by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, resulted in the book The Case of the Pope: Vatican accountability for human rights abuse, in which the distinguished barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC laid out the case for the prosecution should any jurisdiction in the world choose to take it up in the future.
Now, given the terrible, persistent and recurrent traumas suffered by other people when abused as children, week after week, year after year, what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? Should I have lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and called down posthumous disgrace upon his head?
No, no and no. To have done so would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life. To have done so would have invited the justifiably indignant response: “How dare you make a fuss about the mere half minute of gagging unpleasantness that happened to you only once, and where the perpetrator was not your own father but a teacher who meant nothing special to you in your life. Stop playing the victim. Stop trying to upstage those who really were tragic victims in their own situations. Don’t cry wolf about your own bad experience, because it undermines those whose experience was – and remains – so much worse.”
That is why I made light of my own bad experience. To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention.
I should have hoped that much was obvious. But I was perhaps presumptuous in the last sentence of the paragraph quoted above. I cannot know for certain that my companions’ experiences with the same teacher were are brief as mine, and theirs may have been recurrent where mine was not. That’s why I said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. We discussed it among ourselves on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was indeed general agreement that his gassing himself was far more upsetting than his sexual depredations had been. If I am wrong about any particular individual; if any of my companions really was traumatised by the abuse long after it happened; if, perhaps it happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that I endured, I apologise.”
On the other hand, Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, declared that “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs”.
Comments on articles popping up on Huffington Post, Salon, and even Dawkins’s website quickly go into the thousands with a wide range of mixed opinions. My personal favorite “When it comes to any categorizations, there’s an arbitrary distinctions within the levels of that wrong. All crimes, wrongs, abuses, are not of the same seriousness, don’t result in equal harm. There are degrees. It’s the mark of maturity when you are able to see that and don’t simply react in one wholesale way for both the lesser and the greater, as if distinctions don’t exist or are irrelevant. It’s not mandatory that we as a matter of a kneejerk reaction resort to the fainting couch and the lynch rope for every grade of wrong. We aren’t justified in shooting people for trespass when they walk across our yard. We are if they are trying to forcibly break into our homes. Being able to see and validate distinctions is the mark of a mature, sensible mind.”
What are your thoughts? Did Dawkins make a mistake, or is this the mark of a mature, sensible mind?