Richard Dawkins is back in the news (does he ever leave it?), not for obnoxious tweets about Islam this time but for defending the paedophilia of his boyhood as not having been all that bad, actually. In his new memoir Dawkins describes being fondled by a prep school master as a boy and, at boarding school, having “‘to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was.'” The current furore stems from an interview published on September 7th in the Sunday Times, in which Dawkins suggests a) his boyhood experiences were “mild” and thus were not ‘real’ paedophilia (unlike rape); b) the “moral zeitgeist” has shifted so that even mild paedophilia is regarded as monstrous; c) we should not judge the past by present-day moral standards.
There are many articles online about this, but it’s worthwhile reading the original interview, at http://www.richarddawkins.net/news_articles/2013/9/7/the-world-according-to-richard-dawkins-the-times
The context of the remarks on paedophilia is a discussion about how today’s moral transgressions were viewed in the past, starting with what Dawkins might call harassment and some might call sexual assault (a young man [not Dawkins] groping the breasts of every passing woman on the street), then moving on to Dawkins’ personal experiences of “mild” paedophilia. The point of all this is to argue that “mild” paedophiles should not be lumped “into the same bracket” as the rapists and murderers. It’s unclear whether he thinks Jimmy Savile is a mild or monstrous paedophile.
Things get weird when Dawkins defends the Catholic Church on the subject of sexual abuse of children:
“’Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.'”
No, no, no. And again, no. First, we are talking about cases involving victims who are still alive, not things that happened centuries ago. Second, granted that standards of sexual behaviour have changed a great deal in the past few decades, abuse of trust has always been viewed as wrong, including among cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, with a permissive attitude toward sex between men and boys.
Third, and this is important, there are no “conventions of the good historian” that suggest we excuse acts that took place in the past simply because moral standards have changed. No, what a good historian does is focus on understanding the past on its own terms, as a way of avoiding present-centred judgements and assumptions that can interfere with comprehension. The fact that I can comprehend why people in the 16th century thought it was necessary to torture and burn “witches” doesn’t mean I’ve given them a moral pass. Expending a great deal of energy on moral condemnation of the 16th century seems a bit pointless, since all of the individuals involved, and their immediate descendants, are long dead — but I wouldn’t suggest that abuse of due legal process, torture, and cruel executions were acceptable just because the world was different then. The fact that moral standards change over time seems to be some kind of revelation for Dawkins, but this isn’t exactly a new concept.
As for this notion that a few decades somehow puts an act beyond the reach of current moral scrutiny, I haven’t noticed any good historians suggesting that the Holocaust wasn’t evil — and it certainly happened a few decades ago.
Perhaps, for Dawkins, it’s a question of scale. At one point in the interview he remarks that he can’t muster a sense of condemnation regarding the “mild” paedophilia he experienced because it just doesn’t compare with Genghis Khan’s 12th-century massacres and other instances of “the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times.” Granted, a schoolmaster with wandering hands is not a Hitler or Genghis Khan. But are we supposed to be lenient towards anyone whose crimes don’t measure up to those examples?
Earlier in the article, the interviewer describes Dawkins as “Britain’s top atheist,” as if there was a competition and Dawkins won (it may be meant to be a joke — just before that, the interviewer mentions Dawkins’ dogs and the certificate from the 2008 Crufts dog show hanging on the wall). It’s probably too much to hope for, but maybe, just maybe, this interview will reduce Dawkins’ influence and someone sane will become the “top atheist.”