Richard Dawkins under fire for ‘mild pedophilia’ remarks

Richard Dawkins, seen here at a book signing, is the author of ``The God Delusion.'' Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.
Richard Dawkins, seen here at a book signing, is the author of ``The God Delusion.'' Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

Richard Dawkins, seen here at a book signing, is the author of The God Delusion.’ Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“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.

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.”

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the interview was released on the eve of the publication of his autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, on Thursday.

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.”

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Trevor Grundy


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  • I am not surprised, since atheism can not appeal to moral absolutes, it is natural to think that moral knowledge is culturally dependent, and like empirical knowledge, may gradually increase over time, so that abusers in history are really only accountable to the standards of the day, not today’s standards. Of course, by that measure, could you nit excuse the crusades, or violence in the middle east today?

  • He’s talked about this many times and wrote about it in the God Delusion. I don’t know why it’s suddenly an issue. He’s right when he says touching is minor compared to the real psychological damage done by teaching children their dead relatives might be in hell having their skin burned off.

  • you did very well contradicting your own idea, by using the fact that religion failed to apply moral absolutes in exactly the same fashion.

    maybe your take home message should be that moral absolutes do not, and never did exist?

  • yes, he has spoken about it before. No, it does nothing to invalidate the fact that many children ARE and HAVE BEEN traumatized by exactly the same kind of sexual abuse he describes.

    the question really is, why do you accept it?

  • The “problem” is that Dawkins understands the Tyranny of the discontinuous mind. Sexual contact falls along a spectrum, from the minor to the major. But to the Leftist social Justice Warrior.. who are just a newer incarnation of the Puritan mind.. you must Think of The Children.. and punish the perpetrator to the fullest extent of the law, no matter how minor the crime. Unless the perpetrator is a woman, in which case.. Patriarchy! and she was a victim in the past and was acting out!
    And the White Knighting traditional conservative men are of the same mentality too. By numbers, Female teachers are by far the biggest molesters of minors. Do we ever hear about that? Nope.. Instead we hear on and on that we must punish the Catholic priests!

    In this sea of insanity, Dawkins’ opinion is a fresh breath of sanity.

  • And just how true do you consider the supposed absence of moral absolute to be relevant in your OWN life,”Itchyic”? Would it be absolutely immoral for one of your children to be murdered,or would just raping her(or him) somehow be less immoral?

  • Do you agree with Dawkins’ statement that because it happened in a previous generation that it wasn’t so bad, and we should not hold these people to the same standard as we would now?

  • Do you agree with the Social Justice Warriors & traditional conservatives that female predators should not be equally punished?
    Only when you start working towards equal punishment for women, will I even bother to discuss with you the nuances in Dawkins’ opinion.

  • I wonder if Richard dawkins feels that since child abuse was rampant and well respected in those days making an issue out of what he experienced, might be disconcerting to those who were violently raped. And I wonder if Richard still feels some slight of threat, that he must still under report the act. You know, that it did indeed do him some damage and he does not care to publicly go there. So while I u dear stand the article writer, please use a slight of caution. Thanks

  • Oh where to begin…

    In making these statements Dawkins has now indicated that a sex crime has been committed. What will the police now do? Will they launch an investigation? Why should they? After all Dawkins, the victim, is not asking them to do anything. But what of the other alleged victims? Seeing as none of them have spoken out it is automatically assumed that they are ok with having been sexually assaulted. But what if the criminal is still actively assaulting other victims? Do the police not have any responsibility to protect anyone?

    What of the reputation of the school and ALL of the male teachers that were there at that time. Dawkins has now by his comments damaged all of their reputations! But so what? The sex offender (of what is obviously a homosexual act) is protected by his anonymity.

    So does Dawkins think that the safety of a homosexual who likes to touch young boys is more important than the reputations of law abiding teachers? Is the protection of this homosexual who likes young boys more important than protecting other people who might yet be molested?

  • Forgiveness is not the same thing as acceptance of evil. It is ultimately the evil of atheism, that absence of moral absolutes. Childhood sexual predation remains with a person their entire lives. I’ve known several people who have had to live with that, and they are definitely affected by it. I do agree with Dawkins that comparatively speaking, fondling is not as evil as rape and murder, but that is only a comparative statement. (And NO, I have not fondled anyone!~ I have to say this for a stalker with a lying problem.) All physical violations of another person’s body are not just morally wrong. There is much more to it than that. At Fatima, Our Lady said that “more souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason”. The children were young and had to ask their parents what “sins of the flesh” meant. If consensual sex is so serious, how much more so for sexual approaches which are non-consensual. These latter do even more damage.

    Forgiveness is crucial I believe, in any serious offense, because without it, one will never find their own personal peace. It is always best to turn to God with these kinds of things, and to place the problem in His hands. I believe if you do this, you will always experience some help.

  • Liam
    No, I think you missed the point not Ringo. Without moral absolutes everything becomes relevant, so nothing is moral or immoral. His example is a good one. Where does one draw the line?

  • I agree that the social worker was over reasonable bounds but Dawkins wasn’t molested by a parent. Different issue.

  • Richard Dawkins is completely right. Not all sexual encounters between an adult and a minor, though wrong on the part of the adult, cause any lasting psychic damage to the minor.

    For that matter, if “under 18 “defines a minor, and if some form of sexual encounter takes place between an adult and a “mature” minor, as has happened in uncountable situations, even instigated by the minor, I am sure there have been innumerable instances resulting in no psychic damage to the minor.

    Such an encounter would not even come under the heading of ephebophilia unless the adult practiced a preference for older minors, teens, over adults.

    However, when Dawkins refers to his experience at his sexually premature age, even though it may not have produced any lasting trauma in him, it was plain pedophilia, wrong, even criminal on the part of that school master. Such incidents should never take place, never be condoned, always be considered criminal.

    So do not judge Dawkins on the basis of his atheism, but on the basis of, age, physical maturity status, and psychic results. The master’s behavior obviously did not scar Dawkins, but it was criminal on the part of the master.

  • The statute of limitations, depending on what it is where the action took place, and if any criminal charges are made, will determine what, if anything judicial, happens at this late date.

    Since Dawkins is now 72, it is unlikely that the pedophile who groped him is even living, much less groping other young boys. So who’s to protect or be protected against at this late date? The dead are not prosecuted. It would be better if we stood against the continuing cover-ups of pedophilia that are taking place.

    There are some atmospheres, strange as it may seem, where such behavior as this master’s with Dawkins was not rare, even considered part of the territory. Dumb and wrong, but true.

    It is ridiculous to assert that Dawkins’ story has harmed the reputation of present faculty of his old school in any way, or other schools or other teachers. Different times. Different people. Be reasonable. Also, have evidence.

    A better understanding of pedophilia on the part of this commenter might clarify that there is a vast difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. It is ignorant and ugly to equate them.

    Again, neither Dawkins nor his master have done anything to harm any institution’s or anyone else’s reputation. No one yet knows who that master was or if he’s still living. That master’s behavior was his, and only an ignoramus would allow it to overflow and besmirch the reputation of anyone else.

    Be careful that your antipathy toward atheism doesn’t color your interpretation of and reaction to Dawkins’ story.

  • To Peter Saunders: Your reactions and your pain about a sad past, and your continuing concerns are very understandable and deserving of sympathy. But one thing that Richard Dawkins observes is very true, besides the past being history, we are unable and do not judge the behaviors of former times by today’s standards. Let us hope that today’s laws reflect an improved concern over past behaviors. Past behaviors are as dead as their perpetrators. All we can learn from any history is to not repeat what was wrong, not allow it to be repeated.

    It is wise and helpful to follow the advice of Santayana: “Those who ignore or forget history, are condemned to repeat it.”

  • False, atheism can appeal to moral absolutes–if there are any. But do not confuse moral or absolute with religion.

    Religious claims that are considered absolute are only the claims or writings that have aged longer. Some are good. Some are wicked. People tend to give more credence to writings the more aged they are. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate such believing.

    True, all knowledge is empirical, hence all of our thinking should be subject to change as our knowledge increases or changes. Too many people who consider themselves religious cannot accept the reality of constantly increasing, improving, changing, empirical knowledge.

    Goodness, common and mutual decency is a sufficient rule by which to live. It is the “Golden Rule” in practice.

  • You would do well to clarify how you think Dawkins relates to the Stockholm Syndrome or displays self-interest. In lieu of that, your comment is nothing but name calling.

  • This is typical religious smugness, as empty of meaning as it is of respect toward those with whom you disagree. It certainly adds no substance to religion. Rather, it detracts from decency for religion, and that, sadly, is the way of religious extremists in our time.

  • I guess all this is proof that there is nothing unchanging about religion or religious attitudes. It would behoove Dawkins’ critics to learn more about Dawkins before getting all excited simply because you mistakenly think that Dawkins is challenging anything about your faith or morals in his reference to sexual activities of another era, another culture. The man is merely displaying attitudinal changes that are part and parcel of sociological changes from period to period.

    What is sad is that nothing anyone like Dawkins might have to say would be correct to anyone who considers herself religious simply because Dawkins rejects religion. He does not reject facts. He does not reject thinking. He does not reject the reality of changing attitudes. Anyone who knows the history of religion or churches would have to acknowledge even greater differences and changes in attitudes and practices from time to time.

  • Also, very important, Dawkins wasn’t molested to the point that he suffered any lasting trauma from the event. That’s precisely what he refers to by different eras, different attitudes, different instances.

    No one should think for one moment that some older kids, in their teens and practicing sex, have not been very willing partners with adults in sex, even sought it. It would be statutory rape on the part of the adult, and even more wrong if teens were the exclusive subject of their predatory practices.

    We must distinguish between pedophilia and ephebophilia. And we must distinguish between seductive teens and true victims of real perverts. In either case, it would be wrong, and in most places criminal, for an adult to have, even worse, to seek sexual relations with a teen. Being wrong, even statutorily criminal, it does not follow that in every instance trauma resulted for the teen.

  • It was the “goodness, common and mutual decency” in Nazi Germany to rid the earth of “those filthy Jews.” To either commit, or turn a blind eye to the mass genocide against the Jews and enemies of the Reich became the standard. They considered it a favor to the human race to cleanse the gene pool. Their knowledge had increased and their reasoning triumphed over archaic and passing whims of moral and ethical absolutes. Eugenic
    science is is founded on empirical knowledge that is freed from moral constraints.
    Simply because common societal opinion expresses a collective standard does not make it a sufficient rule to live by.
    For instance, our contemporary holocaust against human beings in the womb, especially the barbaric practice of partial birth abortion, is so normative that a million people are murdered legally in the US every year.
    There is a higher and inevitable accountability for such atrocities.

  • I find your Omnicient diagnosis of Dawkins inner being to be entertaining. Let me have a try at it:
    Dawkins is now acting out of the wounds he suffered at the molesting hands of authority figures. He has turned his injury into an axe to grind against the highest authority of all: The Almighty God, creator who allowed such a perverted thing to happen to him.

  • I feel those who resort to verbally attacking and raping the children of people they disagree with, on the pretext of making a point, to be filthy minded reprobates not worthy of social inclusion or discourse of any kind.

  • THis is all illustrating the rediculousness of trying to unravel the Gordian knot of cause and effect an infinitely complex system that is devoid of any understanding of true morality. The very context of a dependent child in the hands of the predatory public school system predicates abuse. He is there by force being “cared for” by people who are merely propagating the abuse they themselves received in some form or another. We use the word “justice” to describe the unfathomable revenge we try to wreck on one another through the weird social mores of a twisted society. Insanity

  • You may be living in a glass house here. God’s divine plan? What god? The plan that I see doesn’t look so divine.

    Let’s use evidence and reason to navigate the world, not tradition or wishful thinking.

  • No matter where you stand on religion, evolution, or creation, this headline is deliberately misleading. It implies that Richard Dawkins made comments that were mildly pedophiliac in nature, which is not true. He actually characterized past events that happened to him as “mild pedophilia”. Your writers turned victim into perpetrator with this headline. This is clearly a disingenuous attempt to discredit someone who is a threat to your belief systems, and this is a poor way to engage in civil dialogue. Keep it classy, guys.

  • “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”
    Is this the same Dawkins that condemns ancient Hebrew writings for failure to meet modern standards? Or the same Dawkins who rants about the evils done by previous religious cultures.

  • So dull. Shall I list the slaughters that went on in country after country under the regime of so-called absolute morals. And of course under absolute morals abortion happened all the time in Christian Europe, and in much of Europe not considered much of a crime. In fact if it was before “quacking”, it was not a crime period in much of Europe. Shall we talk about the passages in the Bible where God commands the killing of everyone?

    Shall I list the things that the Bible condemns as immoral that we regard has moral today such? For example Religious Liberty. Or shall I list the modern day Theocrats who hate Religious freedom, and long for the totalitarian rule of saints.

    Also to be blunt. Just how do you know that the Bible is the source of Absolute morality? Considering the immoral things it celebrates at times. Oh and saying it came from God is only a variation of “Might makes Right”, and doesn’t prove anything.

  • Since morality varies widely from place to place just what are “moral absolutes”? The example Ringo gives is interesting in that there are passages in the Bible in which God orders the murder of men, women and children and approves of what can only be called mass rape. And this is all good because God commands it?!

    Pete it is obvious that in parts of the Bible if God commands it is good regardless of what is commanded. A type of relvatism. Oh and again since when is all morality comes from God much better than “might makes right”?

  • Atheism has nothing to do with a persons’ morality and there are even some passages in the bible that support that. You can be ‘goodly’ but not ‘Godly’. I am not an athiest. I beleive in Jesus but I will not stand when people accuse others of being of poor character just because they don’t beleive in God. God has put the choice for everyone of is to do good or bad. Just because a person does not have your beliefs does not make them a bad person.