The Intertubes are abuzz with comments regarding the latest utterance from famed atheist Richard Dawkins. In this Salon article he is quoted as saying that "mild pedophilia" should not be cause for concern.
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.”
This is not the first time Dawkins has, at least by implication, downplayed the importance of pedophilia and child abuse generally. Notoriously he once said that raising a child as a Christian could be more damaging than subjecting the child to sexual abuse: "Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place."
His latest statement seems to be in line with his previous comments on the subject. He obviously thinks that raising a child in a religious belief system is an act of intolerable cruelty, but he exhibits no comparable outrage about physical molestation.
This rather peculiar stance could be taken as merely a personal quirk on Dawkins' part. My impression of Dawkins is that, like many highly educated and intelligent people, he is remarkably unskilled at introspection and self-criticism, and also has an exceedingly shallow understanding of viewpoints with which he disagrees. He is, in other words, altogether too sure of himself when he deigns to weigh in on subjects outside the narrow scope of his expertise.
What makes his most recent comment a little more interesting is that it follows in the wake of numerous allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of leading advocates of the "skeptical"-humanist-atheist-materialist position.
A rundown of these allegations, or most of them, can be found here.
Now, it can always be said that these allegations are unproven – which they are – and that even if there is something to them, it has nothing to do with the underlying intellectual positions taken by these individuals. In fact, I've said something similar myself. But I'm starting to wonder if maybe there is some connection between sexual misconduct (or the downplaying or tacit endorsement of such) and the materialist ethos.
Is it possible that the view of human beings as "meat puppets," "biological robots," and carrying systems for "selfish genes" – humans as mechanistic entities without free will, whose sense of self is an illusion and whose consciousness is only an epiphenomenon, a meaningless side effect – encourages a dehumanizing approach toward physical and emotional intimacy?
Alternatively ... are people who are predisposed, by temperament or upbringing, to treat their fellow humans as objects more likely, on average, to embrace a worldview that explicitly and unapologetically reduces people to objects?
Or ... could the high degree of left-brain dominance associated with militant skepticism, atheism, and materialism give rise to a dismissive or domineering attitude toward women (and perhaps children)? The "men's club" atmosphere of skeptical organizations and get-togethers is pretty well known.
Or ... could the belief that there is no afterlife, no "life review," and no possibility of being called to account for one's misconduct serve as a rationalization for indulging in misconduct? Was Dostoyevsky right when he had one of his characters say that without God, everything is permitted?
I know these questions can easily be seen as unfair. Perhaps they are. Sexual misbehavior is hardly limited to the skeptical-atheist camp. There are "spiritual" figures (like Sai Baba, or like any number of adulterous ministers and pedophile priests) who can be tarred with the same brush.
Still, when we consider the number of leading figures on the skeptic-materialist side – not bystanders or backbenchers, but people at the forefront of the movement – who have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct or who seem to endorse (or at least not condemn) such misconduct, it becomes increasingly hard to dismiss the possibility that their basic intellectual premises may contribute to these problems.
I could be wrong. I really don't know.