Aug 1, 2014

The Richard Dawkins Problem

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Richard Dawkins has stepped on his crank. Again.

Another day, another tweet from Richard Dawkins proving that if non-conscious material is given enough time, it is capable of evolving into an obstreperous crackpot who should have retired from public speech when he had the chance to bow out before embarrassing himself.

“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse,” huffs Dawkins. Seeming to have anticipated, although not understood, the feminist reaction this kind of sentiment generally evokes, he finishes the tweet: “If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”

I've really written very little about Dawkins, the man, and restricted my criticism to his dogmatic atheism and his disingenuousness in that arena. He has a long history of intemperate, ignorant, and insensitive remarks, particularly in the areas of gender politics and sexual violence. I've never thought it deserved a free-standing post because it's not really relevant to discussions of his atheist views. This is, I think, for reasons articulated in that same article.

Dawkins’ narrowmindedness, his unshakeable belief that the entire history of human intellectual achievement was just a prelude to the codification of scientific inquiry, leads him to dismiss the insights offered not only by theology, but philosophy, history and art as well.

To him, the humanities are expendable window-dressing, and the consciousness and emotions of his fellow human beings are byproducts of natural selection that frequently hobble his pursuit and dissemination of cold, hard facts. His orientation toward the world is the product of a classic category mistake, but because he’s nestled inside it so snugly he perceives complex concepts outside of his understanding as meaningless dribble. If he can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist, and anyone trying to describe it to him is delusional and possibly dangerous.

I think there is a connection between Dawkins's scientism and a kind of emotional stuntedness. He's suspicious of subjective experiences and seems to think that our emotions should follow a logical process. If you were raped this way, you should feel like this and if you were raped another way, you should feel like that. I mean it's only logical. And why on earth can't you be ruthlessly analytical about rape? You must be stupid.

As I wrote here, neither emotions nor religious experience are well understood from a perspective of cold empiricism. We can no more easily prove love exists than we can that God or the experience of the numinous does. And it can be emotionally brutalizing to have those subtle, subjective states trivialized or dismissed because they can't be charted, graphed, or demonstrated in a lab.

What Dawkins has demonstrated here, and not for the first time, is that he lacks empathy and compassion.

The way people experience and process sexual assault varies. What Dawkins considers "mild" could be very traumatic for some people. That he underestimates the profound feelings of betrayal experienced by many survivors of acquaintance rape, something that could make date rape considerably worse than the far less common stranger rape, is another obvious problem with his reasoning. When this was brought to his attention, he simply inverted his "syllogism" and said that the logic works in either direction. That such a cold calculus would be hurtful to people, and no doubt many of his readers have experienced some type of sexual violation, doesn't seem to enter his thinking.

 You don't need religion to have morals if you can't determine right from wrong then you lack empathy not religion

For the record, here in the US and I expect in most civilized countries, the law makes no such distinction between acquaintance and stranger rape. It is also no longer legal in the US to rape a spouse. The relationship between perpetrator and victim are not relevant to the physical facts of rape.

"Stranger rape" occurs when a rape victim is attacked by a previously unknown person. For example, an assailant who violently drags a passerby into a secluded spot and rapes her commits a stranger rape. Date rape occurs when the rapist and the rape victim have an existing social relationship and the rapist strikes in the course of that relationship. For example, a date rapist may prevent a woman from refusing to have sexual intercourse by drugging her drink while they are out on a date. Date rape is far more common than stranger rape. While both are equally illegal, the ambiguities that are inherent in many social situations make date rape a far more difficult crime to prove than stranger rape.

Penalties on rape and sex abuse of children have also been increasing over the years as the psychological realities of sexual trauma have become increasingly known and understood.

This is not the first time Dawkins has said bizarre and offensive things about sexual assault and violation. He is, himself, a survivor of sexual abuse, but as he feels that it did him no lasting harm, he is very dismissive of what he considers "mild pedophilia." He is well within his rights to determine what did or did not harm him. Projecting his reactions onto other people is far less sound.

One day — I must have been about 11 — 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.

He's not only decided what did and didn't harm other children assaulted by this particular assailant, he's made sweeping generalizations about the results sex abuse writ large.

"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.

As such, the avowed atheist and critic of all things religious, has largely dismissed the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It's not nearly as bad as teaching religion itself, he reasons on the basis of one anonymous example.

There are shades of being abused by a priest, and I quoted an example of a woman in America who wrote to me saying that when she was 7 years old, she was sexually abused by a priest in his car.

“At the same time, a friend of hers, also 7, who was of a Protestant family, died, and she was told that because her friend was Protestant, she had gone to hell and will be roasting in hell forever.

“She told me, of those two abuses, she got over the physical abuse; it was yucky, but she got over it. But the mental abuse of being told about hell, she took years to get over."

In The God Delusion he compares the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church to the Salem witch trials. The irony seems to be lost on him.

This line of thought goes back at least to 2006 for Dawkins, when he wrote"we live in a time of hysteria about paedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch-hunts of 1692," in his popular book the God Delusion. He continued:

All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affections for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defence, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience).

The Roman Catholic Church has borne a heavy share of such retrospective opprobrium. For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church. But I dislike unfairness even more, and I can’t help wondering whether this one institution has been unfairly demonized over the issue, especially in Ireland and America… We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and mercenary lawyers. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown great courage, in the face of spiteful vested interests, in demonstrating how easy it is for people to concoct memories that are entirely false but which seem, to the victim, every bit as real as true memories. This is so counter-intuitive that juries are easily swayed by sincere but false testimony from witnesses.

I actually wrote the press release for Elizabeth Loftus's seminal book The Myth of Repressed Memory, so it brings me no joy to say that her scholarship on the issue has been called into question.

Dawkins has been roundly criticized for his stance on sexual abuse, even in the atheist circles where he enjoys a kind of rock star status. So why would he drudge up the issue on Twitter? And then up the ante by trivializing rape? He had to know he was poking the bear. Was that really necessary to make his point about logic? Perhaps this incident is just bringing him what he loves most: attention.

He may have gotten more than he bargained for, in this case. As a sex abuse survivor, he was somewhat insulated from criticism for his views on that issue. His insensitivity towards women has been another simmering issue -- one that has gotten far less mainstream press attention. But in atheist circles, and among critics of New Atheism, the "elevator incident," aka., "elevatorgate," has netted him a reputation as an insensitive, sexist boor.

It all started with atheist blogger Rebecca Watson, or Skepchick. She shared her discomfort at being propositioned during a late night elevator ride after having just explained during a forum they were both attending that being a woman and being sexually objectified in the sexist world of atheism could be a little rough.

Dawkins took it upon himself to pronounce her discomfort ridiculous and trivial, by mocking her openly in a comment on PZ Myers's blog post.

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


What's kind of funny here is that Dawkins is making the very same logical error he accused his Twitter readers of making the other day. Just because X (being intruded upon in an enclosed and potentially unsafe space) is a less extreme offense than Y (female genital mutilation), doesn't mean that X is not an offense.

Skepchick's response to  this odious comment can be found here.

Well, PZ Myers, Jen McCreight, Phil Plait, Amanda Marcotte, Greg Laden, Melissa McEwan and others have all already said it, but I figured I should post this for the record: yes, Richard Dawkins believes I should be a good girl and just shut up about being sexually objectified because it doesn’t bother him. Thanks, wealthy old heterosexual white man! 

. . .

This is especially interesting since Richard Dawkins sat next to me in Dublin and heard me talk about the threats of rape I get...

I don't know, were they only piddly, little date rape threats? That's not so bad, right?

His clarification to that comment only made matters worse.

No I wasn't making that argument. Here's the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics' privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn't physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic.

Then they'd have had good reason to complain.


It seems fairly clear that Dawkins has no concept of the kind of physical disadvantage women are at when it comes to the potential for sexual violence, or the simple fact that an unwanted advance from a stranger carries the potential that they might just not take no for an answer. This is the reality women and girls live with every day... and at 4:00 in the morning in an otherwise empty elevator. So, yes, it's a bit more serious than the threat posed by a stranger's chewing gum etiquette.

Now Dawkins has unintentionally made it obvious to the world that he is woefully ignorant about the realities of sexual violence. Unlike elevatorgate this really has become a media firestorm and he's taking a lot of criticism from journalists and experts.

But Peter Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood, said the scientist had belittled the ‘devastating’ effect of sexual abuse.

He said: ‘What staggers me is that for such a self-proclaimed intelligent man to even talk in these terms is to completely miss the point.

'There is no such thing as mild or serious paedophilia. There is child abuse, and the consequence for the victim is that they can be scarred for life.’

Holly Dustin, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said Professor Dawkins had ‘minimised’ abuse in his remarks. ‘Richard Dawkins is not just engaging in light-hearted philosophical discussion when he talks of “mild date rape” and “mild paedophilia”, but minimising these serious offences,’ she said.

Shami Chakrabarti, of the human rights group Liberty, said even the most intelligent Twitter users should sometimes ‘put their smartphones down and count to 250’ before commenting on such sensitive topics.

‘There is no mild rape, there is no mild paedophilia. These are terrible, terrible crimes,’ she told the Daily Telegraph website.

Dawkins later took to his blog to give all of us whiners a thorough dressing down for not being rational enough about rape. He raised the question with this absurdly long title: "Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?"

In it he defends moral philosophers who subject prickly life, death, and eugenics (???) questions to the cold light of logic. Writes Dawkins:

Could eugenics ever be justified? Could torture? A clock triggering a gigantic nuclear weapon hidden in a suitcase is ticking. A spy has been captured who knows where it is and how to disable it, but he refuses to speak. Is it morally right to torture him, or even his innocent children, to make him reveal the secret? What if the weapon were a doomsday machine that would blow up the whole world?

The ticking time bomb scenario? Really?! This is one of the worst torture defenses ever because it doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Even if torture worked, which it does not, it's a lot less threatening when it's time limited. The suspect can hold out. Or send investigators on wild goose chases. All they need to do is run out the clock. As the nice general from West Point and his military and FBI interrogator sidekicks tried to explain to the producers of TV's torture porn vehicle "24," it's the worst way to handle such a scenario, not just because it's immoral and illegal, but because it's thoroughly ineffective.

At the meeting, Cochran demanded to know what the interrogators would do if they faced the imminent threat of a nuclear blast in New York City, and had custody of a suspect who knew how to stop it. One interrogator said that he would apply physical coercion only if he received a personal directive from the President. But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response. “These are very determined people, and they won’t turn just because you pull a fingernail out,” he told me. And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. “They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory—the ticking time bomb will go off!” [emphasis added]

Well, no duh, huh?

Can we stop talking about Richard Dawkins like he's some towering intellectual giant yet?

Dawkins never seems to know when to stop. He will invariably double down, spouting increasingly nonsensical defenses of his position in increasingly condescending tones.

He might do well to consider the immortal words of Thomas Friedman, because what he's saying bears about the same relationship to logic.

The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging.When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.

He's based an entire second career as a kind of professional atheist on his credibility as a biologist and Oxford's one time Professor for Public Understanding of Science, even though credentials as a scientist in no way qualify a person to speak to theology. No matter. He doesn't believe theology is a real thing anyway. His entire public persona is based on his intellectual credibility, so questions about that credibility are directly on point. He has justified his stance as a critic of religion on the basis of his superior logic and reasoning skills. But if these horrible incidents have proved anything, it's that he's not much of a logician either.

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