Richard Dawkins gets it wrong about rape -- again

The famed atheist tells Twitter what rapes are "worse"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 29, 2014 2:24PM (EDT)

Richard Dawkins                   (Comedy Central)
Richard Dawkins (Comedy Central)

Richard Dawkins is the world's most famous atheist, but that's not enough for him. He keeps trying to present himself as an authority on sexual abuse too.

On Tuesday, the English author got into it on Twitter when he tried to explain his position that "X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of X, go away and don't come back until you've learned how to think logically." And the way he did was by declaring authoritatively that "Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think," and, "Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think."

Dawkins has a bit of a history when it comes to statements on where exactly certain violations should fall on the spectrum. Last year, he spoke of experiencing "mild pedophilia" as a schoolboy and said of his abuser that "I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm." Earlier in the same year, he'd also put Catholic sex abuse on his continuum, saying, "There are shades of being abused by a priest … Telling children stuff that they really, really believe that people who sin are going to go to hell and roast forever … it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse." So it's not surprising that Dawkins would, several months later, continue his line of statements about which kinds of pedophilia are "worse," and which kinds of rape are.

But it's also not surprising that the response has not been entirely approving. One tweeter asked on Tuesday, "You don't think the betrayal of trust in a 'date rape' could be worse than a stranger with a knife?" while another noted, "I'm glad @RichardDawkins is here to tell us objectively & comparatively how bad our rapes were. Go away and learn compassion." Dawkins, however, remained unbowed, telling a tweeter who agreed with him, "It's obvious to you and me. You'd be amazed, probably shocked, at how many people simply don't get it," and retweeting his acolytes who called dissenters "idiotic" and "people who fail to understand simple, logical points."

Thanks for not "endorsing" certain forms of rape, Dawkins. That's mighty generous of you. And while I don't pretend to have a great big brain like yours, I do know my own response to those remarks, and can see clearly the arguments that others who were likewise offended by them are making. I don't see anybody saying that Richard Dawkins is "endorsing" rape. Nor is anyone suggesting that there aren't, by necessity, different definitions – and different punishments – for different types of sexual misconduct. You might want to remember, though, that those definitions and punishments vary from country to country, and in the U.S., even from state to state. In most places in the West, for instance, the law does not distinguish between stranger rape and a sexual assault by a person known to the victim. The idea that a somehow purer form of rape involves an assailant "unknown" to the victim went out with hair metal and scrunchies. Nor does the definition of rape usually distinguish between a knife and other forms of physical force. See, that's why the issue isn't that anybody's accusing Richard Dawkins of being pro-rape. The issue is that Richard Dawkins is quite sweepingly and arrogantly holding other people's experiences to his own personal yardstick. What, by the way, is "mild" pedophilia? Why would sustained abuse by a trusted family member be not as bad as a single violent encounter? Similarly, why would getting raped by someone you know be somehow better than getting jumped by a stranger? Dawkins, speaking like he's ex cathedra, is deciding what is "worse," and then making fun of people who take issue with his firm pronouncements.

There are degrees of sexual assault. We have means of identifying those degrees, both in courts of law and in the testaments of survivors themselves. If Richard Dawkins says what he went through as a kid was no big deal, good for him. But it doesn’t give him the right to say the same of anyone else, or to minimize any other person's unique experience. And though he may be famed for his case against religion, let's thank God he's not the one who actually does get to decide whose rape was worse than anybody else's.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Atheism Legitimate Rape Pedophilia Rape Richard Dawkins