Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins addressing the World Humanist Congress on Sunday, Aug. 11 in Oxford, England. RNS photo by Brian Pellot

Richard Dawkins is at it again. And again. And again.

The famed atheist, author and evolutionary biologist addressed the World Humanist Congress on Sunday (Aug. 10). Interviewer Samira Ahmed dived right into the unavoidable — his recent controversial tweets on “mild” date rape and pedophilia.

Dawkins said that his rape tweets were “absolutely not presented as provocation.” Asked if he regretted sending them, he said, “I don’t regret it as much as you want me to say I do.”

Here’s a large chunk of his response so that you can see it in context:

Let’s take the first one: “Date rape is bad. Violent rape at knifepoint is worse.” The general point I was trying to make was a logical one, which was that to say that X is bad, Y is worse, should not ever be taken as an endorsement of the one that’s not so bad. You would be amazed at the number of people who take that to be an endorsement of X, to say X is OK, you can do X. That is logically absurd and it is pernicious.

Now the next point is, “why do you use rape?” rather than, somebody said, “Why don’t you say slapping someone around the face is bad, breaking their nose is worse.” I could have said that. It would have been completely pointless because it’s totally obvious and actually the general point is totally obvious. But you would be astonished at the number of people who I’ve seen on Twitter who when I say anything is bad, something else is worse, they will take it as an endorsement.

It came up with pedophilia when I said mild pedophilia, by which of course I meant relatively mild pedophilia — this is a comparative statement — relatively mild pedophilia is bad, violent buggery is worse. I myself and probably many people in this room have been the victim of mild pedophilia. A teacher at school sat me on his lap, put his hand inside my trousers and fiddled for about half a minute. I said that is not as bad as being violently assaulted, raped, perhaps something that would scar you for life — it’s not as bad, this 15 or 30 seconds or whatever it was that I endured — not as bad as someone who gets raped by their father, say, every week for five years. Now that is truly traumatic. That is a horrible, horrible, hideous thing to happen. And yet I was being accused of downplaying, denigrating the horror of pedolphilia by saying that when a man put his hand inside my trousers for half a minute that that wasn’t the worse thing that had ever happened to me. Of course it wasn’t the worse thing that ever happened to me. But when someone is raped every week by his father or uncle or grandfather or somebody like that, that very probably is the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Now if I were to say that my 30 seconds of unpleasantness is the worst thing that ever happened to me, I can just imagine the chorus of people who really did endure the horrors of violent pedophilia say, “How dare you dig up your trivial 30 seconds of horror and thereby make light of the awfulness that happened to me.”

“I was trying to say something about logical thinking, but that logical point doesn’t raise it’s silly head in neutral cases like X and Y and in cases like giving somebody a slap around the face as distinct from breaking their nose. It doesn’t raise its head with that. It does raise its head when you’re talking about rape and pedophilia and possibly nothing else. Therefore, I wanted to make the point that we are rationalists, we are humanists, we are skeptics, we are atheists. Why have we allowed these two topics of rape and pedophilia to deprive us of our normal logical reasoning? We say, “Oh we don’t talk about that, that’s too sensitive.”

Dawkins is missing the point. This isn’t just a freedom of expression issue. The problem isn’t solely that some consider certain topics to be taboo. It’s that logic can’t be applied like a blanket. You can’t rank how one experience will affect other individuals emotionally because you’re not them. Plain and simple.

Just because Dawkins’s experience wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to him and he says didn’t scar him for life doesn’t mean that the same is true for other victims of similar sexual abuse.

Wrapping up his remarks about using Twitter, Dawkins said, “If there is now a no-go area, it’s because I’ve learned that there are enough people on Twitter who will react in an emotional way to something which is supposed to be, which is attempting to be, a purely rational discussion.”

A “purely rational discussion” that attempts to rank others’ emotional scars brought on by sexual violence is purely irrational. This isn’t about self-censorship. It’s about thinking before you speak or tweet. Dawkins can’t know what other people are feeling.

If Dawkins wants to spew nonsense, that’s his prerogative. I might advise him to think a bit harder before he does so, but I’m sure he’d never listen.

For more, read Dawkins’s initial blog post responding to this particular Twitter controversy. I’m sure we can expect another dust-up soon.


  1. Oh wow. Stand back and watch as the conditioned, emotional “thinkers” start to consume one of their leaders who was a little too early in coming to be likewise conditioned. Emotional decision making is unstable and cannot be modeled as repeatable. These people’s live are the definition of deviation…and now that grand failure in teaching critical thinking skills is turning on itself.

    • He’s an idiot. If he has never been raped then he has no business commenting. A horrific experience can not be measured against someone else’s. You can measure your level of empathy but you can NOT measure someone else’s pain. Otherwise you have to qualify it with a “if it happened to me” because you do not know what tortures each person and what their limits are.

      • “If he has never been raped then he has no business commenting.”

        Forgetting yours or my views on WHAT he said (and please note you don’t know my views on the subject matter), do you sincerely believe that “If he has never been raped then he has no business commenting.”

        So if you or I have never been tortured, or crucified, or experienced a war or had a loved one die, or suffered in any way, we can’t comment on it? Think about how silly your comment is, not least because at best it stifles debate and at worst it justifies complete ignorance. In your world, most of cannot have a view on war, famine, or anything unless we have suffered it.

        Maybe you are happy with that, just as you are happy to call someone an idiot because you don’t agree with them. But I really worry if you feel that we cannot have views or discuss important issues without first-hand experience.

        • Hey, should I tell my aunt that having your husband die of cancer is bad, but that having your children killed in a missile strike is worse, then, when she inevitably responds poorly, smugly tell her to go away and learn how to think if she thinks I’m endorsing cancer? I mean, it seems entirely logical, but maybe I’m missing some important part of human interaction here…. Sure, I’ve never had my spouse of 20 years die of cancer, but it is quite clear that it is worse for your children to die of a missile strike, so surely no problems can come of expressing that to my grieving and deeply sensitive aunt.

      • He HAS been a victim of paedophilia. That’s was his point. You clearly did not read his remarks in context. Not surprising since religious adherents swallow whatever their leaders put in front of them. Here is something else – my sister was brutally raped at knife-point. I, like many women, was very nearly date-raped. My sister’s situation was FAR WORSE! What in the world is difficult for you people to understand? Dawkins is a true hero of reason in the modern world.

  2. “A purely rational discussion that attempts to rank the emotional scars of sexual violence is purely irrational?


    I guess you really dislike the whole edifice of western societies legal/justice systems then? If your statement were true they would be fundamentally and terminally flawed.

  3. “This isn’t about self censorship, its about thinking before you speak”.

    Bullcrap. This is only about censoring the thoughts of others via groupthink and collective shame when you don’t like their thoughts at an emotional level. Its the root behind emotional buzzword usage an author will “spew” when the author feels offended enough to go activist but lacks concrete arguements to counter. Thus bigot, hater, racist, x-phobe, and yes spew are all conjured up. Please note “spew” is exclusively used to desribe the speech of one whose view you do not agree with when you are a liberal “thinker”. Meaning emotional thinker.

    Someday these verbage tricks will be used to pointlessness. But today, its good to be able to spot them and realize the motivating forces behind it. It makes for more informed reading.

  4. Apropos of nothing in particular, Lles you are an incoherent babbling fool.

    That being said, Dawkins is also an incoherent babbling fool, but one who we expect to know better. By now he should be aware that no matter what he says on such subjects;

    1. He WILL be taken out of context.
    2. Nobody is really going to pay attention while he explains his statements
    3. It is not going to sound good for him.
    4. His detractors will never let him live it down
    5. Many of his detractors do not care for honest rational arguments.
    6. It will always come off as rude and insensitive.

    if Dawkins had an ounce of savvy for media and public relations, he would loot be in this situation.

    • @Larry,

      “if Dawkins had an ounce of savvy for media and public relations, he would not [sic] be in this situation.”

      Unless what he is saying happens to be what he really thinks is true.
      in which case he should damn the torpedoes and explore this further.

      It is ugly, but consider what he is asking.
      Are there degrees of difference in these abusive acts:

      1. unwanted touching of an ass cheek.
      2. unwanted groping of a breast.
      3. Unwanted groping of penis and testicles.
      4. unwanted sexual penetration.

      To say #1 is bad but #4 is worse
      does not seem like a wild thing to say.

      To say #4 is truly the worst
      is not to say #1 is okay.

      Am I missing something? Isn’t that what Dawkins is driving at?

      Perhaps he is concerned that we will miss the horror of #4
      if we imagine all of these are the same. When they are not.

      • I must immediately add:
        All unwanted sexual behavior is outrageous, offensive and deserves the sharpest rebuke and punishment under the law.
        I do not know if all sexual abuse fits the definition of ‘rape’ – but I am happy to consider that it DOES – but I wonder if that isn’t where the problem is in this debate?

        • Unlike Dawkins, you explained the position in a clear and necessarily detailed manner. Had Dawkins said something like your follow up post, this whole controversy would not exist.

        • Your comments were sensible till you tried to cover up for your ‘controversial’ post by claiming that all unwanted sexual attention is the worst thing ever and should be punished severely – so what, if someone pats someone’s ass they should get ten years in jail ? My female acting teacher went round patting guy’s asses in the dressing room before a show and just said ‘don’t mind me, I’m tactile’. I found it a bit inappropriate but it didn’t traumatise me for life and I don’t want her to go to jail…

  5. For anyone who doesn’t understand how completely awful acquaintance rape can be, please read the story at this link:
    balkanist. net / first-night-kyiv / (remove the spaces)

    How do you compare that story with sexual assault by a stranger using a weapon? I haven’t the foggiest notion and I certainly wouldn’t want to rank the woman’s experience as somehow “easier” than stranger rape. I’d be an insensitive jerk to try and do so. Trying to turn her experiences into the subject of a philosophical musing in 140 characters would also be rather awful.

    • First let me say that I am a female who has had more than one near-miss with date-rapists.
      Second, in America and virtually all civilised countries, there is within the law of the land, graded degrees of sexual assault with corresponding punishments attached.
      Third, Dawkins IS a victim of mild paedophilia.
      Fourth, Dawkins is one of the most important and influential figure in science and secular philosophy.
      If you can believe the stuff these Daddy-God religions tell you, you will believe anything. Fortunately, there are counter-balances in Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the late, great Christopher Hitchens.

  6. S. Dana Johnson

    It seems to me that Dick Dawkins is trying to lay the groundwork to support the idea that atheists can use logic to construct an objective moral and ethical framework for judging sin. Relatively speaking.

    • Secular morality is superior to Religious morality.
      There are exceptional books on this subject.

      Secular Morality is based on avoiding ‘needless harm’.
      It is very easy to grasp and to teach to children.

  7. All of his talk about logical thinking misses the point entirely of how ILLOGICAL it is too attempt such a discussion on a 140 word medium like Twitter. His points are logical and valid but are they necessary? Maybe. ..maybe not.

  8. I’m just concerned about why Dawkins is so obsessed with this subject that he has to keep on and on about it. It makes me concerned about leaving people alone with this disturbed man.

  9. Though always philosophically opposed to Dawkins, in this instance I would agree that he merely “lacks media savvy;” which probably concerns him not at all.

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