Richard Dawkins’ nuanced memoir and the unjust personal smears against him

by Michael Nugent on November 26, 2013

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins is a generous, nuanced and ethical memoir, and the recent personal smears against Richard by some atheists are unjust, hurtful and irresponsible. Some other atheists have disagreed with Richard in more considered terms, as should be expected and encouraged in any freethinking community.

Some critics may dislike his outspoken criticism of religion, his distillation of complex arguments into the 140-character limit of Twitter, and his use of ridicule as a weapon of choice against what he sees as ridiculous. But the recent pattern of personal smears against him is disproportionate to any reasonable disagreement that his critics may have with him on issues, and it grossly misrepresents the man conveyed in his memoir.

Richard’s memoir

When Richard Dawkins recalls losing his virginity he concludes “But I’ll say no more on the subject, and will betray no confidences. It isn’t that sort of autobiography.” And indeed it isn’t. It is a generous and empathetic recollection of the first part of a remarkable life, in which he gives credit to those who helped him to channel his sense of wonder into science, expresses regret and guilt about some things that he feels he could have done better, and tries to see in a compassionate way the faults of those who have hurt him. It could not be further from the cold caricature of Richard that some of his critics, within and outside the atheist movement, like to inaccurately convey to the public.

His parents traveled widely throughout Africa before bringing Richard to England. Many of his childhood memories recall his natural gullibility, and his willingness to believe tall tales told to him by adults, including a man who convinced Richard that he had become invisible while playing hide and seek. He was terrified by ghosts, and he prayed to God to help him in various ways, before becoming an atheist after his confirmation. A common theme in the early part of his memoir is the need to teach children critical thinking skills, and to evaluate plausibility. He adds a caveat that he did not keep a childhood diary, so he may be mistaken in some recollections, and he reminds us that false and true memories can be indistinguishable.

Early schooldays

Richard compares his schooldays in England with some aspects of the movie ‘If’. He writes of a headmaster who caned boys with such severity that the bruises took several weeks to fade, turning from purple to blue to yellow on the way. Yet he does not believe that this man was guilty of cruelty or sadism, but sees this as an example of the speed with which customs and values change. He recalls that the same man was also capable of great kindness. He read stories to the boys, comforted frightened boys during severe thunderstorms and, on Sundays when parents took their children out for a day, he and his wife would take boys whose parents were absent for a picnic with their own children.

Richard writes of the cruel bullying that took place between boys at school, and declines to name one boy who was badly bullied in case he happens to read it and the memory is still painful. He recalls being empathetic towards boys who were in trouble with the school authorities, and thanks to reading Doctor Dolittle he was empathetic with nonhuman animals, but he expresses retrospective guilt that he did not have the empathy to try to stop the bullying between boys at the school. He compares the dynamic of this school bullying with the verbal cruelty and bullying in some internet forums today.

Because academic ability was not admired among his peers, Richard would sometimes pretend to know less than he did. Also, he disliked saying out loud when he got ten out of ten, because he had a stammer that made the word ten hard to say. He tells of a teacher who once put his hand down his pants, and when he told his friends, he discovered that many of them had the same experience. He writes that he doesn’t think that this teacher did any of them any lasting damage, but that some years later he killed himself. He also tells of his extracurricular immersion in beekeeping, poetry and music.

Life at Oxford

Richard’s life was transformed when he started to study at Oxford, where undergraduates tried to act like adults, dressing in waistcoats and listening to Bach. He forgot a pen at one lecture and was unable to take detailed notes, which led him to realize that he got more out of lectures when he was free to think and to watch the lecturer thinking out loud. The tutorial system inspired him to discover facts rather than learn them, and he lovingly recalls some of his best tutors and mentors. He describes early experiments on the behaviour of chicks, testing his predictions with a drive threshold model which he considered more important as a model in itself than for its particular application. He also confesses his developing addiction to computer programming, using early computers that were far more time consuming to program than today’s.

He married and moved briefly to California, where he worked as an assistant professor, marched against the Vietnam War, and noticed some of the flower-power sexism that he is glad has changed today. He regrets having failed to stand up against activists who bullied staff into canceling lectures, and he again compares the dynamic of this bullying with bullying in today’s internet forums. He returned to Oxford two years later for a job that with hindsight he feels should have gone to a competitor, but which he thinks he grew into and was worthy of in the end. He describes in detail some fascinating experiments including measuring the wave peaks of musical notes, trying to demonstrate the existence of fixed action patterns in animals, coding a computer program to try to understand linguistics, measuring how much crickets like particular songs, and examining how goals can be hierarchically embedded within each other.

The Selfish Gene

The 1973 miners’ strike in England was the genesis of The Selfish Gene. With electricity being rationed, Richard could no longer focus on his experiments and so he turned to his manual typewriter to begin the book that would explain and popularise Darwinian evolution for a new generation. His aim was to counter the false notion that that natural selection makes species good at surviving. This may happen as a fortunate by-product, but natural selection has no foresight, and it takes place at the level of the gene, not the individual or the species. He introduced the phrase ‘survival machine’ to describe the role of mortal individual organisms vis-a-vis their potentially immortal genes. He did not see this idea as being novel, but as being misunderstood.

He stopped writing the book when the miners’ strike ended, and returned to it some years later in a frenzy of creative energy when Desmond Morris introduced him to a publisher who tried to convince him to rename it The Immortal Gene. In retrospect, he agrees that would have been a better title. Desmond Morris also designed the book jacket, and Richard used his advance to purchase a painting by Desmond. Early reviews were positive, more so than you might expect from the later controversies it inspired. Richard sees the publication of The Selfish Gene as marking the end of the first half of his life, and a convenient point at which to pause and look back. He does just that in the final chapter of his memoir, pondering what he has learned about himself.

Unjust personal smears against Richard

In stark contrast to the nuanced individual that his memoir conveys, some atheists have recently been publishing increasingly irrational and hostile personal smears about Richard. These range from implicit to explicit claims that he is Islamophobic, racist, bigoted, sexist, misogynistic and an apologist for pedophilia. These personal smears are inaccurate, unjust, unkind and hurtful. Sometimes critics also describe him as being white, male, heterosexual, old and/or wealthy, instead of focusing their argument on whatever actual disagreement that they have with him.

The smears typically follow parts of the following pattern. Some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment by Richard, or else exaggerate it out of proportion to reasonable debate, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant. Then, instead of correcting these false allegations, which are pounced upon by his enemies, some people either ignore the clarification or else blame Richard further for allowing himself and/or atheism to be misrepresented.

Some people might then formally demand an apology, which they might in turn analyze and criticize further, as if they are the moral arbiters of not only the need for but also the content of apologies, to be made by people other than themselves, to different people other than themselves. The escalation into moral melodrama often happens quickly, with some people seemingly reluctant to check facts or consider the issue over time before publishing allegations.

Smears about Islamophobia, racism and bigotry

Last August, I addressed some of these personal smears against Richard in a BBC radio interview with Daniel Trilling, editor of New Humanist magazine, who had written an article associating Richard with Islamophobia, racism and bigotry.

You can listen to that interview here.

You can read the transcript of the interview here.

I argued that, as Daniel was basing his piece on comments made by Richard, the interpretation could be that he was suggesting that Richard is racist or bigoted. I said that this was clearly untrue; that Richard is a gentle, decent man who is very ethical, and he speaks the truth as he sees it without any racism or bigotry. I said that if, as I suspected, Daniel’s position was that Richard is technically correct in what he is saying, but that Daniel doesn’t like the way that he says it, then it might be more helpful if Daniel focused on Richard’s later clarification, and corrected that misinterpretation rather than repeat it.

Also in August, Owen Jones wrote an article in The Independent titled: “Not in our name: Dawkins dresses up bigotry as non-belief – he cannot be left to represent atheists.”

Owen wrote: “Dawkins has a habit of talking about Muslims in the most dismissive, generalising and pejorative fashion. “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” he once tweeted. Another of his tweets accused UCL of “cowardly capitulation to Muslims” because it “tried to segregate sexes” in a debate between Lawrence Krauss “and some Muslim or other.” ”

Actually, the “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are?” was not a generalising comment about Muslims. It was specific to the Muslims involved in the incident that the article describes as “another of his tweets”. The full tweet in question said: “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? At UCL of all places, tried to segregate the sexes in debate between @LKrauss1 and Muslim.”

Owen wrote in his final paragraph: “As a non-believer, I want the atheist case to be made. I want religious belief to be scrutinised and challenged… But I feel prevented from doing so because atheism in public life has become so dominated by a particular breed that ends up dressing up bigotry as non-belief. It is a tragedy.”

Actually, not only was Owen not prevented from making the case (that he said he wants to make) for atheism and challenging religious belief, but he had more opportunity than most people have to do so, as he was writing for a credible national newspaper. But instead of using that opportunity to make the case he said he wants to make, he instead attacked somebody who is actually making that case. To quote Owen himself, it is a tragedy.

Richard’s clarifications

This particular wave of smears began when Richard tweeted the following:

  • “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Richard responded on Twitter to some of the misrepresentations. He wrote:

  • “A statement of simple fact is not bigotry. And science by Muslims was great in the distant past.”
  • “Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.”

Richard then published a more detailed clarification on his website.

He said that Muslim spokespersons often cited that there are 1.6 billion Muslims, and that they are growing fast; and that Islamic science deserves enormous respect as the Quran anticipated modern science and Muslim scholars kept the flame of Greek learning alight while Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages.

He said that putting these two claims together, shouldn’t you be able to point to some pretty spectacular achievements emanating from among those vast numbers? If you can’t today but once could, what has gone wrong for the past 500 years? Whatever it is, is there something to be done about it?

He responded to several categories of attacks made against him on Twitter.

  • He said that Islam is not a race. However you define race, if you can convert to something (or convert or apostatize out of it) it is not a race.
  • He said that the Jews are not a race. You can argue about whether Judaism is a religion or a cultural tradition, but whatever else it is it is not a race.
  • He said that there may be sociologists who choose to redefine words to their own purpose, in which case we have a simple semantic disagreement.
  • He said that he doesn’t think skin colour has the slightest bearing on ability to win Nobel Prizes, whereas it is highly probable that childhood education in a particular religion does.
  • He asked how can the assertion of an undeniable fact be bigotry? And whether, and under what circumstances, we should refrain from stating uncomfortable facts for fear of giving hurt and offence?
  • He said that he did not imply any innate inferiority of intellect in those people who happen to follow the Muslim religion. But he did intend to raise in people’s minds the question of whether the religion itself is inimical to scientific education.
  • He said that he had no comeback to such devastating arguments as “Your a dick,” “I’m an athiest but you make me ashamed to be an athiest,” and “Your a disgusting piece of shit.”

It is important to restate that other atheists who disagree with Richard have expressed their disagreement in more considered terms. The pattern of personal smears makes it more difficult to discuss these reasonable disagreements in a constructive way.

Personally, I have had the same experience as Richard, when I have debated Muslims who rely on arguing that Islam has brought major contributions to science, not alone in the Middle Ages, but with claims that the Quran foresaw modern scientific discoveries. They promote far-fetched interpretations of the big bang and embryology, and assert nonsense like mountains being pegged into the earth to keep it stable, and freshwater and saltwater not mixing.

And those type of claims, in conjunction with the turmoil that Islamic science is in in the Middle East, with leading scientists complaining about the Islamic world’s failure to fund the science contributions that it has promised to over recent years, shows that Richard was making a comment that is factually correct. He was saying it in a thought-provoking way, and within the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter, but it in no way suggests that he is bigoted or racist.

Smears about attitudes to pedophilia

In September, the publication of Richard’s memoir led to a new wave of personal smears. This time it was a disproportionate controversy about attitudes to pedophilia, built on uncharitable interpretations of one recollection in his memoir and of unscripted comments made to an interviewer in The Times.

This is the quote, from the interview in The Times, that triggered much of the subsequent criticism:

“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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”

Several online publications, including Huffington Post and Salon, misrepresented what Richard said in this interview. Typically, they reported that Richard “could not condemn” what happened to him at school, without adding his qualification “by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” The misrepresentations continued on Twitter.

Several atheist commentators joined in with these unjustified smears. I will focus on one example, a blog post by PZ Myers, partly because I have previously defended PZ against smears made against him.

PZ published a blog post that was melodramatically titled “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, please stop”.

  • PZ wrote that Richard “seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children.” This is an unjustified extrapolation to make from Richard’s comments, particularly when PZ is aware that Richard has actively campaigned against the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up by religious institutions.
  • PZ asked: “Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should allow dirty old men to play with their genitals?” This suggests that Richard as a child lacked self-respect because he allowed himself to be abused, and also implies that Richard’s parents are responsible for his lack of self-respect. It also suggests the same about other victims of child sexual abuse and their parents.
  • PZ asked: “Just when did it stop being okay for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkin’s shorts?” But Richard had never said that it was okay for anybody to put their hands inside his shorts. What he said was: “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.”
  • PZ wrote: “Should we be giving pedophiles the idea that a ‘mild touching up’ is reasonable behaviour? It’s just a little diddling…. It does no ‘lasting harm’. Christ, that sounds like something out of NAMBLA.” Well, that may well sound like something out of NAMBLA, but it is not what Richard said. It is what PZ made up as his interpretation of what he chose to convey Richard as saying.
  • PZ wrote: “We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm.” But Richard did not excuse harm to others. He said that he would not condemn what happened 50 years ago “by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” A reasonable inference is that he would condemn it by a different standard, not that he would not condemn it.

There was a range of different comments under this post, including the following three outrageous personal smears:

  • “If no one else is going to say it I will… Someone needs to tell Dawkins that if he’s not actually a child molester he’s dangerously close to wearing the uniform of one.”
  • “Are you fucking kidding? A racist misogynist piece of shit who thinks child molestation doesn’t count unless there’s rape or murder? That’s not “fucking good”. We can do better.”
  • “Dawkins and his rape cheerleaders can fuck a power socket.”

These smears were not representative of the variety of comments by different people. But PZ did not remove any of these three smears, while he banned another commenter, who was defending Richard, by telling them:

  • “Goodbye. We don’t need your petty resistance to any dissent from the sacred position of your great heroes around here. Fuck off.”

Richard’s clarifications

Richard responded on Twitter to some of the misrepresentations. He wrote:

  • “Non-consensual sex is always bad. But raping an 8-year-old to death is quantitatively worse than “touching inappropriately”. Shades of grey.”
  • “There seem to be people here who seriously deny that some degrees of crime are worse than others.”
  • “Is anyone seriously denying that raping an 8-year-old to death is worse than putting a hand inside a child’s clothes? Are you that absolute?”

Richard then published a more detailed clarification on his website.

He said that the criticism of his comments, that he would not judge that teacher by the standards of today, represent a misunderstanding which he would like to clear up. He said that the standards of today are conditioned by our increasing familiarity with the traumatising effect that pedophile abuse can have on children, sometimes scarring them psychologically for life. He said that only slightly less culpable than the abusers themselves are the institutions that protected them.

He said that his own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s did not deserve the sympathy due to a victim who had been truly damaged for the rest of their life. He said that to frame it in such a way would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life. He said that to excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from his intention.

He said that he was perhaps presumptuous when he said that he did not think that the teacher’s fondling had caused lasting damage to his school companions. He said that he could not know that for certain, which is why he said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. They had discussed it on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was general agreement that his suicide was more traumatic than his sexual depredations. He said that if he was wrong about the effect that it had had on any of his companions, he apologized.

He also tweeted a link to this clarification, saying:

  • “If anybody seriously believed that I ‘defended pedophiles’ please read this.”

In my opinion, Richard is correct to acknowledge that he may be mistaken about the impact on his companions. If so, that is a matter between him and them, not between him and other people on the Internet who do not know any of them. While I am not asking anybody to apologize for anything, I believe that if there are any further apologies to be made arising from this controversy, they should be made to Richard and not by him.

Smears about sexism and misogyny

Many of the personal smears by some atheists against Richard have their origins in a comment that Richard made two years ago on PZ’s blog.

It was one of many comments made by many people on many websites, about an escalating series of issues that began when Rebecca Watson made a video about an incident at a conference in Dublin and then criticized, from the podium of a later conference, a woman in the audience who had made a response video.

There have been so many interpretations of that series of incidents that I am not going to attempt to add to them here, other than to say that I think that the escalation is an extreme example of some of the patterns I have already mentioned, and that I reject the personal smears that Richard is sexist or misogynistic in the same way as I reject the personal smears that he is Islamophobic, racist, bigoted or an apologist for pedophiles.

Many people, including some atheists, have made unjust, hurtful and irresponsible personal smears against Rebecca. I have previously defended Rebecca against these smears, and will continue to do so.

Rebecca has recently made two significant unjust comments about Richard.

In a video interview on AOL, she said that Richard’s intervention:

“was also insulting to Muslim women and women from Muslim dominated cultures who are basically being used by people like Richard Dawkins. He pretends to be interested in their personal human rights but it seems like all that he is actually interested in is using them as a tool to further his own gains, in this case putting a western feminist in her place. So after Dawkins weighed in of course the harassment took another upwards spike, and Dawkins fan-boys to this day continue to chase after me. They make new Twitter accounts every time I block them, they harass me by email on Facebook, they post photoshop images of me naked, pornographic images that they draw and post online.”

And in an interview with Macleans, she said:

“If Richard Dawkins hadn’t weighed in, I wouldn’t be getting half the abuse I get. If Dawkins says attack, they attack.”

It is unjust, hurtful and irresponsible to suggest that Richard ‘pretends to be interested’ in the personal human rights of Muslim women while ‘basically using’ them ‘as a tool to further his own gains’, or to suggest that Richard has told people to attack Rebecca, or to suggest that ‘Dawkins fan-boys’ are posting photoshopped naked pornographic images of her online.

I appreciate that Rebecca has been hurt by many things said by many people, and that this has contributed to her unfair comments about Richard. I believe that the last two years have led to a situation where good people with sincerely held beliefs have been unfairly criticizing other good people with sincerely held beliefs, with the added seasoning of some people wanting to stir up division.

This has developed into a complex interacting set of issues affecting some (mostly American, mostly online) atheist and skeptic communities, including sexism and harassment, ideological disagreements about issues including feminism and free speech, personal abuse and bullying, and a tendency to hype up disagreements and attribute malign motivations and escalate hostility.

Earlier this year, I and others tried but failed to address these issues through an online dialogue process. The attempt to do is archived here.


I am summarizing these issues, along with a review of Richard’s memoir, in order to have on record in one place a contrast between what Richard has said and what some people have misrepresented him as saying.

It is important to repeatedly emphasize that some other atheists have expressed disagreements with Richard in more considered terms, as should be expected and encouraged in any freethinking community.

But, in my opinion, the pattern of personal smears against Richard in recent times is disproportionate to any reasonable disagreement, and is instead unjust, hurtful and irresponsible.

It is both an example and a warning of how people can use online media to unfairly harm the reputation of a good person, and how joining in with that process can accelerate and intensify the harm.

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{ 277 comments… read them below or add one }

251 Pogsurf December 4, 2013 at 10:52 pm

theophontes at #233

Apologies for misspelling your nym two different ways before, I think it has to blamed on my fat fingers.

Apparently many people had a sense of humour failure. Do we blame the clown or the audience? (Maybe he should have made a joke about indentured workers in Dubai and slaves in Mauritania. With the right punchline it could be a hoot. Or powerful satire.)

You still seem to have trouble acknowledging that an obvious piece of satire was satire. Would it kill you to say Dawkins made a joke, and for you it fell flat? Since you have asserted that “many” had a sense of humour failure, and this must be a real world claim, I assume you can show me the evidence for this. No idea why you need to blame people when jokes don’t work, you must be a lot of fun at parties. Your parenthetical comments seem to indicate he constructed the joke in the wrong way, but if you still insist it wasn’t a joke, why would you say that? Just honestly state what your objection to Dear Muslima is, and we might make some progress.

(See my #122) As long as you are not lashing out at rape victims, this will not apply to you. I am happy to discuss issues raised with regard to the OP in a more civil fashion.

I haven’t spotted anyone here lashing out at rape victims, why do you talk in such an inflammatory manner? If you disagree with me here, kindly provide the relevant comment numbers. Similarly, if you want to make the same claim about commenters at the Slymepit, why not provide a link to the post? You are a skeptic as opposed to a propagandist aren’t you?

(I shall be addressing the issues you raise in more detail as a response to the OP.)

The penny has dropped and you have figured out what a fisk is. Well done.

@ Tigzy #125


What a cheapshot, you had only just said:

And what better way to treat ridiculous arguments than with ridicule?

and Tigzy was simply making a jokey response to your arrogant posturing at #122.

252 Pogsurf December 4, 2013 at 11:23 pm

Apologies for lazy wording above.

“I haven’t spotted anyone here lashing out at rape victims…”

should read

“I haven’t spotted anyone here lashing out at people for being rape victims…”

253 MadMike December 5, 2013 at 1:24 am

My guess is that my question will remain unanswered, or deflected at best. This is the mighty horde, deprived of their safe space. Notice the amazement that a slymepitter be allowed to actually speak on a forum not censored from the outset, the hit and run tactics and the many, many attempted red-herring arguments. All the while never rebutting Michael Nugent’s post, nor successfully answering any of the voices supporting Nugent’s defense of Dawkins.

If you consider this is a thorough fisking of these “fuckers,” I pity you.

254 Skep tickle December 5, 2013 at 3:50 am

theophontes #231

Thanks Michael and Slaptickle. I was worried for a while.

LOL – what a slip of the fingers – you changed the meaning of my ‘nym quite a bit there, sir (or ma’am if applicable).

Re my age-claim above: yeah, I was going by memory, which as it turns out was faulty. Go figure.

255 John Greg December 5, 2013 at 8:00 pm

That Theophantasy person? Whew! What a frisky fisker s/h/it is, eh?

Yowzawowza Dudebro! Hang ten.


256 Jan Steen December 6, 2013 at 4:58 am

Theophontes, what have you done?

Like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Harvey Milk, hell … lets bring this up to date: Rebecca Watson!

257 theophontes December 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm

@ Guestus Aurelius #143

One cannot accuse the person of having committed any crime. This has not been proven and one should treat the person as innocent until they are proven guilty. Self-loathing may lead to feelings of guilt and a need to punish oneself. This is no proof either of guilt or that the incident ever took place.

(Unlike USA, more civilised countries, like China, have “Defense of Infancy” laws that would prevent children under 14 from bearing criminal liability for such. Australia goes so far as to presume that a person under the age of 14 is incapable of committing a crime. Of course there are countries worse than the USA: in North Korea one can be a prisoner from birth.)

This kind of distortion of Dawkins’s words is precisely what MN was lamenting in the original post.

Dawkins felt it appropriate to amend his original position, which he did. Having done so, we cannot focus on the old position. This is why I emphasised that it is a moot point. He could take the wind out of all his detractors sails by simply correcting some other “trivial” mistakes.

@ Pitchguest #144

what happened years after

How many years after?

Now, say instead of a rape he decided to kill someone.

In that case we would know that it was not a phantasm on his part, as there would be a body.

The issue of culpability of a minor is a serious one, so we can examine your hypothetical murder in more detail. There have been several cases before the (US) courts in recent years, concerning minors (<18). In every case, there were issues of abuse or neglect that underlay their criminal behaviour. A twelve year old who has been physically, sexually and emotionally abused over the course of two and a half years prior (this started while he was nine years old), would likely not be held criminally culpable by way of reduced capacity. Certainly such a person would not receive the death penalty:

“Juveniles function very much like the mentally retarded. The biggest similarity is their cognitive deficit. [Teens] may be highly functioning, but that doesn’t make them capable of making good decisions,” he says. Brain and behavior research supports that contention, argues Drizin, who represents the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern on the amicus curiae brief for Simmons. The “standard of decency” today is that teens do not deserve the same extreme punishment as adults.

The Atkins decision provides advocates with a “template” for what factors should be laid out to determine “evolving standards of decency,” says Drizin. These factors include the movement of state legislatures to raise the age limit for the death penalty to 18, jury verdicts of juvenile offenders, the international consensus is on the issue, and public opinion polls. In 2002, the court also considered the opinions of professional organizations with pertinent knowledge, which is how the brain research comes into play. Last, the justices considered evidence that the mentally retarded may be more likely to falsely confess and be wrongly convicted-a problem that adolescents have as well.

Obviously that last sentence is very pertinent in the situation we are discussing. (Link is here)

…that he might have made the whole thing up. This is also something that the FtB “side” hasn’t even thought to consider.

So you don’t regard me as part of the FtB “side”? But to your main point: yes, certainly there is a good chance that he made the incident up. As I pointed out before, using Dawkins own words.

@ John Greg #145

Elizabeth Loftus has thoroughly and exhaustively debunked recovered memory claimage.

Which would indicate that the “memory” was generated recently. Either ex nihil, or grafted onto a completely innocuous memory.

@ Guestus Aurelius #147

I don’t treat privilege as a litmus test for determining whether a person’s complaints are valid.

“Dear Muslima” is using a false argument. This from a person who insists, loudly and publicly, on placing a very high value on truth. That is not the only example of poor logic and/or poor science (eg: The whole Muslims/Trinity/Nobel prize fiasco.)

@ Brive1987 # 155

He clearly demands to be judged as being a wilful rapist at the time. That’s his narrative, why do you deny him his story?

See the piece I quoted above. Particularly: ” …more likely to falsely confess and be wrongly convicted-a problem that adolescents have as well.”

@ tina #160

The deal here is about control and manipulation of the narrative by a bunch of authoritarians trying to make Atheism PLC conform to their mix of social justice and feminist ideologies. The ‘othering’ techniques they use are as old as the hills and tediously predictable.

If that is your narrative, I’m sure you’ll stick to it.

@ Pogsurf #161

To me this looks like the meanest possible interpretation, in the meanest possible world.

But that is exactly as many people took it. Granted they where extremely mean (and still are), but Dawkins can easily correct misunderstandings by tackling these mean spirited interpretations.

“Any complaint a person makes…” and you couldn’t then be able to claim that Dawkins was misogynist on the back of it.

He was specifically using this bad argument on women. But, yes, the argument is still false if extended to people generally.

Theophantes [sic] wants to see Dawkins as a sexist,

He might not be sexist, even if he does occasionally make sexist remarks. He could easily clarify what he meant, but has chosen to leave his errors out there.

Take a look at Michael’s well argued case in the main article, and fisk that if you can.

Aah. There is a good suggestion. The problem would be that I would actually be fisking Dawkins, because Michael’s OP simply passes on without making an independent position clear. Though he does allude to there being valid criticisms. I shall happily provide some valid criticisms to make up the deficit.

258 John Greg December 6, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Theosophist said:

Which would indicate that the “memory” was generated recently. Either ex nihil, or grafted onto a completely innocuous memory.

Ah, I see. So are you now agreeing with those of us who have been doubting the veracity of his claim?

259 Guestus Aurelius December 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm


In comment #143, I responded to your claim that [name withheld] “bears no responsibility for” the rapes he committed. I pointed out that the relevant mitigating factors are not exculpatory factors, and that to insist otherwise is blatant rape apology.

In comment #257, you “responded” to my #143 by declaring that there’s no proof that the incident even took place.

Why are you shifting the goalposts? You’re the one who insisted that [name withheld] “bears no responsibility for” the rapes he committed. Obviously we—and the Horde—have been operating under the assumption that the incident did take place. Since the Horde’s reaction to the story is what’s at issue here, whether the incident actually took place is irrelevant.

So let me ask you directly: assuming that the incident really took place (as you did in your comment #136), how do you respond to my point that mitigating factors (the rapist’s young age and his prior victimhood) are not exculpatory factors?

You said:

(Unlike USA, more civilised countries, like China, have “Defense of Infancy” laws that would prevent children under 14 from bearing criminal liability for such. Australia goes so far as to presume that a person under the age of 14 is incapable of committing a crime. Of course there are countries worse than the USA: in North Korea one can be a prisoner from birth.)

I would respond that, A) the laws of other countries are irrelevant, and B) the laws of the US are only tangentially relevant, since the Horde’s reaction to the story is what’s at issue here.

Let me remind you of the whole point of the discussion: On the one hand, the SJL is uncharitable with and quick to crucify out-groupers (like Dawkins, a victim of pedophilia) for disagreeing or even just for choosing their words poorly when the topic at hand is something the SJL feels passionate about (like sexual abuse); on the other hand, the SJL is exceptionally forgiving of transgressors when they’re in-groupers (like [name withheld], an admitted rapist), provided that they confess their sins to the SJL, apologize, and toe the SJL’s ideological line.

That is how the discussion of the [name withheld] incident is relevant. The issue isn’t whether the incident really occurred, and the issue isn’t whether the laws governing the incident are just. The issue is the SJL’s hypocrisy.

Please try to stay on topic. Doing so will make your fisking even more impressive.

You also said:

Dawkins felt it appropriate to amend his original position, which he did. Having done so, we cannot focus on the old position. This is why I emphasised that it is a moot point. He could take the wind out of all his detractors sails by simply correcting some other “trivial” mistakes.

You’re shifting the goalposts again.

The issue isn’t whether Dawkins’s statement was deserving of criticism (I agree that it was). The issue is the SJL’s characteristically uncharitable and vitriolic reaction to it.

I implore you to read MN’s post again. Consider how Dawkins’s detractors reacted to his statement. Note, for instance, how PZ Myers put words into Dawkins’s mouth and then compared them to NAMBLA. I ask you: do you honestly believe that such mean-spirited responses were warranted to the poor wording of a victim who was sharing his story?

Did you read The Friendly Atheist’s criticism of Dawkins’s statement? If not, I recommend that you do so. It was incisive without assuming bad intentions or resorting to invective.

I’ve been responding to you in good faith, and I request that you extend me the same courtesy. Please stop shifting the goalposts. Please address my salient points.

260 Guestus Aurelius December 6, 2013 at 9:32 pm


Theo, you also said this to me:

One cannot accuse the person of having committed any crime. This has not been proven and one should treat the person as innocent until they are proven guilty. Self-loathing may lead to feelings of guilt and a need to punish oneself. This is no proof either of guilt or that the incident ever took place.

Again, whether the incident actually occurred is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, but the part of your statement that I emboldened really stuck out to me—I agree with it wholeheartedly.

Am I safe to presume, then, that you apply the “innocent until proven guilty” standard to everyone? If, say, an atheist blogger in Minnesota with a not-insubstantial following were to publicly accuse a big-name skeptic of rape on the basis of hearsay, am I safe to presume that you’d condemn the blogger’s actions and withhold judgment on the accused?

261 Pogsurf December 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm

theophontes at #257 says:

The problem would be that I would actually be fisking Dawkins, because Michael’s OP simply passes on without making an independent position clear.

but in the main article Michael had said:

But, in my opinion, the pattern of personal smears against Richard in recent times is disproportionate to any reasonable disagreement, and is instead unjust, hurtful and irresponsible.

I don’t believe you have read the main article.

262 MadMike December 7, 2013 at 12:02 am

FFS, theo, get to the point. Your interpretation of the morality of various laws are not at all relevant. You’ve shifted positions an attempted to justify rape, ignoring the fact that nobody is denying he may be less culpable due to his age at the time. There is a huge disconnect between how ‘your side’ views it’s own vs those your precious leaders have declared enthata. Your attempts to justify this only show that you will go through amazing mental acrobatics to avoid dealing with the main point.

Dawkins may have screwed up, but in no way did the FtB or Scepchick attempt to criticize in any meaningful way. Nor did you answer my earlier question about whether the horde ever used bigoted slurs against old white men. You won’t answer, will you? This says a lot about you and those you defend.

263 Jan Steen December 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

Interesting to see that Theophontes is now willing to accept that [nym redacted]’s memories of abuse (active and passive) may be spurious.

Not that it is relevant to the discussion, because the Pharyngula commentariat, aka The Horde, have always been adamant in their belief of the recovered memory stories by [nym redacted]. Therefore we have to see their comments in that light, that is, as if [nym redacted] was indeed a self-confessed rapist. But it may put Theophontes in an awkward position within the Cult, I mean, Horde, as we will see.

Not long before [nym redacted] made his dramatic confession of having voluntarily raped three children while he was twelve years old, he posted in one of PZ Myers’s Dawkins-bashing threads the following:

I never told. Still haven’t told anyone outside of this blog. I didn’t even remember any details beyond not liking scouts until I was in my 40s. So, Jenny6833am, are my flashbacks, body memories, panic attacks, massive guilt, because I was brainwashed into thinking that it really was wrong to be anally raped by a middle-aged man when I was 9 years old?

He then uses this anecdote to join in the Dawkins bashing:

As a survivor (so far) what I got out of [Dawkins’s statement about his own abuse as a child] was that I really shouldn’t talk about the pain and guilt and suicidal feelings because Dawkins wasn’t harmed when he was sexually assaulted as a child.

This is a horrible misrepresentation of what Dawkins has actually said. Dawkins has expressly made the disclaimer that he wasn’t speaking about children who had actually been raped.

A commenter called stephens then made this comment:

If I’m reading you correctly in that you didn’t have specific memories until you were in your 40s, you should consider the possibility that those later memories are not real. Repressed memory is a hugely controversial subject in psychology, one that’s not accepted as proven to exist by mainstream science. Elizabeth Loftus is one example of a widely respected expert in the field who argued against it.

This commenter also pointed out that [nym redacted] had misrepresented Dawkins’s statement about the implications of child abuse.

This did not go over well at all.

What stephens said was “vile rape apologetics”, “fucked up”, “unbelievably triggering”, they were a troll, etc. In short, the usual Pharyngula script.

After some back and forth between stephens and the Horde, the renowned author of The Happy Atheist steps in and warns stephens that their next post was going to be their last.

[nym redacted] then repeats his disingenuous strawmanning with renewed vigour, even after his dishonesty had been exposed by stephens:

Dawkins was sexually assaulted as a child and he and his fellow survivors didn’t suffer. Some of us did go through hell but Dawkins still dismisses our experience as being automatically analogous to his and thus not a big deal (as opposed to the teaching of hell with is).

PZ let it pass.

So we see that PZ Myers protects those that spread disinformation about Richard Dawkins, while silencing those that expose the character assassination practiced by his Horde. This is how PZ reciprocates the support and encouragement that Dawkins was foolish enough to provide him with.

Lesson one: never turn your back to PZ Myers.

Lesson two: Theophontes will soon be called out as a vile rape apologist by the Horde. Any moment now.

Meanwhile, the shameless [nym redacted] has practically been hugged to death amid assurances of how much the Horde love and believe him. He clearly and deliberately misrepresented Dawkins. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if he wasn’t telling the truth about his abuse either.

The Dawkins bashing thread referred to here can be found by googling pharyngula + consciousness-raising-needed.

264 Brive1987 December 7, 2013 at 10:55 am

Theo, you think it’s ok to dismiss his nattative that he is a bona fide rapist and point me to tis:

“Last, the justices considered evidence that the mentally retarded may be more likely to falsely confess and be wrongly convicted-a problem that adolescents have as well.”

I don’t know if you are accusing him of being ‘retarded’ or adolescent. Neither seem to fit the bill given he “confessed” (who to?) as an adult.

Yet another comprehension fail I’m afraid.

265 Coel December 7, 2013 at 11:02 am


“Dear Muslima” is using a false argument. … That is not the only example of poor logic and/or poor science (eg: The whole Muslims/Trinity/Nobel prize fiasco.)

These are only false or fallacious is you read into them stuff that is not actually there. Effectively you are presuming: “Dawkins much have been meaning or was implying X and Y, and X and Y are fallacious”. If you simply read exactly what he says, no more, then they are not fallacious.

If you disagree, please explicitly point out the fallacies (being sure not to interpret beyond his actual words) .

266 Brive1987 December 7, 2013 at 11:03 am


Re my complaint that you would have us ignore his narrative of being a rapist.

You referred me to this:

“Last, the justices considered evidence that the mentally retarded may be more likely to falsely confess and be wrongly convicted-a problem that adolescents have as well.”

I’m not sure whether you are now calling [redacted] retarded or adolescent? Given his “confession” (to whom?) was recent and he is middle aged, I suspect both your labels are incorrect.

He is an apparently functioning adult male reflecting on a self professed crime committed in his youth. He is interpreting his past actions according to your peculiar SJ rape culture ideology and against this, correctly making his call.

Own the crime – in all senses.

267 shivar December 7, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Theophontes said:

“One cannot accuse the person of having committed any crime. This has not been proven and one should treat the person as innocent until they are proven guilty. Self-loathing may lead to feelings of guilt and a need to punish oneself. This is no proof either of guilt or that the incident ever took place. ”

But it’s OK for PZ and his “horde” to accuse Michael Shermer of rape, with commenters like Nerd of Redhead directly calling Shermer a “proven rapist”.

Nice double standards you all have set up for yourselves.

268 Jan Steen December 7, 2013 at 3:44 pm

A minor correction to my previous post is needed.

Not long before [nym redacted] made his dramatic confession

should read

Not long after [nym redacted] made his dramatic confession

The confession happened on 1 September, the Dawkins-bashing comment was from 11 September 2013. So the guy was by then already know to the Horde as a self-confessed child rapist, and still they and PZ Myers went along with his hack job on Dawkins. Unbelievable. Hypocrisy raised to stellar levels.

I just learned, by the way, thanks to a commenter on the Slymepit, that [nym redacted] has a long history of going after Richard Dawkins. Just after Dawkins made his Dear Muslima comment, [nym redacted] responded by asking “Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home?”

He therefore has the dubious honour of being the first in a long line of misguided people who claimed that Dawkins was committing a logical fallacy with his comment.

269 John Greg December 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm

I sort of get the impression that Theosophages is playing a game of Phrase Scrabble. It’s like s/h/it’s got a box of pro-FTB counter-argument phrases that sh/h/it just grabs from and tacks on to whichever particular rebuttal s/h/it is presenting for the moment. The dots don’t seem to connect very often.

Also, while I often find FTB-based so-called fiskings to be, at best, of dubious veracity, Theosplantain’s fisks don’t even carry any resemblance to an actual fisk … so far as I can tell.

270 theophontes December 9, 2013 at 6:15 am

In turning to the OP, I first beg a little indulgence of the readers here. I find I must digress a little and tell you of a dream I had.

It all started, I think, with my eating some very old French cheese from the back of the fridge. This in turn led to a whole evening of tossing and turning, so that by morning my initial ideas for responses to Michael‘s post about Dawkins, had become conflated with fevered rememberings of Voltaire:

I had been in an argument with Dr Pangloss, who insisted that my reading of Dawkins had it quite wrong. That I had been far to cynical and that, quite contrary to what I had espoused, the man had nothing but benevolence at heart. “His comments are always for the best in the best of all possible words”.

I asked him if Dawkins satirical work “Dear Muslima” could not be seen as less than the best way to engage women in the atheist movement. He suggested that it was a subtle matter (“matière subtile”) and that most did not get the nuances of the generous ethical message that it held. “They percieved it as a shot across their bow, but I assure you that the intentions were for the highest good and to encourage others. (In his own words: “pour l’encouragement des autres”). It would have (“et encore il doit!”) all turned out for the best, by necessity, had others not allowed their judgements to be coloured.

I later spent no small time arguing with Candide who was of very much the same turn of mind of the good doctor. That he had spent so much time observing the bitter struggles within the atheist community would surely wear away at such an attitude? Apparently not, as it appears that is all he knows.

271 tina December 9, 2013 at 8:02 am

Theophontes @257
“If that is your narrative, I’m sure you’ll stick to it.”

I know, darling. But now you’ve given me Post Twitter Stress Disorder. *shakes*

272 Brive1987 December 9, 2013 at 9:03 am

Theo, I prefer your fisking.

Out of interest is it your opinion that RW feared rape at the hands of a man or by patriarchal subtext?

Re “eating some very old French cheese from the back of the fridge” – I’ve never heard it called that before. :-)

273 tina December 9, 2013 at 11:19 am

In my dream, the Belgian God of Chocolate was discussing sex with the Greek God of Wine in an elevator when Nietzsche got in on the 3rd floor and farted.

274 John Greg December 9, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Aha. And now the fun begins!

275 MadMike December 9, 2013 at 6:06 pm

Okay…Was that a surrender or a (admittedly classy) flounce?

276 Guestus Aurelius December 9, 2013 at 10:59 pm

We’ll see if it’s a flounce. I don’t think it was a surrender, and I certainly don’t think it was classy. Instead of engaging with the salient points we’ve made or cordially and unambiguously bowing out, he’s gone cryptically allegorical on us in what I construe as a puerile attempt to parade his intellectual superiority.

Color me dazzled, Theo, by your erudition.

If I’m reading you right—and honestly I’m not sure that I am—you’re intimating that those of us who agree with MN that some of Dawkins’s detractors have gone overboard are, like Pangloss, naively overoptimistic, blind to the harsh realities of the world (specifically, to the less-than-pure intentions of our hero Dawkins). Is that it, Theo? And are you suggesting that we take a lesson from Candide, who ultimately wised up and rejected Pangloss’s “best of all possible worlds”?

If that’s what you’re getting at, then you’re wrong. I give Dawkins (and most people) the benefit of the doubt not because I’m some naively overoptimistic Pangloss, but because my parents taught me not to be a misanthropic prig. I prepare for the worst in people but do my best to treat them charitably unless they give me good reason to think they lack integrity or have bad intent. Dawkins hasn’t met that criteria. Not even close.

The classic SJL response would of course be something along the lines of “Intent isn’t magic” or “Check your privilege—calls for civility are a silencing tactic.” But that’s not because they’re wised-up Candides. It’s because they’re misanthropic prigs who reach for the nuclear option “Every. Single. Time.”™

Socially inept, ideologically blinkered, sanctimonious blowhards.

Sprun them, Theo. “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

277 Guestus Aurelius December 9, 2013 at 11:01 pm


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