And now, a newsworthy word from the Rt. anti-Rev. Dawkins

First things first. Wait just a minute: Richard Dawkins said what?!?

By way of a news story from Religion News Service, readers learn:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) -- Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s best-known and outspoken atheists, has provoked outrage among child protection agencies and experts after suggesting that recent child abuse scandals have been overblown.

In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“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.

OK, after the shock of reading that, several questions popped into my rapidly aging brain.

Please understand that my first question in no way should be seen as a slight on the Religion News Service piece itself, which is basic, solid daily news reporting. No immediate journalistic complaints.

However, after reading the piece, am I the only one who wondered precisely what the religion angle was in this story?

Let's think about that for a moment.

Is it that the Dawkins quotes somehow -- SOMEHOW -- might be seen as relevant to coverage of child sexual abuse cases in a wide variety of secular and religious institutions, including large numbers of cases in public schools and the Roman Catholic Church? Is there anyone out there trying to minimize the damage in these cases, in terms of arguing that they are not as evil as they appear to be in the clear light of day? If so, was that what Dawkins was saying?

Also, does the fact that Dawkins -- as one of the world's most press-friendly atheists -- said what he said automatically make this news story (and it is a news story) a RELIGION news story? And if this is a religion story because of his role as a de facto atheist prelate, then what is the logical connection between his beliefs about religion and his beliefs about "mild pedophilia"?

I would really love to hear from agnostic and atheist readers on that point. What think ye of this subject and of Dawkins as an automatic religious spokesperson for your, well, anti-faith? Is it fair for reporters to do that?

As for the content of the Dawkins statements themselves, I was particularly struck by the following comments at the end of the story:

Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ remarks “a terrible slight” on those who have been abused and suffered the effects for decades.

“Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”

Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and himself a victim of abuse, told The Times that Dawkins’ comments were worrying and unhelpful, adding: “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs.”

Yes, I know that atheists argue with each other on the origins of our religious and cultural concepts of good and evil. Is that subject relevant to coverage of Dawkins and this proclamation? Should newsrooms that covered this story have sought the moral insights of other atheists, turning this into and actual debate about good and evil and the issue of child abuse?

Just asking. Very interesting story.

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