London - Controversial scientist Richard Dawkins provoked fury on Tuesday after referring to ‘mild date rape’ and ‘mild paedophilia’ in comments on Twitter.
Campaigners for women and child abuse victims condemned the prominent atheist’s posts as ‘offensive and damaging’.
Professor Dawkins, 73, became embroiled in the row when he made a point about logical thinking to almost a million followers on the social networking site.
The academic sparked anger by choosing the example of sexual abuse to illustrate the idea.
He began by writing: ‘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.’
Then he added: ‘Mild pedophilia [sic] is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.
‘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.’
Despite coming under fire from scores of other Twitter users, the evolutionary biologist refused to change the topic.
He went on to write: ‘Mild date rape is bad. Violent date rape is worse. Is it really so hard to understand that that doesn’t constitute endorsement of either?’
The professor finally withdrew from the argument after tweeting: ‘What I have learned today is that there are people on Twitter who think in absolutist terms, to an extent I wouldn’t have believed possible.’
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 civil liberties 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.
Professor Dawkins, an Emeritus Fellow at New College, Oxford, has previously triggered outrage with comments about child abuse.
He said in an interview last year that he could not condemn the ‘mild paedophilia’ he experienced at boarding school, adding: ‘We must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.’
However in a statement on his website last night, he said he ‘was only talking logic’, and had ‘no desire to make light of the seriousness of any kind of rape or paedophilia’.
In 2011, the then Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke faced a backlash after referring to ‘serious rape’ in a BBC interview.
He later stressed that ‘all rape is a serious crime’ and that he had used the ‘wrong choice of words’.