Notable atheist intellectual and author Richard Dawkins has stirred controversy for recent remarks in which he refused to condemn what he called "mild pedophilia" that took place during his childhood.
In an interview with The Times last weekend, Dawkins said that while in school back in the 1950s one of his schoolmasters "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts."
Dawkins went on to claim that "I don't think he did any of us lasting harm" and that he could not 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," said Dawkins.
"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."
Dawkins, who referred to the experience as a "mild touching up," received criticism from many including Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood.
"Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs," said Saunders, himself an abuse victim, in a statement.
PZ Myers, a fellow atheist apologist, also condemned Dawkins' remarks, taking issue with the claim by Dawkins that no "lasting harm" occurred.
"I can think of some lasting harm: he seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children," wrote Myers. "Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should have allowed dirty old men to play with their genitals? I would have wanted them to inform me, so that such behavior could be stopped."
Dawkins' recent remarks echo a column he wrote back in 2006 on the website of his group the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
"Being fondled by the Latin master in the Squash Court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire," wrote Dawkins. "I do not believe that I, or they, suffered lasting, or even temporary damage from this disagreeable physical abuse of power. Given the Latin Master's eventual suicide, maybe the damage was all on his side."
On Twitter, Dawkins has attempted to clarify his views, arguing that there are degrees of bad to unwanted sexual activities.
"Non-consensual sex is always bad. But raping an 8-year-old to death is quantitatively worse than 'touching inappropriately'. Shades of grey," tweeted Dawkins, referencing a recent incident in Yemen.
"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?"
An evolutionary biologist and frequent critic of religion, Dawkins' memoir An Appetite for Wonder will be released later this week.