I have long been a Napoleon buff – not a fan, not an admirer (though some of his non-military accomplishments were remarkable) – because of his relationship with Doctor Barry Edward O’Meara, his private surgeon-physician on Saint Helena. The Emperor, “His Majesty”, as his British jailers refused to call him, has been dubbed a 19th century Hitler. Some historians have objected that one should not use today’s criteria to judge behavior of an earlier era. The same principle has been invoked recently in discussion provoked by Richard Dawkins’ provocative brushing off of corporal punishment in the form of caning and the “mild pedophilia” of which he himself had been the object when he was a child in a British school.
Being an atheist does not make Dawkins right about pedophilia or oblige other atheists to agree with him. While it is true that the comparison of Napoleon and Hitler is excessive, nothing can justify the crime even of Bonaparte at Toulon and certainly not the massacre of millions in Napoleon’s wars. Closer to home, I myself have been ridiculed by former classmates for condemning the caning to which the Marist Brothers brutally subjected us (“six of the best”, “three on each hand” administered by the sadistic Brother Maurus when I was eight years old !) “Part of growing up”, they said. “Made men of us”. “At the time everybody, in homes and public schools, thrashed their kids.” “No harm done.” It was, said a classmate who was later to become himself a Marist Brother, “more playful than vicious”. BALDERDASH ! Abuse of children, unjust wars, slaughter of citizens, slavery and torture are crimes against humanity in any and every period of history.
It is pathetic that anyone could think that he is scoring a point against atheism by accusing a celebrated atheist of condoning or at least of minimizing the crime of pedophilia. The luxurious life-style of the Bishop of Bling or the machinations of Marchincus with the Mafia at the Vatican Bank, may be fair game for condemning abuses in the Church, but not the expression of a mistaken judgement of a believer. When mud-slinging descends to this level, the antagonists should have another beer, go home and sleep it off.
More seriously, atheists and non-atheists should hold fast to immutable, timeless principles of morality. We may differ as to their source and justification, but we can agree that even “mild pedophilia” is an abominable crime, whatever the epoch in which it was committed.