A few days ago, I decided to write about the recent Daily Mail article about Richard Dawkins. I hadn’t actioned this until today, so some people have beat me to it. I still think the conversation is worth having.
The Daily Mail was writing about comments made by Dawkins in an Al Jazeera interview in support of an argument he had set out in Dawkins’ book The God Delusion in 2006 (see also ChristianToday.com). The argument is cited by the Daily Mail as being that:
the mental torment inflicted by [Catholicism’s] … teachings is worse in the long-term than any sexual abuse carried out by priests.
This was plainly misleading. This is not what Dawkins said. (Surprisingly, the argument is set out more neutrally in ChristianToday‘s article).
The actual interview
The video of the interview is here (see from around 19:45). The quote from his book was: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.” The question put to him (set out in neither the Daily Mail nor ChristianToday) was that: “You believe that being brought up Catholic is worse than being abused by a priest?”
The relevant response was:
There are shades of being abused by a priest, and I quoted an example of a woman in America who wrote to me saying that when she was seven years old she was sexually abused by a priest in his car.
At the same time a friend of hers, also seven, who was of a Protestant family, died, and she was told that because her friend was Protestant she had gone to Hell and would be roasting in Hell forever.
She told me of those two abuses, she got over the physical abuse; it was yucky but she got over it.
But the mental abuse of being told about Hell, she took years to get over.
He was criticised for extrapolating on this one anecdote and explained further:
It seems to me that telling children that they really, really believe that people who sin are going to go to Hell and roast forever – that your skin grows again when it peels off with burning – it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse, that will give more nightmares, that will give more genuine distress because they really believe.
He was also asked whether teaching any religion was child abuse, to which he responded in the negative.
The relevant section ended at about 23:30 in the video above and is worth watching. It should be noted that he was somewhat cut off and did not get to expand on the “shades of abuse” argument.
The reaction to the Mail article
In the Daily Mail‘s comment section:
Rachel (London, United Kingdom)
this is disgusting, abuse is not something that should be brushed off this lightly.
As usual, Dawkins just wants a bit of attention to stay in the limelight, and so has to resort to making stupid comments. Any religion, Muslim, Christion, that’s taken to extremes is damaging, and regretfully, there’s bad people and ignorant behaviour in every religion, as in life itself, and let’s not forget that the great majority of paedophiles in the UK come from a non-religious, atheist background as they have not been brought up with any moral codes. so fade away Dawkins, you have nothing positive to contribute.
Any extremism is horrific but that sort of belief is not the norm in Catholicism. I was raised catholic and was told as a child that only really bad people go to hell. That was a comforting thought. I teach my son the same. When he heard on the radio about the shooting in Connecticut, he was happy to hear that the children and teachers would all be in heaven and the bad man would be in hell. We were so taught as kids that ALL children go to heaven. I have a friend who was sexually abused (by a family member not a priest) and the trauma she went through and is still living with as an adult is horrendous. For Dawkins to belittle that as ‘yucky’ is disgusting and shows how little he cares for abused children.
Stupid comment and very, very hurtful towards who’s been sexually abused and would have rather go to church and being “bored” with prayers. Very distasful comment.
Dawkins took to Twitter in an apparent attempt to explain the position, posing the question: “Is it child abuse to teach about hell? Might such mental abuse cause longer-lasting trauma than mild sexual abuse?” and linking to his full article setting out the relevant extract from The God Delusion.
Being the internet, however, his clarification has not quite been enough and people are enraged that he would suggest that there is a mild form of sexual abuse.
@TheSumoGuy (for example) said:
So you’ve coined a new phrase Richard, ‘mild sexual abuse’. What a crass and insensitive term. Unbelievable. (see the responses to that here)
What the hell is “mild sexual abuse”? In what possible sense can any form of sexual abuse be considered “mild”?
One of the more emotional reactions is here (and I was perhaps a bit more snippy than I needed to be).
What has become clear is that people are not prepared to be objective about this.
Sexual abuse is a very sensitive issue – hard work by dedicated leaders have ensured that there is both awareness of and disgust at sexual abuse of children. The rule is accepted as any sexual interaction with children is completely inappropriate and ought be strongly punished.
Now, when you intend to make a nuanced point about the effects of sexual abuse versus mental abuse, that:
1. there are degrees of sexual abuse (ranging from inappropriate conversations, to fondling, to forced sexual acts to violent forced sexual acts);
2. there are degrees of sexual abuse that – when considering other types of sexual abuse – can be classed as ‘mild’; and
3. there are degrees of psychological abuse such that one type may be worse than one of the milder sexual abuses that occur
it appears to people that you are attempting to undermine the accepted rule and minimise sexual abuse by comparing it to other behaviour.
That reaction is however wholly emotional and irrational. The fact that they were interpreting his argument as being that: teaching a child Catholicism is worse than all child abuse or teaching a child Catholicism is worse than any sexual abuse of children should have made them dig a little deeper. This is not an imam issuing a fatwa from a cave, but a respected scientist and author.
However, many people chose to go with the straw-man the Daily Mail had given to them (including those who fancy themselves critical thinkers and scientists – see e.g. Dear Ania who wrote that: “He reveals his ignorance even more when he defends his comments that teaching children about hell is worse than child abuse (including sexual abuse of children)” and Stephanie Zvan says that: “What literature there is, however, suggest he is making a claim that trivializes childhood sexual abuse. Not only that, he’s been making it for years.“) (Note: Zvan’s article is worth reading in any event for her research into psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse).
Dawkins’ argument was clearly that teaching children some concepts (like hell) as truths can arguably have longer-lasting and more negative effects than the milder forms of sexual abuse.
This argument is perfectly cogent. One of the many arguments for the seriousness of child sexual abuse is the long-lasting psychological damage it can have on children. When we identify other things that can have a similar effect to that prohibited conduct (or even a worse effect than a milder case of that prohibited conduct), we should be having a similar reaction to that behaviour as we do to sexual abuse.
While our evidence is presently anecdotal, the issue merits further investigation. In the meantime, there is sufficient material before us (and sufficient risk) to utilise the precautionary principle and take a firm stand against teaching children these concepts as though they are truths. This is particularly so when we have no reason to believe that hell exists.
It is not that we should consider ‘fondling’ less bad than we currently do but that we should consider teaching children that hell exists (and they could end up there if they don’t do what we say) as more bad than we currently do.