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Richard Dawkins says the darnedest things

January 4, 2010

It seems that the Mormon bloggernacle (or at least, my favorite outposts from it) are just now realizing that Richard Dawkins says shocking things about religion. What has he said latest? Well, I don’t think this is recent at all, but people are abuzz at Dawkins’s claim that religion can not only be comparable to sexual abuse, but it may be worse. GASP. The Mormon Matters article addresses a less contentious issue (is religious belief in general abuse? Is Santa Claus abuse?), but Adam F at Shenpa Warrior takes the big deal. (UPDATE: And I forgot Symphony of Dissent’s post regarding the labeling of children.)

Now, I’m not a huge Dawkins fan. I’ve not read his books; I don’t know if I’m all up with the “new atheism” that he and the others in the “Four Horsemen” have engineered…but when I looked at this article from his site that Adam F posted, I wondered what the commotion was all about. It seems pretty clear that Dawkins is addressing certain things about religion.

I wrote a comment on Mormon Matters, which I will shamelessly steal from here.

Dawkins’s point seems to be that religions aren’t just happy feel-good (I think that the Mormon Matters discussion misses this as the bloggers talk about the comforting and positive aspects of their religions.) Rather, for what comfort they might provide, they are also tied as well to shame and guilt. Insofar as they are tied to these things (or worse), they are emotionally and psychologically abusive. That is Dawkins’s argument, if I can summarize it best.

For example, take the non-LDS formulation of Hell. It is a place of infinite misery…and it is used as an incentive to get people to follow God (e.g., if you don’t want to go to this place of infinite misery, turn to Jesus.) I think Dawkins’s point is that not only is using such an extreme tool abusive in and of itself, but on top of that, this fearmongering isn’t necessarily justified with the weight of evidence.

Even without a place of infinite and unimaginable misery, Dawkins would say that other superstitious frameworks have other lesser, but still potent guilt tactics. If we take the Santa analogy…there is no Christmas Hell, BUT there is the fear of getting coal. I think Dawkins would say that this emotional manipulation is abusive because the coal-for-bad-children guilt tool is as unlikely as Hell. What it lacks in sheer terror (let’s face it…coal isn’t quite the deterrent that Hell is), it makes up for in the sickening fact that people continue to wield this malicious lie EVEN THOUGH THEY DON’T BELIEVE IN IT!

The real trick is to look inward carefully. I mean, I can imagine that a lot of people (probably Adam F and the Mormon Matters bloggers for sure) are thinking that Dawkins went too far. That Dawkins doesn’t understand the good that religion provides. Or that all religions can’t be brushed with the same brush (for example, Mormonism quite simply doesn’t have as cruel of theology as other denominations have.)

But beware! You *can* read plenty of stories of people “recovering” from SOME aspect of Mormonism. Regardless of what any member might think about these individuals’ claims (heck, they might seem completely untrustworthy), there is obviously a group of individuals who could and would support what Dawkins is saying.

I understand that Dawkins’s claim is jarring and upsetting. He is, if nothing else, a great shock jockey. But that is because he is making a bold juxtaposition that goes against our common sense. We think…what could be more damaging that sexual abuse? And Dawkins suggests religion, and we think: “couldn’t be! Preposterous.” But what if…what if…the accumulation of guilt, shame, fear, whatever inculcated by religious ideas such as Hell nets out to be worse in impact than sexual abuse?

Dawkins doesn’t mean to minimize the immense pain of sexual abuse. Rather, he is making a bold claim — that perhaps we shouldn’t take lightly — that we should be just as concerned, if not moreso, about the deleterious effects that certain religious motivations (e.g., avoidance of hell, worthiness in the eyes of God, etc.,) can have on people.

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16 Comments
  1. symphonyofdissent permalink

    As a former reader of dawkins, hitchens et all before my conversion I agree with you that Dawkins is mostly pointing out the abuses
    that can exist when spirituality is manipulated and used as a form of coercion. Heck, we have a pretty strong denunciation of useage of priesthood authority for unrighteous dominion for precisely this reason.

    The problem with dawkins and hitchens in particular is that they do not seem to have an understanding that religion is a complex and nuanced force. They seem to view faith as a monolith. Moreover, I think they can not see
    the forest for the trees as they seem to miss the philosophical and theological value of faith (independent of it’s truth).

    • Or rather, what if they do see philosophical and theological value, but they “net it out” and it comes out to be immensely negative?

  2. If he had specifically limited it to emotional abuse that can occur in a religious setting (granting that emotional abuse occurs in all kinds of settings) I would not have had a problem with it. But that’s not his game.

  3. adamf: Well, I’m probably missing a crucial piece (e.g., what he said in the BOOK), but it seems like you can’t make the case you’re trying to make SOLELY based on the article you linked from his site. That article seems pretty clear.

    Even if you expand his argument a bit, from “emotional abuse that CAN occur in a religious setting” to “emotional abuse that WILL occur in a religious setting, given x, y, z aspects of religion,” it still doesn’t seem unreasonable, although you are free to disagree.

  4. btw I do think the book focusses on the emotional abuse that can occur within religion, although I suspect that Dawkins would rather say ‘will’ occur. This is why I although I disagree with will, I can accept could because I think he is rightly talking about emotional abuse. Moreover, I think he is saying this form of emotional abuse is more common than many might believe. Moreover, I am not sure that school has the same propensity to abuse as religion, so I think he is point is not as hurtful as some have found it.

  5. gomez permalink

    Andrew, I’m glad you’ve put this up here because I didn’t want to detract any more from Rico’s post over at MM. I accept my comment (#15 I think) was OTT and that it probably deserved your somewhat patronizing response. FWIW, I rarely watch TV – sadly, I have not needed it to see the devastating effects of child abuse (though thankfully not first hand).

    I’ve got no problem talking about whether imparting religious belief or labelling children can be considered abuse. I’m open-minded to the idea that it could be. I also fully accept that religious belief may well compound the negative impact of child abuse – although that seems like blaming a pedestrian for not wearing refelctive clothing after he gets knocked down by a drunk driver. My issue with Dawkins statement is this: it seems patently untrue. To make such a shocking statement (we agree his intention is to shock) as a scientist he ought to know that he should back it up with some evidence. There is irrefutable evidence that a child who is subjected to sexual abuse will on the whole struggle more to develop meaningful relationships; they are less likely to suceed at school; they are more likely to commit crime; they are more likely to develop toxic addictions. I would expect Dawkins to show a similar profile for children raised in a religious vs. an irreligious home. I think the burden of proof rests entirely with him given the shocking nature of the claim and to not provide any makes it bad science.

    Remember, Dawkins tars all Catholic parents with the same brush. He makes no distinctions when he says ‘bringing the child up Catholic’. He is essentially saying to the parents of children abused by Catholic priests ‘you have damaged your child in greater ways than the abuser’. Now he maybe just saying this to shock or sell books, but I think someone who would say that to one of those parents is offensive and a little bit sick and I think it weakens any claims he has to lecture anybody about morality.

  6. gomez, no need to apologize. I mean, your position is really the one that more people would intuitively come to.

    The thing is…I know people who *have* been affected by both sexual abuse and religious abuse. I guess it isn’t what Arthur H would say in comment 17 on the other topic (e.g., it wasn’t “instutitionalized”), but the thing that these individuals impress to me is that — always — the religious abuse was “worse” than the sexual abuse. The religious abuse was years and years, with many people in their group of family and friends being lost over that. The sexual abuse was always more isolated.

    I’m not apologizing for Dawkins’s argument…honestly, I don’t think The God Delusion is a scientific treatise…and Dawkins isn’t a sociologist or psychologist or social worker, so having these expectations seems mismatched. But I think the issue is more nuanced than the way you see it. You’re looking for a specific set of consequences (or a particular class of consequences that could be considered similar).

    For example, the real deal is that you *can* see examples of damage caused from religious upbringing. The problem is that the individual is not likely to tell a believer about any of his problems because he or she must maintain an appearance. An appearance of worthiness (even if the entity granting or denying access to ‘worthiness’ are the perpetrators), an appearance of fitting in (even if the individual doesn’t.) But if we take someone who even is considered to apostasize, we DO see that MERELY AS A RESULT OF THEIR DISBELIEF, their ability to interact, develop and maintain meaningful relationships with the community they have grown up in and lived in is diminished. Do you WONDER why there are angry ex-Mormons and angry anti-Mormons? Do you think this just comes from nowhere?

    When Dawkins tars all (insert religious parents — I think he would go quite further than just all Catholic parents), he is speaking to a slightly different, if related thing. His argument is against identity expectations and identity inculcation with respect to things like religion. To raise a kid “Catholic” is to raise him/her with all kinds of expectations, demands, roles that s/he didn’t even choose and which may not even be particularly relevant. It is the setup ground for an abusive relationship (because if the child doesn’t believe in Catholicism, he still has these expectations or else he is an “apostate,” an “unbeliever,” someone who “fell away,” etc., All the blame is cast on him when in reality, he never should’ve been considered a “Catholic child” to begin with.)

    His claim works because of the social cohesiveness of religious identity. Catholicism works for this pretty well, but I think Mormonism works even better. For people who are raised “Mormon,” sure…there is always lip service to choice — you can choose if you want to be Mormon or not — but this choice is framed in fatalistic ways. You are not just choosing between being Mormon or not. You are choosing between liberty and eternity life or captivity and death.

    Really? Seriously?

    The thing is…religious believers would say, “But we really DO believe that is the choice. It is a grave situation, so that’s WHY we must impress upon our children the truth. The world isn’t neutral; there is much sin, so we must be for God.”

    This answer goes into Dawkins’s overlying argument: then why aren’t we SCRUTINIZING these worldviews? If religion is so grave, why aren’t we examining them more carefully, subjecting them for scrutiny, tearing apart ones that don’t hold up (or even particular doctrines that hold up to the light.) Our treatment of these matters as sacred is a bind against us.

  7. gomez permalink

    Andrew, your comment is well thought out and reasonable and worthy of dialogue. But by comparing the rearing of children with religious belief to sexual abuse Dawkins loses much of his audience, especially those who he would consider need persuading. Which makes me think he is not so interested in dialogue as in saying something shocking to gain noteriety and sell a few extra books.

    The God Delusion may not be a scientific teatise, but if you are going to say something that shocking I think you need to try and back it up with some evidence. I may think my neighbour is all together too fond of physical intimacy with animals, but common decency and respect would prevent me from shouting it from the roof tops before I had something on which to base my allegation.

  8. gomez, I would also argue that Dawkins isn’t writing to a believer. Oh, that would be FUNNY.

    I don’t think Dawkins is writing to “convert the unconverted.” Rather, I think he is writing to “rally the base.” He is writing something that, to many people (remember, many people don’t grow up irreligious but leave churches of upbringing), would seem patently and *personally* obvious. I think that social scientists would better be able to address the scientific issues relating to the question…BUT they can only do so IF we have a culture that will support the scrutiny of religion. So, in a way, Dawkins and others of his ilk, through their rally cry, are trying to forge an awareness and call out the need for scrutiny, research, and analysis.

  9. gomez permalink

    To a certain extent his audience is irrelevant. By comparing all religious (at least Catholic) upbringings with child sex abuse in my mind he marks himself as a man more interested in fame and book sales than he is in people. This is compounded by the fact his example uses (perhaps even abuses) parents for whom the issue of child abuse is very real. He takes their pain and turns the knife to make his shocking point. A point for which he offers no evidence. Not a nice man, IMO.

    • “his audience is irrelevant.”

      Well, at least you’re candid. I guess you’ve already got your opinion of things, so water will meet its level, it seems.

  10. gomez permalink

    Sorry, that last comment didn’t really add anything to the discussion and maybe now we are going round in circles. So I suppose I would summarize my position in this way:

    Previously I was aware that Dawkins had called raising a child with a religious belief a form of abuse. That was somewhat offensive to me as I was raised with a belief and I am raising my own children in the same way. But I am open to the idea that some forms of indoctrination can be abusive and cause psychological scars. I would be happy to have my views scrutinized and hope I would gladly discard those which can be proven do damage to children. I would like to think I have my children’s best interests at heart and that what I want is to maximize their choices and happiness.

    But the idea that I am currently inflicting the same kind of damage on my children as I would be if I sexually abused them is offensive in the extreme. Dawkins’ argument is that a world without religion would be more civilized, more moral, more accepting and understanding – a cuddlier and warmer place. His problem is that to me his comment demonstrates that if the world was made up of people like him the world would be more offensive, a place where ideas, however obnoxious are elevated above feelings, where intention counts for nothing and results mean everything. I suppose I just don’t like him or his worldview very much.

    • I dunno, it seems pretty obvious to me that dawkins is not saying people who raise their kid with religious belief are inflicting the *same kind* of abuse as those who sexually abuse. That is why your search for the consequences and tell-tale signs of abuse falls flat and seems like a misunderstanding.

      Rather, noting that the emotional and psychological contents are different, Dawkins instead asserts depth, extent, or breadth of effect.

      The world may not be a happy-go-lucky place without religion…and I don’t think dawkins is suggesting problems will evaporate. Rather, he is addressing *one* kind of problem that arises from *one* set of institutions. I still think you grossly misunderstand Dawkins’s position, but I really don’t care if you continue to have this position…

  11. Rico permalink

    Thanks gomez for directing to me this part of your discussion, as you can see I had posted here already. I like Andrew’s blog.

    I did not think your comment was OTT.

    ‘But the idea that I am currently inflicting the same kind of damage on my children as I would be if I sexually abused them is offensive in the extreme.’ But i think this is why the question is so important, because, although we think we have someone’s best interests at heart we can still hurt them inadvertantly. Perhaps this different from some (or perhaps most) forms of sexual abuse because it is unintended, but I do not think this necessarily gets us off without being accountable for what we do and teach our children.

    I agree that what he says sounds obnoxious, but just because it is presented in a bad way, and I think adam f has highlighted this well, i still think the point is worth some consideration.

    But again, thank you for your comments, both here and at MM.

  12. I don’t consider this stuff particularly “religious.”

    Really, it’s just human tendency that crosses ideological lines.

    This is Dawkins biggest failing, most blatantly in evidence by his outraged protests that the Soviet Union wasn’t an atheist movement.

    Well, he’s probably correct that it wasn’t.

    And the Crusades wasn’t a religious movement either.

  13. Dawkins juxtaposing religion w/ sexual abuse is only shocking on the surface level. When excavated more deeply, is not mental abuse on the same par as physical abuse? In a court of law the consequences of both are damn near the same-however, media proliferates the physicality of abuse more readily than its mental counterpart.

    I believe Dawkins was insinuating, not so much the deeper end of the pool, but rather the untouched portion that’s not commonly pondered about.

    Good post

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