Richard Dawkins, writer, activist, biologist, is attracting attention for some recent comments that some say minimize the effect of the sexual abuse, rape or molestation of children. Was that the point he was really trying to make? If not, where did he go wrong?
Since I like steelmanning (the opposite of strawmanning), I’d like to believe he’s trying to make a legitimate point. But it goes very wrong when he uses such fraught comparisons and categorical statements.
As has been pointed out, the line of argument is not new for Dawkins. In The God Delusion he says, “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 [and therefore teaching him about hell] in the first place” (pg 356). The book also brings up the story of a Catholic women who told him that while “being fondled by [a] priest simply left the impression…as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear” (pg 357). It’s important to note that Dawkins is comparing the long term psychological effects, not the events themselves.
So is Richard Dawkins minimizing child abuse? Yes and no. While his statements do minimize the awfulness of child sexual abuse, it seems clear from context that that is not his intention. In fact, to minimize child sexual abuse would diminish the power of his point. Dawkins is trying, both in his book and in the debate in question, to emphasize the power and harmful effects of teaching young children about a torturous pit of fire which awaits them if they behave poorly. This point seems compelling enough on its own, but it is true that teaching children about hell is considered almost entirely noncontroversial. To combat what he sees as a complacent public, he chooses to compare the teaching of hell to something universally accepted as awful: the sexual abuse of children. Note that he says, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was.” If sexual abuse were not so devastating, then Richard Dawkins could not make this point. He needs it to be bad and for people to accept it as such.
Even so, he is still most assuredly running a risk of being highly misinterpreted. A comparison between two bad things always has the potential of minimizing one, overstating the other or both. Possibly aware of this, in the book, Dawkins is somewhat careful to qualify and constrain his point. He says that the damage of childhood sexual abuse is arguably less damaging than the teaching of hell, and later says that he is only trying to show that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass the physical.”
Regardless, the entire way this point is made is a bad idea. People understandably get upset by what they perceive to be anything minimizing child abuse. Since the comparison isn’t necessary to his point, it’s not worth the risk of being misunderstood that way. That said, Dawkins is not strictly wrong. He is right in that psychological abuse can be worse than physical. He is probably right that in some, perhaps even many, cases, (including the woman in the book and himself) victims of childhood abuse who were taught about hell personally characterize the latter as worse that the former. Up until this point, the whole argument is merely potentially interesting speculation that on balance distracts and detracts from his broader discussion of the harms of religion.
But then, Dawkins abandoned the nuance. If the tweet is accurate, Dawkins argued that “teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said ‘she might feel was yucky’.” For the purposes of scoring debate points, he changed “potentially worse” or “in some cases worse” to “always worse.” That’s unacceptable. Richard Dawkins’ (who was himself abused as a child) past experiences and knowledge of people’s stories gives him an understanding of some of the ways that abuse can manifest and affect people’s lives. It does not give him the right to make general claims about the experiences of others, even in off-the-cuff remarks. He has no basis other than guesses and anecdotes for saying that it is in general worse to be taught about hell than to be sexually abused. In fact, what evidence there is is against him. His potentially interesting speculation became an overgeneralized, unfounded claim about things which are difficult and traumatic experiences for others. In this, he is guilty of appearing more certain than he is to win rhetorical points, which caused pain for others.
Further, he used a single, real example (the feeling of yuckiness described by the woman he quotes in his book), and implied that it might be a general sentiment. While in principle it might be true, and some victims of sexual abuse do in fact feel that their experiences were not as awful as is commonly expected, to claim without evidence that that might at all be universal is minimizing the effects of child sexual abuse. He is implying, especially with the use of the childish word ‘yucky’ (even though it came from the anecdote) that sexual abuse might not in general be quite so bad. Elsewhere I believe he is not guilty of this claim, but in this specific case, he is.
So is Dawkins guilty of minimizing child abuse? Yes, but he is far more guilty of being merely thoughtless about his initial statement in his book and careless with the evidence and feelings of others in the real-time context of a debate. I think that that nuance is important, since thoughtlessness and error are different than malice or cruelty. I do not think that Richard Dawkins does not consider child abuse bad, nor do I think he intends to hurt those who have experienced it. To claim otherwise is an uncharitable overreading of the evidence available.
Some other ideas I’m bouncing around that didn’t make their way into the main body of the post:
- I think that careless statements about child abuse, as hurtful as they are, are potentially less damaging on a societal level then, say, careless statements about rape, since while there is shame and fear that surrounds childhood sexual abuse, there is no analogous “Child Sexual Abuse Culture” to the best of my knowledge. Thoughts? Full credit for this idea goes to Paul Fisher
- It seems likely to me that while these statements were absolutely problematic, they were read in a particularly uncharitable light because of Dawkins’ record of sneering and dismissive statements on somewhat related issues. I don’t think the Bayesian evidence of a Dawkins statement being more likely than not to be a bad one is strong enough to override the lack of evidence of true abuse apologetics in this case. Paul probably deserves credit for most of this idea too.