Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Dawkins, ‘mild sexual abuse,’ and religious indoctrination


Earlier this evening public intellectual, Richard Dawkins, posed the question, via Twitter, ‘Is it child-abuse to teach about hell? Might such mental abuse cause longer-lasting trauma than mild sexual abuse?’ The response to this inflammatory question was as predictable as it was disappointing. One person on Twitter wrote ‘Richard Dawkins, you are a cockroach for even asking this.’

But just what was so very wrong about his short question? Perhaps it is forbidden to  describe any child-abuse as ‘mild’? Child abuse is wrong, that much is not in doubt. But it can’t be denied that not all forms of child abuse are equally wrong. If smacking a child’s bottom is child abuse, then it’s surely not in the same league as sexually abusing that child, or beating that child. Furthermore, it’s plausible to claim that not all forms of sexual abuse are equally harmful (and bear in mind that Dawkins is framing his question in terms of harms caused). It’s hard to deny that different types of child abuse cause different levels of harm along a scale.

Nevertheless, given that child abuse is wrong, and that children are, by nature, innocent, the use of the term ‘mild’ to mark a point at the lower end of the scale of harms is offensive. Perhaps, no matter how much the difference between the end-points on the scale of harms, the lowest point still counts as a serious harm, particularly when describing sexual abuse. To call child abuse ‘mild’ is to show insensitivity and trivialise the trauma experienced by victims of abuse. The problem with this position is that for some people the harms clearly *are* mild. What’s more, Dawkins is using his own personal experience of being sexually abused to describe this kind of harm – that’s a pretty authoritative position to take.

If it’s not the use of the term ‘mild’ to describe child-abuse that’s right to so upset people, then perhaps it’s the comparison with religious indoctrination or the thought that physical abuse can be less wrong than psychological abuse? Let’s start with the question of whether instilling beliefs in children can cause them trauma. Again, it looks like a plausible claim that instilling a frightening belief into a child might lead to lasting psychological harm. That’s an empirical question and there’s nothing offensive or wrong in the asking of it. If it is the case that frightening a child could cause harm, then surely it’s at least in principle possible that the harm cause by terrifying a child might, in some case, be greater than that caused by certain physical harms? In other words, a psychological harm might have a longer-term or greater effect than a physical one. Again, I’m not sure what’s so wicked about suggesting this.

So, that leaves the claim that you can frighten a child by giving them a religious belief, and that to do so is wrong, and that this might be the offensive claim here. I doubt anyone would dispute that frightening a child to such an extent that they experience lasting psychological harm is prima facie wrong. Nor do I see how it would be less wrong, or not wrong, if the child were frightened to such an extent through being made to believe a religious claim. Harming a child by instilling a frightening belief (to the extent that it causes trauma) is prima facie wrong whether that belief is true, religious, or whatever.

This is the problem – statements of the sort made by Dawkins immediately trouble us when we read them because they rest on claims which shock us, or challenge our intuitions, or values and institutions that are precious to us. But the reaction to such statements is appalling – it is to ignore the argument being made and to resort to hate-filled abuse in a bid to vilify and shut down debate. Dawkins is the victim of the kind of social censorship that so worried J. S. Mill – the reaction to his statement is, to my mind, far more unpleasant that the words that he himself wrote to provoke them. When I read Dawkins’ comment I was shocked, I admit it. Partly, that was because I was swept up by the amplifying effect of other people’s shock. But, the comment forced me to begin thinking about real, serious issues that need to be discussed in an open-minded way. Twitter is proof that we need J.S. Mill’s ideas today more than ever.

You can read his the piece that Dawkins’ comments refer to here:

Edit: you can read the Daily Mail’s typically low-quality article on the comments here:


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

12 thoughts on “Dawkins, ‘mild sexual abuse,’ and religious indoctrination

  1. Absolutely right here. We have different degrees of lying. The court recognises different degrees of killing, be it murder or manslaughter (by degrees). It is only right and not exactly controversial to regard abuse as by degrees.
    To say that one type of abuse isn’t as severe as another isn’t to justify either. It’s merely to categorise severity in order to discuss it. It’s done in medicine and in other areas of human activity all the time.

    But there are sadly those of limited intellect who have trouble distinguishing between, murder, mass murder and genocide. So lets call it all genocide!

    What’s really sad though is that this blog article, splendid as it is, needed to be written at all.

    • Thanks for the comment Peter. I don’t think people troubled by the idea of distinguishing between harms are stupid though, particularly when do so requires us to think about x form of sexual abuse might be worse than y form of sexual abuse. Confronting great evils is hard and it’s a natural inclination to shy away in shock and horror. Given the subjective nature of harms for those who suffer them, and the highly personal nature of abuse that is inflicted upon so many people, I find it understandable that even discussing the matter is hard and provokes strong reactions. On the other hand, I don’t think that this constitutes sufficient reason to close down discussion.

  2. The huge problem with what Dawkins wrote is that he attempted to create a ranking system of abuse. suggesting that rape was the worst, followed by religious indoctrination relating to hell, then ‘inappropriate touching’ behind that.

    This is spectacularly ignorant and is rightly taken as being grossly offensive by many. That is not to deny that nightmarish indoctrination can be harmful or abusive, I tend to agree with that, but because nobody should ever attempt to rank different types of child abuse in this way.

    If you asked a child psychologist or trauma counsellor to rank the harmfulness of different types of child abuse – neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse etc – then I guarantee they would roll their eyes and think you an idiot (whether or not they are polite enough to say so)

    The reason being that no two individuals experience abuse the same way, and as soon as you fall in to the trap of saying “rape is worse than emotional neglect” or whatever you are making a blanket generalisation about experiences that are vastly different according to individuals, circumstances and details.

    I think it is perfectly legitimate for Dawkins to say “some forms or religious indoctrination can be as traumatic and harmful as physical or sexual abuse” and if he can provide evidence of that, then fair enough.

    However that is profoundly different to what he actually did which was to get into the game of ranking harm.

    Even at the most basic level of scientific and statistical theory it is not legitimate to attempt to make a quantitative ranking of qualitative experiences, That’s undergraduate stuff and Dawkins really should know better.

    But since you’re talking morality, I think the absolute key point is that people who have had their lives and wellbeing seriously scarred and impacted by the experience of non-penetrative sexual abuse were confronted with a famous professor telling them that their experiences were less traumatic than someone who has been taught about hell.

    Whether or not that is immoral, it is crass, cruel and unnecessary.

    • Thanks for the comment Ally. I’ve think you’ve made a mistake where you move from taking about ranking acts to ranking harms. My reading of Dawkins is that he was making judgements based upon levels of harms – and you can do that without ranking the acts that cause the harms in the way that you suggest. Dawkins’ own infelicities of language don’t help him, but I think the charitable reading of his comments is closest to what he intended (or at least closest to the stringest form of argument he could make in those terms).

  3. Well I’m not aware of any research evidence that will back up his claims, I’d be astonished if the typical mental health worker sees more people suffering the trauma of religious indoctrination than survivors of child sexual abuse, for example.

    But even if one is to be as charitable as you, even if one is ‘infelicitous’ in language, anyone should know that sexual abuse trauma is a topic on which one should exercise the greatest caution, because the potential for triggering traumatic distress is so high.

    If this had been a one off I’d be inclined to forgive him, but he’s been called on this so bloody often now, and however deep into a hole he gets himself, he just stubbornly digs further.

    It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he knows how much hurt and harm his words cause, but simply doesn’t care.

    • I don’t know the evidence, but it’s likely that you’re right. However, I think the point isn’t one about those two types of harm so much as that one kind of harm that we recoil from in horror without question might, at least in principle, sometimes not be as bad as another kind of harm that we think nothing of. To regard one one act, which is harmful, with horror and ignore another that might be equally as harmful is not rational. That’s the point I think Dawkins was making, and he drew from his own personal experiences to illustrate it. The actual content of his argument looked pretty measured – what was it about it that looked like it was intended to cause harm or was provocatively insensitive?

  4. I think there’s subtext here. Regardless of the merits of the claim itself, Dawkins does have a record of dismissing sexual abuse as being so unimportant compared to the evils of religion that it’s not worth discussing. Particularly when the victims are female members of the atheist / rationalist / skeptic communities.

    In that context we’re seeing Dawkins rephrasing an argument in more moderate terms for which he’s never apologised or shown contrition in it’s more extreme original form. I took this as Dawkins trying to weasel out of that original argument and pretend to some new rationalism in order to play the victim.

    • I can’t say I’ve read anything Dawkins has to say on the subject beyond the extract of his book and accompanying commentary that he linked to. Not knowing his intentions I’ve focussed on his argument, and I’ve done what I think any good academic should do – to respond to the most charitable reading of his claims. It may well be that Dawkins’ original argument was more extreme (do you have a link?), but I can only respond to what I read, and that argument looked valid and did not appear to be intended to suggest that sexual abuse is unimportant.

  5. I’ve been hesitating to weigh in on this matter because of the reaction that Dawkins’s comment has generated, but here goes:

    We should be willing to discuss these issues with some nuanced thinking. The reactions to Dawkins’s comments lack that nuanced thinking. People tend to have this knee-jerk, visceral response to child sexual abuse. It’s horrible! Nothing could be worse!

    What this does is make it difficult to discuss why child sexual abuse is, in fact, so horrible. Well, at least part of the reason it’s so horrible is because it is a betrayal of that child’s trust and the reasonable expectation that children should not be victimized by those who would betray their trust. That psychological component is overlooked when we focus on the physical act in the betrayal rather than fully considering why that physical act is so morally repugnant. Of course, it’s sexual in nature, so there is lots of puritanical baggage that goes with thinking about sex.

    Dawkins is right. The infliction of psychological damage persistently over time by those a child is supposed to trust most can be worse than a mild ‘naughty’ encounter by someone for whom the child has no strong emotional commitment.

    • Thanks for the comment. The reaction to discussing the topic is understandable, particularly given the horrible fact that so very many people have their trust abused by people they love and trust. But your right, there are other ways to violate the trust of a child and to harm them in lasting ways. At the very least, it’s worth considering Dawkins’ contention that certain acts, that we tend to ignore or consider benign, might be harmful in lasting ways. I wish he’s chosen a different wrong to illustrate his example with, but I suppose it’s understandable for him to have drawn from his own experiences.

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