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: