Friday, October 20, 2006

Richard Dawkins Has Lost My Respect

I love his books about evolution. I admire the way he's pushed atheism into the public discussion. I even paid ten bucks to see him speak once.

But this is just awful. I've frequently criticized religious bloggers for not objecting to the rantings of their loony brethren and so I feel obligated to shout my disagreement with Dawkins here.

Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not so harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place. --Richard Dawkins, as told to Emily Hourican, in The Dubliner. Via Mark.

What a callous, wrongheaded statement.

The Catholic upbringing, terrifying children with fears of Hell and telling boys who will inevitably masturbate that masturbation is a terrible sin, can indeed be harmful. But Dawkins is way, way out of line comparing it to -- no, considering it worse than -- the sexual abuse of children.


CyberKitten said...

Unfortunately its one of Richard Dawkins less likeable characteristics - he does tend to shoot his mouth off without thinking....

Billie Jean said...

I agree with you 100%.

asher said...

The man is a great thinker and has brought evolution the forefront of discussion and you find this one statement distasteful?

Good thing this one statement doesn't reflect ALL of his writing, thinking and speaking. After all, you can't judge a person's total body of work by his underlying agenda...especially when you seem to agree with his body of work.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I have to agree in principal. Sexual abuse is definitely worse than just being brought up Catholic. I wouldn't wish either on anyone though. When I was a lad my best friend who was Catholic wanted me to join the Church. When I found out I couldn't (or wasn't supposed to) play with my weenie anymore, I said "I don't think so dude!" (or something like that!). It was bye-bye to religion from from that day on and yeah over 50 years later I am still doing that "sinful" act!

Mark said...

Jeremy Pierce contributes to this in some detail as well at Parableman.

musical revelation said...

Dawkins is quite a capable guy as far as science, I'm sure, but as an ethicist, he's an absolute disaster. Also, I've seen a video of his an an interview of him, and he seems to have rather weak interpersonal skills. Yup, he's got gifts and deficiencies, like everyone else.

Baconeater said...

Nobody's perfect. So much for intelligent design.

The Atheologist said...

As someone who was raised a Catholic, and never sexually abused, (not even by a priest), I have seen that the harm that comes from religious indoctrination can easily be undone. The harm that is done by the sexual abuse of children on the other hand usually lasts the persons lifetime.

If anyone is looking for someone else to loose a little respect for, try Sam Harris .

Anonymous said...

"The Catholic upbringing, terrifying children with fears of Hell and telling boys who will inevitably masturbate that masturbation is a terrible sin, can indeed be harmful."

In what country, and in what decade?

We were taught that there was a Hell; it was defined as never being able to see the face of God. That was about it.

Masturbation was rarely addressed. I remember it coming up in some religion class in the context of sex outside marriage, being called "a selfish act." There aren't any "terrible" sins, just venial and mortal. I was never told which category it fell into.

David said...

It does sound rather harsh and thoughtless on its face, certainly, and it's an especially unfortunate statement since it will no doubt be quoted all over the place as proof that he and all of his ideas have no merit. I've read the book and enjoyed it very much, like all his writing (that I've read) it's extremely lucid (and occasionally caustic). If I remember correctly, I think Dawkins was actually (sort of) defending the Catholic Church on that particular point, pointing out that the intense hoopla over the priest sexual abuse scandal is a little overblown when compared to other much greater harm and suffering caused by the Church - not just the mental anguish of a lifetime of needless guilt for millions, but also, for example, the condemnation of the use of condoms, thereby contributing to the spread of HIV, AIDs, and other STDs worldwide. Just one example of how religion separates morality from real human suffering. Have you considered, despite that natural immediate emotional response to his statement, that he actually might be right? It's not a no-brainer, imo.

Anonymous said...

Ditto Spungen.

I wonder where Dawkins gets his info.

Baconeater said...

Atheologist, you must have been one ugly kid, to not to be abused by a Priest.

Jack Steiner said...

What an ignorant remark.

The Atheologist said...

I wasn’t that ugly. What saved me was that I was on the track team, and I could run pretty fast.

jack’s shack,
are you referring to bacon’s or Richard Dawkins’ remark?

Jewish Atheist said...


Have you considered, despite that natural immediate emotional response to his statement, that he actually might be right? It's not a no-brainer, imo.

I considered it briefly, but there's no comparison. Has the church caused more harm overall through other means than sexual abuse? Possibly. But when comparing merely the Catholic upbringing of a single child versus the sexual abuse of a single child, there's no question which is worse.

Jack Steiner said...

Richard Dawkins.

David said...

JA, yes, I think I'd have to agree with you on that last point. I hope occassional careless statements won't turn you off to Dawkins in general (baby with the bath water and all that). Btw, you may have seen this already, but just in case, the Colbert interview with Dawkins is very entertaining -

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I asked a friend about this and they assured me Dawkins was being facetious. Whether his attempt at humor was appropriate or funny is another story, though.

Jewish Atheist said...

friar yid:

Could be, I guess. Maybe I'll email the man directly and ask. :-)

r10b said...

The Catholic upbringing...telling boys who will inevitably masturbate that masturbation is a terrible sin, can indeed be harmful.

Your logic eludes me. Sounds like you're saying that we should not attempt to hinder what is "inevitable." Those boys will inevitably tell lies as well. They will inevitably harbor, then act on, hatred of a rival. Are they harmed by being warned that it's wrong to do so?

And do Catholics really think that masturbation is a terrible sin? Is it on their list of "mortal" sins, for instance? Maybe its on their list of "icky" sins; that would explain it. If it's normal and natural (which it is) how did it ever come to be considered a sin?

Jewish Atheist said...

Your logic eludes me. Sounds like you're saying that we should not attempt to hinder what is "inevitable."

No, I'm saying we shouldn't teach them they're going to burn in Hell for doing it. Also, we shouldn't teach them that something harmless or even healthy is evil.

And do Catholics really think that masturbation is a terrible sin? Is it on their list of "mortal" sins, for instance?

I'm not a Catholic, but a quick look around Google makes it seem like masturbation is in fact a mortal sin.

If it's normal and natural (which it is) how did it ever come to be considered a sin?

Because religions -- Catholicism maybe more than most -- are hung up on sex. I think they put masturbation under the "adultery" category.

Eating pork is normal and natural, but still considered a sin in Judaism, so I don't know if I understand your question.

Anonymous said...

The problem with most people when they hear this quote is that they immediately think of liberal or moderate Catholicism.

It can be argued that liberal catholicism doesn't harm a child, but not so with extreme dogmatic Catholicism. You know, the kind that in all seriousness says, to paraphrase, that if you enjoy life, sex, or science you'll burn in hell.

Not that you're wrong and need to change, but that because you yanked off in the shower you, didn't get baptized, were aborted, ect, you will burn in a lake of melted brimstone and have your skin flayed for all eternity.

I say this as a young adult who went to such a church until the age of 17, and I can attest that in the years since the teachings I was forced to endure were in fact the most traumatic experiences in my life.

r10b said...

Eating pork is normal and natural, but still considered a sin in Judaism*, so I don't know if I understand your question.

Well, it was a loaded question that would lead further off track than we are already; so I'll retract it until a more appropriate thread comes along.

*Fortunately we Christians have Acts 11:9. Praise the Lord and pass the sauerkraut!

Anonymous said...

Having been raised Roman Catholic, with a fairly liberal (and eventually more agnostic) family, and never been abused, I find that even as an atheist, I still find some residual scars and mental damage from the indoctrination. Guilt is a powerful tool, especially if it is drummed into you from day one. As for masturbation, back in school (in the 70s-early 80s), it really didn't come up, but yeah, it was a sin. And like everything else, you would burn in hell for it. The "not being with god" bit is a later addition - pablum for those for whom the hell concept was unpalatable, but they still needed some kind of punishment. Most of the extremists do not get that - they get the literal burn-in-lake-of-fire bit.

Dawkins brings up this point in his Point of Inquiry interview ( - should get you there).

Anonymous said...

Dawkins comments further on this remark in his new book, The God Delusion. He says it was an "off the cuff remark" made in "the heat of the moment" but for a number of reasons defends himself. He is not trivializing the sexual abuse of children so much as pointing out how similarly abusive the religious indoctrination is.

And perhaps the religious indoctrination and mental torture it often involves (in terms of teaching children they will burn in hell if they don't believe a certain doctrine) is worse. Why? Because we all agree that sexual abuse is wrong and evil. But most of the people in your family and of course everyone in your church thinks that teaching you what I can only call EVIL religious doctrines is just fine and dandy. And that YOU are wrong to protest or reject it. So which is harder to recover from, ultimately?

Anonymous said...

Church doesn't say that masturbation or pretty much anything is a mortal sin. Only that it may be a mortal sin. More than just an act is needed for a mortal sin. A baby playing with his/her genitals wouldn't be a mortal sin. In order for a sin to be mortal, it must be
1.) A grave matter, which the catechism considers masturbation.
2.) Committed with the full knowledge of the sinner
3.) Deliberate consent of the sinner.

When confessing masturbation as a sin, I've always been surprised at the leniency of the confessor.

If a doctrine is taught wrong, it can be harmful. But that doesn't mean the doctrine itself is wrong. Immaturity and habit are two things that are usually given as examples lessening the severity of masturbation.

From the catechism

"2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."137 "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."138

To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability. "

I got taught pretty much nothing about sexual sin as a teenager going to Sunday School. But the extreme is what people look at and it does serve some people's purposes to make the Church seem obsessed with sex. I don't think I've ever heard a homily based on sex. They are all about loving your neighbor and that kind of thing.

r10b said...

es said...
Because we all agree that sexual abuse is wrong and evil.

Who is "we all"? If we all agree, why is there any sexual abuse at all?

Tommykey said...

Taken in and of itself, I would not approve of Dawkins' comments. As a former Catholic and current atheist, I think there is definitely a concern amongst us that there are few public and vocal atheist standard bearers out there advocating for us, so when a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris makes an occasional gaffe, it is a cringe inducing moment for all of us.

On the other hand, when a Pat Robertson or a Jerry Falwell makes stupid remarks in public, they are clearly not speaking for all Christians of all denominations.

As someone wrote above, we are all flawed people, and that includes prominent public atheists like Dawkins and Harris.

Perhaps Dawkins meant that religious institutions like the Catholic Church are viewed by a substantial portion of the population by default as good and virtuous and that pedophile priests tend to be given the benefit of the doubt because of that presumed goodness.

Decades ago, before most of the abuse of the children by priests came to the public's attention, the victims would not have been considered credible. I can picture an eleven year old altar boy in the 1960's telling his mom that Father Mulligan touched his penis in the confessional booth and the mom slapping the boy across the face and saying angrily "How dare you say such a terrible thing ABOUT A PRIEST!" (Emphasis mine). To reiterate, the molestation is a terrible thing, but it was able to happen in an environment where many people would assume that a priest or member of a church could do no harm, and it is this fix that religion has on the minds of people that allows priests and pastors to get away with crimes.

beepbeepitsme said...

I think that frightening children with the notion of hell, the devil, witches, warlocks, evil spirits etc, is tantamont to child psychological abuse.

Surely, if you want a child to be able to reason, you model those behaviours yourself.

Luckily, for me, I wasn't psychologically abused with the "fire and brimstone stuff" and my mother very quickly put people in their place if they attempted to do so.

Afterall, she was raised a catholic, had heard it all, and had decided that it didn't do her any favours psychologically either.

It is synonymous with parents telling their children that the boogieman is under the bed and will get them if they don't stay there. It is unnecessary, and creates unnecessary fears.

The real world can be challenging and frightening enough without adding a vengeful fantasyland to it.

Anonymous said...


The statement comparing child abuse and catholic education might benefit from being read in the context of the following, which immediately follows the cited text in Dawkins' text:

"I had a letter from a woman in America in her forties, who said that when she was a child of about seven, brought up a Catholic, two things happened to her: one was that she was sexually abused by her parish priest. The second thing was that a great friend of hers at school died, and she had nightmares because she thought her friend was going to hell because she wasn't Catholic. For her there was no question that the greatest child abuse of those two was the abuse of being taught about hell."

Anonymous said...

If any of you commenting on Dawkins actually read the book, you would understand what he was talking about. Most victims of clergy sexual abuse have grown up to live normal productive lives and are able to put the abuse behind them. One never gets over, however, the abuse of being raised a Christian which adds much more misery to the world in general than seual abuse everhas or will.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad someone posted the text from the book! It is important in regards to this discussion. I stand on Dawkins side, who himself was subject to some creepy abuse, on this matter. I also think it is a bit of an extreme (or bold, if you will) statement, but that's what makes it good...Dawkins is pushing the limits, which I think is necessary. Regardless of sexual or mental, it's child abuse.

Anonymous said...

Good God!! I completely agree, this was a ridiculously wrongheaded statement!! Sexually abusing children is one of the worst crimes (in my opinon) anyone can ever commit. I have read a story about a poor little girl who was raped by a Catholic priest, and how it affected her even as an adult. Saying that masturbation, a completely harmless and natural act, is worse than child abuse is very wrong and immoral. I WAS quite the Dawkins fan, but hearing this he has lost my respect as well.

Anonymous said...

I've read Richard Dawkins, and I was also struck by the comment about raising children as Catholic is a worse abuse than sexual abuse. It seems to me that Mr. Dawkins' impression of Catholicism is based on things heard in the media from the more lunatic right-wing conservative fringe among Christians. I'm an atheist myself, but as a former Catholic, I remain in essence a cultural Catholic, in the sense that while I reject the superstition, I still believe in the values. There's nothing abusive about being raised in a moderate, enlightened Catholic family.

Anonymous said...

Having been forced through a Catholic grade school, and having been repeatedly told that I'd be horribly tortured forever if I died that night without being absolved for doubting god, or thinking impure (ie, sexual) thoughts, or touching myself in impure ways, or using my brain in independent ways, yes, there are many times I've thought I'd have been better off if I'd been sexually abused instead. Psychological abuse is often worse than physical abuse. So no, I don't think Dawkins was off base at all.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your sense of integrity and fairness to be willing to call "b.S." - recognizing that even despite your disagreement such sensational overzealous judgment is not warranted and hypocritical.

Anonymous said...

The problem is basically that Dawkins, as a brilliant, gifted person, should never be put upon a pedestal. He's not perfect. Much of what he writes is commentary. He's entitled to his right to speech. However, he's not right about everything. Certainly, he doesn't understand the nature of being Jewish because he cannot separate this phenomenon from Judaism. He doesn't know everything. I can't give him too much credit. However, I appreciate his efforts in pointing out the flaws inherent in religious thinking.

Anonymous said...

Sexual abuse is 1 single terrifying act.

Religion is an everyday terrifying mind delusion.

Look at nasty Judaism, where they cut off the tip of poor babies penis in honor to their race God. Talk about evil and pathetic. (Yea lets see all the so-called Jew Atheists come out in support of their bigot religion after that comment)LOL

Anonymous said...

(Just to clarify, I'm a different anonymous)

Sexual abuse is seldom about a single act in the sense of it happening once. It is usually ongoing - look at the cases which have emerged recently of children abused throughout childhood and into adulthood (though in this case it was by their fathers, not clergy). Physical abuse and sexual abuse can totally destroy a person; too many victims have ended up with addictions, been so warped they've turned to abuse themselves, or have suicided.

To compare this with the "indoctrination" of a Catholic upbringing, regardless of whether he said it in jest or the heat of the moment, is disgraceful. Downplaying rape and abuse for ANY reason is simply not on, and suggests a very ivory-tower mentality; the man seems to have no idea of what he's saying or how it sounds, given how often he has to retract or explain himself. You'd think he'd learn by now, but he seems to have missed out on emotional intelligence.

I know how harsh and frightening old-school Catholicism could be. But what Dawkins will never admit is that not ALL religious upbringing loads people with guilt, irrationality and so on. Many, many people find strength and comfort in their religious beliefs, and are perfectly capable of making their own decisions about what they believe and what they don't. If one was to avoid "indoctrinating" children one would teach them nothing - isn't teaching a particular set of ethics, beliefs (or even non-beliefs) just as much indoctrination? It may not throw in fear of punishment - not something I think would feature much in most Catholic teaching now - but if it's a Dawkinsian upbringing, it'd be a pretty cold matter of "you're a chemical machine and you disappear when you die". Sure, that's a bit hyperbolic, but I'd much, much rather have a child raised by a liberal Christian than an illiberal atheist like him.

For the record, I'm not Christian, never have been; I used to be agnostic-verging-on-atheist, now I have what you might call unaligned spiritual beliefs. :) My family background is Catholic; my aunt is 90, a nun, and has her own independent thoughts on many matters of belief or doctrine, despite - shock horror - having been taught by Loreto nuns in the 1920s, a group not known for its liberal thinking back then.

JP said...

Why don't you just live and let live, you intolerant fucking backward radical Atheists?

an Atheist

Atheist hater said...

Assholes I grew up catholic and never felt threatened by the church or god in any way. It taught me about compassion, forgiveness, and respect. I would not consider myself a practicing catholic for other reasons, but the gospel is good and all men could learn from it. I fear a world where man doesn't believe they will be held accountable for character defects that he hides in a clost full of skeletons. Atheists are scum. Not for their ideological beliefs specifically but people with these beliefs usually have a guilty conscious for a poor character. So to them its easier to live with it when you believe theire will be no one to answer too in the end. If you live a moral life you should pray there is a reward. Losers!!!! Ha. I judged! Hypocrite right here, but I still hate atheists. Usually introverted social degenerates.