There’s apparently a lot of discussion on Twitter about something Richard Dawkins said yesterday (on something – a debate with Mehdi Hasan? is that right? – that will be on Al-Jazeera in December). I’ve seen some of it, but also references to more, which I haven’t seen. The origin was a tweet (isn’t it always?) -
Tonight, Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused, which he said ‘she might feel was yucky’.
Some people pointed out that he said the same thing in The God Delusion, and even supplied the page, so I looked it up.
Here’s the thing. I agree with people who are outraged by the “worse than a child being sexually abused” part, but I agree with Dawkins that the badness of teaching children that hell is real is terrible and that that gets neglected.
I think this means I’ve irritated everyone. So it goes.
I think it’s a big mistake, and especially so for Dawkins and at this stage of the game, to compare it with anything else, and to minimize child sexual abuse. (TGD came out before the Ryan Report. I would guess Dawkins has read the Ryan Report. I think it was front and center at the time of the protests against the pope’s visit. If he has, it seems odd that he’s still arguing that priestly child sexual abuse isn’t always a big deal. He may be right that for some children it really isn’t, but it’s a very dubious thing to argue, especially when the church is still trying to brush it under the carpet.) I think he should just separate the two, and then leave the other one strictly alone. Focus on hell, and leave the child abuse issue alone; that’s my advice.
I do agree with him though that the idea of hell is really really bad. What he was talking about in TGD (starting on page 317) was a letter from “an American woman” who was raised Catholic and had both experiences at age 7 - priestly abuse and terror about hell. A priest fondled her, and a Protestant friend of hers died and went to hell – or so she’d been taught to believe. The second item was “by far the worst.”
Dawkins quotes from the letter.
Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, unmeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest – but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell.
You see in that tweet above it looks as if “yucky” is Dawkins’s word, and a damn silly one, but in fact he was quoting.
I think he shouldn’t compare the two, especially now, but I do think he’s right about hell.
I look forward to your letters, as Craig says.