You keep prodding and poking at them

Oy, here we go again – the Daily Mail is reporting on Dawkins’s 2006 “fear of hell is worse than mild abuse” claim, all over again, as if it hadn’t just been beaten to death again only a month ago, and as if it hadn’t started on its career of being beaten to death way back in 2006.

Raising your children as Roman Catholics is  worse than child abuse, according to militant atheist Richard  Dawkins.

In typically incendiary style, Professor  Dawkins said the mental torment inflicted by the religion’s teachings is worse  in the long-term than any sexual abuse carried out by priests.

He said he had been told by a woman that  while being abused by a priest was a ‘yucky’ experience, being told as a child  that a Protestant friend who died would ‘roast in Hell’ was more  distressing.

Last night politicians and charities  condemned the former Oxford professor’s views as attention-seeking and  unhelpful.

For crying out loud – “typically incendiary style” yourself, Daily Mail! And no doubt one or two politicians and charities did condemn his views, once you phoned them up and asked them to.

What a cheap mindless fuckwitted excuse for journalism.

I said things about it all a month ago, saying the sexual abuse claim was a mistake and should be left out of it, especially now, but dammit he’s right about hell. That’s still what I think, lo these four weeks later – yes I still think it’s very bad to assure children that they or people they love will (or could) be tortured in hell forever.

There are a lot of tweets on the subject on his Twitter timeline at the moment. They’re powerful.


@RichardDawkins as a child I had sleepless nights in tears because I was told people I couldn’t ‘save’ were going to hell. Feel free to RT

Katy McLeod@Kattyness

@RichardDawkins Friend who is kind, gentle, compassionate but catholic is convinced she will go to hell. Seen her sob, terrified, about it.

Teri Green@TeriTurtleresq

@RichardDawkins My dad was an atheist, my mom scared me so by telling me he was going to hell. I had nightmares.


@CoffeePunks@richarddawkins Remember crying everyday,as a 5 yr old, bc I couldn’t believe in Muhammed & thought I’d end up burning in hell.

morgan davies@mgdavies3

@RichardDawkins I once had a Baptist crying her eyes out describing how her own mother was burning in hell for eternity , religion sucks

Aimee Grober@ScienceIsRad

@GreenClouds4@RichardDawkins Telling a child that they were born guilty, and are going to burn for eternity in a lake of fire is abusive.

There’s also a strangely random and untrue tweet from one of the #FTBullies crowd –

Jeremy Stangroom@PhilosophyExp

Daily Mail joins FtB lot in treating Dawkins’s “child abuse” claims in hysterical fashion. #religion

What “FtB lot”? Who among the “FtB lot” has treated Dawkins’s “child abuse” claims in hysterical fashion? Where, when?

There’s no way of knowing, so the mud sticks to anyone the #FTBullies crowd want it to stick to. And on and on it goes.

He did explain his thinking on this subject a few hours earlier.

Jeremy Stangroom@PhilosophyExp

The good thing about many messianic types is that if you keep prodding and poking at them, they will in the end self-destruct.

Ahhhhhhh so that’s what is is. You keep prodding and poking at us because you think we are “messianic types.” That’s interesting. It justifies any old harassment and stalking and bullying, doesn’t it, because all you have to do is decide that someone is a “messianic type” and you can do anything you want to. That’s especially odd because his claim all along has been that we’re “bullies,” but what does “you keep prodding and poking at them” describe other than bullying? I would really like to know. I think “you keep prodding and poking at them” is an excellent definition of bullying.

It’s helpful to know where we are.



  1. says

    Ugggh… I don’t know where people find the energy to ‘prod and poke’ away at the same old grudges. I can’t understand why people don’t just outline their underlying greivances in a lucid, clear manner, and let people judge on merits, and then move on.

    If the nth opprtunistic jab doesn’t strike true, then surely that’s a conclusion of sorts.

    The dead horse is fekking dead already.

  2. says

    The thing about Stangroom is that the specific targets at any moment appear to be irrelevant; indeed, former targets can quickly become confederates. He seems to delight in the “poking and prodding” itself.

  3. says

    Did Dawkins actually say that? I thought he said that raising children religious is a form of child abuse (but he didn’t place it on a scale of more or less abusive that I recall) nor do I recall him saying that it’s worse than sexual abuse. So is the assclown in the Daily Mail simply putting words in Dawkins’ mouth and then decrying them? That’s a pretty easy game to play.

  4. says

    No, he actually did say that. Though in context, he was comparing milder sexual assaults against more severe indoctrination.

    He clarifies, expounds upon, and prints the original excerpt from The God Delusion here:

    That said, I think I’m in agreement with Ophelia. It’s not a very wise comparison to make. It’s a nasty and unnecessary form of Oppression Olympics (and we know how much Dawkins likes that sport).

  5. Stacy says

    Here’s what Dawkins says on the RDF:

    In view of the tweeted responses to the Daily Mail article, I thought it might be helpful to reproduce what I actually said in 2006. Incidentally, I was myself sexually abused by a teacher when I was about nine or ten years old. It was a very unpleasant and embarrassing experience, but the mental trauma was soon exorcised by comparing notes with my contemporaries who had suffered it previously at the hands of the same master. Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe ­– in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.

    Anecdotes and plausibility arguments, however, need to be backed up by systematic research, and I would be interested to hear from psychologists whether there is real evidence bearing on the question. My expectation would be that violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse, especially by a family member such as a father or grandfather, probably has a more damaging effect on a child’s mental well-being than sincerely believing in hell. But ‘sexual abuse’ covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered.

    It’s a perfectly reasonable claim. (I am glad he clarified it.) As he says, “sexual abuse” covers a lot.

  6. Stacy says

    Daily Mail joins FtB lot in treating Dawkins’s “child abuse” claims in hysterical fashion

    Citation needed.

    The good thing about many messianic types is that if you keep prodding and poking at them, they will in the end self-destruct.

    The good thing about many obsessive, envious wankers is, that if you keep rolling your eyes at them, they will in the end marginalize themselves.

  7. says

    Ophelia Benson, in her typical incendiary style, excoriates the Daily Mail for reporting reactions to what Richard Dawkins says in an interview to be broadcast tomorrow but which *she* apparently dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction “a month ago”. In fact of course, the DM is reporting Dawkins’ claim “all over again” because he is *making* it all over again.

    According to the DM, Dawkins is quoted as saying (in the recently recorded interview that has not yet been broadcast) ‘It seems to me that telling children that they really, really believe that people who sin are going to go to Hell and roast forever – that your skin grows again when it peels off with burning – it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse, that will give more nightmares, that will give more genuine distress because they really believe.’

    Now perhaps if we had all listened to Benson a month ago we would all know that “the sexual abuse claim was a mistake and should be left out of it”, and of course Dawkins would have acknowledged that and withdrawn the comparison with apologies to all concerned, and so the issue would be closed. But he didn’t, and for some inexplicable reason the DM just won’t let the issue drop.

    I am puzzled by Dawkins’ concern that ” telling children that they really, really believe” nasty stuff will bother them as much as actually making them believe it (let alone actually doing nasty, or even merely “yucky”, stuff to them), but assuming he meant the latter, it is indeed terribly abusive. However Dawkins clearly finds it less important to make this case effectively than to belittle the suffering of those who have experienced sexual abuse. Given the obvious predictable consequences of this comparison, it is clear that he considers it more important to undermine what he sees as the excesses of feminism than to optimize the effectiveness of his attacks on the evils of religion. I’m sorry but in my books that pretty well makes the guy a dick!

  8. Rob says

    Maybe someone has covered this, but has anyone got data on the spectrum of political views of the FTB commentariat vs the anti-FTB commentariat? Despite all the whining about keeping Atheism ‘pure’ (i.e. unsullied by anything to do with social agendas) the arguments (such as they are) and the tone of them from these purists simply reeks of favoring the societal status quo at best and outright MRA and/or libertarian thinking at worst.

    Hmmm, maybe this belongs on another thread. If so I apologize.

  9. Stacy says

    Alan Cooper, Dawkins has clarified his argument. See comments 6 and 7 for links and a direct quote that addresses your concerns.

    Also, please don’t use gendered insults here. Thank you.

  10. Damon says

    Dawkins comparison was a bit daft, and was open enough to be twisted by rags like the Daily Mail and the gleeful Mehdi “non-Muslims are like cattle” Hasan.

    It seems to be the season for childish comparisons. PZ Myers did a similar type of comparison recently regarding the Montreal Massacre and criticism/harassment in the atheist community.

  11. hotshoe says

    Add me as one more personal experience on the Dawkins’ side that mild sexual abuse is less damaging than indoctrination into hellfire religion.

    I don’t want to take children away from any parents who are providing at least a minimum of food, safe housing, stable school attendance etc – I know how awful foster care typically is and I know there are not enough places available in decent foster care even for the children who are in immediate danger of death, rape or serious injury from their abusive parents.

    But I don’t know how to reconcile that with my feeling that no parent should ever be allowed to raise their child in a hellfire religion. It’s abuse, horrible mental torture, and it simply must not be allowed in a civilized society. Hellfire parents are really not fit parents.

    What can we do?

  12. grumpyoldfart says

    The Catholic Reverend John Furniss was known as the Children’s Apostle and he wrote “The Sight of Hell” which was reprinted many times during the 19th and 20th centuries. William Meagher (Vicar General) wrote, “I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatsoever in it contrary to the doctrine of Holy Faith; but, on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct and edify our youthful classes, for whose benefit it has been written.”

    Click on the link and scroll down to Section XXIV “The Dungeons of Hell”

    Be prepared for nightmares.

  13. says

    What? The official FTB line is that we think hell is worse than child abuse? Fuck all kinds of duck! I have been holding the opposite stance! Why didn’t you guys tell me this when I joined! Now I have to edit all my posts or I would be a hypocrite and no one likes a hypocrite hippocrat….

    Depends on what the religion is I suppose and what the abuse is. Sometimes child abuse and religion go hand in hand. There is a spectrum of child abuse and one can argue that some of it is worse than others but it mainly is subjective to the person abused. In the same way that trauma is subjective. A child who is systematically raped may end up dealing with it and moving past the abuse in a healthy way. A child who got smacked once may end up forever broken by that single whack. With abuse it is best to let the victim first decide the severity before trying to categorise it ourselves. To take Dawkin’s example… He may not have suffered any lasting damage apart from a warning to avoid that teacher from henceforth. Someone else may have been scarred for life.

  14. says

    Stacy and ibis3, thanks for pointing out Dawkins’ clarification (subsequent to the Daily Mail article). If the old zombie had paid more attention to his earlier beatings to death he might have avoided an unnecessary distraction from what I would have hoped was his main point. But his insistence on the idea of comparing different kinds of abuse is still pretty silly when of course not only does each kind occur to varying degrees but also the relative sensitivities to different kinds of abuse vary widely from person to person. (And in particular for example, a boy unsure of or not yet ready to face his sexual orientation might have suffered far more greatly than Dawkins from having a response to the “mild feeling up” that he dismisses so glibly.) I like ibis3’s description of Dawkins’ comments as “a nasty and unnecessary form of Oppression Olympics” and only a non-gendered nether trunk body part would persist in making such comparisons.

  15. Bjarte Foshaug says

    …his claim all along has been that we’re “bullies,” but what does “you keep prodding and poking at them” describe other than bullying? […] I think “you keep prodding and poking at them” is an excellent definition of bullying.

    To claim that Ophelia and her allies are “the real bullies” is like beating up another person and accusing her of hitting your fists with her face.

  16. says

    I’m still having problems with this “mild sexual abuse” business. Dawkins sent another tweet today where he qualified it a bit as, and I paraphrase, “having your genitals fondled through your trousers”. Who is he to say that this is not a lifelong traumatizing experience for a child, even if it wasn’t for him?

    He does this all the time, comaparing apples and oranges, lesser and greater evils, as if the fact that there are greater ones magically makes the lesser ones alright. It’s frustrating.

  17. Brian E says

    The Dawk didn’t need that line, and given how subjective it is, I mean, it’s the equivalent of the bullies and associated friends of abuse creed: build a bridge and get over it. You get over what you get over. No other person can decide for you, your degree of pain or damage. But it shows the slimness of the opposing position. As Ophelia would well and truly know, when you opponents can’t defeat you in the field, they poke through your refuse for a turd that can be polished enough to appear like a personal kryptonite. The analogy between child abuse and being indoctrinated that eternal torture awaits all how haven’t dotted their theological Is and crossed their christological Ts is carpet bombing in its indiscriminateness. But don’t come the raw prawn*, it’s only one small part of a larger work and isn’t the linchpin or anything close to undermining that work.

    *drunk Aussie using archaic Aussie expression that he’s never heard live because he couldn’t think of something better. 🙁

  18. Tim Harris says

    What the sort of experience Richard Dawkins managed, and manages, to make light of aroused – and arouses – in me (it happened more than once, and once in a terrifying way) is a rage at the humiliation one was made to feel, a rage at being in the position of being someone else’s toy, of being at the mercy of somebody more powerful, and a most terrible loneliness. The rage has never left me. RD should stop making this comparison.

  19. says

    I’m still having problems with this “mild sexual abuse” business. Dawkins sent another tweet today where he qualified it a bit as, and I paraphrase, “having your genitals fondled through your trousers”. Who is he to say that this is not a lifelong traumatizing experience for a child, even if it wasn’t for him?

    Just as a child with an active imagination and anxiety might suffer awful, debilitating nightmares after having been told of hell once by some relative or preacher, where another child could find repeated, graphic hellfire sermons absurd and therefore humourous and not get at all traumatised.

    I don’t know why he can’t just take the position that all sexual abuse is bad and potentially traumatising, and all psychological abuse is bad and potentially traumatising, and that religious authorities should be condemned for both.

  20. says

    I wouldn’t want to try to define mild sexual abuse, or rank it against another abuse. I must have been facepalming too hard, when I read that bit. 🙁 Dawkins steps in it pretty hard, sometimes… 🙁

  21. says

    Damon @ 14 – don’t write “criticism/harassment” that way, as if they’re the same kind of thing. They are not at all the same kind of thing. Harassment does not get to be treated as a kind of criticism.

  22. raymoscow says

    A therapist friend told me, when I was saying my own childhood abuse wasn’t so bad compared to what others went through, that when discussing abuse, ‘Comparison is crap.’

    I consider the severe religious indoctrination I got to be pretty harmful. Others might have brushed it off with a laugh or two, but I could not.

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