Reality and “Religion’s Real Child Abuse”

Reality and “Religion’s Real Child Abuse”

Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion that religion is a dangerous form of child abuse, a claim he reiterated in an online essay titled “Religion’s Real Child Abuse.” He explicitly says that while sexual abuse by priests may be bad, what’s worse is raising children to think of themselves as members of one religion or another, or saddling them with the fear of hell.

In response to that I wrote an article for our local newspaper, republished at BreakPoint Online in early 2007, showing that this is not just a religious/theoretical claim, but it has distinct scientific implications. Psychologists and sociologists have worked out a clear, empirically-based picture of how abuse affects children. If religion is a form of abuse, it should have some of the same identifiable negative effects on children that abuse has. Research shows, however, its effects are generally quite the opposite: as I wrote then, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, American youth who are devoted to religion (predominantly Christians in this study) come out better than non-religious youth in every one of the 99 life-outcome dimensions that were measured.

Dawkins utterly ignores and in fact contradicts what science says on this topic.

He is a zoologist by professional training, but he has become much more than that. At the time he wrote these things he was the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. By holding that position, and by his prominence in the media, he has been for many “the voice of science” in the English-speaking world. He has consistently staked out a position as one who speaks for reason, rationality, evidence, and empiricism. When Christian thinkers took him to task for writing on a topic, religion, on which he has done astonishingly little actual research, he responded, “Why bother? What need is there to dig into a topic that’s so obviously irrational?” While there are serious weaknesses with that answer, my attention here is on something even more fundamentally, obviously amiss: as a scientist and a spokesman for science, he persistently and publicly contradicts what science has to say about this topic.

This seems strange to me. Stranger still is that in over two years since then, to my knowledge no scientist and no other journalist has called him to account for it.

I suppose some would say that if Dawkins’s thesis had been presented in a journal rather than a popular publication, it would have been flagged down by peer-reviewers and never published. Or if somehow it had been published, it would have been quickly and decisively answered. The same should not be expected of a popular publication, some might say.

That would be a fair answer in many cases, but I think Dawkins’s case is different. In becoming the public face of science, he took on an especially high level of accountability for how he treats science. He ought not to be contradicting scientific findings so cavalierly as he has done with this topic. Those who care about the integrity of science ought not to be letting him get away with it—even in a popular publication; rather, especially in a popular publication, where many, many thousands are supposedly being shown what real science is.

But as far as I’ve been able to observe, no one has raised a word of scientific objection on this point. That raises questions in my mind, which I will leave for discussion here:

  • Has there actually been some response that I’ve missed, some scientific or journalistic call to accountability?
  • If not, what does this say about the consistent application of self-correction in science? Why is it not being applied in this case?
  • What’s really going on? How do we explain Dawkins’s anti-scientific stance on this issue, and the lack of response from the scientific/journalistic world on it?

3 thoughts on “Reality and “Religion’s Real Child Abuse”

  1. You raise some great questions! This issue, along with some other statements by the new atheists that also run totally against scientific research, have always kept me thinking.

    * Has there actually been some response that I’ve missed, some scientific or journalistic call to accountability?

    I have not been able to find many responses to his statement. There were a few, but they were mostly in debates with Christian theologians, if I recall correctly.

    * If not, what does this say about the consistent application of self-correction in science? Why is it not being applied in this case?

    Though science is a real field, with great findings and methods, in Dawkins case, the word is used strictly as a piece of propaganda.

    * What’s really going on? How do we explain Dawkins’s anti-scientific stance on this issue, and the lack of response from the scientific/journalistic world on it?

    My take is that Dawkins knows that he’s not doing science, but is instead engaging in pure propaganda. I think its most likely he’s cool with that.

  2. But as far as I’ve been able to observe, no one has raised a word of scientific objection on this point.

    Interesting points you make. I haven’t thought much about this subject, but you are right, Dawkins is stating an opinion that goes against the research evidence and nobody that I know of in the scientific community has bothered to correct him publicly. Has the outspoken PZ Meyers discussed this on his blog? Maybe it’s because these folks don’t consider the research evidence to be genuine scientific evidence because it’s “soft” scientific data.

    My theory is that people like Dawkins think religious beliefs have nothing to do with any derived benefit in life. We’ve heard similar comments from atheists and even from Tony on this blog. They say belief in God isn’t required to live a good life. Putting aside the details and where I might disagree with that – OK, but then that means the opposite would be just as true – that belief isn’t required to live a horrible life. Either way Dawkins statement would be wrong!

    I don’t know, but if Dawkins et-al think beliefs (religous or otherwise) have no impact on your life, they are sadly mistaken. The irony of holding that belief (more irony!), if they actually did, would be to fall prey to Plantinga’s claims about true beliefs and naturalism, discussed here.

  3. I think SteveK is right, they view such disciplines as “soft science” at best so they can dismiss the data with little discomfort and rely on their a priori view of religion in general.

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