Friday, August 22, 2014


“Corporal punishment never did me any harm.”
“Really? Then what did?”
      A.A Milne. attrib.

The God Delusion is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passage which simply seemed to the author like a good idea at the time.

If you or I were briefed to prove that God doesn't exist, we might, I suppose refer in passing to the clerical child abuse scandal — Roman Catholic priests sexually molesting kids, and the church authorities covering it up. I think that we would probably make two points. 

1: Roman Catholic priests claim to have special, supernatural access to God. But in practice, they don't seem to behave any better than anyone else, so this claim to inside-knowledge looks pretty dubious.

2: The idea of "God" enables organizations like the Catholic church to build up great power and influence. Powerful, influential organisations are, by their nature, good at covering up wrongdoing in their own ranks. If you don't want Mafiosi and Freemasons adding "thus saith the Lord" to their club rules, best get rid of  "the Lord" altogether. 

Some people might make a third point: 

3: Catholic taboos about sex resulted in their clergy committing these kinds of offences. If you force a young man to take a solemn oath never to have sex, then it's not too that surprising if after ten years he's tempted to do something dreadful.

But that would be a bit of a stretch: there's no necessary connection between believing in God and vows of sexual abstinence. The fact that the Catholics believed in both is strictly speaking a coincidence. And anyway, English Public Schools achieved quite high levels of cruelty and pederasty with very little input from God. Hell, my bog standard utterly secular comp had the cane and a gym teacher who seemed rather over-keen on showering with teenagers.

A serious writer would have dealt with all this in half a page and moved on to something more substantial. But if a less serious writer — and anti-religious zealot, say — wanted to go on and on for pages and pages of ghoulish detail about all the ghastly things these Romish clergy get up to, well, no-one could really blame him. Blackening the name of your opponent is a perfectly good rhetorical technique.

The strange thing is, Dawkins doesn't really do either of these things. He doesn't use the abuse scandal to make valid points against the church; but neither does he use it to whip the reader up into an anti-clerical frenzy.

Instead, he goes on and on about how everyone else has got a terrible bee in their bonnet about sex and abuse, how there's much less of it than you'd think and that it does much less harm than you'd imagine and how he, Richard Dawkins, is going to restore a sense of proportion. Like so much of his writing, it feels like a riff; endlessly spiraling around a point that never quite gets made.

"Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch hunts of 1692..."

The whole matter is going to be put out of the way in the next three pages. Excellent. Up there with C.S Lewis telling us he's going to take three page to sort out the doctrine of Hell. I particularly like the "nowadays" part: ah, for those sepia tinted olden days when priestly abuse meant something else entirely. And the "1692" part, in case we thought he was referring to all those other Salem Witch hunts.

In what way was moral panic about pedophilia like the witch craze in Salem? The point of Salem was that people accused their neighbors of being witches, and that some of those neighbors confessed to being witches even though there were, er, no actual witches because witches don't exist. 

And so on, talking about the News of the World "barely stopping short of inciting vigilantes to take direct action against pedophiles"; and the mob who attacked a doctor because they were "unacquainted with the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile". Pure urban myth: a group of young teenagers may have scrawled the word "pedo" on a doctor's door, but the baying mobs hunting down pediatricians in general have their origins (again) in a Private Eye cartoon. In some versions the doctor's house is burned down, in others she is beaten up. I look forward to the version in which she flees to Birmingham just in time to celebrate Winterval. 

And so on. And on...

"We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and lawyers... Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for flogging than for sexual fondlings, and there is no shortage of lawyers actively soliciting custom from victims who might not otherwise have raked over the distant past. There's gold them tha long-gone fumbles in the vestry — some of them indeed, so long gone that the alleged offender is likely to be dead and unable to present his side of the story..."

This is nasty stuff. He has entwined a number of different substantive arguments:

1: People's fear of child molesters is out of all proportion to the number of child molesters in society.

2: It's hard to give a fair trial to a person who may have committed an offence 50 years ago.

3: Many of the so called victims have been manipulated by psychologists, lawyers into imagining abuse where there was none; or exaggerating events for financial gain.

4: Awareness that child abuse is a thing may encourage us to infer sinister motivations to perfectly innocent acts.

But underlying it all seems to be

5: Most child abuse really isn't that big a deal to begin with. 

This is consistent with a notorious 2013 interview, in which he said the following:

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."

The more I think about this passage, the more confusing I find it. Apparently, when he was at boarding school a male teacher put his hand down Dawkins underpants. Dawkins regards this as a pretty minor incident, which I guess it was. But he seems to be asserting three different things at the same time:

1: The incident was relatively trivial in itself — there are much worse things than someone briefly touching your penis without your consent. 

2: The incident was trivial because it didn't do any long term harm. (If it had done harm, it would not have been trivial.)

3: The incident was trivial by the standards of the day. (It would not have been trivial by today's standards.) 

This makes no sense at all. If "long term harm" is the criteria, and if someone touching your willy without your permission doesn't do any long term harm, then a teacher who harmlessly touches a boys willy in 2014 doesn't deserve to be condemned any more than a person who did so in 1954. But can we meaningfully make "long term harm" the criteria? Do we say that one inappropriate grope was okay because the patient suffered no ill effects, but that another inappropriate grope was not okay because the patient did? Is the idea that unwelcome touching didn't cause harm in the 50s but does cause harm now; or that "harm" was the measuring rod back then but now we've dreamed up a better metric? I give up.

The placing of "caning" and "mild pedophilia" in the same bracket it rather telling. Until about 15 years ago, corporal punishment was perfectly legal and socially acceptable. Everyone apart from a handful of utopian crackpots regarded it as a painful fact of life. This is something which society as a whole changed its mind about, rather suddenly. You get the impression that he thinks we've all had a sudden change of mind about sexually interfering with kids. But we haven't. The pervy teacher was breaking the law back then, just as much as he would be today.

I know well enough how Dawkins' minions would defend all this. Because the great man's own experience was trivial, that doesn't mean that there aren't serious experiences as well. If some victims are only in it for the money then it doesn't follow that there are no real victims. Tabloids can create a climate of fear out of proportion to the actual danger. Memory can turn a very trivia event into a more serious one. Perhaps we do tend to infer sinister sexual intentions in perfectly innocent behaviour. Maybe it is perfectly normal for men of different ages to get naked together, and its my dirty mind that has retrospectively read something weird into my P.E teachers behavior. But that's the problem with this kind of riff. The individual elements may be defensible, just. But the  piece as whole  — insinuating connections between victims who report traumatic experiences with urban myths about ignorant peasants who believe in witches and get their Greek coinages muddled up — is very troubling indeed.

Where does "we've got a bee in our bonnet about child abuse" fit into the argument of The God Delusion?

The answer seems to come down to a remark which Dawkins says he once made in a public debate:

"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was"

("no doubt"...the sneery voice of the municipal jobs-worth: no doubt you are a friend of the band, sir, but you still need a backstage pass)

"the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damaged inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

This is a fairly obviously stupid remark. There are billions of Catholics in the world, and the great majority of them are perfectly happy about being Catholics and have no psychological scars at all. We know this because they have told us so. (If we have to believe the professor when he tells us that beatings and touchings up never did him any harm, we have to believe them when they tell us they are fine with being Catholics. Fair's fair.)

I think that police officers, doctors, social workers, child psychologists, judges and teachers are better placed than biologists to tell us about the long term effects of being sexually abused. I think that if you told them that of course its bad, but its not nearly as bad as mum and dad taking you to Mass on Sunday mornings, they would regard it as a silly, hurtful rhetorical flourish. I think that the writer is aware of this, and has spent three pages saying it-never-did-me-any-harm to soften us up for the big pay off.

The best that can be said is that Dawkins is using the word "abuse" to gratuitously yoke unrelated points together. It is certainly a bad thing to interfere with children sexually. It is almost certainly a bad thing to whack them with sticks. It may be a bad thing to teach them to believe in something which is Not True. It may very well be a Bad Thing to teach them about Hell. It may even be (yawn) that it's Bad Thing to say "Jewish child" if what you mean is "Child with Jewish parents". And "abuse" doesn't mean much more than "doing a bad thing". (Bad tempered tennis players sometimes get docked a point for "racket abuse", don't they?) So I suppose you can say that "telling a child that he might be going to hell" is a form of "child abuse", if you want to: but you haven't said anything, except that you don't approve of it, which we already knew. To say "Oh, you might call what the gym teacher did to you child abuse, but surely the real child abuse is labeling someone a Zoroastrian when they are too young to know the difference between Mazda and Odin" is an empty rhetorical gesture. Politicians do it all the time. "The honorable member speaks of police brutality, but surely real brutality experienced on a day to to day basis by my constituents is the rerouting of the number six bus to Asda on a Wednesday mornings."

Atheists presumably tell their children that granny has died and they are never going to see her again and we are going to put her in a box and burn her and sprinkle the ashes on a rosebush AND ONE DAY THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU AS WELL AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT SO THERE....(FX: Evil laughter). Which seems only marginally better than saying that there is a good chance that Granny has gone to be with Jesus but also a chance that she hasn't and only God knows for sure. I think the best thing is to tell children what you actually believe is true. The one thing I think is pretty definitely wrong is telling children that Granny has gone to be a star in heaven, that one, third on the left — not because you believe it, but because you don't have the courage to tell them what you really do believe. But I wouldn't call it child abuse. I wouldn't say "Being told granny is just dead is worse than feeling that the gym teacher is staring at me in a slightly creepy way." It's a meaningless, like asking which is better, Thomas Hardy or Maltesers.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

No comments: