Richard Dawkins: Religion is worse than sexual abuse

I’ve read The God Delusion. I even enjoyed a lot of it. I have The Greatest Show on Earth on my iPod right now.

Somehow, I missed this: Richard Dawkins seriously considers indoctrinating the young with religious delusions to be WORSE than sexual abuse. I’m fine with opinions, even the opinion that religion is a “delusion” but this is beyond belief.

This makes me so angry I could cry.

Granted, if his case is that emotional abuse is worse than sexual abuse, that is a different topic. But that’s not what he says. For all the Dawkins’ apologists out there, please come to his defense and explain to me how I’ve totally misinterpreted him, because this is just crazy. I’m willing to hold off a little and see if anyone can do some mental gymnastics to explain to me how he is not off his rocker on this one.

A fellow blogger recently had this to say on the topic:

I get tired of the bellyaching about the hardship of living on planet earth sometimes. Is it abuse to be raised to believe in God? Is it abuse to be raised to not believe in God? … Let’s follow Richard Dawkins’ line of logic. Life is stressful with many events outside of our control. To deal with that, people created religions, so they could have the illusion of control (and hope). If those man-made illusions fail, is that abuse? It’s hyperbole to call it abuse. Life itself is abuse by this definition.

Having worked with numerous foster children who were sexually abused, I do know a little of the absolute horror it can create in a life. I have heard and read things about these kids that I never wanted to know. Things I could have never imagined. And Dawkins says the bigger problem is they had a religion. THAT is evil. I need to stop now before I explode.

/end emotional rant.

About shenpa warrior

"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

42 responses to “Richard Dawkins: Religion is worse than sexual abuse

  • Adam

    Dawkins just enjoys hyperbolizing to get his point across. I’d just try and take it as that.

    (of course, I’m only a Dawkins apologist on science, not theology)

  • adamf

    A scientist who hyperbolizes? No! ;). I expect more out of scientists I guess.

    Really, my reaction probably says more about me than him. It is such a personal and intense issue for me that to use it for the sake of an argument the way he does really triggers something. I’ve rarely felt such an intense reaction to something in print before.

  • Andrew S.

    It seems like he is using a bit of pascal’s wager calculaton…but in a different way.

    His contention is that, to the extent religious leaders can make an idea like Hell seem real to kids, and to the extent that Hell represents infinite and unending pain, Hell is *infinitely* abusive as a concept for control.

    If you’re mad, you probably shouldn’t be mad at Dawkins, but rather at religions and denominations that have such a maliciously abusive constrict of Hell.

    • adamf

      Andrew, I don’t have a lot of respect for any religion that teaches a “maliciously abusive constrict of Hell” as you put it. He is a VERY intelligent person, who is VERY good with words. He should have been a LOT more careful to frame this teaching about Hell as emotional abuse, as well as talk about different types of emotional abuse and how it may or may not be worse or different than sexual abuse. I expect a lot more out of people like him.

  • Jen

    I’m with you Adamf…what a truly ridiculous thing to say! Sexual abuse is horrific for so many children and the idea that it even compares to religious training is plain stupidity. It is difficult for me to want to hear anything else the man has to say when he is unable to connect basic dots.

  • Madam Curie

    That’s a pretty horrific comparison. He just needs to compare theists with Nazis and I think he will have completed his jump of the shark.

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  • Jane

    Having experienced both religious indoctrination and sexual abuse, I can say that both were hurtful, and both taught me some useful skills about dealing with misuses of power. If I had to compare the two, however, for me, it was the religious indoctrination that had a deeper, more profoundly negative impact than the sexual abuse. As with most people who receive sound help, I was told that it wasn’t my fault, that it was a bad thing that happened to me but was never told that it will have any impact on my eternal salvation. Not so about failures in following religious dogma. For non-Mormon Christians, the terrors of Hell are significant (an understatement, really), and so-called “Catholic guilt” can be debilitating. For Mormons, the feeling that one gets is that one is a heavenly homewrecker, shunned in this life by one’s community, and in the next by God himself.

    I can see that it’s difficult for the author, and most of the commenters, to read that something so dear to them may be harmful. Understandable, as parenting is one of the most difficult endeavors one will encounter. Parental guilt rivals Catholic guilt, to be sure. The thought that you could be harming your child, despite your best intentions (and doing the things you have been assured all your life will result in eternal peace and happiness) must be intolerable. So much so that it would seem prohibitive even to consider. Which is a shame, as it would seem that there are ways to attenuate the negative impacts of religious upbringing and to enhance the positive, as long as one is willing to get beyond a very reactionary (and not especially accurate, in my opinion) interpretation of a provocative but representative (for many people) article.

    • adamf

      “I can see that it’s difficult for the author, and most of the commenters, to read that something so dear to them may be harmful.”
      Actually, having talked with MANY who have left their respective faiths over the years, this is not too difficult anymore.

      Thanks for your comment Jane. As I have not experienced sexual abuse nor emotional abuse related to the topic of religion (which I think it should be called), there is really no way I can debate this with you. That being said, to lump religious teaching all together as abuse (which it seems you are doing, although I’m not sure so please correct me) and say it’s worse than sexual abuse makes no sense.

      I DO agree that “emotional abuse” can be worse than sexual abuse. According to you and the article, it seems that religious teachings can take the form of emotional abuse. On that we can agree.

  • Rico

    I think you’re right that he could have been clearer with what he was saying, but, as I am sure you picked up from the book, there is a polemical tone and it certainly is not an academic treatment despite some outward appearances. Yet, I do not believe he was saying what has been imputed to him. I believe he was talking about emotional abuse that can occur in religion and that the breadth of the influence makes this worse.

  • adamf

    Good points Rico. I suppose my real problem (aside from my intense emotional reaction to this issue) is that he knows EXACTLY what he is saying. He is very intelligent, and acts like a scientist, yet writes polemics? I think he used the comparison to sexual abuse to slam religion as a *whole*, in the guise of just the “hellfire and damnation” issue that can take the form of emotional abuse.

    If he had said something like “some aspects of Catholicism (or religion), taken to an extreme, can be emotionally abusive, which can be worse than sexual abuse” I would have no problem. That’s not what he said. We CAN read into it that that’s what he meant, but he wasn’t that specific on purpose. Dawkins isn’t one to say things less clearly on accident.

  • Gretchen Paules

    The Let Go…Let Peace Come In Foundation is a newly formed nonprofit with a mission to help heal and support adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse worldwide. We are actively seeking adult survivors who would be willing to post a childhood photo and caption, their story, or their creative expressions to our website By uniting survivors from across the globe we can help provide a stronger and more powerful voice to those survivors who have not yet found the courage to speak out. Together we can; together we should; together we NEED to stand up and be counted. Please visit our site for more details on how you can send us your submissions.

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  • adamf

    I’ve been thinking more about this… While I have definitely calmed down a lot, I still stand by my initial point. Dawkins thinks we’d all be better off without religion — even to the point that religion is, at its very best, a misguided delusion. His purpose is to persuade people to stop believing. Anything he writes on the topic of *religion* (not science–I appreciate his more scientific stuff) is for this purpose. IF he does not really believe that religion is worse than sexual abuse, as some people have told me today, he should have been very clear that he was talking about “emotional abuse” as a whole, which can certainly be related to religion. I think it is a bit disingenuous to play apologetic on this, and suggest that his intention here is not to slam religion as a whole. That’s what he does, and I’m fine with it. I’m not fine with the insinuation.

  • cue

    Dawkins himself was sexually abused, as he mentioned in the article cited. With this in mind, I think his opinion on the matter is worth consideration given that experience and his own religious upbringing. Additionally, when one considers that many Christian denominations seemingly have tendencies to preach fearing the God, a patriarch authority figure who alone decides what is good or evil, who has established arbitrary rules that are impossible to follow, who does not admit to mistakes, who does not apologize, who does not condone backtalk… It begins to look like a check-off list for a controlling/abusive father (or husband).

    I think Jane sums up the Dawkins’ position rather eloquently. If I am sexually abused, I am the victim; the other person was wrong, it was not my fault. If I do not follow the doctrine, I am in the wrong; I am blamed and I meant to feel guilty (and may very well be cast into fire or darkness for eternity).

    • Adam

      “Additionally, when one considers that many Christian denominations seemingly have tendencies to preach fearing the God, a patriarch authority figure who alone decides what is good or evil, who has established arbitrary rules that are impossible to follow, who does not admit to mistakes, who does not apologize, who does not condone backtalk… It begins to look like a check-off list for a controlling/abusive father (or husband).”

      I’m curious to see a list of which denominations actually teach this. Westboro Baptist, possibly? If any do, they’re grossly misinterpreting Christianity as traditionally understood for millennia, and are committing abuse.

  • mossface

    I think there may be a case to be made that the concept of God, in and of itself is harmful. Yes emotional abuse happens within the framework of theism, but it also happens elsewhere. That being the case, I am underwhelmed with the argument that emotional abuse is what makes religion harmful.

    I would assert that faith is a form of magical thinking. If we define it as belief in the absence of evidence, I think it’s quite clear that it’s magical thinking. Insofar as we teach children that it is appropriate to believe without evidence, and believe without questioning, we are undermining their ability to think critically. Without the ability to think critically, we are unable to interact with the world as it really is.

    I was listening to a podcast today in which an LDS apologist explained the difference between a researcher and apologist, as he saw it. His assertion was that the apologist begins from a point of belief, and seeks to defend that belief through reason. The researcher begins (hopefully), from a point of agnosticism, and seeks evidence, wherever it may lead. This illustrates my point. It occurs to me that the apologist does not apply critical thinking to the issue under discussion. The critical thinker must be willing to go where the evidence leads, not seek evidence to justify a pre-determined conclusion.

    Anyway, my assertion is that faith cripples our ability to see, understand, and react to the world as it stands. To raise our children to rely on faith is, to my estimation, to cripple them intellectually.

    Now certainly there is a large gradient, both between religions and within Mormonism, so there is a large gradient of effects as well. As with sexual abuse.

  • adamf

    Thanks for the comment mossface.

    Two thoughts:

    I agree about starting from a point of agnosticism. Both apologists and those who have left the church have a hard time (perhaps it’s impossible) starting from that ground.

    I disagree that faith cripples us intellectually as a rule. While it certainly may have that affect on some, I have found it to be not only intellectually stimulating, but it is largely what drives me to discover, understand, and “react to the world as it stands.” Obviously I can only speak for myself on this, but I get where you’re coming from. My sister once proclaimed to me that “faith dulls the edge of discovery.” Again, perhaps it does for many, but for me faith is a huge part of what drives me to discover.

  • G

    It was just last week (or maybe the week before?) that I read the part of God Delusion where he touches upon this topic. At first I was put off by what seemed at first to be a negating of the effects of sexual molestation (he wrote to some length about the scandals within the Catholic church). And I still don’t buy the blanket equating of religion = abuse. But I do very much believe in the harmful effects of religious indoctrination and the mental trauma caused when an individual loses faith after a conservative/traditional upbringing.

    I think Alisa did a better job of comparisons when she equated the LDS tradition of prepping children for baptism with grooming them for arranged marriages.

  • AdamF

    I agree, there can be harmful things that people experience related to religion, esp. when losing faith.

    I LOVE the Exponent, btw. The arranged marriage analogy kind of falls flat for me, but I get her point.

  • Steve

    I have a good friend that was raised with “Hell fire and brimstone” sermons. For many who experience this as a child, it is torture and their thoughts and dreams become nightmares.

    It seems useful, however, to take this topic out of the context of religion for a minute. Humans do many acts that lack empathy and concern for others true well being. To me, no comparison of sexual abuse and religious abuse is necessary. Separating abuse into separate categorizes may make us lose the most important point. That we humans act with cruelty and ignorance under many contexts, and that the heart and mind need awakening and compassion to prevent these things. Whether one’s alibi is religion or something else, looking deeply into the true motive and consequence of our actions is most relevant.

    The risk with religion, however, is the way that it can encourage “belief” without evidence. So people can persist in an idea, like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” without really looking at the evidence before their eyes. I’ve seen this in many Christian homes. But this can happen with politics or any fervent ideology.

    A free, perceptive mind and a compassionate heart cuts through much of this it seems.

    Dawkins is on a Crusade of his own, and even if all religions were outlawed there would be now way to magically eliminate the harmful tendencies in the human species.

    Free your mind from your notions. Open your heart and mind to awareness and compassion…

  • AdamF

    “The risk with religion, however, is the way that it can encourage “belief” without evidence. So people can persist in an idea, like “Spare the rod, spoil the child” without really looking at the evidence before their eyes.”

    Thanks for the comment, I agree with much of it. However, I do not completely agree with the above. “Belief” is by its nature without evidence, and your example would be “belief in the face on contrary evidence” which I agree, can lead to some harmful outcomes.

    • SteveS

      Ya, I agree with your clarification. The word belief can be murky water. On the other hand, it seems with sufficient evidence belief becomes “knowing.” Maybe using the scientific terms hypothesis and theory would be clearer. Scientists tend to shy away from such certain words as “knowing” with certainty and simply call is the best explanation currently known–theory. Then hypothesis is reserved for those hunches often based on inductive reasoning. Also, what constitutes evidence can vary considerably between various scientists and religious folk… 🙂

  • Craig

    I too (provisionally) agree with Dawkins on this, having also experienced both of these forms of abuse. I do also think that it depends on the person, and there are certainly less abusive religions and more abusive forms/instances of sexual abuse, so it’s not a perfect comparison. It was, for me, a lot easier to get over and come to terms with sexual abuse, but far more difficult to overcome decades of religious emotional and intellectual abuse.

  • Steve

    Personally, I think the comparison is wrong. It’s a bit like arguing rather one would rather have their eye plucked out by a bird or their arm torn off by a bear.

  • adamf

    Craig – I can’t argue with someone’s personal experience! That is interesting though, that the emotional/intellectual abuse from religion has been much more complex and long-lasting than the effects of sexual abuse.

    Steve – Agreed. I would add that it’s like arguing rather one would like to have a pet bird that may be a good pet, or may pluck out your eye, or have your arm torn off by a bear.

    Perhaps if Dawkins said (and maybe this is what he meant) that religion-related abuse is worse than sexual abuse, it would make more sense. Just comparing indoctrinating kids with beliefs to sexual abuse makes no sense.

  • John

    Not sure what this blog is based on, but I am assuming this – – is what prompted it. Dawkins is not using hyperbole her, he is genuinely saying that religious indoctrination can be worse than sexual abuse. He does make some allowances for different levels of abuse, but his argument is fairly straight-foward and sound.

  • adamf

    Good assumption – I have that linked in the first paragraph. 🙂

    I agree in the sense that “emotional abuse” (which can CERTAINLY take the form of religion) can be worse than sexual abuse. No argument there. My point when I wrote this was that Dawkins is insinuating that religion per se, i.e. just being in a church, is worse than sexual abuse. Maybe that’s not what he’s saying, but come on, Dawkins for sure wants religion to be done away with, in general. I don’t have a problem with him thinking that way. Great. But when one says they are against religion on principle, and then says some religious indoctrination is worse than sexual abuse, it’s not TOO much of a stretch to interpret that as ALL religion is worse. I would bet that’s actually what he thinks. If not, it’s the message that gets sent and he should clarify that he actually doesn’t have the same issue with non-abusive religious practices (if he thinks that even exists).

    Thanks for the comment!

    • Anonymous

      You are entirely taking his comments out of context. He was talking about religions which remove the chilidrens rights to their own selves, shame them and marginalize them. He did not say simply being in a church was cause for religious abuse. As a victim I feel very insulting with how little you seem to take it seriously. Is sexual abuse or other forms of physical abuse the only ones that count? It seems so.

      • shenpa warrior

        Thanks for the comment anonymous. My apologies.

        I think the real (and somewhat pointless) argument that has been going on here is not in “which abuse is worse” because all of it can be very damaging. The real argument is in “what is Dawkins’ goal whenever he speaks about religion?” We don’t need to debate about the nature of this or that abuse, I agree, 100%.

  • wheelchair ramp

    Richard Dawkins do not generalize all religions. There are lot of religions, some are not worst as what you are thinking…yeah, you are right that emotional abuse is worse than sexual abuse but please do not refer all emotional abuse to RELIGION. We do have different religions.

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  • Anonymous

    Religious abuse is extremely traumatic, but very little research has been done on it. Does it matter which is worse? What you are all doing is marginalizing those who have experienced extreme religious abuse. Religious abuse is shocking; it is like experiencing the death of your entire family, only worse, because now they all hate you, despise you, or think of you as evil. You must build an entirely new life for yourself; no joke.

  • Lily

    I was just reading Richard Dawkins book. I love science. My husband is a scientist. I like Richard Dawkin’s book about evolution and I had no problem with his book The God Delusion until I got to the chapter about child abuse. It was very disturbing and hurtful. I was close to tears and felt like I was going to throw up. He makes a statement that implies he may have had a one time minor experience with sexual abuse as a child and talks about one other woman that had a one-time minor sexual abuse incident with a priest. But, those experiences are not very traumatic sexual abuse. I really don’t understand what his problem is to write about that in his book. When I was a young child I was severely sexually abused by a man in the step-fathering role (I didn’t have any other father). The abuse was sexual, physical, and emotional/mental. The sexual abuse, for me, was the absolute worst. The physical and emotional/mental abuse was an extension of the sexual abuse, which was his main goal. He wanted me to be completely submissive to him. He had complete control over my life. He could do and say whatever he wanted to me. He terrorized me. When he was shoving his penis down my throat I thought I was going to die (I was 6 and 7 years old). I tried hiding from him at night and he threatened to hurt my twin brother if I didn’t stop hiding from him. He also threatened my life and said other extremely sadistic things he was going to do to me. Initially I loved him so deeply, but then I was just terrified by him and I felt completely worthless. My teachers were trying to find out what was wrong and if something was happening to me (I stopped talking). I wanted to tell them. But, I was completely overwhelmed. I didn’t know who was safe. I could go on and on about the abuse and the environment I was in while it was happening and how I felt, but I won’t do that. In the end the abuser left us and stole all our money. I’m trying not to be too sensitive about what Richard Dawkins said, but it is just so damaging when people say that sexual abuse is really not so bad. It is embarrassing for me to write all this. I just found this because I did a search to see if anyone else felt the way I did. Please don’t listen to Richard Dawkins when he talks about sexual abuse. When it comes to that issue, he does not know what he is talking about. His one time experience is not the same as long term sexual violence that a person has to live with in their own home. It was very traumatic to me at the time that it was happening and the impact was long term. Richard Dawkins has his own bias when it comes to that issue and I don’t know why. I guess he knows people that were pedophiles that experienced harassment. I just really don’t want to be attacked or mocked for what I wrote here. I don’t have a victim mentality and I am happy and healthy in my life now, but I still have difficult feelings that come up. Why can’t he just stick to talking about evolution and atheism?

    • shenpa warrior

      Thank you Lily for the comment. While I do realize that this post has some controversial topics, I appreciate the rather diverse reactions to it. People definitely get upset or offended or [insert one’s word of choice here] when comparisons are made between different types of suffering. Perhaps that’s because comparisons feel so invalidating, like the other person just doesn’t “get” it, or is just really not listening. I have definitely learned a lot from the comments here.

      Re: Dawkins – Agreed – I admire much of his work, while at the same time he is a “popular author” who writes for the masses, and needs to sell the Dawkins brand, just like any other salesperson. It’s going to come across as sensationalism.

      • Lily

        Thank you for your reply. I know my response was emotional.

        Yeah, it isn’t right to make comparisons, and then I find myself running the risk of making a comparison in trying to defend myself. So, it’s generally just a good idea for a person not to make comparisons like that in the first place. There are a lot of people that are very misguided about sexual abuse and Richard Dawkins is just adding to that (not that he cares). There are also plenty of people that have a religion and they raise their children in a very healthy and loving home and accept them for who they are and don’t tell them they are going to hell and don’t abuse them in any way. A person could even raise their children in a religion and then read his book and change their ways because their intention was not to cause harm. Abuse is bad whether it is done for sexual gratification, sadistic desires or for religious control. So, all around it’s just a very extreme comparison for him to have made. I find generalizations like what Dawkins said to be absurd. He is an intelligent scientist, but he is biased about the sexual abuse issue. And of course sexual abuse is also emotional abuse. What Richard Dawkins wrote is hurtful and it hurts his own points in the long run. I have been looking around to find other people that found this aspect of his writing to be disturbing, but it’s challenging to find people that have responded to this in a rational way and are not just using it as an addition to their general dislike of him. I have lost respect for him as a person. I still have respect for him as an intelligent scientist. To be honest in reading his article in which he elaborates on it I am unsure of what he is trying to say. Is he saying that people should not face consequences for sexually abusing children and we should just allow them to do it, or is he saying we should send people to jail for raising their children in a religion? You see, he is mixing up his own point. Is his issue that he thinks religious abuse is bad? or is his issue that he thinks sexual abuse is not bad? He says that if people report the sex abusers to the police many years later it must be for the emotional harm and not the physical harm because the physical wounds have healed. But, I’d also like to point out that the main reason why a person finally gets the courage to report the abuser to the police is mainly to protect other children from a harmful predator (in addition to the short-term and long term physical and emotional injuries).

  • Lily

    Also, I just want to say that people here are saying that when someone is sexually abused they know it is not their fault. That is not true for a lot of people. The abuser told me it was my fault for turning him on and he said I was bad. I believed him. A part of me has always felt like it was somehow my fault. I was a child. I could not understand what sexuality was or why he was doing it to me. I’m not saying what I went through was worse than religious abuse. I can see how serious and damaging that is. But, it is important also not to minimize sex abuse. It is very damaging and it is mental/emotional/physical abuse as well, that’s how they get kids to keep it secret. Some sex offenders are also violent.

    Also, I don’t know anything about how Richard Dawkins was abused, so I don’t want to minimize his abuse or anyone’s abuse. Just that clearly his experience was different from mine (based on what he said about his abuse just being embarrassing and that was it).

  • Elaine

    I personally have been a victim of both rape/childhood sexual assault (not my parents fault) as well as emotional abuse due to my parents being in a religious cult for my upbringing up until age 17. I can say that while overcoming rape and sexual abuse was extremely difficult and left me messed up emotionally and mentally, I have had a much harder time dealing with the emotional and spiritual abuse. While many if not most religious upbringings do minimal harm or are beneficial, I can honestly say that at least for me overcoming the pain of sexual assault was much easier than facing 17 years in a cult.

  • Lily

    I’m sorry to hear that you went through that. My family is also in a cult, but it was not too harmful to me (I think probably a very different situation than you). I think things would have been a lot better if we had not gone into that cult when I was a teenager. And it’s tough that they are still with it. But, I think for my family it was because of the abuse that they chose to seek denial inside of a cult. Also when I was being abused in my home, the spiritual beliefs of my family were also part of why I thought I could not get help from the abuse. Did you read the chapter in the book? Or the article that he wrote about it (I have located that and read it since the last time I commented here)? I don’t see why it needs to be a comparison. What Richard Dawkins said about sexual abuse was very ignorant and lacking in empathic understanding. To make it a comparison is absurd.

  • Lily

    I think the confusion people are having is that abuse within the family structure often does have a more profound traumatic impact on a person. I was sexually abused within my home as a very young child by my step father (I had no other father, actually my bio father had abused me as an infant and then was out of my life, but I was too young to remember him). The rapes I experienced by my stepfather were ongoing, severe and physically violent and mentally abusive as well. I was then also raped at the age of 9 outside of my home. That was traumatic and I felt that for a long time. At this point in my life, I no longer experience trauma symptoms when I remember the rape that happened outside my home at the age of 9 (that was by an older boy and I was physically forced as well but he was not a sociopath, I did not live with him, he was not my parent and he did not have complete control over my life on a long term basis). But, I do still struggle with severe and long term post traumatic stress disorder from the sexual abuse that occurred within my home, by my stepfather (he is a sociopath), and he was an adult (20 years older than me). That abuse has impacted my whole life and I have physical problems still as a result of it. And in addition to that when I remember it I still begin to shake rapidly and have trouble breathing, and lose my coordination and muscular control of my legs (as well as a feeling of extreme terror and I cry even though I don’t want to). Those years were a living hell for me and I feared for my life on a daily basis.

  • shenpa warrior

    Elaine & Lily – Thanks for the continued discussion. I really appreciate it, and I did not initially expect it when I first posted this.

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