Child Sex Abuse & Richard Dawkins: An Unusual Perspective on Giving Voice to the Trauma of “Immeasurable Fear” of Millions of Children

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One of my first jobs out of law school was an Assistant Attorney General handling child protective cases. In that job I saw hideous photos – including scars from child sex rape. Child sex abuse usually happened within a family and usually was considered a private matter until recent decades. I know. 

My mother was possibly the longest serving child protective investigator in America — so child sex abuse matters to me. 

 


It matters so much that when I was elected to my legislature, a top focus for me was initiating laws to better protect children from sexual predators. I’ve also spent multiple times on tour with Richard Dawkins. 

This combination leads me to offer a distinct perspective on the experience of a woman who at age seven was sexually fondled by a priest.  

In addition to this trauma, this woman, at about the same age, faced the horror of a childhood friend dying while having the “knowledge” — drummed into her as a child — that her friend would burn in hell. Why? Because this other child happened to be Protestant — not Catholic.  The woman said she never lost sleep based on the “yucky” (her words) fondling. She was deeply traumatized by the “knowledge” of hellfire for her friend.  She recounted: “I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.”  She felt “cold, immeasurable fear.” She concluded that, in her experience, the emotional abuse of threatened hellfire was worse than fondling. (While each child abuse experience is unique, her experience is no less valid).

Would you condemn this woman? Is this woman “militant”? Is she “fundamentalist?” My guess is you’d say no such thing. Yet many have described Richard Dawkins this way for daring to recount her experiences and her conclusion. A Catholic online publication called Dawkins “infamous” as it went on to say that hell was real and a “matter of choice.”

While Richard Dawkins faced a bad experience that I have not (child molestation), I have extensive experience dealing with public policy and child sex abuse. I chaired a Commission on the topic and worked on the issue for years. 

To me threatened hellfire has, from my childhood, been no more real than Thor, but, as an adult, I’d see photographs of trauma after child rape. So when this woman, who was fondled, says hellfire mythology is worse, I might be inclined to differ — but NOT after going on three speaking tours with Richard Dawkins. 

Prof. Peter Higgs recently insinuated Prof. Dawkins was “fundamentalist.”  I’d ask Mr. Higgs, whom I greatly respect, to listen to people — the many people — I meet on a Dawkins tour.  Time and again – literally hundreds of times now – I’ve seen people tell Prof. Dawkins — or tell me or tell our Executive Director Dr. Elisabeth Cornwell – how Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, freed them from trauma of hellfire, similar to the trauma that this woman described as worse than sexual abuse.  

Yet somehow we witness the intellectual acrobatics that Richard Dawkins must be condemned as harsh, or fundamentalist, because he dares to have compassion for a woman in this situation.  Think of it. There’s nothing in this woman’s statement that should be dismissed. Yet Richard Dawkins must be condemned for daring to recount her trauma? 

The woman victim — terrorized by her religion (a religion not typically labeled fundamentalist) – has experienced a trauma that she describes as “immeasurable fear” with “sleepless nights.” 

Millions of people face this fear, the same sleepless nights – and yet they often think they are totally alone. How dare Richard Dawkins be so rude – so impolite – as to let these victims be heard!? And remember: this cruelty is imposed by organized powerful institutions. Challenge the powerful on behalf of children!? How awful.

Only if someone prominent –  someone famous – allows the voice of those traumatized to be heard can others know they are not alone. As someone who has devoted much of my life to protecting children from abuse, there can be no more noble cause.

Richard Dawkins has chosen to give voice to the trauma this woman experienced. Doing so challenges accepted order, established tradition. Whenever one does the right thing for those in the shadows, the powerful rush to condemn, conformists rush to agree.

Others, including many non-religious people, including the justly-admired Peter Higgs, may choose not to give voice to these victims — and to the trauma they suffered. These victims – millions of victims, millions terrorized – are given hope by Richard Dawkins, a hope I’ve seen by the hundreds on every tour with this decent and honorable man. 

I hope Peter Higgs, also an honorable man, and the millions like him (and like me) who have never been subjected to the terror of hellfire will take a step back, step back from the inclination to avoid controversy, the inclination to not ruffle the prominent feathers — and face the stark reality that human beings are harmed by this terror. I hope they will do the right thing for these victims, and tell the truth about dogmatic childhood indoctrination. I have seen the truth set many people free. In my first hearing as a legislator, a Harvard man was nominated for a judgeship. The insiders — the “right people” — were on his side, but women came forward testifying to his sexual harassment. I’m as proud now to stand by the victims of abuse — who’s story Richard Dawkins has told — as I was proud to stand by the women who were sexually harassed despite the discomfort it caused “the right people.” Anyone who really cares about child abuse will stand with Richard Dawkins. In another time, the fight against child sex abuse, that has been so much of my career, was considered a “private” matter. It takes courage to bravely face the form of child abuse that society has yet to face.

Written By: Sean Faircloth
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14 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the gist of this message – that religious abuse must be recognised. Peter Higgs entered the discussion on a whole another matter though. His complaint about Richard was not specifically about the degrees of abuse, but about Richard being a “fundamentalist atheist” in general. Higgs’ opinions should be confronted in a thread about his Guardian interview. (Also, I think this piece would benefit from a proofread.)

  2. In reply to #1 by ergaster:

    Peter Higgs entered the discussion on a whole another matter though. His complaint about Richard was not specifically about the degrees of abuse, but about Richard being a “fundamentalist atheist” in general.

    Unfortunately, like so many, Peter Higgs has just uncritically accepted the “strawkins-straw-atheist” image, put about as a mirrored projection of the fundamentalists Richard criticises. – An image promoted by their stooges and the lazy (let’s not bother with facts – any hyped story will sell) media sensationalists.

    It is a, “Debate the false-dichotomy, false-controversy” argument, which totally ignores evidence, and pretends there are two opposing fundamentalist views, rather than a large diversity of evidenced viewpoints (none of which support the dogmatic fundamentalist position!).

  3. Well said Sean, I was moved by this essay and clearly feel much the same as you do on this issue. I always notice the harsh response people have when I bring important issues up in font of them and it generally comes down to a form of cognitive dissonance. People just don’t want to accept an issue as a prominent issue because it might mean changing certain aspects of their world view or they fear being criticised. This case is no different the accounts from many people in this vein other than this individual (you can see some on twitter posts between Richard and courageous people speaking out) is there at face value but people choose to interpret it in a manner that means they don’t have to understand its importance or do anything about it.

  4. Thanks for your efforts Sean. I think Richard Dawkins and his team have done more good for humanity than all the popes in history put together. The momentum you are creating is becoming unstoppable and is changing the course of history very positively!

  5. Religious indoctrination and a firm belief in hell scarred me deeply as a child. I still have (infrequent) nightmares. I can never and will never forget the terror and dread that hell inspired in me. Sexual predation and Religious abuse are two different evils, and the only people who can truly compare them are those who have survived both… and there are differing levels of severity for each. I, for one, was glad to see Richard Dawkins’ inclusion of my silent voice in his book.

  6. Helping with the proofread: “who’s story Richard” change to “whose story Richard”

    Re the comments about Richard being a “fundamentalist atheist” I think the public would be less susceptible to this if we can agree on the useage of what constitutes an “atheist”. Richard’s sliding scale does not really help.

    The state of atheism is a mind which either has a) never been presented with theist claims (usually a child), or b) a mind which having been presented with theist claims rejects them and so contains no belief in one or more gods. Atheism is a response to theistic claims.

    So atheism is an either or state, you can’t be a 6.9 on the scale of belief, you are either 0 or 1.

    Knowledge is another brain state. Knowledge is a subset of belief and of course it is possible to be 6.9 on the gnostic scale of 1 to 7 since we cannot know for certain.

    But we CAN hold a belief for certain, of the existence of a claimed entity or not.

    The thing is, if you say you believe 0.1 in gods then you have a mind which believes in gods. I do not think that RD does have a mind like that, but he does not make this clear.

    Also the common thing he says about we are all atheist about Thor etc is also misleading. Atheist refers to ANY gods, so it is irrelevant which one we are talking about. Better to say to them that your theism holds a Yahweh shaped hole, which could also have been molded to fit Thor if he was the first one presented to your mind, and associated with the correct stimuli. You know what it is like not to believe in Thor, apply that to Yahweh for a glimpse into an atheist mind.

  7. @Kiwi – Re the comments about Richard being a “fundamentalist atheist” I think the public would be less susceptible to this if we can agree on the useage of what constitutes an “atheist”.

    The term “fundamentalist atheist”, is just a false dichotomy and psychological projection, concocted by theist apologists.

    This has been extensively debated here, but the definitions of atheist are:

    • An understanding of the lack of evidence for the existence of gods.

    • A lack of belief in the existence of gods.

    Richard’s sliding scale does not really help.
    So atheism is an either or state, you can’t be a 6.9 on the scale of belief, you are either 0 or 1.

    This conclusion is wrong!
    Richard’s 1 – 7 scale is about the intellectual honesty, in considering the POSSIBILITY of a god on the basis of available evidence, not the actual existence of one.

    The state of atheism is a mind which either has
    a) never been presented with theist claims (usually a child), or

    b) a mind which having been presented with theist claims rejects them and so contains no belief in one or more gods.
    Atheism is a response to theistic claims.

    Clearly, this is not so in case “a”, and in the example of case “b” the rejection would be specific to the particular theist or deist claim.

    The thing is, if you say you believe 0.1 in gods then you have a mind which believes in gods. I do not think that RD does have a mind like that, but he does not make this clear.

    Richard has made this very clear in many of his written works and video comments.

    Also the common thing he says about we are all atheist about Thor etc is also misleading. Atheist refers to ANY gods, so it is irrelevant which one we are talking about.

    The scale is not irrelevant when refuting claims made by theists about their specific god(s).
    Theists will agree that other people’s gods are false and have been refuted, but claim theirs is the “TRRRrroooo god”!
    The introduction of Thor, Zeus etc, challenges the theist presumption that the existence of THEIR god is a “taken as read”, starting point for debate.
    It also introduces the onus on them to prove why their god should be accepted on “faith” , when other gods also only have similar “faith” for support, from other religious groups.

    The atheist view is that theists require definitions, properties, and evidence, for their god’s existence, BEFORE any connection to external material reality (outside their heads) can have any credibility.

    Many theists define “atheism” as: “a denial of (their presumed existence of) their god”, and so claim the onus of proof is on atheists to disprove or accept their god (Which is usually ill-defined, and well wrapped, in semantic obfuscation and self contradictions).

    Because the 1 – 7 Dawkins Scale is about probability, a different probability of refutation is possible for different god or supernatural claims.
    (Some are easily refuted by simple science, or exposed a trickery, so would rate a “7″!)

  8. It is truly disturbing and disgusting to see how an elite Scientist of Higgs stature would protect a trillion dollar industry of lies, violence and delusion and attack a Scientist in this case Richard who tries to spread reason and Science.
    I admire Richard for his mental strength, he is getting attacks from every side nonstop. I will support him as much as I can.
    Higgs knows how to make progress in particle physics and at the same time he knows how to slow Reason and Social Progress. Congratulations Higgs stay a lab rat and support the billion religious sheep around the world. This huge Behemoth of money and violence apparently needs your support.

  9. As does this one- “Whole another matter”In reply to #1 by ergaster:

    I agree with the gist of this message – that religious abuse must be recognised. Peter Higgs entered the discussion on a whole another matter though. His complaint about Richard was not specifically about the degrees of abuse, but about Richard being a “fundamentalist atheist” in general. Higgs’ opinions should be confronted in a thread about his Guardian interview. (Also, I think this piece would benefit from a proofread.)

  10. Sean thank you for this, we are confronting hideous child rape and abuse in South Africa – even tiny babies are raped. Some of the “excuses” are that females ask for it. Yet religion has a very strong hold here, confirming that religion does not stop this type of abuse

  11. Very well said. I totally agree. Dawkins is spot on. I think if most people objectively think about it they could see the logic of the analogy too. Both physical and emotional (as in the case of heavy indoctrination and inducing fear through religion) have sliding scales. At the top end of both they can have traumatic consequences for life. Hence the analogy is a very appropriate one. Yes it sounds shocking when you first hear it because people aren’t used to hearing the consequences of religion being so damaging, but as is being discovered more and more they most certainly can be. The fact that the analogy does sound shocking is all the more reason to use it so as to raise peoples consciousness to the damage it can cause and hopefully to make them seriously reconsider indoctrinating their child and specifically not using the threat of hellfire for eternity in any way. Once again Richard Dawkins is well ahead of most of the community and is very insightful. We should continue to be gratefully for his tireless efforts in trying to help us all create a rational and caring world.

  12. I’m gna go out on a limb and suggest that Richard (like myself) is open to the possibility of a “god”, just NOT any of the aforementioned ones, and I will further suggest that he will continue to be open to this possibility until such time that science COMPLETELY rules it out as a ‘possibility”.
    Let me put it another way- Every time I purchase a lottery ticket I am open to the “possibility’ that I might win a million dollars, and I’m also keenly aware of just how improbable my winning a million dollars actually is, but until I actually scratch the ticket & COMPLETELY rule out the chance of winning I have to be open to the possibility, regardless of the probability…understand?

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