AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 5

In the final part of my series re-examining The God Delusion, I consider Dawkins’ positive case for atheism and reflect on the book’s impact on my personal atheism, humanism and secularism (AHS+).

Chapter 9. Childhood, abuse and the escape from religion

The chapter opens with an anecdote of the 1858 case of Edgardo Mortar. Edgardo was six years old when the local Catholic authorities discovered that the child of Italian Jewish parents in Bologna had been baptised by a nanny while unwell, and legally kidnapped him to be raised by a Catholic family. The case provides examples of everything Dawkins finds ridiculous, dangerous and unjust about religion: a magic spell being treated as if it means something, authoritarian religious authorities, otherwise ordinary people blinded to this horrific abuse by religion, and a warped concept of religious freedom being used to justify the abuse – all taking place in a not so distance past and within relatively mainstream religion.

Rather problematically, Dawkins seems to suggest some fault on the part of the parents as they could have in theory agreed to being baptised themselves in order to recover their child. From an atheist perspective the whole baptism idea is nonsense anyway:

“The Mortaras could not bring themselves to seize the opportunity offered by the meaningless rite of baptism. Couldn’t they cross their fingers, or whisper ‘not’ under their breath while being baptized? No, they couldn’t, because they had been brought up in a (moderate) religion, and therefore took the whole ridiculous charade seriously.”

This sort of thinking by some atheists is deeply problematic. The world would be a better place if everyone abandoned the irrational beliefs and faith-based thinking of religion. But religion is also part of people’s culture and heritage. Attempting to persuade people out of beliefs or harmful practices is one thing; stripping them of their identity is another. Had the Mortaras given in they would likely have continued to be subject to anti-Semitic prejudice while loosing the protection of their community and encouraging other such abuses.

In this chapter Dawkins argues persuasively that we need to better respect children’s rights to freedom of thought. But rights don’t exist in isolation. Children also have the right to a personal and family life; parents have the right (though not absolute) to raise their children as they believe is best.

Dawkins asks: “Even without physical abduction, isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?” Perhaps, but the term “child abuse” may be too black and white, instead we should be exploring the difficult questions about the limits to parents’ ability to raise their children in accordance with their religion, which might be necessary to protect their independent rights.

This then leads into a section on physical and mental abuse, where Dawkins makes in my opinion some of the grossest missteps of the book. His reasonable point is that there are aspects of religious practice, including inculcating fear of eternal punishment, and restricting intellectual development, which a more enlightened society may view as analogous to child abuse. However, he ends up in a weird detour where he appears to minimise paedophilia and the impact of child sexual abuse. He suggests that the Catholic Church among others religious institutions are “unfairly demonized”.

There are legitimate points to make about whether society’s moral outrage at paedophilia may at times lead to those accused not having fair access to justice, treatment or rehabilitation. There may even be legitimate points to make about other less extreme religious abuses of children’s rights creating more overall harm, simply because they are more common. But this section is pretty embarrassing.

In Dawkins defence, this was written in a time where the extent of institutional child abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church was only beginning to enter public consciousness. The Catholic Church and other religious institutions with endemic child abuse also put a lot of effort into encouraging the idea that this is a terrible problem of the past being dragged up, rather than a live issue. Throughout the world over the last two decades AHS+ groups have played a leading role in challenging clerical abuse. It was still disappointing to read this passage in such an influential book within the movement.

Dawkins also writes about his own experiences with what he described as mild child sexual abuse at school. He is a product of England’s elite private school system. This is a part of Britain’s establishment where bullying, racism, religion, sexual abuse and many other problematic practices are unfortunately normalised. Dawkins attitude in this section of the chapter is a reminder that getting rid of religious beliefs does not free one from all the baggage that comes with such socialisation.

In the rest of this section, Dawkins talks about various encounters he has had with people left traumatised by relatively mainstream religious indoctrination. In highlighting the very real harm this can do, Dawkins does a big service and shows how the new atheist movement was able to raise consciousness and start an important debate. But in a few of his less empathetic responses the reader gets the sense that Dawkins feels if people were just as smart as him and saw through the religious nonsense, that they would all be fine and this emotional harm would just disappear.

The chapter doesn’t take that wide an exploration of the potential abuses of children’s rights that are enabled by religion and its privileged role in society. So, both the sociological and philosophical engagement with this subject is a little shallow. But it is books like this and the atheist movement that have helped open up that debate. Dawkins draws heavily on ideas from psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, recounting a lecture where Humphrey considers some of the implications for parental freedom if we respect children’s rights to make up their own minds and whether this means some protection from indoctrination is needed.

“Parents, correspondingly, have no God-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.”

Dawkins explores issues like female genital mutilation and religious attempts to opt out of secular education, where the liberal impulses to respect other’s cultures and protect the vulnerable come into conflict.

Next Dawkins considers the “educational scandal” of Tony Blair’s New Labour government and their expansion of faith schools, through the city academies programme which laid the foundation for the later academy programme which have dramatically increased religious control of faith and non-faith state funded schools in England.

This section is now a little dated. Dawkins focuses on the example of the Emmanuel College in Gateshead and their teaching of creationism, which has largely been put stop to thanks to the campaigning of groups like The National Secular Society and Humanists UK. Again, we see the tendency from earlier in the book to focus on the evolution and creationist issue where Dawkins is most confident, rather than many of the other social problems caused by faith schools. For example, discrimination in admissions. Dawkins’ point is that religious indoctrination should be seen as an abuse of children’s rights that is enabled by societal privileging of religion: “They were being let down by their school, and their school principal was abusing, not their bodies, but their minds.”

That some forms of religious indoctrination are abuses of children’s rights seems to me undeniable. But there are difficult questions about where the line between appropriate, inappropriate and unacceptable religious inculcation should be drawn. That’s why a humanist or a secularist, rather than purely atheistic approach is needed to these issues.

Dawkins returns explicitly to the theme of consciousness raising towards the end of the chapter, and it’s probably his best example of it:

“At Christmas-time one year my daily newspaper, the Independent, was looking for a seasonal image and found a heart-warmingly ecumenical one at a school nativity play. The Three Wise Men were played by, as the caption glowingly said,’ Shadbreet (a Sikh), Musharaff (a Muslim) and Adele (a Christian), all aged four.’”

Dawkins points out the strains that many atheist groups go to avoid even the suggestion of childhood indoctrination. He invites the reader to imagine the caption with the religious labels imposed on these children replaced with political or philosophical ones “Shadbreet (a Keynesian), Musharaff (a Monetarist) and Adele (a Marxist), all aged four.” We have normalised the imposition of religious labels and all the associated baggage on children. Having had my consciousness raised to this I follow Dawkins’ advice and always refer to a “child of X parents” or “child of X background”, as these best respects their identity and freedom of thought.

At the end of the Chapter Dawkins has an aside on religious, or more accurately biblical, literacy: “I must admit that even I am a little taken aback at the biblical ignorance commonly displayed by people educated in more recent decades than I was.” It is a point that many atheists make, perhaps being defensive about being accused of wanting to wipe out religion. The point is simple, though I do think the moral panic about a lack of religious literacy is often overblown: religion has had a massive influence on our literary and cultural heritage which is worth understanding to remain connected to that heritage and relate to others.

Chapter 10. A much needed gap?

This chapter features a bit of a return to the evolutionary psychoanalysis of religion seen in earlier chapters. The point here is considering the psychological and other needs filled by religion and whether atheistic or humanistic ways of living could better fulfil these:

“But could it be that God clutters up a gap that we’d be better off filling with something else? Science, perhaps? Art? Human friendship? Humanism? Love of this life in the real world, giving no credence to other lives beyond the grave?”

The role of imaginary friends and inner monologues – and our occasional difficulty distinguishing the latter – are discussed. Dawkins argues that religion – again largely treating it as one phenomenon- has been used to fulfil four roles: “explanation, exhortation, consolation and inspiration”. There are some issues with this section. Firstly, I don’t think it addresses the positive or negative role religion as an organising social system plays. Secondly there is an asymmetric focus on these four needs. When he returns to his focus on exhorting science communication, Dawkins gives powerful examples of atheistic worldviews superior ability to explain the real world and the ability of that to inspire. The chapter doesn’t have as much to say about the consoling power of humanism, something the atheist movement still needs to be better at. The point that “Religion’s power to console doesn’t make it true” is itself true and easy to make but does not address the need for consolation in the first place.

The discussion of there being “no evidence that atheists have any general tendency towards unhappy, angst-ridden despond” is interesting and in the years since has been a highly researched topic within the sociology of religion and belief.

Dawkins ends this chapter and the book proper with a dicey section entitled “the mother of all burkas”. In preparation for this review, I listened to the book in audio format and winced at this subheading. His intent in this section to use the narrow slit of the Burka as a metaphor for restrictions on freedom of thought. Handled sensitively, this could be a powerful metaphor. Indeed, many women who have escaped oppressive forms of Islam have used that metaphor in deeply moving ways.

The burka is complicated and has different meanings to different people. There are complicated reasons why people may choose or not choose to wear it or not. It is a misogynistic tool for the oppression and control of women. It is possible – indeed, I would say essential – to be honest about this, while recognising, being appalled at, and challenging the ways in which racist attacks and discourse on the burka are used to marginalise and demonise Muslim women. Given all this baggage, it was clearly unwise of Dawkins to use it in this way, and it undermines an interesting section that is an ode to the beauty and potential for wonder in a scientific worldview.


In part one of this series, I introduced my interest in revisiting the book, and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In part two I considered the book’s responses to arguments for the existence of a god. In part three I critiqued Dawkins’ exploration of the naturalistic roots of religion and morality. In part four, I reviewed Dawkins’ moral case against religion.

When I decided to launch this blog and start a new chapter in my personal atheist activism I wanted to revisit and reflect on some of my earlier influences, because I felt these might speak to others on a similar journey. Time and again on this re-read I found myself being pulled in two directions: that of fan and critic.

The Dawkins critic kept bumping on the book’s over simplicity. The Dawkins fan kept wanting to respond: yes, but that is a product of the book’s scope and the difficulty in introducing this to a populist audience with very little exposure to atheist arguments.

Ending this series, I feel a bit of a sense of freedom. Now I have revisited and processed my feelings about this part of the history of the atheist movement I can focus on the contemporary and the future. The atheist, humanist, secularist community can, has and should continue to do better than books like The God Delusion. But that doesn’t take away from how powerful and influential the book was. It’s like a problematic grandparent that we can look back on and criticise but also recognise our debt to.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

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