Religion and children, and Dawkins and Brown

I re-read the chapter of The God Delusion which contains page 326, this morning, in order to find out (having forgotten since I first read it) what the context is in which Dawkins quotes that passage by Nicholas Humphrey. In reading it I became more angry with Brown than ever, for the simple reason that he completely leaves out the context which is one of angry compassion for the mental suffering religion can cause to children and their parents. The chapter starts with the 19th century case of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna who was forcibly removed from his weeping parents by officers of the Catholic Inquisition, to be raised by the church. His parents never saw him again except on occasional brief supervised visits. Why was he removed? Because his nursemaid (age 14 at the time) had ‘baptized’ him.

Dawkins then goes on to compare sexual abuse with mental abuse, and to make the interesting and (I think) important point that sexual abuse in some cases is trivial compared to the mental torture of the fear of hell. He quotes a heart-rending letter from a woman who was told at age 7 that her Protestant friend who had died was in hell – this thought was agony for the child.

That is what leads up to Humphrey’s lecture. It’s impossible (in my view) to read it unmoved – yet Brown presents the basic idea as if it were nothing but the fantasy of a sadistic atheist meddler. It’s an utter distortion and grossly unfair – to Dawkins but even more to children who are tortured with fears of hell and eternal punishment.

This is all the more deranged because it’s not as if there are no reasonable criticisms that could be made. One could for instance argue that Dawkins fails to balance this worry with the ways religion can console children and parents; one could claim that the problem is not religion as such but religion that threatens and punishes instead of promising and consoling (or religion that threatens and punishes as a condition of promising and consoling). One could object to many specifics of tone, choice of examples, and so on – yet Brown didn’t do any of that; instead he chose to flail away at a straw man instead of engaging with the actual book. Whatever for? And why do so many other critics do the same thing? Is it just easier, to invent a bogey-atheist and then keep recycling the same complaints about it? Are they just lazy? Or are they a mix of lazy and malevolent?

I don’t know. I’m just asking.

(I posted a slightly different and shorter version of this on Brown’s piece a couple of hours ago.)

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