Richard Dawkins is at it again, talking about things he doesn’t seem to know much about.
Tonight,Dawkins argued that teaching a child about hell is worse than a child being sexually abused,which he said 'she might feel was yucky'
— Dr Myriam François (@MyriamFrancoisC) November 23, 2012
About 1/3rd of the audience agreed w/Dawkins that teaching a child about hell is worse than he/she being sexually abused #oxfordunion
— Dr Myriam François (@MyriamFrancoisC) November 23, 2012
There was a little clarification on “yucky” in a subsequent tweet:
— Dr Myriam François (@MyriamFrancoisC) November 24, 2012
There are a few people on Twitter asking whether this is something Dawkins actually said. This isn’t anything he hasn’t said before. He made the comparison at length in The God Delusion.
Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. It was an off-the-cuff remark made in the heat of the moment, and I was surprised that it earned a round of enthusiastic applause from that Irish audience (composed, admittedly, of Dublin intellectuals and presumably not representative of the country at large). (p. 358)
He bolstered this idea by suggesting that child sexual abuse wasn’t really that big a deal in the long-term. More of an opportunity:
Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for floggings 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 in them thar 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. The Catholic Church worldwide has paid out more than a billion dollars in compensation. You might almost sympathize with them, until you remember where their money came from in the first place. (p. 356)
Dawkins also used a couple of individual women who were particularly affected by their childhood religious experiences, one of whom is the origin for “yucky”. He also used himself as an anecdote yesterday.
@opinionatedpavs You think boys are not sexually abused? Let me tell you, I was one, and they are. Very unpleasant. Not as bad as hell fire.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) November 24, 2012
Now, of course, being condescendingly minimizing and arguing from anecdote don’t mean that Dawkins is wrong about this. Is teaching children about hell worse for them than sexually abusing them? Finding out is going to require research.
Luckily, there has been quite a bit of research on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. If you want to look into this yourself, the Google Scholar search you want is “sequelae of child sexual abuse“. I’ll give you the relevant bits from a couple of publications.
In the past 2 decades, epidemiologic and clinical studies have identified negative sequelae associated with a history of child sexual abuse (CSA), especially psychopathology. CSA has been linked to depression across all age groups, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and especially posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). CSA has also been linked to substance problems and dependence. Although there have been several informative review articles, to our knowledge no previous studies have examined the associations between CSA and a range of mood, anxiety, and substance disorders in a nationally representative sample of individuals in the United States.
CSA is a major public health problem, with estimates from national probability samples ranging from 0% to 16% among men and 3% to 27% among women. Its measurement is complicated, given debate over case definitions, the stigmatizing nature of abuse experiences, and the controversial, private nature of the abuse event itself.
This study compared incidence of these disorders in populations that had and had not experienced childhood sexual abuse. Their results?
As you can see from this, males who reported being sexually abused as children experienced approximately twice the rate of drug problems and drug and alcohol dependence, as well as five times the rate of PTSD. Females who reported being sexually abused experienced elevated rates of depression, dysthymia, mania, agoraphobia, panic attack, panic disorder, PTSD, simple phobia, social phobia, alcohol and drug problems, alcohol and drug dependence, and severe drug dependence. Their likelihood of experiencing mania and PTSD were very highly elevated, at nine and ten times respectively.
That’s only one study, of course, though it is one specifically chosen to be a study of the general population, not a clinical sample (a sample already diagnosed with some kind of disorder). So let’s look at another, also conducted in the general population. This study looked at a different set of scales, the Trauma Symptom Inventory (abstract|pdf).
The TSI produces scores for ten trauma-related consequences: Anxious Arousal, Depression, Anger-Irritability, Intrusive Experiences, Defensive Avoidance, Dissociation, Sexual Concerns, Dysfunctional Sexual Behavior, Impaired Self-Reference, and Tension Reduction Behavior. From the abstract:
A national sampling service generated a geographically stratified, random sample of 1,442 subjects from the United States. Subjects were mailed a questionnaire that included the Traumatic Events Survey (TES) and the Trauma Symptom Inventory (TSI) [Trauma Symptom Inventory Professional Manual, Psychological Assessment Resources, Odessa, FL]. Of all potential subjects, 935 (64.8%) returned substantially completed surveys. Sixty-six men and 152 women (14.2% and 32.3%, respectively) reported childhood experiences that satisfied criteria for sexual abuse, and 103 males and 92 females (22.2% and 19.5%, respectively) met criteria for physical abuse. Twenty-one percent of subjects with one type of abuse also had experienced the other type, and both types were associated with subsequent adult victimization. Sexual abuse predicted more symptom variance than did physical abuse or adult interpersonal victimization. Various aspects of both physical and sexual abuse experiences were predictive of TSI scores.
From the study’s results:
The current data suggest that, as has been found in clinical and university student studies, childhood sexual abuse is a signiﬁcant risk factor for a range of psychological symptoms in the general population. Speciﬁcally, reports of sexual abuse were associated with elevations on all 10 scales of the TSI, even after controlling for a variety of sociodemographic variables, including sex, age, race, and family income, as well as subsequent interpersonal victimization as an adult and physical abuse in childhood. These data support not only the majority of the literature on mental health sequelae of childhood sexual abuse, but also the ﬁndings of one of the only general population studies in this area (Saunders, Villeponteaux, Lipovsky, Kilpatrick, & Veronen, 1992). Saunders et al. found that in a 391-person random sample of Charleston County, South Carolina, self-reported childhood sexual abuse was associated with a wide range of psychiatric disorders and problems, including depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual disorders, and both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
In the current study, certain characteristics of the sexual abuse experience were speciﬁcally associated with psychological symptomatology. Predictive of TSI scores were sexual abuse at a later age, a greater number of abuse incidents, multiple abusers, victimization that involved oral, anal, or vaginal penetration, and a greater level of emotional upset at the time of the abuse.
So, childhood sexual abuse is kind of a big deal. Belief in hell in childhood? Well, it’s not studied much, but where it is, we get results like such beliefs being accepted uncritically but not generally internalized and not making much difference in children’s anxiety over death.
This means that, at best, Dawkins is making a comparison that is unsupported in the literature. What literature there is, however, suggest he is making a claim that trivializes childhood sexual abuse. Not only that, he’s been making it for years.
If this is something Dawkins feels strongly about, which he seems to after many years of repeating the claim, perhaps it’s time for him to take a different approach. Instead of pitting anecdote against masses of studies, maybe his foundation should fund a study on the subject and find out what kind of harm, if any, believing in hell does to children.