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Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse”

Bad Atheist Arguments: “Christianity is Child Abuse” July 22, 2021

Who can be surprised that Richard Dawkins, author of the bestseller The God Delusion, is Andy Bannister’s favorite atheist to hate? Bannister imagines Dawkins in the office of his literary agent. The agent reports that things aren’t selling well. What to do? Dawkins says that maybe the world needs The Santa Delusion.

This is a reference to Dawkins saying, “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

Bannister was shocked: “I guess a good place to begin is by illustrating what a disastrous argument this is on many levels.”

Huh? Where’s the problem? Bannister says, “The first problem is that it’s a classic example of an ad hominem fallacy. That is when, rather than critique an argument or belief, you attack the person making it.”

Bannister is correct that that is the definition of the ad hominem fallacy. Trouble is, Dawkins doesn’t commit that fallacy. I wasted half an hour poring over the pages that precede his charge trying to see if there’s anything more offensive than Dawkins’ quote above. Nothing. Dawkins’ observation remains standing: “Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.”

This is a continuation of our critique of Andy Bannister’s The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (part 1 is here).

The role of parents

The second problem that keeps Bannister up at night is Dawkins’ concern with Christian parents. In The God Delusion (chapter 9), Dawkins said, “Horrible as sexual abuse [of children by Catholic priests in Ireland] 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.”

Bannister overflows with ridicule for Dawkins, but he has no studies. He has no arguments. He doesn’t even provide anecdotes of people who’d experienced harm (or good) from a Catholic upbringing. He’s a textbook definition of ad hominem. All he has is another invented story where he imagines Dawkins faced with two educational options for his daughter. One school is run by Catholic nuns and the other “by a group of sexually voracious convicted pedophiles.”

Bannister is too busy mocking to notice the irony. For this to be an analogy with Dawkins’ quote, both of Bannister’s options—sweet nuns and sexually voracious pedophiles—are within the Catholic Church. Sure, that accurately describes some Catholic priests; I’m just surprised that Bannister wants to dwell on it.

Let’s recall Dawkins’ quote to be clear what he’s saying. He’s not saying every child raised as a Catholic is psychologically damaged more than every child sexually abused by priests. He’s simply arguing that there is overlap.

Dawkins makes his case

Bannister only has time for ridicule, but Dawkins actually supports his claim with evidence. Right after we read the quote above in God Delusion, Dawkins introduces a woman who experienced trauma from both sexual abuse and her Catholic upbringing. At the age of seven, she was sexually abused by her priest, and a friend from school died. What made it worse was that the friend went to hell (so she was told) because she was a Protestant. The woman later recalled,

Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression . . . as “yucky” while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest—but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares.

Bannister’s book would’ve been better if he’d spent less time crafting witty dismissals and more time on actually making an argument.

He next quotes a psychologist lecturing for Amnesty International.

We as a society have a duty to protect [children from nonsense]. We should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

Bannister then worries about the practical problems of a Big Brother state critiquing parents’ every action.

My response

Dawkins is right that religious indoctrination is a problem. However, I’ve never heard Dawkins demand that society ban religion or forbid parents from teaching their worldview to their children. That’s my belief as well.

(Aside: I propose a thought experiment where religion is in the adults-only category, like voting, driving, and smoking, here. Religion must have access to immature minds to propagate and would vanish like the Shakers without them.)

For Bannister to note that he agrees with Dawkins wouldn’t make for much of a chapter, I suppose, so he has to resort to strawman arguments, pushing back against what Dawkins isn’t saying. The result is that he loses any chance to offer a sensible critique of parents’ rights.

Symmetry: does free rein apply to parents and pregnant women?

Let me take a brief tangent. Bannister insists that parents be given free rein to raise their children as they think best. Society is there as a backstop to intervene as necessary, but the benefit of the doubt for how to raise children goes to their parents.

I agree, and that’s the philosophy that must govern pregnant women considering an abortion. In the same way, they are on the front line, they best understand the issues within their lives, and they must be given free rein to decide for themselves whether an abortion is the right course. (I talk more about abortion here and here.) Bannister must be consistent—if we trust parents to do the right thing, we must similarly trust pregnant women.

(Let me make clear that Bannister never mentioned abortion. I’m simply drawing a parallel that religious conservatives often miss.)

Separation of church and state

Now back to Bannister’s argument: I don’t want religion criminalized. Rather, I want religious privilege eliminated in the U.S. and education improved so that religion can be allowed to fall away. You don’t snatch away someone’s crutches; you cure them and let them discard the crutches in their own time once they’re unnecessary.

Some evidence points to religion being a symptom of a sick society. Religion is Marx’s opiate of the masses—a salve to cushion against problems within society. Fix those problems, and religion becomes unnecessary. Religion is arguably caused by poor conditions within society. Fix them, and the problems for which religion is a salve go away. It would have no more role.

Turn this around and see that conservative politicians or Christian leaders who push back against initiatives that improve society may in part be doing so to keep society dependent on the comfort religion offers.

Bannister ends the chapter with this: “When one believes something deeply, passionately, energetically, one has a tendency simply to grab hold of any arguments that appear to support you, however desperate.” That’s both true and relevant, though he’s thinking of atheists here. Can he really not see that it’s his side that is likelier to believe things without sufficient evidence?

See also: Your Religion Is a Reflection of Your Culture—You’d Be Muslim if You Were Born in Pakistan

Continue: Religion is a Psychological Crutch

God is Santa Claus for adults
— observation from the internet

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/2/17.)

Image from Bailiwick Studios (license CC BY-SA 2.0)

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