Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Dec 27, 2012 in Atheism | 10 comments

Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins

Alok Jha, a science correspondent at The Guardian, has a column in which he reports that celebrated theoretical physicist Peter Higgs agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to criticising religion “embarrassing”. But in what should be embarrassing to a publication of The Guardian‘s reputation, Jha seems to simply swallow the fake controversy generated by the Daily Mail in the course of describing Higgs’ views.

Jha refers to the recent Al Jazeera interview with Dawkins, in which he’s (again) asked to clarify his remarks on the relative harms to children of sexual abuse versus the mental trauma of being led to believe in hell, eternal damnation and all that stuff. Well, Dawkins has posted the relevant extract from The God Delusion on his website, and anyone interested in the facts of the matter (rather than merely supporting their prejudices), can confirm that he uses an example to make the case that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.

Now you might think even this insensitive or overstated. But it’s simply not true that he ever claimed that being taught about hell was always worse than all child abuse. As is often the case for all of us, he could have been clearer about what he meant and didn’t mean. At a time when the principle of charity seems forbidden to us, he probably should have been. But Jha demonstrates his prejudice in simply reporting the child abuse canard as fact in this column, and it’s thus little surprise to me that he doesn’t seem to bother to enquire as to whether Higgs backs his “fundamentalism” charge up with any evidence.

Higgs is quoted as saying:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.

In what way, and of what sort of kind? We aren’t told, but I imagine that this is simply an instance of the propaganda campaign against so-called new atheism having met with another success. The claim that Dawkins is strident, shrill and so forth has become axiomatic through simple repetition, with few people bothering to make the distinction between “being discomfited by robust challenge” on the one hand and “those strident new atheists” on the other.

I do sometimes find the direct and robust challenge, as favoured by Dawkins, to sometimes be less effective than other approaches. As I argued in my review of Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, my preference is for the more subtle approach. But this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is doing anything wrong in being more assertive with his criticism of religion – and it certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist for doing so.

What Higgs gets right in the quote above is that those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists. As Dawkins’ own research shows, the typical believer is nothing like a fundamentalist – in fact, she isn’t even much of a believer. But, until these believers who are not fundamentalists actually raise their voices to start saying “not in my name” to the nutjobs like Fred Phelps, can we really blame a Dawkins or whomever for stepping in to say what needs to be said?

One Pingback/Trackback

  • Chas Stewart

    Whenever this gaffe was first reported, Dawkins did sound callous (I’ve yet to read all of the God Delusion) but only because it seemed as though Dawkins was downplaying the effects of child abuse. Now, after watching the interview and reading the excerpt, it’s obvious that Dawkins was actually trying to upgrade the “trauma” brought on by believing in hell. We can quibble with that, for sure, especially since Dawkins was using anecdotal testimony but it certainly was not an outrageous statement.

    • I agree; though I still find the comparison is not, overall, helpful.

  • LoudGuitr

    I love Richard Dawkins, but he undermines his own brilliance with his utter disregard for real child abuse. Sure, the cruel myths of religion can be traumatic to a young mind, but real tactile abuse should not be marginalized in the discussion of religious dogma.

    • Where does he express his “utter disregard for real child abuse”? It’s not in The God Delusion, nor in the interview linked above.

    • Are you being purposefully obtuse? Or not seeing the whole point of this post?

      Mr. Dawkins argument isn’t a false dichotomy. As Mr. Rousseau pointed out from Dawkins statements, ‘“it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.’

      • LoudGuitr

        Obtuse? Are you aware that there are thousands of children who have experienced unspeakable abuse? Ever bled uncontrollably from the rectum after being raped? How about having it continue for years? Had your jaw broken or eye put out by a drunk father? I am not minimizing the potential damage from religion, but your are doing just that in regard to abuse. Religious abuse outclass physical abuse? I think not. And I say this in the context of being a staunch atheist and large supporter of Dawkins and his message.

        • An Ardent Skeptic

          The type of abuse you are discussing is truly horrendous, both from a physical and psychological standpoint, but not all physical abuse is that extreme and not all purely psychological abuse is benign. Dawkins is saying that the psychological abuse of instilling fear through imagery of eternal fiery damnanation can be as bad or worse as physical abuse. He is not saying that it is ALWAYS as bad or worse.

    • PeterBeattie

      You have obviously not read what RD wrote. In the linked article, he says:

      “I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.”

      There is nothing about marginalisation, no downplaying, no relativism with regard to “unspeakable abuse”. RD simply says that there are forms of mental abuse that are worse than some forms of physical abuse – of which latter he was a victim himself when he was young.

      Nothing particularly hard to understand about that.

      • LoudGuitr

        Fair enough.

  • denis

    Having been raised in an Institution I can tell you physical abuse trumps psychological abuse by a long way.The people I know who suffered abuse in Catholic Industrial schools, and there are hundreds, are not haunted by religious imagery, but by the memories of their abuse and abusers. religious imagery is not very effective in scaring you. we used to draw mustaches on statues of the Virgin Mary to the consternation of Nuns. we had no problem breaking up statues of saints to draw picky (hopscotch) grids. Dawkins is becoming a pain in the neck.Only a fool would dare to belittle the suffering of these people to score points.

  • Pingback: Blasphemy | Towards a Free Society()