New atheism and the cult of victimhood
‘Odious as the physical abuse of children by priests undoubtedly is, I suspect that it may do them less lasting damage than the mental abuse of bringing them up Catholic in the first place.’ ~ Richard Dawkins
Two people have emailed me this article by Brendan O’Neill today. I’m glad they did, too, because I’m sure I would have missed it. To frame the piece a little, O’Neill is a secular humanist and an atheist of the old guard. Unlike the ‘new atheists’ O’Neill is more interested in enlightenment than he is in bashing religion and the religious. New atheists are of the Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher variety.
But I digress. Suffice to say O’Neill makes two points in discussing what he believes is a much overblown story in regards to the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. First, he explains why what he terms a ‘culture of the victim’ has led to a rise in reporting cases of abuse – and also in determining how the aftermath of abuse effects victims and communities:
The discussion of a relatively rare phenomenon as a ‘great evil’ of our age shows that child abuse in Catholic churches has been turned into a morality tale – about the dangers of belief and of hierarchical institutions and the need for more state and other forms of intervention into religious institutions and even religious families. The first contemporary trend that has turned incidences of sexual abuse into a powerful symbol of evil is the cult of the victim, where today individuals are invited not only to reveal every misfortune that has befallen them – which of course is a sensible thing to do if you have been raped – but also to define themselves by those misfortunes, to look upon themselves as the end-products of having being emotionally, physically or sexually abused. This is why very public revelations of Catholic abuse started in America and Ireland before more recently spreading to other parts of Western Europe: because the politics of victimhood, the cult of revelation and redefinition of the self as survivor, is more pronounced and developed in America and Ireland than it is in continental Europe.
Now, this next bit is really full of revelations about the mindset of the new atheists.
The second contemporary trend that has elevated something quite rare into a social disaster is the rise of the ‘new atheism’. Now the dominant liberal outlook of our age – in particular in the media outlets that have most keenly focused on the Catholic abuse scandals: the New York Times, the Irish Times, and the UK Guardian – the new atheism differs from the atheism of earlier free-thinking humanists in that its main aim is not to enlighten, but to scaremonger about the impact of religion on society. For these thinkers and opinion-formers, the drip-drip of revelations of abuse in Catholic institutions offers an opportunity to demonise the religious as backward and people who possess strong beliefs as suspect.
Many contemporary opinion-formers are not concerned with getting to the truth of how widespread Catholic sexual abuse was, or what were the specific circumstances in which it occurred; rather they want to milk incidents of abuse and make them into an indictment of religion itself. They frequently flit between discussing priests who abuse children and the profound stupidity of people who believe in God. One commentator wildly refers to the Vatican’s ‘international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists’ and says most ordinary Catholics turn a blind eye to this because ‘people behave in bizarre ways when they decide it is a good thing to abandon any commitment to fact and instead act on faith’.
O’Neill goes on to detail the logical conclusion – that if it is in fact religion itself which is doing the most harm here, then sexual abuse makes an excellent cover to rescue children from that pesky religious freedom employed by their abusive parents. He lists some interesting new atheist ideas, such as an ‘age of consent’ for joining a religion (14), or the belief that it is the state’s job to protect children from the beliefs of their parents.
Suffice to say, this is a far cry from the sort of open-minded secularism which defined early atheists and humanist thinkers. It is exactly the sort of statist paranoia which led to the gulags and worse.
I think that it’s also a symptom of our age of alarmism. Everything has become a panic or a sensation. Sensations themselves are sensationalized. It is not enough that children have been sexually abused, and in some instances this has been covered up. We need to turn the entire thing into a Dan Brown novel and pin it on the pope!
Alarmism, nanny statism, new atheism, and a culture of victimhood all collide and coalesce and soon enough the story itself is no longer about the children who were harmed. It’s about personal vendettas, personal ego, and an effort to rid the world of the ‘other’ – which in this case is the population of people in this world who believe strongly, who have faith in something not necessarily moored to secularism and reason.
All I can say is we need more Brendan O’Neills and fewer Richard Dawkins. I’ll take an open mind over a political agenda any day.
O’Neill ends with a warning:
Whatever you think of the Catholic Church, you should be concerned about today’s abuse-obsession. Events of the (sometimes distant) past which nobody can change are being used to justify dangerous trends in the present. A new kind of society is being solidified on the back of exposing abusive priests, one in which scaremongering supersedes facts, where people redefine themselves as permanently damaged victims, where freedom of thought is problematised, and where parents are considered suspect for not adhering to the superior values of the atheistic elite. Seriously, radical humanists should fight back against this.
Let me be more explicit since the relatively tiny amount of feedback I’ve gotten seems to have missed the point entirely. The culture of victimhood here is being used. It is not wrong in any way to be a victim. It is wrong to use the language of victimhood to wildly distort the facts, ignore any responsible evaluation of the events at hand, and use the actual suffering of real people to deploy a political and cultural agenda against – in this instance – the church.
I’m not sure that this is actually such a hard thing to follow, but perhaps in my little summary I wasn’t terribly clear.
So to reiterate – the new atheists and certain entities in the media have used the sexual abuse case to pursue a political vendetta against the church, and could give a damn about the actual abuse cases, as Richard Dawkins – for one – makes extraordinarily plain.
There is nothing wrong with the fact that these people have come out and said they were abused. It is the use of these people by enemies of the church as nothing less than political weapons that is so disconcerting. I’m reminded of A Clockwork Orange.