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.

The second point O’Neill makes is that the new atheists – as I wrote earlier at True/Slant – won’t let a good crisis go to waste (and nor will their unwitting allies).

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.

Amen, brother.


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.

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18 thoughts on “New atheism and the cult of victimhood

  1. “the dominant liberal outlook of our age” Huh. That is a bit…ummm…sensationalist to call New Atheism the dominant outlook of anything.

    Using a term like culture of the victim is problematical when you are referring to people, in this case children, who were almost universally acknowledged to be actual victims. If this “culture of the victim” leads to true victims getting protection and ending abuse then the “culture of the victim” would be a straight up nifty thing to have. Yet that doesn’t seem to be how it is being using. The “culture of the victim” however is some phenomenon where “…where today individuals are invited not only to reveal every misfortune that has befallen them…”, which is certainly possible and a I would say a reasonable observation. But it’s also a bit overwrought as there is far more to victimhood, including the aforementioned acknowledging, saving and protecting actual victims.

    And FWIW “nanny statism” is a great term that is easy to use sloppily. There is a tendency among some on the right to use it simply for everything thing the gov does they don’t like without actually explaining how it applies in a particular case. It seems easier to throw out the term then to enter the debate on what is the public good and reasonable measures to take.

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      • @E.D. Kain,

        I guess in this context I view “culture of victimhood” as something of a smear. We would not in good taste speak of a “culture of victimhood” among the victims of land mines or terrorism. Why does it work here? If the CEO of General Electric were abusing his authority to hide and enable child molesters, we’d probably want him to lose his job too.

        (Full disclosure statement: I’m a former Catholic turned atheist, but I’ve never read Dawkins — I don’t feel the need — and I don’t care for Hitchens. I like Philip Pullman and Daniel Dennett, however. I was never sexually abused by any clergy, an I don’t personally know anyone who admits to it.)

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    • @Jason Kuznicki, I can see that. I don’t think that’s the intention of the piece but I could be wrong. It’s quite understandable to come forward as victims in these cases. I think O’Neill may have somewhat stronger views on some of these matters coming from across the pond, but I think his point was more about the way the state and the media in Ireland were treating the story, and more importantly how certain groups were using the victims to their advantage – but I certainly see how even writing about that, and using that sort of language, could be taken as somewhat of a smear.

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  2. I don’t think the “new athiest” (I call them evangalitical atheists and boy does that ever steam their cabbage) movement is in much of any way representative of the majority of atheists or squishes (agnostics) who make up the populace. They’re noisy and noticable but small in numbers. Certainly all the thoughtful, philosophical or indifferent atheists are more pleasant to have to dinner than the “new atheists”. That said as long as the theists have loud obnoxious sects (and it’s hard to find anyone louder or shriller than a true believer) I don’t think we have any place to begrudge the atheists their own versions of the same.

    As for the Catholic Hierarchy, color me unsympathetic. You know what’d be really effective against those evil atheists and secularists looking for an opening to denigrate the Catholic Church? Not spending decades covering up child molestation! Oh and personally I’d appreciate it if, after the Padre has been caught with the preschooler, they didn’t immediately try and blame it on the gays. Julian Sanchez has a good takedown of that here if anyone is interested.

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  3. There has been anti-Catholic propaganda since before Jesus met Pontius Pilate. Some of it was quite lurid, though usually the children were eaten, not sexually abused.

    Read The Little Professor’s blog for an expert view of the 19th century version. Of course, she covers fiction. Lately, we’ve been dealing with facts. The Catholic Church has long made claims to the high moral ground with atheists somewhere down at the bottom of the moral heap. If there is any playing of the victim card, it is that atheists have long resented this assertion of moral hierarchy given that there is no evil that has not been countenanced and justified by some religion or another and plenty of completely moral atheists. Think of it as the revenge of the godless, and a weak gruel it is by the standards of religious vegeance. Atheists just don’t have the proper blood lust.

    As for the sexual victimization of children, that’s not a matter of victim-hood. That’s just a matter of right and wrong, or of legal and illegal for those who don’t care about right and wrong, whether they are religious or not.

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  4. An old quip holds that, if there were only three Catholics on earth, one of them would have to be the Pope. The Church, after all, is a structure of teaching authority. As such, even if it was dismantled, it would be back within a week. And, sure, a lot of times, when I talk with militant atheists, I feel their argument boils down to ‘society will be a lot better off when everyone thinks like me’. But the Church will still be here in ten years time, and Hitchens will likely still be a douche.

    All that said, the Church is circling the wagons when they ought to be more contrite. Fair-minded people will forgive them, but not now and not yet. And not until it’s clear that the full horror of this- that a moral pillar of our society somehow made the wrong decisions when faced with the most horrifying crime imaginable- child rape- has actually sunk in with them. It’s really not a good time for the Pope to be pointing out the mite in the eye of the secular world.

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  5. ED – “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.”

    The catholic church abuses children. New atheists exploit the victims to pursue a political vendetta against the church. ED now sees the church (and particularly, the pope) as the new victims (of the unfair attacks from the new atheists). ED exploits the new victims to damage the new atheists. Is the only difference here that ED cares about the catholic church (and the pope) and the new atheists do not care about the abuse victims. Am I missing something?

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  6. And on cue, here’s Hitchens misrepresenting the facts of a case to attack Benedict again:

    My issue with the recent wave of coverage in the U.S. is basically that there have not been any new scandals in the U.S. So, instead, what we’ve been treated to is people like Hitchens making inaccurate factual claims (whether through laziness/malice/ignorance) based on trumped up charges taken from the lips of plaintiff’s lawyers. This kind of throw-everything-against-the-wall smearing of Benedict is not constructive or accurate, particularly given his role in addressing the crisis.

    Now, 2002 and the coverage of the U.S. bishops was a completely different story; the evidence was there in abundance, and it was very fortunate that the media worked hard on the story or the scandals would have never come to light. Granted, given that the abuse rates had already fallen by that point, and it may not have protected that many children, but it was still important for the truth to get out.

    Unfortunately, it means now that any time Hitchens or Sullivan want to play two truths and a fallacial inference, they can advance their agenda by claiming that they are despereately concerned about the abuse of children – and they don’t bother much with the facts of the current allegations (or the dramatically lower abuse rates at Catholic institutions than at comparable public institutions) because, after all, the 2002 allegations were accurate.

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  7. This post and the others on this subject is painfully redolent of wounded entitlement. This sort of bunker mentality against the tiny minority of “bad atheists,” painting them as if they represent some kind of massive conspiracy to discredit the church through their contact in the media can only prove our point that the church was and is still more concerned with their reputation than the wellbeing of the victims.

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