Atheist professor Richard Dawkins has clarified remarks he made when he stated that being taught to believe in an eternal hell as a child is worse than being sexually abused, reminding critics that he himself was abused by a priest at a young age.
"It was a very unpleasant and embarrassing experience, but the mental trauma was soon exorcised by comparing notes with my contemporaries who had suffered it previously at the hands of the same master," Dawkins writes on his official website. "Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe – in hell. But 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."
The evolutionary biologist's remarks come in light of a recent article by the Daily Mail that referenced an interview on Al Jazeera in which Dawkins said: "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." The scientist wrote similar claims in his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion.
In his recent blog post, Dawkins reveals that he received a flood of Twitter messages from "horrified" people asking him to explain those remarks – which he does by admitting that "violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse, especially by a family member such as a father or grandfather, probably has a more damaging effect on a child's mental well-being than sincerely believing in hell."
Speaking from his own experience, however, he said that he maintains that a belief in eternal hell would be more traumatic than the "mild feeling-up" he says that he suffered when he was young.
The professor reminded readers of the saying "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" – but said that it is only true as long as people don't really believe the words.
"If your whole upbringing, and everything you have ever been told by parents, teachers and priests, has led you to believe, really believe, utterly and completely, that sinners burn in hell, it is entirely plausible that words could have a more long-lasting and damaging effect than deeds," Dawkins maintains.
Official Roman Catholic doctrine upholds the belief in an eternal hell as a place for sinners, although its literal existence is debated among some Christians.
A strongly-worded article on Catholic.org rejects Dawkins claims that children being brought up as Roman Catholics counts as "abuse," and reminded the professor that Catholic doctrine also promises eternal salvation, not just hell.
"While there is no question that Hell is a place of eternal punishment, it is a place of choice, where individuals choose to go by their actions. Specifically, by rejecting God and practicing mortal sin without repentance," the organization writes.
"The Catholic Church offers salvation and a path to eternal life and union with God. How can this be abuse? It isn't," the article continues. "The simple fact is Richard Dawkins is a very angry man who will say anything he can to stand in the limelight. Even if his comments are abusive to the one billion plus Catholics on Earth."