Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Richard Dawkins: A Letter to the Prime Minister, Christmas and Other Things

I couldn't but not have things in common with Richard Dawkins, for one thing we share, along with Lewis Black I have to say, (below) are these thought thingees. (a new word for you)

No doubt there are one or two other issues that we are in agreement on, but one in particular, quite topical given the time of year, is this ''happy holidays'' shit.

Surprisingly as it may seem, the good Professor is of the same opinion, only perhaps the Prof describing it not quite in the same manner as myself. But that's the way it is sometimes for us lads from oop north, we all have a cross to bear.

In fact it was only two days ago that I had this to say about happy holidays.

''Happy holiday'' Has Ricky joined the war on Christmas? And him with a direct line to God n'all.

It's Christmas, happy Christmas, always has been, always will be; and I'm a goddamned atheist. (Rick Perry You Are Such a Wanker)

Yes quite.

I do know that Dawkins and I share an appreciation for ecclesiastical architecture, there's nothing quite like being stood in some Cathedral or other, that although built a millennia ago, survives as a testament to the artisans that built it and not least the bloke that designed the thing.

And I too, not unlike the world's most famous atheist, have been known on occasion to rattle out a hymn or a carol, oft time with gusto. But Richard Dawkins' revelation to that effect below, doesn't come entirely as a surprise to me, for I reported as much back in 2007, Richard Dawkins Sings Jingles For Jesus. The same graphic being used then as now.

So with little more ado, I give you, Professor Richard Dawkins, Englishman. Nice to be able to say that with no small manner of pride, it's such a rare occasion that one can do that these days.

Leader: Do you get it now, Prime Minister?

An open letter to the Rt Hon David Cameron MP from the New Statesman’s Christmas 2011 guest editor, Richard Dawkins.
14 December 2011

Dear Prime Minister,

Merry Christmas! I mean it. All that "Happy Holiday Season" stuff, with "holiday" cards and "holiday" presents, is a tiresome import from the US, where it has long been fostered more by rival religions than by atheists. A cultural Anglican (whose family has been part of the Chipping Norton Set since 1727, as you'll see if you look around you in the parish church), I recoil from secular carols such as "White Christmas", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the loathsome "Jingle Bells", but I'm happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I'll gladly oblige - only from the King James Version, of course.

Token objections to cribs and carols are not just silly, they distract vital attention from the real domination of our culture and politics that religion still gets away with, in (tax-free) spades. There's an important difference between traditions freely embraced by individuals and traditions enforced by government edict. Imagine the outcry if your government were to require every family to celebrate Christmas in a religious way. You wouldn't dream of abusing your power like that. And yet your government, like its predecessors, does force religion on our society, in ways whose very familiarity disarms us. Setting aside the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, passing lightly over the smooth inside track on which the Charity Commission accelerates faith-based charities to tax-free status while others (quite rightly) have to jump through hoops, the most obvious and most dangerous way in which governments impose religion on our society is through faith schools - as Rabbi Jonathan Romain reminds us on page 27.

We should teach about religion, if only because religion is such a salient force in world politics and such a potent driver of lethal conflict. We need more and better instruction in comparative religion (and I'm sure you'll agree with me that any education in English literature is sadly impoverished if the child can't take allusions from the King James Bible). But faith schools don't so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school. Unconscionably, they give children the message that they belong specifically to one particular faith, usually that of their parents, paving the way, at least in places such as Belfast and Glasgow, for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice.

Psychologists tell us that, if you experimentally separate children in any arbitrary way - say, dress half of them in green T-shirts and half in orange - they will develop in-group loyalty and outgroup prejudice. To continue the experiment, suppose that, when they grow up, greens only marry greens and oranges only marry oranges. Moreover, "green children" only go to green schools and "orange children" to orange schools. Carry on for 300 years and what have you got? Northern Ireland, or worse. Religion may not be the only divisive power that can propel dangerous prejudices down through many generations (language and race are other candidates) but religion is the only one that receives active government support in the form of schools.

So deeply ingrained is this divisive ethos in our social consciousness that journalists, and indeed most of us, breezily refer to "Catholic children", "Protestant children", "Muslim children", "Christian children", even where the children are too young to decide what they think about questions that divide the various faiths. We assume that children of Catholic parents (for instance) just are "Catholic children", and so on. A phrase such as "Muslim child" should grate like fingernails on a blackboard. The appropriate substitution is "child of Muslim parents".

I satirised the faith-labelling of children, in the Guardian last month (26 November), using an analogy that almost everybody gets as soon as he hears it - we wouldn't dream of labelling a child a "Keynesian child" simply because her parents were Keynesian economists. Mr Cameron, you replied to that serious and sincere point with what could distinctly be heard on the audio version as a contemptuous snigger: "Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't really get it." Do you get it now, Prime Minister? Obviously I was not comparing Keynes with Jesus. I could just as well have used "monetarist child" or "fascist child" or "postmodernist child" or "Europhile child". Moreover, I wasn't talking specifically about Jesus, any more than Muhammad or the Buddha.

In fact, I think you got it all along. If you are like several government ministers (of all three parties) to whom I have spoken, you are not really a religious believer yourself. Several ministers and ex-ministers of education whom I have met, both Conservative and Labour, don't believe in God but, to quote the philosopher Daniel Dennett, they do "believe in belief". A depressingly large number of intelligent and educated people, despite having outgrown religious faith, still vaguely presume without thinking about it that religious faith is somehow "good" for other people, good for society, good for public order, good for instilling morals, good for the common people even if we chaps don't need it. Condescending? Patronising? Yes, but isn't that largely what lies behind successive governments' enthusiasm for faith schools?

Baroness Warsi, your Minister Without Portfolio (and without election), has been at pains to inform us that this coalition government does indeed "do God". But we who elected you mostly do not. It is possible that the recent census may register a slight majority of people ticking the "Christian" box. However, the UK branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll in the week following the census. When published, this will enable us to see how many people who self-identified as Christian are believers.

Meanwhile, the latest British Social Attitudes survey, just published, clearly demonstrates that religious affiliation, religious observance and religious attitudes to social issues have all continued their long-term decline and are now irrelevant to all but a minority of the population. When it comes to life choices, social attitudes, moral dilemmas and sense of identity, religion is on its deathbed, even for many of those who still nominally identify with a religion.

This is good news. It is good news because if we depended on religion for our values and our sense of cohesion we would be well and truly stuck. The very idea that we might get our morals from the Bible or the Quran will horrify any decent person today who takes the trouble to read those books - rather than cherry-pick the verses that happen to conform to our modern secular consensus. As for the patronising assumption that people need the promise of heaven (or the obscene threat of torture in hell) in order to be moral, what a contemptibly immoral motive for being moral! What binds us together, what gives us our sense of empathy and compassion - our goodness - is something far more important, more fundamental and more powerful than religion: it is our common humanity, deriving from our pre-religious evolutionary heritage, then refined and improved, as Professor Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, by centuries of secular enlightenment.

A diverse and largely secular country such as Britain should not privilege the religious over the non-religious, or impose or underwrite religion in any aspect of public life. A government that does so is out of step with modern demographics and values. You seemed to understand that in your excellent, and unfairly criticised, speech on the dangers of "multicul­turalism" in February this year. Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I mean not state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state. Individuals must always be free to "do God" if they wish; but a government for the people certainly should not.

With my best wishes to you and your family for a happy Christmas,

Richard Dawkins

New Statesman

A lovely bit of Richard Dawkins can be found here, Richard Dawkins (own) Seven Wonders of the World. Bottom of the page, thirty minutes in total.


Anonymous said...

"The very idea that we might get our morals from the Bible or the Quran will horrify any decent person today who takes the trouble to read those books" - RD

I am always wondering why people think they need a book to get morals. And then, I always think that people without morals think that other people need such a book.

a thingee or just an idea?

a peaceful Thursday by the way M

Himself said...

Yes indeed.

Much though depends on what a person considers moral/immoral. A woman in a bikini or chopping someone's head off because they don't contribute to the inanity of one's beliefs.

Thank you for your kind wishes, unfortunately, a fifteen mile trip via two buses in the freezing cold in order to collect my car from the shop, (annual test) I couldn't honestly describe as peaceful.

But I do thank nevertheless.


The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. The darling Oscar.

Anonymous said...

Good day H,

We could read what we want to read. In elementary school you were taught some bible stories; you could discuss and give your opinion, I never experienced it as indoctrination.

In secondary school there was 'biblical history', an optional subject, generally not much enthusiasm for it.

I do remember, when I read bible stories in elementary school, they didn’t fascinate me at all. Also, I couldn’t imagine, would there be a god, that a god would write such depressing stories.

I do have to mention that I never liked stories about violence, defeatism, rulers, martyrs, sadists and masochists, so my judgment is not entirely objective.

My opinion on Genesis, as far as I could get through it, it isn’t even interesting as fiction.

I think it’s a pity some people cannot see the Bible as just a book, which also applies to other books I must add. The ism-thing you know.

Books are written by humans.

What would God say?


You are surrounded by idiots. But so are they, and you're one of them.

Himself said...

Religious Instruction was a fixed part of the curriculum when I was a lad, even to the extent that they would drag us off to the local church one a month for a service.

Can't say I was too impressed myself.

Books are written by humans.

But it, the Bible, is still the perfect word of God.

Q: Please argue the logic in this statement.

A: Only kidding.

Anonymous said...


Retweet this and you'll go to heaven. (Yes, the standards are now that low.)

Anonymous said...

The best books... are those that tell you what you know already. ― George Orwell

Himself said...

Good day fair maid of two legs.