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For people who profess to be kind and tolerant, the defenders of
Christianity can be remarkably unpleasant and intolerant. For all
his frank and sometimes brusque bluster, I cannot think of anything
that Richard Dawkins has said that is nearly as personally
offensive as the insults that have been deluged upon his head in
the past few days.
"Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant," snaps one
commentator. Running a "Foundation for Enlightening People Stupider
than Professor Richard Dawkins," scoffs another. Descended from
slave owners, smears a third, visiting the sins of a
great-great-great-great-great- great-grandfather upon the son (who
has made and given away far more money than he inherited).
In all the coverage of last week's War of Dawkins Ear, there has
been a consistent pattern of playing the man, not the ball:
refusing to engage with his ideas but thinking only of how to find
new ways to insult him. If this is Christian, frankly, you can keep
By contrast, where is the condemnation of Baroness Warsi's
extraordinary article last week claiming that "militant
secularisation is ... deeply intolerant ... and demonstrates
similar traits to totalitarian regimes", as if Dawkins had sent
people to gas chambers? The closest things to a totalitarian
society today (neo-religious North Korea apart) are theocracies
such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, places where it is not much fun to
be gay or atheist or have two X chromosomes. For the religious to
lecture the secular on tolerance is rich.
Lady Warsi went on: "When we look at the deep distrust between
some communities today, there is no doubt that faith has a key role
to play in bridging these divides." Excuse me, there is a great
deal of doubt about that. Tell a persecuted Christian in Iran, a
divided community in Ulster or a victim of Osama bin Laden that
there is no doubt that faith plays a key role in bridging
Sure, there have been atheist dictators such as Stalin, just as
there have been vegetarian ones such as Hitler, and Catholic ones
such as Franco (enthusiastically supported by the Church). But our
own free and tolerant society became so only as it managed to throw
off religious dogmatism. Tudor and Cromwellian England were the
very archetype of a totalitarian society. My ancestral relation
Nicholas Ridley was burned slowly to death, screaming in pain, as a
spectator sport merely because he believed that the body of Christ
was figuratively, but not literally, present at the communion.
That's all in the distant past, insist the Dawkins bashers, and
today the Church is all about forgiveness and community. Largely
true and wholly welcome. No doubt good Anglican vicars are too
embarrassed to read from the chapters of the Bible where God
advocates gang rape, genocide and murder, preferring the nice bits.
But if some of the Bible can be ignored, what is so special about
Above all, why is it necessary to insist on the truth of an
arbitrary fairytale from a particular pastoral society in order to
teach morality? Might it not actually hinder the spread of virtue
to insist that the only reason you should be kind is because
somebody says a supernatural entity told you to, two millennia ago?
The Church and its rituals are central to all the things that are
good about modern communities, say the religious. But that is
because society tamed the Church, at least much as vice versa.
To say that religion is part of our culture, therefore we should
cherish it, is a circular argument. The Church spent a thousand
years intolerantly stamping out rival strands of culture, insisting
that every ritual from birth to death be celebrated in its halls.
So yes, it is part of my culture.
Last year I stood in wonder before the extraordinary 15th-century
carved wooden altarpiece of St Mary's Basilica in Cracow,
fascinated by the story that each of the apostles is actually a
portrait of a Cracow merchant. Such art, you will sometimes hear,
would never have been created without religion. Bunk. The only way
that Veit Stoss could do his brilliant portraiture was by dressing
it up as yet another portrayal of 12 boring old Palestinians. Think
how much more variety we eventually got from artists once they were
not confined to doing saints.
Some years ago, a colleague snapped: "I don't force my views on
Dawkins, why should he force his on me?" I held my tongue, but what
ran through my mind was a memory of being forced, yes forced, to
attend church every day at my school, preached at from the pulpit
without right of reply, and my delight when the school allowed
daily attendance at a secular alternative instead.
Occasionally, after that, I still went to chapel rather than the
secular version, because it was no longer compulsory.