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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Why derive morality from superstition

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 it.


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 divides.


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 the rest?


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.