Richard Dawkins wants you to read the bible

Richard Dawkins would like all children to read the bible … no really, he seriously does, and has an article in the UK’s Guardian today all about it.

OK, so what is the story here?

The context is that the UK’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, cooked up a plan last year to send one copy of the King James bible to every school in the UK. Apparently it was first completed in 1611 and so 2011 was the 400 year anniversary of that. Now least you wonder, no he is not some nutty fanatic, but rather is instead you normal bland Church of England type of guy, this was simply symbolic. If he had in fact been a fanatic, I suspect he would have pushed for ever child to get one. The powers that be soon stepped in and polity explained, “Er nice idea, but not with taxpayer money in these cash strapped times”. So that might have been that, except a few private donors chipped in and so it is going ahead now.

There has been much criticism, all quite logical and ranging from “What a waste of money” to “why is the state propagating one belief system?”.

However, Richard Dawkins has now joined in with his latest article today in which he supports it.

Richard points out that you could perhaps make a case that it is one of the glories of English literature and has had a profound impact on the English language. Do not misunderstand that, for the exact same reason, a good case can be made for all the plays of Shakespeare. What makes the bible slightly different is that some people actually believe the myths to be facts, and I mean literally (Our planet was created in 6 days in 4004 BC and a 600 year old chap built a boat that contained every species alive on the planet today).

It also turns out that some christians don’t appear to know very much about the bible, as he observes …

In the week after the 2011 census, my UK Foundation commissioned Ipsos MORI to poll those who had ticked the Christian box. Among other things, we asked them to identify the first book of the New Testament from a choice of Matthew, Genesis, Acts of the Apostles, Psalms, “Don’t know” and “Prefer not to say”. Only 35% chose Matthew and 39% chose “Don’t know” (and 1%, mysteriously, chose “Prefer not to say”). These figures, to repeat, don’t refer to British people at large but only to those who self-identified, in the census, as Christians.

So yes indeed, a rather large number of those that identified as Christian appears to be rather clueless regarding the actual content of the Bible. Perhaps that explains why they self-identified as Christian.

Another reason Richard puts forward is that if you wish to understand European history, then you need to understand this book …

European history, too, is incomprehensible without an understanding of the warring factions of Christianity and the book over whose subtleties of interpretation they were so ready to slaughter and torture each other. Does the eucharistic bread merely symbolise the body of Jesus or does it become his body, in true “substance” if not “accidental” DNA? Prolonged wars have been fought over how we should interpret the words allegedly uttered at the Last Supper. Three bishops were burned alive just outside my bedroom window in my old Oxford college for giving the unapproved answer. Centuries-long schisms were based on nothing more serious than the question of whether Jesus is both God and his son, or just his (very important) son. Even bloodier wars were fought against a rival religion that sees him not as God’s son at all but just reveres him as a prophet.

However, it turns out that the real reason for Richard wanting people to read the bible is none of these. What is in fact a very common myth is that this is a book of morality and so those that wish to be truly good need to adhere to it. The moment you open it up and start to read, really read without religious blinkers, you quickly find that this myth crumbles to dust …

“Honour thy father and thy mother.” Well and good. But honour thy children? Not if God tells you, as he did Abraham in a test of his loyalty, to kill your beloved son for a burnt offering. The lesson is clear: when push comes to shove, obedience to God trumps human decency, to say nothing of obedience to the next commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”. This is the only one of the commandments that many devotees actually know. Its obviousness was appropriately mocked by Christopher Hitchens, but my imagination hears the response of the Israelites to Moses in the voice of Basil Fawlty: “Oh I SEE. Thou shalt not KILL. Oh how silly of me. You see, before you came down from the mountain with the tablets, we all thought it was perfectly fine to kill. But now that we’ve seen it written on a TABLET, well that makes all the difference. Thou shalt not kill, well, who would have thought it? Oh silly me

After establishing the “Thou shalt not kill” rule, you then quickly discover that God himself is a rather immoral shit. He is soon breaking his own rules and orders the murder of all neighbouring tribes whose sole crime is that they just happen to live on some land that he wants.

“Ah”, say the believers, but that’s the old testament, we now have the highly ethical new testament. Personally, if you mean that being pro-slavery, homophobic and promoting Misogyny is ethical, then what can I say except that belief has completely scuppered your moral compass. However, all that aside, as Richard points out, the core message is truly bizarre …

the unmistakable message is clear. We are all “born in sin” even if we no longer literally believe, with Augustine, that Adam’s sin came down to us via the semen. And God, the all-powerful creator, capable of moving mountains and of begetting a universe with all the laws of physics, couldn’t find a better way to lift the burden of sin than a blood sacrifice.

So yes, why not encourage education and nurture a true understanding regarding what the bible actually says and not simply tolerate to variation where the nice bits have been cherry-picked and the rather nasty bits have been swept under the carpet, because such an approach is in fact very much in keeping with the reformation. Previously, the text was a mysterious document encrypted in Greek and Latin, so only the clerics had access and would tell you what to think. The emergence of it in the language of the people, and its distribution via the printing press, enabled all to read it for themselves and make up their own minds. We should maintain that and ensure all learn what it actually says.

One final thought, will Mr Grove’s effort to send one copy to every school contribute to this is any way? Heck no, you know what will actually happen. As a symbol is will at best remain on show in some display case, or perhaps more probably gather dust on a shelf in the school office.

You can read Richard’s article here.

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