Monday, 4 June 2012

Why I'm disagreeing with Richard Dawkins

I rather like Richard Dawkins; I think he's a brilliant man who usually presents very clear and comprehensive arguments when dealing with Religion. He's also... you know, an excellent biologist, but that's by the by. Anyway, about two weeks ago, Dawkins wrote an article for the Guardian explaining why he believes that children should read The Bible. Before the religious among you start celebrating that a well-known and respected Atheist has seen the light, he has motives which are not what you might expect. 

He has not converted to Christianity and he certainly isn't out to indoctrinate young children. Indeed, he believes that by getting children to read the Bible, the exact opposite will be achieved, and we will have even fewer Christians to deal with. I agree with him that the King James Bible should be knocking about somewhere in every schools library and I agree with his reasons, but something tells me that his diabolical plan isn't going to work.

Dawkins starts out by expressing that The Bible is a very important and influential piece of literature and that it should be studied regardless of any religious connotations. Many common phrases in modern English do come from the Bible, such as "Salt of the Earth", "Sour Grapes" and "Oh, Jesus Christ! Run!". He continues by explaining that understanding the history of the Bible is necessary to make sense of the history of Medieval Europe. I agree with him on most fronts here, but I certainly disagree with the suggestion that it's important for young children to study the Bible for it's contribution to literature. It may be relevant to someone studying English Literature at university, but it's really not so important that young children should be studying about it for that reason.

His main point, however, was that by teaching kids what The Bible actually says, we would have fewer people believing that it is any kind of decent moral guide... Which it really isn't. He brings up examples such as the ten commandments, which suggests that those who so much as pick up some stick on the Sabbath ought to be stoned to death. The article steers clear of other morally questionable things in the Bible, such as the passive acceptance of slavery - likely to avoid any bollocks about 'interpretation' or accusations of being intentionally inflammatory - but the point is quite clear: Educate children that The Bible isn't the moral compass their priests, parents and politicians make it out to be.

As an Atheist who likes to throw myself into debates with Christians, I can say that the most common arguments come from ruthless cherry picking of The Bible. Any scripture that contradicts their point is thrown away for whatever excuse comes to mind first. I kinda touched upon the bias inherent in RE lessons before, and I fear that this will change little. If the Bible is being taught, it will no doubt be taught in a generally pleasant way. The grittier verses in Romans or Leviticus will be overlooked in favour of another discussion about John 3:16. Or the darker verses may be bullshitted away as being representative of the contemporary views, an explanation I doubt many young children will question. If it's not being taught, then I can't see anything changing at all because no child is really going to read a brick like that!

I could only imagine the outcry from parents when they found out that schools have been lying to their kids by telling them that the Bible supports murder; which it does, but don't expect all parents to know that. I definitely don't expect the kind of people who would be willing to teach kids about the holy Bible to do so in a fair manner. 

People rarely read The Bible in the same way one would read another story book, or a science book. It's typically taught when surrounded by other beliefs, and specific verses are usually picked out to support those beliefs, which doesn't really allow you to look at the books at large and decide that it's not the greatest source of moral guidance. For that reason, I don't think that more people 'reading' the Bible will necessarily lead to more people discrediting it for what it really is. I really don't think that most readers, never mind school kids, will actively scrutinize every verse of The Bible because they'd be doing it until they were dead and there are more important things to learn about. 

Maybe if you had someone hurrying through The Bible with you pointing out the verses which encourage the stoning of homosexuals while simultaneously pointing out verses that forbid murder - highlighting hypocrisy and bigotry like that - then that's one thing. It's not a  particularly fair representation, but it's a start. I think the case will most likely be that there will be cherry picking on both sides of the fence when 'educating' children about the truths of the Bible, and making Bibles more readily available in schools probably won't help as much as Richard Dawkins thinks. Sorry.


  1. teaching students about that the bible is evil is just as biased as teaching them that it is a moral compass...

    1. Neither I or Richard Dawkins have suggested that children should be taught that the Bible is evil. All I'm supporting is teaching kids what the Bible actually says which - like it or not - does include things such as God advocating murder and discrimination. It's up to students to make their own minds up, all I'm saying is that they should be given the facts.

    2. Though I do see some sort of morality and decency in the new testament, I wouldn't disregard the view of the bible as evil as biased immediately simply because it taught some decent moral lessons. If you knew of a man who preached tolerance and respect and forgiveness but then stoned every homosexual he saw you wouldn't call it a biased view to regard him as 'evil'.

  2. This is fundamentally the sort of problem that we have in non-religious scenarios, such as the debate on Europe, on immigation and the economy. Because the very large majority of people have not got the time to read the whole text from end to end, and study it neutrally and objectively, they accept little soundbites to form their opinions, and of course those soundbites are carefully selected to form the opinion that someone else wants you to have.

    The other problem is that to understand how objective you can be about the Bible, you have to not only understand the text, you have to understand how it was written, how the various texts were supplied and selected, the languages that were chosen, and how many generations the stories passed through before it landed in the textual form that it has today. And even now, how interpretation of ancient languages mean that the emphasis upon wording is a moving target. So it's not enough to read it as a 'story' - you have to understand the background of the author of each section, whether their text was meant to be seen as a factual account or as a fable/analogy and what agendas they may have had. As such you've pretty much got to have a degree in Theology to have an objective view on the situation.

    Most religious people take their views on the Bible on pure faith, and from those preachers that teach them that faith. I'm not so sure how many churches would openly admit that what they're actually quoting from is a book that was put in writing up to 300/400 years after the event, translated from an ancient language dialect that is in itself open to interpretation.

  3. Sundancin' Paul6/05/2012 3:44 pm

    I agree with the point you are making. There is so much diversity within the educational system, and with the growing number of "Acadamies" (most of which seem to be supported by Abrahamic religions) it would be impossible to achieve an acceptable standard approach.
    No fear of eternal damnation in "hell" for daring to disagree with Richard Dawkins!