Uber-Atheist Richard Dawkins recently did something quite unexpected – he came out in support of British education secretary Michael Gove’s plan to send free King James Bibles to every English school. Of course, his unconventional position has, not unexpectedly, exposed him to ridicule from both Atheists and Christians – to the detriment of both.
Dawkins, like many Atheists who know the Bible better than its adherents, is a serious Biblical scholar who believes the King James Bible is world-class literature. As he puts it, “A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.” I’m an Atheist and heartily agree. If for no other reason than its overwhelming literary value it should be taught, along with a wide variety of secular and non-secular literature, in schools.
How Many Moralities Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
However, Dawkins goes on to say, “Whatever else the Bible might be…it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite.” I don’t completely agree here and that position sometimes attracts the wrath of my Atheist friends.
On the contrary, the Bible is moral book in many ways, it just doesn’t always reflect the moral positions of Dawkins, me, or millions of others. I see it as one of a great number of books and philosophies that can provide moral guidance and I don’t have believe in a God to see that or be moral. It is easy to find inconsistencies in the Bible and support for positions that were more suitable in Jesus’s day, but aren’t so great for the world circa 2012. I recognize some people would say that’s exactly the reason the world is in such a pickle, but that’s an entirely different post.
The Bible is an important book and it provides some useful moral guidance along with many other sources. It just doesn’t provide all THE moral guidance everyone needs or agrees with. That is where I see a great need to teach about the Bible, which is distinctly different than teaching the Bible. There is an equal need to teach about non-Christian sources as well.
You may believe the Bible is a crock of stale communion crackers, but you can’t deny its power as a shaper of history. To fully understand the history, literature, and social mores of the world it is indispensable – just as other religious texts and secular philosophies provide context for the advance of mankind.
Religious texts could, and sometimes are, perfectly at home in an academic environment providing there is sufficient context. We need more study of diverse forms of literature, sociology, and history to heal the fractures that vex us all.
But in the end, Dawkins hits the nail on the head while revealing the hole in his otherwise very thoughtful logic. He seems to want to emphasize only the bad of the Bible as something dangerous to be taught and to reveal the awfulness of the book. I happen to believe that teaching the bad as well as the good provides a better balanced and complete picture. The devil, if you’ll excuse the biblical reference, is in the details.
Tenterhooks Need to Become More Tender
Atheists and members of other belief systems are rightfully touchy about the overwhelming influence of Christianity, particularly in the US. All the whimpering about Christianity being under siege is nonsensical. The tiny numbers of non-Christians that live in the US are about as able to slay Goliath without the slingshot or the rock and with all his arms and legs tied behind him as they are to lay siege to one of the world’s most powerful religions. You want to see a siege, trying walking in our shoes. Heck, try even keeping your shoes.
For their part, Christians are often offended by non-Christians and are not shy of offending them, to defend their faith. They often see open theocracy as a way to circle the wagons against all the devils out there who they believe would undo their faith in a heartbeat given half the chance. However, Christians also do incredibly important work helping the poor and wretched of the world, advancing the commonly agreed upon moral tenets of society, and providing alternative views of sometimes misunderstood non-Christian morality.
Everyone is on tenterhooks about religion these days and that seeps into governmental actions and personal morality and behavior. We do this because neither side is willing or able to entertain the notion that the other isn’t wholly evil and that maybe we all have a vested interest in doing things together. That doesn’t happen without understanding and compassion, exactly the unbiased understanding and compassion students should learn about in school.
In the end, Dawkins is under no illusion that something so rational will happen and neither do I. He thinks the availability of Bibles will create Atheists. Except for the exceptionally weak of mind, I don’t think that alone will change anyone’s opinion. Knowledge will help people make an informed choice and that is where the chips should fall.
Perhaps too much blood has flowed under the bridge of humanity to allow it. But, wouldn’t the world be a better place we did.
Cross posted at The Omnipotent Poobah Speaks! More than politics, more than pop culture