No, not really. But the new edition, guest-edited by Richard Dawkins, goes some way to making up for the religious propaganda and apologetics regularly churned out by the likes of Mehdi Hassan, John Gray and Sholto Byrnes. Dawkins’s leader article (in the form of an open letter to Cameron) is generally sound, if somewhat more friendly and polite than I’d be:
An open letter to the Rt Hon David Cameron MP from the New Statesman’s Christmas 2011 guest editor, Richard Dawkins (pictured below):
Merry Christmas! I mean it. All that “Happy Holiday Season” stuff, with “holiday” cards and “holiday” presents, is a tiresome import from the US, where it has long been fostered more by rival religions than by atheists. A cultural Anglican (whose family has been part of the Chipping Norton Set since 1727, as you’ll see if you look around you in the parish church), I recoil from secular carols such as “White Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the loathsome “Jingle Bells”, but I’m happy to sing real carols, and in the unlikely event that anyone wants me to read a lesson I’ll gladly oblige – only from the King James Version, of course.
Token objections to cribs and carols are not just silly, they distract vital attention from the real domination of our culture and politics that religion still gets away with, in (tax-free) spades. There’s an important difference between traditions freely embraced by individuals and traditions enforced by government edict. Imagine the outcry if your government were to require every family to celebrate Christmas in a religious way. You wouldn’t dream of abusing your power like that. And yet your government, like its predecessors, does force religion on our society, in ways whose very familiarity disarms us. Setting aside the 26 bishops in the House of Lords, passing lightly over the smooth inside track on which the Charity Commission accelerates faith-based charities to tax-free status while others (quite rightly) have to jump through hoops, the most obvious and most dangerous way in which governments impose religion on our society is through faith schools – as Rabbi Jonathan Romain reminds us on page 27.
We should teach about religion, if only because religion is such a salient force in world politics and such a potent driver of lethal conflict. We need more and better instruction in comparative religion (and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that any education in English literature is sadly impoverished if the child can’t take allusions from the King James Bible). But faith schools don’t so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school. Unconscionably, they give children the message that they belong specifically to one particular faith, usually that of their parents, paving the way, at least in places such as Belfast and Glasgow, for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice.
Psychologists tell us that, if you experimentally separate children in any arbitrary way – say, dress half of them in green T-shirts and half in orange – they will develop in-group loyalty and outgroup prejudice. To continue the experiment, suppose that, when they grow up, greens only marry greens and oranges only marry oranges. Moreover, “green children” only go to green schools and “orange children” to orange schools. Carry on for 300 years and what have you got? Northern Ireland, or worse. Religion may not be the only divisive power that can propel dangerous prejudices down through many generations (language and race are other candidates) but religion is the only one that receives active government support in the form of schools.
So deeply ingrained is this divisive ethos in our social consciousness that journalists, and indeed most of us, breezily refer to “Catholic children”, “Protestant children”, “Muslim children”, “Christian children”, even where the children are too young to decide what they think about questions that divide the various faiths. We assume that children of Catholic parents (for instance) just are “Catholic children”, and so on. A phrase such as “Muslim child” should grate like fingernails on a blackboard. The appropriate substitution is “child of Muslim parents”.
I satirised the faith-labelling of children, in the Guardian last month (26 November), using an analogy that almost everybody gets as soon as he hears it – we wouldn’t dream of labelling a child a “Keynesian child” simply because her parents were Keynesian economists. Mr Cameron, you replied to that serious and sincere point with what could distinctly be heard on the audio version as a contemptuous snigger: “Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn’t really get it.” Do you get it now, Prime Minister? Obviously I was not comparing Keynes with Jesus. I could just as well have used “monetarist child” or “fascist child” or “postmodernist child” or “Europhile child”. Moreover, I wasn’t talking specifically about Jesus, any more than Muhammad or the Buddha.
In fact, I think you got it all along. If you are like several government ministers (of all three parties) to whom I have spoken, you are not really a religious believer yourself. Several ministers and ex-ministers of education whom I have met, both Conservative and Labour, don’t believe in God but, to quote the philosopher Daniel Dennett, they do “believe in belief”. A depressingly large number of intelligent and educated people, despite having outgrown religious faith, still vaguely presume without thinking about it that religious faith is somehow “good” for other people, good for society, good for public order, good for instilling morals, good for the common people even if we chaps don’t need it. Condescending? Patronising? Yes, but isn’t that largely what lies behind successive governments’ enthusiasm for faith schools?
Baroness Warsi, your Minister Without Portfolio (and without election), has been at pains to inform us that this coalition government does indeed “do God”. But we who elected you mostly do not. It is possible that the recent census may register a slight majority of people ticking the “Christian” box. However, the UK branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll in the week following the census. When published, this will enable us to see how many people who self-identified as Christian are believers.
Meanwhile, the latest British Social Attitudes survey, just published, clearly demonstrates that religious affiliation, religious observance and religious attitudes to social issues have all continued their long-term decline and are now irrelevant to all but a minority of the population. When it comes to life choices, social attitudes, moral dilemmas and sense of identity, religion is on its deathbed, even for many of those who still nominally identify with a religion.
This is good news. It is good news because if we depended on religion for our values and our sense of cohesion we would be well and truly stuck. The very idea that we might get our morals from the Bible or the Quran will horrify any decent person today who takes the trouble to read those books – rather than cherry-pick the verses that happen to conform to our modern secular consensus. As for the patronising assumption that people need the promise of heaven (or the obscene threat of torture in hell) in order to be moral, what a contemptibly immoral motive for being moral! What binds us together, what gives us our sense of empathy and compassion – our goodness – is something far more important, more fundamental and more powerful than religion: it is our common humanity, deriving from our pre-religious evolutionary heritage, then refined and improved, as Professor Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature, by centuries of secular enlightenment.
A diverse and largely secular country such as Britain should not privilege the religious over the non-religious, or impose or underwrite religion in any aspect of public life. A government that does so is out of step with modern demographics and values. You seemed to understand that in your excellent, and unfairly criticised, speech on the dangers of “multiculturalism” in February this year. Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I mean not state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state. Individuals must always be free to “do God” if they wish; but a government for the people certainly should not.
With my best wishes to you and your family for a happy Christmas,