Richard Dawkins attacks David Cameron over faith schools

An open letter to the Prime Minister from the <em>New Statesman</em>'s guest editor.

"Do you get it now, Prime Minister?"

In his leading article in the 19 December issue of the New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, the evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins launches a scathing attack on David Cameron and his government's imposition of religious tradition on society in the form of faith schools.

Dawkins's open letter, addressed to the Prime Minister, leads with a warning that we must not be distracted "from the real domination of our culture and politics that religion gets away with in (tax-free) spades"; indeed, these religious traditions are "enforced by government edict".

In a direct rebuke to David Cameron's "government, [which,] like its predecessors, does force religion on our society, in ways whose very familiarity disarms us", Dawkins lists examples, from bishops in the House of Lords and the fast-tracking of "faith-based charities to tax-free status" to the "most obvious and serious" case of government-imposed religion: faith schools.

"Faith schools don't so much teach about religion as indoctrinate in the particular religion that runs the school," Dawkins writes. Telling a child that he or she belongs to one particular faith "pav[es] the way . . . for a lifetime of discrimination and prejudice".

Returning to a question he posed to Cameron in the Guardian last month - Why do you support faith schools? - Dawkins writes:

I satirised the faith-labelling of children 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] a contemptuous snigger: "Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't 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".

Nor is Dawkins convinced by the Prime Minister's "contemptuous snigger" and his claims about misunderstanding: "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'."

Dawkins adds: "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?"

Furthermore, the enforcement of religion in society through politics is not democratic: "Baroness Warsi, your Minister Without Portfolio (and without election), has been at pains to inform us that this coalition government does indeed 'do God'." Yet British citizens who elected these ministers "mostly do not".

Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I do not mean state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state.

In the leader, Dawkins also makes a point of wishing Cameron a "Merry Christmas". "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," he writes.

As a "cultural Anglican", he writes, "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."

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This special Christmas issue follows the much-discussed New Statesman guest edit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in June this year.

The issue, cover-dated 19 December, will go on sale in London on Tuesday 13 December and in the rest of the country from Wednesday 14 December. British and international readers can pre-order single-issue copies through our website from 1pm on Monday 12 December. If you have any purchasing queries, please email Stephen Brasher

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.