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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Amid the political chaos, I have my first experience of digital death

To me, my “friend” lived on Facebook, and she died there.

While the UK was busy collapsing, I noticed someone had died.

Facebook told me. Social media often tells us when people die. But, this year at least, they tend to be people like Prince and David Bowie; people so mind-bogglingly famous it’s hard to believe anyone ever really knew them. But last week, for the first time in my life, Facebook told me I had lost a friend. Albeit a friend whose voice I never heard.  A literal “Facebook friend”. Someone who I got to know, in a miniscule way, through likes and comments.

She read this column and often shared her thoughts on it with me. That’s how we became “friends”. I hate to put “friends” in quotation marks like that (there, I’ve done it again). It feels cold, but I want to stress that I’m not equipped to write a eulogy for a woman who – in my world – existed entirely inside my laptop. Although my pixelated image of her, built on roughly three years’ worth of brief exchanges, is of someone not much older than me but much, much wiser. Likewise, someone less privileged than me but much, much more positive.

This was my first experience of digital death – of having someone crop up in my newsfeed nearly every day, and then not. It was – alongside Brexit all the more so – a stark lesson in impermanence. I spend a lot of time bargaining with my dead grandmother. I never met her either, but that’s never stopped me asking her for stuff. When I’ve been bedridden with depression I’ve asked her, in my head, to make it stop. As if dead people are magic. I talk to both my dead granddads too, although less so because men are sort of ineffectual. I don’t know where I think they all are. In a celestial Gants Hill front room, maybe. Arguing. The likelihood is they just aren’t. Aren’t anywhere or anyone. They are all the less extant when, all of a sudden, another person with (I imagine) plenty of magic dead relatives of her own, dies young. So many of us make superstitious bargains, but we still get fired and depressed and mowed down by double-deckers outside Greggs on a Tuesday afternoon.

And, although there’s something incredibly unceremonious about learning about a friend’s (or even a “friend”’s) death on Facebook, maybe that’s just where we’re at now. How else would I have found out, anyway? To me, my “friend” lived on Facebook, and she died there. I watched her real life friends say goodbye to her on her wall. I’ve never seen anyone communicate with the dead on social media before and it is – I suppose – in no way less human than me asking a woman who has been dead for nearly forty years to cheer me up or stop me from getting cancer.

The way we grieve is changing. Within one week, I have seen both digital condolences and – while house hunting in Streatham – a nineteenth century cockney-style funeral carriage, driven by horses. The horses had black plumes; the online messages had crying emojis. Both are valid, because death is mad and incomprehensible.

I don’t think anyone dead is reading this. If they are, I really hope I’m not coming across as dead-ist. I, honest to God, just felt a chill that I’m trying to convince myself wasn’t my grandma telling me to get a fucking grip.

But there is one person in particular who probably isn’t reading this. And I wish this wasn’t this. And I wish she was. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.