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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Jeremy Corbyn set to win landslide victory – what now for his opponents?

A YouGov poll shows the Labour leader on course to win by a bigger margin (62-38) than last year. 

Different year, same result. Jeremy Corbyn is set to win another landslide victory in the Labour leadership election. The long-anticipated Times/YouGov poll puts Corbyn ahead of Owen Smith by 62 per cent to 38 per cent: an even bigger margin of victory than in 2015 (when he won 59.5 per cent).

YouGov, which has called the last two contests correctly, shows Corbyn leading comfortably among all three groups: party members (52-40), registered supporters (70-25) and affiliated supporters (54-33). 

For weeks, Smith’s backers have claimed that the race is far closer than I and others have suggested. They argued that constituency party nominations (of which Corbyn won 84 per cent) were unrepresentative. A projection last week by Saving Labour showed Smith on course to win by 4,000 votes. But YouGov's poll, the only one to have been published since the contest began, suggests such hopes are forlorn.

Corbyn’s lead comes in spite of the exclusion of 130,000 post-12 January members from the contest and the increase in the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (which some rebels anticipated would favour them). Smith has also made repeated efforts to woo the left: offering to make Corbyn party president, vowing to give activists a veto over policy and adopting an interventionist manifesto (including a 1 per cent wealth tax, £200bn of infrastructure spending, a ban on zero-hour contracts and the reversal of NHS private provision). The scale of Labour’s transformation is shown by the chasm between new and old members. Among those who joined before May 2015, Smith leads by 68-32. Among those who joined after September 2015, Corbyn leads by 86-14.

In the absence of a remarkable upset in the next three weeks, the Labour leader will be returned on 24 September. There are two rebel groups who will claim vindication from this outcome (it is wrong to treat the 172 MPs as a unified entity). The first are those who argued that it was far too early to challenge Corbyn; that he needed to be “given more time to fail”. In their view, it was utopian to believe that Labour members who elected him less than a year ago would change their views.

The second group are those who argued that rather than narrowing the selectorate (by increasing the sign-up fee to £25), Corbyn’s opponents needed to expand it. As a former shadow cabinet minister recently told me: “Moderates need to understand that it’s only through the registered supporters route that they’re going to be able to win back the party. There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up ... The strategic problem with Owen’s candidacy is that it talks to the existing bubble, you can win 40-45 per cent of that, but you can only really win if you can bring in new people. Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Some point to the primaries in which French president François Hollande (backed by 1.6m) and Italian president Matteo Renzi (1.9m) won selection against left-wing opponents as models to emulate. Another invoked the US: “Obama would never have won in 2008 with the existing Democratic membership and support base, it was owned by the Clintons. You’ve got to change it.”

Though many will again raise the spectre of a split, Labour MPs, as I’ve written before, have no intention of pursuing this course. Instead, with Theresa May ruling out an election before 2020, some intend to challenge Corbyn again. Others believe that they should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” A senior MP told me recently that the PLP should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it”. The imperative, he said, was to avoid the rebels taking the blame for a future election defeat.

Corbyn’s allies do not hesitate to warn that antagonistic MPs put themselves at risk of deselection. “The power’s there, we can’t stop it. We cannot say you cannot use the powers at your local CLP [Constituency Labour Party],” a senior source told me. “There’s no lever in the leader’s office for deselections. The issue is that there’s lot of party members who are very annoyed at their MPs for going against them and now they find they have a voice that they never normally had.”

Though mandatory reselection was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, MPs can still be ousted if they lose the “trigger ballots” automatically held before a general election (from which open selections result). During a recent visit to Brighton, Corbyn said that he would not “interfere” in attempts to remove local MP Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he stated. For Corbyn’s supporters, the finding that 48 per cent of the selectorate favour mandatory reselection is a valuable disciplinary tool. Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, Labour will remain united in name but divided in spirit.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.