It's been a week of handling fallout from The Root of All Evil?, my TV documentary about religion. Of course religion is not the root of all evil. No single thing is the root of all anything. The question mark was supposed to turn an indefensible title into a debatable topic. Gratifyingly, title notwithstanding, the e-mails, letters and telephone calls to Channel 4 have been running two to one in favour. The pros mostly praise Channel 4's courage in finally saying what many people have been thinking for years. The antis complain that I failed to do justice to "both sides", and that I interviewed fundamentalist extremists rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The balance is (over-) provided by Thought for the Day, Prayer for the Day, Songs of Praise, the Daily Service, Faith to Faith, Choral Evensong, Sunday Half-Hour, The Story of God, Belief, Beyond Belief, and others. Mine was a brief opportunity to put the other side. As for my "extremist" interviews, would that Pastor Ted Haggard were extreme. In neo-con America, he is mainstream. President of the 30 million-strong National Association of Evangelicals, he has a weekly phone conversation with Bush. My other "extremist", Yousef al-Khattab (Joseph Cohen) of Jerusalem, was supposed, as an American Jew turned Israeli settler turned Muslim, to see both sides and give a balanced perspective. Wrong!
We did invite the Archbishop of Canterbury - and the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Westminster - to be interviewed. All declined, no doubt for good reasons. Happily, the Bishop of Oxford accepted, and he was as delightful as ever. But you can't judge by example. We don't judge Christians by Hitler's claim to be one, and it is equally irrelevant that many Christians, like many atheists, are nice people. The point is that faith, even moderate faith, is pernicious because it teaches that believing something without evidence is a virtue. Moderates, as Sam Harris shows in his devastating book, The End of Faith, "provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed". Or, in Voltaire's words, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".
One of my TV locations was a London school that follows the (American) Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) syllabus. The day after watching my show, three colleagues told me they had interviewed, for a place at university, a young woman who had been taught (not at the same school) using ACE. She turned out to be the worst candidate they had ever encountered. She had no idea that thinking was even an option: her job was either to know or guess the "right" answer. Worse, she had no clue how bad she was, having always scored at least 95 per cent in exams - the National Christian Schools Certificate (NCSC). Should my colleagues write to Ofsted about ACE and NCSC? Unfortunately, Ofsted is the organisation that gave a rave review to Tony Blair's pet city academy in Gateshead: a Christian school whose head of science thinks the entire universe began after the domestication of the dog.
My wife wakes me up laughing in her sleep. She dreamed she met one of those unidentifiable male royals and asked him what he was doing. "Oh, just wondering in a chinless sort of way," was the reply her subconscious served up. What on earth is the point of the royal family? For the Queen, the answer is clear. Given our bizarre hereditary system of succession, her duty is to go on living for a very long time indeed. She is, we are told, "doing a fine job under difficult circumstances". All the more reason to plan constitutional reform now so that, when the present queen's reign ends, the monarchy itself can quit while it's ahead.
The Pluto mission reopens the fatuous debate over whether it is "really" a planet or "merely" a large planetesimal. Astrologers aside, who cares about such distinctions? The expedition appeals to me because it will take nine years to complete. Sheer distance imposes the timescale, and that's an inspiring thought in itself given that the nearest star is 8,000 times further. Less glamorous research would benefit from equally long vision but remains unsupported. Evolution, for instance, normally takes too long to make an impact within a human lifespan, let alone that of the average research grant. The amazing thing is how alarmingly fast evolution can sometimes go, when conditions are right. Let's hope bird flu won't turn out to be an example.
Richard Dawkins's most recently published book is The Ancestor's Tale (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)