Speaking at a science festival this past weekend, notorious atheist Richard Dawkins defended teaching the Bible in schools as an “important part of our culture.” He opposed abolishing religious education, but argued that children should be taught comparative religions to learn history and literature, along with critical thinking.
“I would not abolish religious education, I think I would substitute it for comparative religion and Biblical history and religious history,” Dawkins said, as reported in Britain’s The Telegraph. He emphasized the Bible specifically as an essential part of history and culture.
“I think that it is an important part of our culture to know about the Bible, after all so much of English literature has allusions to the Bible,” the atheist declared. He emphasized that “if you look up the Oxford English Dictionary you find something like the same number of quotations from the Bible as from Shakespeare.”
Dawkins also added that the Bible is “an important part of our history” in the UK, but also in the West generally. “So much of European history is dominated by disputes against rival religions and you can’t understand history unless you know about the history of the Christian religion and the Crusades and so on.”
Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, is well known for launching the movement of “new atheists,” along with Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. His most famous book, The God Delusion, argues against religion in general. At the festival, he was promoting his forthcoming book Science in the Soul: Selected Wrightings of a Passionate Realist, a collection of his essays on science and religion.
But Dawkins does not advocate for the utter silencing of religion.
“Comparative religion is very valuable, partly because the child learns that there are lots of different religions, not just the one they were brought up with,” the author declared this past weekend. “They learn that they are all different and they can’t all be right, so maybe none of them are right. Critical thinking is what we need.”
The outspoken atheist did not encourage such critical thinking when applied to evolution, however. He argued that it was time to abandon the phrase “theory of evolution,” because the word “theory” invokes a degree of doubt for most people.
“I would recommend not calling it a theory, I would call it a fact,” Dawkins said. “The word theory is clearly misunderstood. Evolution is a fact and there is absolutely no question or doubt about that. Look at the evidence, it is overwhelming.”
“I’ve given up hope of ever clearing up that confusion,” the atheist added. “It’s much better to abandon the word theory altogether. Don’t ever use the word theory of evolution.”
In fact, the neodarwinian synthesis — the most recent version of the theory of evolution — is in trouble, prompting a meeting of the British Royal Society last year to discuss scrapping it in favor of other theories that take account of the complex information problems involved.
Dawkins did apply critical thinking and comparative religion when discussing Islam, however. He warned that the Muslim faith is the “most evil” religion in the world, but also that those who suffer most from this evil are moderate Muslims themselves.
“It’s tempting to say that all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” Dawkins said. “If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world, it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.”
But Dawkins insisted that “it’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it.”
The atheist argued that “individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else. They suffer from the homophobia, the misogyny, the joylessness which is preached by extreme Islam, ISIS and the Iranian regime.”
Then Dawkins utterly misinterpreted President Donald Trump’s temporary travel ban, following the “Muslim ban” rhetoric.
“So it is a major evil in the world, we do have to combat it, but we don’t do what Trump did and say all Muslims should be shut out of the country,” the atheist said. “That’s draconian, that’s illiberal, inhumane and wicked. I am against Islam not least because of the unpleasant effects it has on the lives of Muslims.”
While Dawkins was arguing for comparative religion and studying the Bible in Britain, his arguments hold the same validity in the United States. The Bible has had an immense impact on European history, but also on Western history more generally, and especially American history. Bible references run throughout literature and countless names of cities, towns, and locales across the United States.
Studying the history of religion and the Bible is imperative for a complete education in history, literature, and culture generally. Public schools should teach it, but as Dawkins suggests, they should teach multiple religions and different interpretations, so as to avoid any sense of a school officially endorsing one religion or another.
Indeed, the 1963 Supreme Court decision Abington School District v. Schempp, which banned school districts from forcing teachers and students to recite the Lord’s Prayer or read passages of the Bible without comment, also explicitly allowed objective study of the bible in public schools.
“It certainly may be said taht the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark in the majority opinion. “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
Within such a nonpartisan and secular framework, Bible study should be encouraged. Schools arguably do children a disservice if they refuse to educate them on the basics of the Bible and comparative religion.
Even notorious atheists like Richard Dawkins acknowledge that such study is important.