It sounds encouraging and slightly bewildering to hear Richard Dawkins speaking in favour of religious education (RE) in schools recently.
Dawkins said, "I don’t think religious education should be abolished" when questioned at the Cheltenham Science Festival. He stated "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".
Wait! Isn't this the man who in The God Delusion stridently claimed giving children a religious education was child abuse?
That bringing a child up in the Catholic faith was potentially more damaging than being sexually abused by a priest?
The book oozes with what seems to be a visceral dislike of religion, especially when it involves teaching it to children. So how could he now be speaking out in favour of RE in schools? Has the leopard changed his spots?
No. Dawkins has in fact always been in favour of teaching the Bible and other religious texts in schools. Also in The God Delusion, he expressed astonishment at the widespread ignorance of the Bible, and stated that "the main reason the English Bible needs to be part of our education is that it is a major source book for literary culture". He notes there are 1300 biblical references in Shakespeare, and concludes that "an atheistic world-view provides no justification for cutting out the Bible and other sacred books, out of our education".
So Dawkins hasn't changed his mind. He has consistently held that the Bible is an important part of our heritage, and it and other sacred texts are an important part of a well-rounded education.
And he's right, of course. In terms of history and literature, there is a strong case for teaching the Bible. And in a diverse world, it is important that children grow up gaining some familiarity with faiths other than their own.
So do Christians have any disagreement with Dawkins when it comes to RE? Or is this a rare case of us nodding along with the world's most famous atheist?
Yes, we do disagree. It's primarily about how and why RE is taught.
Most Christians strongly desire that their children follow their own faith, and they actively work towards this. They see RE as another way of teaching them more about Christianity, and some also see it as an avenue for evangelisation in schools. The Bible's literary and cultural value isn't their first priority, although they may still see this as important.
Dawkins is strongly opposed to children being raised as Christians, Muslims or Jews, regarding this taking away their right to choose beliefs for themselves. Religion to him is an important cultural tradition, and something we might have a sentimental attachment to – but it's not truth. Science has superseded religion. Belief in God is a delusion: “we can give up belief in God while not losing touch with a treasured heritage”. Consequently, he sees teaching children to follow a particular religion as brainwashing.
Christians believe the Bible is true. It is a grand story that explains who we are, why we are here and where we are going. It teaches us about God, and how we can know him. Naturally, we want this taught to our children. The Bible is not just a "treasured heritage" that should be taught so we can fully appreciate Shakespeare.
Naively, we could take the Dawkins approach that RE in schools should be comparative religion, and that a Christian perspective is best imparted at home. But this could be dangerous to our children's faith. If RE is taught by a Dawkins disciple, children will inevitably taught that the Bible is the production of stone-age goat herders, long eclipsed by the wonders of science. Useful for understanding cultural references, but not true. I doubt that's something a Christian parent would want for their children.
Bruce Blackshaw is co-founder of a small software company that exports world-wide. He is deeply involved in apologetics, loves philosophy, and is a member of Everyday Church in Wimbledon, London