Press Column

There are some pleasures undiminished from year to year. Whatever may happen in the great world: wars, epidemics, a global depression, yet certain rituals of Christmas and the New Year persist. There will always be, in one of the liberal papers, a Christmas message to the nation from Richard Dawkins, explaining that religion in general, and religious education in particular, is a work of God and therefore uniquely dangerous. This an odd position for an atheist to take up; and the longer you think about it, the odder it gets. It is pretty clear that Dawkins gets himself into difficulties simply because he is not atheist enough. He persists in treating religion as if it were entirely different from all other social arrangements and intellectual systems.

Of course, there is a very good reason for worrying about "faith-based" schools this winter, when the integration of Muslim families with the wider British world turns out to be a matter of urgency. Sneering at the Church of England is a recognised relaxation for progressive intellectuals but it is fun because of the certainty that no one will bite back and ir won’t matter even if they do. But the question of what the government ought to do about Muslim schools is one that should worry all thoughtful people.

What is disconcerting about Dawkins’ views on the matter is that they seem to run completely contrary to the general cast of his scientific beliefs. I happened to be reading over Christmas the second volume of the collected papers of W.D. Hamilton, the biologist whose ideas form the intellectual spine of The Selfish Gene — and indeed of all modern Darwinism. It comes with an enthusiastic and tender foreword by Dawkins himself, who delivered the eulogy to Hamilton in New College chapel when he died last year. Yet the contrast between these two atheists’ attitude to religion could hardly be greater. Hamilton was not more reverent. On the contrary, his arguments against the pro-life position are more radical than anything else I have ever read on the subject, partly because they are informed by a greater biological knowledge. But he does not expect Christianity to alter human nature very much; and his explanations for religious conflict would, I think, be biological and genetic rather than taking the pieties of both sides at face value.

By contrast, in the Observer piece — yes, this is a

Indeed, there is a perfectly obvious sociobiological or Darwinian explanation for the rise of monotheism, which otherwise seems to much less exciting and psychologically realistic than polytheism. The great world religions, if they do nothing else, provide a way for homo sapiens to recast the simple genetically bound and clan-based loyalties of our more ape-like ancestors so that we can identify with people of utterly different backgrounds an upbringing, and form coalitions with them against the rest of the world. This is surely why religions spread most dramatically in periods of sudden civilisation, or at least urbanisation, when traditional bonds and coalitions break down. There is a parallel here with individual life: those who marry in church will probably never return there unless carried inside in a box, whereas people who come to church in the throes of a divorce are far more likely to stay, and to find their next spouse in another churchgoer.

If you study the ways in which faith-based school systems actually work, and where, more interestingly, they break down, it is obvious that the serious conflict comes when religious belonging is supposed by the pious to be really more important than family or class loyalties. This was nicely illustrated by the struggles that Basil Hume had with middle class Catholic parents in London when they realised that he genuinely believed that for their children to have a Catholic education was more important than for them to have a middle class one. None of this proves that faith-based schools are a good thing. What it does suggest is that there may be powerful arguments for recognising Islam and binding it into the nation precisely in order to weaken and dilute it just as establishment is believed by some Christians to have weakened and diluted Christianity.

Whether these are conclusive is of course a pragmatic question, not one that can be decided from first principle. At the same times as Dawkins was in the Observer, the rather more God-friendly Sunday Telegraph carried a piece by the pseudonymous and prolific prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple arguing that in prisons the experiment of recognising Islam hasn’t worked as desired: "For some years now, the strongest evangelical current in British prisons has been t5hat of Islam, and it is important to our future to understand why this should be. In the first place, there is a general susceptibility of a proportion of prisoners to religious conversion. Crime is definitely a young man’s occupation; it is not for the elderly or even for the middle-aged. There thus comes a time when it dawns upon prisoners that a life of crime is never going to lead to riches and contentment … moreover, a large number of prisoners eventually come to feel that that something is missing from their lives. They seek, in their hapless way, something that will transcend their lamentable and hitherto wholly egoistical lives. But why Islam?

"It answers their need for transcendence, of course, as any religion would, but it [also] revenges them upon the whole of society. By converting to Islam, the prisoner is … expressing his enmity towards the society in which he lives and by which he believes himself to have been grossly maltreated." What’s missing from this analysis are the figures which would show whether blacks convert disportionately to the Islamic version of a universal brotherhood of man, or whether they are just as attracted to the Christian version. Does anyone have statistics on this?

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