Distinguished evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has expressed support for the distribution of Bibles in government-run British schools. The privately funded plan, estimated to cost £370,000, began in May to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. In Britain, the issue is relatively non-controversial, since the nation routinely mixes religious and government affairs. Nevertheless, questions about the morality of religious involvement in public schools remain and we want to know what Universal Life Church ministers think. Will the book be taught objectively as an influential work of literature, or will it be endorsed subjectively as a moral guide?
Anyone who knows of Dawkins and his firmly-held beliefs on religion may be puzzled by his support of the plan, but he doesn’t see a conflict between secularism and school Bibles. In The Guardian, the Oxford professor states that “[a] native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.” The King James Bible is rich with figurative language foundational to the English idiom, he notes: “[It] is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare (to quote that distinguished authority Anon, the trouble with Hamlet is it’s so full of cliches).” The book, he suggests, has made an invaluable contribution to the Western and English-speaking traditions, much as Greek or Norse mythology have. From this view, the work possesses unparalleled scholarly value.
This might seem contradictory to many of us ULC priests and ministers unless we distinguish between scholarship and morality. “People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality,” he says, and “[w]hatever else the Bible might be–and it really is a great work of literature–it is not a moral book, and young people need to learn that important fact, because they are very frequently told the opposite.” Ironically, for Dawkins, it is precisely because the Bible is not a moral book that students should gain exposure to it, because once they do, they will see the it for what it really is, not what others want them to think it is.
Dawkins’s support in part echoes that of Michael Grove, Britain’s education secretary. Grove has also supported the distribution of the King James Bible in British schools, maintaining that it has had “an immense influence” on the English-speaking world. However, the Dawkins parts ways with the education secretary on the point of the Bible’s morality. While Grove wants students to learn about both the Bible’s literary value and its purported morality, Dawkins wants students to learn about the dark and disturbing stories of incest, murder, and rape it contains.
Teaching the Bible solely as a work of literature and not as a moral guide is an interesting idea, but would this work in the United States as it might in Britain? Americans are far more religious than Britons, so Americans–teachers and students alike–might be more prone to view the Bible through a sentimental lens. The chance to learn about the Bible in purely literary terms–and to gain exposure to its less examined dark side–might be entirely lost on the less critical and more sympathetic American populace.