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Review interview: Richard Dawkins

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Review interview: Richard Dawkins
The scourge of God is now turning his wrath on schools that dilute science for fear of offending faith

By Rosie Millard

Well, it's a distinction of sorts. Professor Richard Dawkins, who holds the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford, was last week nominated as one of the country's Groovy Old Men — a group of sexy "silver foxes" that also includes the actors Bill Nighy and Terence Stamp. There is even an ongoing poll to choose the favourite.

"Although Richard's not really old enough to be up there with David Atten-borough, is he?" complains his third wife, the actress Lalla Ward (who was once the sidekick to another groovy older man — Tom Baker — in his incarnation as Doctor Who). At 67, Dawkins is certainly rather gorgeous. Actually, he looks somewhat like an older version of David Tennant, the Doctor Who de nos jours, with his deep green eyes and distinguished profile. He's also a serial smiler — until he starts talking about religion, at which point he becomes glittery-eyed and red-cheeked with indignation.

In addition to overseeing our understanding of science, Dawkins is also the best-known atheist in the country, a man who considers the worship of Christ to be about as relevant as dancing around a totem pole or deifying the Giant Spaghetti Monster. His fans will know all about this from his books, notably The God Delusion — a bestseller that picks apart the inconsistencies in religion with scalpel-like logic.

Dawkins is about to chew up religion again now, in a television series about his hero, Charles Darwin, which holds up to ridicule those who refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Astounding though it may seem, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, there are many people who don't believe its findings, he says.

Some of these are evangelicals in far-off countries who think that God created everything in six days and that rainy days began with Noah's Flood. Others, however, are a bit closer to home. British secondary-school science teachers, for example.

"Science is being threatened in our class-rooms," says Dawkins, citing examples such as the schools funded by the evangelical car dealer Peter Vardy and the private Blue Coat school in Liverpool that employs a creationist science teacher called Nick Cowan. When Dawkins himself met Cowan, he was confidently assured that the Earth is only 6,000 years old (rather than 4.5 billion). Cowan also apparently solved the chicken-and-egg conundrum by explaining: "God created the chicken, and the chicken laid the egg."

"Nick Cowan is a scandal," fumes Dawkins. "To have him teaching science at a respectable school is about equivalent to having a flat-Earther teaching geography."

More seriously, Dawkins believes that many science teachers who do believe in evolution are selling our children short by kowtowing to political correctness. At the moment, he points out, Darwinian evolution is taught in British schools at key stages 3 and 4, but under the national curriculum, alternative theories such as "intelligent design" (part of the creationist credo) "could be discussed in schools . . . in the context of being one of a range of views on evolution", according to a government education minister.

"It's fine to teach children about scientific controversies," Dawkins says. "What is not fine is to say, 'There are these two theories. One is called evolution, the other is called Genesis.' If you are going to say that, then you should talk about the Nigerian tribe who believe the world was created from the excrement of ants."

Cowardice is at the root of the problem, he feels. When it comes to presenting the truth of science against the "mythology" of religion, science teachers duck the issue for fear of reprimand. And not only from evangelical Christians. In his view, devout Muslims are a large part of the problem.

"Islam is importing creationism into this country," he says. "Most devout Muslims are creationists — so when you go to schools, there are a large number of children of Islamic parents who trot out what they have been taught."

In his TV series, Dawkins faces a class of 15-year-olds at Park High secondary school in London. A few of the pupils readily tell him they don't believe in evolution because it runs counter to their religious beliefs. It's only after he bundles them into a coach and shows them fossils at the seaside that one or two admit there might be something in this evolution gig after all.

"I was shocked by how some put up barriers to understanding," says Dawkins. "I showed them the evidence, and they just said, 'This is what it says in my holy book.' And so I asked, 'If your holy book says one thing, but the evidence says something else, you then go with your holy book?' And they said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'Why?' And they said, 'It's the way we've been brought up'."

Even worse, from his point of view, their science teachers are extremely unwilling to oppose anything that smacks of a faith-held belief. And the same applies to their head teachers and the government — even when a belief is contradicted by scientific truth. This infuriates Dawkins.

"Teachers are bending over backwards to 'respect' home prejudices that children have been brought up with," he says . "The government could do more, but it doesn't want to because it is fanatical about multi-culturalism and the need to 'respect' the different 'traditions' from which these children come. The government — particularly under Tony Blair — thinks it is wonderful to have children brought up with their traditional religions. I call it brainwashing."

Dawkins shakes his head with dismay. His large, light Oxford house is filled with books, of which his most precious is a first edition of On the Origin of Species, an imprint that ran to only 1,250 copies and sold out immediately. The book has never been out of print since.

Clearly, the weedy way in which the momentous findings of Darwin's masterpiece are being taught in some schools pains him. "I would like to see evolution taught a lot earlier. There should be no problem teaching it to eight-year-olds." What if parents don't want their children included in the lesson? "For parents to deprive their children of an educational opportunity because of a traditional bigotry is unfair on the child."

And science teachers, people who should be Darwin's flag-wavers, are simply looking the other way. "It seems as though teachers are terribly frightened of being thought racist," says Dawkins. "It's almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country, because [if you do] you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic."

His inquiry into how Darwin's theory of evolution continues to be watered down, and how our fear of giving religious offence encourages this, eventually led to a meeting with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Who wasn't that much help, since Williams's line is that evolution is all well and good, but that God was responsible for it.

"Oh, Rowan Williams — what a sweet man," says Dawkins, a smile breaking over his face. "I have a lot of time for the Church of England." What? But you're the most famous atheist in the country. "I feel rather sorry for them in a way. Compared to the alternatives, it is a thoroughly decent organisation. And if all Christians were like Rowan, there wouldn't be a problem. I've met him socially, and he is delightful."

Not only that, but Dawkins is very happy with school nativity plays and church bells. "I'm a human being who interacts with people socially," he pleads.

"When I go to dinner with a bishop, I find them very often — extremely often — very convivial, nice people. Why ever not?" Indeed. Dawkins wants to be liked, and perhaps it's unrealistic to expect him to thrust The God Delusion over the dinner table at anyone sporting a dog collar.

His view is that most of the Anglican top brass know the Virgin birth and other such "myths" are mumbo-jumbo anyway. "Often, when you talk to bishops, it appears they don't believe in very much."

Even the archbishop? "It would appear he does believe in it [the Virgin birth]," says Dawkins. "But he doesn't thrust it down people's throats. His kind of Anglicanism is benign and pretty harmless."

Critics would say that the woolliness of the Church of England has allowed rabid creationists to start checking into local Alpha group meetings, and bringing pamphlets — such as Truth in Science, a manifesto for evolution via "intelligent design" — into schools. "I do think that's a serious point," says Dawkins. "Because we are all brought up to respect faith, it leaves open a gap through which fanatics can charge."

Is that what's happened in schools? "Yes. I think we have all been brought up to give too much respect to religion, as opposed to any other kind of opinion."

He may be Darwin's most ardent fan, (and the BBC must be kicking itself that Channel 4 has snapped him up a whole year before the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth in 2009), but Dawkins does not believe we should subscribe to the dogma of "survival of the fittest" when it comes to our own lives.

"We need to rise above our Darwinian heritage," he says. In what way? "Well, we devote our lives to writing books, composing music, creating poetry — all higher functions of the brain. If we were following Darwinian dictates, we males would be spending all our time fighting other males to get females, and screwing them all over the place in order to have lots of children and grandchildren. I'm very glad we have risen above all of that."

The Genius of Charles Darwin begins on Channel 4 tomorrow at 8pm



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