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UPDATED: Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible

UPDATE: You can hear Richard's discussion about this on the BBC World Service here. The discussion with him and Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society begins at 43'57'


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Michael Gove, the education secretary, thinks there should be a copy of the King James Bible in every state school. Photograph: Jim Corwin/Getty Images

For some reason the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) was not approached for a donation in support of Michael Gove's plan to put a King James Bible in every state school. We would certainly have given it serious consideration, and if the trustees had not agreed I would gladly have contributed myself. In the event, it was left to "millionaire Conservative party donors".

I am a little shocked at the implication that not every school library already possesses a copy. Can that be true? What do they have, then? Harry Potter? Vampires? Or do they prefer one of those modern translations in which "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity" is lyrically rendered as "Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher. Everything is pointless"? That is Ecclesiastes, 1:2, as you'll find it in the Common English Bible. And you can't get much more common than that, although admittedly the God's Word translation provides stiff competition with "absolutely pointless" and the Good News Bible challenges strongly with "useless, useless".

Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature (I'm told it's pretty good in the original Hebrew, too). The whole King James Bible 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 clichées). In The God Delusion I have a section called "Religious education as a part of literary culture" in which I list 129 biblical phrases which any cultivated English speaker will instantly recognise and many use without knowing their provenance: the salt of the earth; go the extra mile; I wash my hands of it; filthy lucre; through a glass darkly; wolf in sheep's clothing; hide your light under a bushel; no peace for the wicked; how are the mighty fallen.

A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian. In the week after the 2011 census, my UK Foundation commissioned Ipsos MORI to poll those who had ticked the Christian box. Among other things, we asked them to identify the first book of the New Testament from a choice of Matthew, Genesis, Acts of the Apostles, Psalms, "Don't know" and "Prefer not to say". Only 35% chose Matthew and 39% chose "Don't know" (and 1%, mysteriously, chose "Prefer not to say"). These figures, to repeat, don't refer to British people at large but only to those who self-identified, in the census, as Christians.

European history, too, is incomprehensible without an understanding of the warring factions of Christianity and the book over whose subtleties of interpretation they were so ready to slaughter and torture each other. Does the eucharistic bread merely symbolise the body of Jesus or does it become his body, in true "substance" if not "accidental" DNA? Prolonged wars have been fought over how we should interpret the words allegedly uttered at the Last Supper. Three bishops were burned alive just outside my bedroom window in my old Oxford college for giving the unapproved answer. Centuries-long schisms were based on nothing more serious than the question of whether Jesus is both God and his son, or just his (very important) son. Even bloodier wars were fought against a rival religion that sees him not as God's son at all but just reveres him as a prophet.

I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove's scheme. People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality. This mistaken view may have motivated the "millionaire Conservative party donors". I have even heard the cynically misanthropic opinion that, without the Bible as a moral compass, people would have no restraint against murder, theft and mayhem. The surest way to disabuse yourself of this pernicious falsehood is to read the Bible itself.

Read on

TAGGED: CHILDREN, EDUCATION, MORALITY, RELIGION, RICHARD DAWKINS


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