I am not a fan of Professor Richard Dawkins. His simplistic, superficial and zealous attitude to faith is unbearably smug. His certainty in his own, eternal rectitude is not only obnoxious but betrays his sketchy commitment to the very skepticism he demands of others. And his insistence on dictating to Christians what it is that we are supposed to believe in, all the while dismissing us as fantasists, borders on the bizarre. But Dawkins is deserving of praise this week and it would be wrong to not give him his due.
His intervention in the rolling debate about Michael Gove's distribution of the King James Bible (KJV) to all schools places the Professor, for once, almost on the side of the angels. In the Observer the Professor writes that "a native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian." I couldn't have put it better myself.
Of course, this evangelist for atheism can't resist a few digs along the way. He is, after all, a man who has made it his life's work to mock and belittle the world's 2 billion Christians. He readily admits that he believes that "people who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality" and that access to the words of the KJV will wake them from this mistaken conviction. Of course, I disagree. Children accessing the scripture are likely to see not the dark fairytale that Dawkins insists upon but rather the rich guide to life and love that has made Christianity the world's most successful religion. But fair play to the Professor, he has the courage of his convictions and - in this instance at least - is not seeking to win his quixotic war on Christianity by hiding its works and words from those he wishes to 'liberate'.
And he makes a secondary and important point (albeit with his customary sarcasm) when he writes that "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." Almost all of British - and European - history is a mystery unless one begins to appreciate and understand the centrality of Christianity to our identity and to the evolution of our civilization. I happen to believe that this influence has been an overwhelmingly positive force for good but, either way, it demands serious attention and time in any history curriculum worthy of the name. And Dawkins is entirely right that children must be taught of the formidable power that faith - and arguments about faith - have in people's lives, both historically and in contemporary society. An education in the blood shed for religious freedom might well help young people to develop a little more tolerance for the freedom of worship and conscience that our parents' generation so glibly threw away in their headlong rush to the altar of 'equality'.
The rest of Dawkins' piece descends into the kind of Biblical cherry-picking and contemptuous dismissals that made his name. In the end, it seems, he was unable to restrict himself to some perfectly reasonable, liberal points about the importance of engagement with our cultural and linguistic heritage. That's a shame but hardly a surprise. It is, after all, the thing that gets the Professor on TV and in the papers far more than his scientific contributions ever did. But we should all thank Richard Dawkins for his efforts and applaud the sentiment of openness and learning that underpins his promise that he "would gladly have contributed myself" to the project of sending a KJV to every school. There is, of course, still time for the Professor to contribute - I'm sure the Secretary of State will be thrilled to receive his cheque in the post.