Cameron vs Dawkins: Who Doesn't Get it?

18/12/2011 22:55 GMT | Updated 17/02/2012 10:12 GMT

It reads like a Facebook correspondence between two very well-read ten-year-old children competing for the affections of their classmates.

"Why do you" jibes Richy D "support schools for children who are too young to have chosen their faith, thereby implicitly labelling them with the faith of their parents, whereas you wouldn't dream of so labelling a 'Keynesian child'?"

Stung by the nasty boy, class president Dave C coolly retorts: "Comparing John Maynard Keynes to Jesus Christ shows, in my view, why Richard Dawkins just doesn't get it."

Richy, top in science at his school, explains: "I satirised the faith-labelling of children using an analogy that almost everybody gets as soon as he hears it: we wouldn't dream of labelling a child 'Keynesian child' simply because her parents were Keynesian economists.

"Do you get it now, Prime Minister? Obviously I was not comparing Keynes with Jesus. I could just well have used 'monetarist child' or 'postmodernist child' or 'Europhile child'."

A very well educated debate from the two young men, but who is it that 'just doesn't get it' - celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins or prime minister David Cameron? Should we, as a country, value our religious heritage and tradition, or should we do the opposite and end "the real domination of our culture and politics that religion gets away with?"

Alternatively, do neither Cameron nor Dawkins truly get it?

Speaking in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, Mr Cameron said: "We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." He criticised the Church for "moral neutrality" in the face of crisis, and said it needs to be a more active force in the country. Cameron claimed that "values and morals" adopted from Christianity have made the nation "what it is today", and that it should continue to do so. "Put simply, for too long we have been unwilling to distinguish right from wrong. 'Live and let live' has too often become 'do what you please'."

A classic Conservative outlook, this speech will undoubtedly have pleased many religious Tory backbenchers and Christian voters, but there are some worrying underlying tones here. With this year's Census showing that only 53.48% of people in this country consider themselves Christian - and fewer than half of these fully believing in the story of Jesus Christ - it seems outdated and rash to describe Britain as a Christian country.

Dawkins, in last week's New Statesman, wrote: "Modern society requires and deserves a truly secular state, by which I do not mean state atheism, but state neutrality in all matters pertaining to religion: the recognition that faith is personal and no business of the state." He also argues that Church-influenced political decisions are anti-democratic. Returning to the catalyst for the argument, Dawkins claims that children who attend faith schools can be prone to "discrimination and prejudice". This claim goes hand in hand with an article written by Dawkins in 2006 in which he suggested religious indoctrination was a form of "mental child abuse".

Dawkins' first point is well made. A Church active in defining the morals and politics of a nation does threaten democracy if given too much power, especially in a multicultural nation like Britain. However, the evolutionary biologist/philosopher/social activist then risks taking things too far in the other direction, making religion too 'personal' and taking away national and, more importantly, familial tradition. Children are allowed to inherit genes, money and moral values from their parents, so why not religion?

It's not entirely clear what 'it' is, but it is clear that both Cameron and Dawkins are wrong in their own ways. The Church of England should certainly have the right to influence the moral decisions of its members, but just because our political leader is Christian, does not mean the entire nation's morals should be dictated in this way. In the same way, though, Dawkins should respect peoples' rights to be religious and family's rights to 'indoctrinate'.