Last year, marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.
To celebrate this occasion, the Guardian
says that education secretary Michael Gove, hoped to send a free copy of the King James Bible to every school in the country by Easter.
"It's a thing of beauty, and it's also an incredibly important historical artifact," Gove said of the 1611 translation. "It has helped shape and define the English language and is one of the keystones of our shared culture. And it is a work that has had international significance."
As you could imagine, not everyone embraced Gove's vision.
"This is not simply another piece of literature, it is the holy scripture of one particular religion," Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said
. "Is it really the job of the Government to be promoting one particular religion in schools that are increasingly multi-faith?"
Since schools were already "awash with Bibles," he said, the National Secular Society suggested a compromise: a copy of Darwin's On the Origin of Species
"I fear that many of these supporters of the project are more interested in the proselytizing opportunity than in the literary value of this book," Sanderson said.
To let the Bible Society tell it, it's the National Secular Society that's guilty of proselytizing.
"National Secular Society has revealed its not-so hidden agenda," the Society wrote in an op-ed
, "to stop Britain's children reading the Bible."
But the government ran into another snag.
At the time of the announcement last November, the Department for Education estimated the cost of the scheme at £375,000 (585,821.00 US dollars), and sought philanthropic sponsorship.
However, the Department for Education's plans ran into trouble in January when government sources reported that David Cameron had told Gove to avoid using taxpayers' money for the £370,000 initiative. At the time, Gove had not found private philanthropists to sponsor the enterprise.
It has now emerged that leading millionaire Conservative party donors have clubbed together to rescue the plan by footing the bill, the Guardian
But after hearing the news, one person was surprised he didn't make Gove's list of potential donors: atheist Richard Dawkins.
"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," writes Dawkins in the Guardian
. "We would certainly have given it serious consideration, and if the trustees had not agreed I would gladly have contributed myself."
Dawkins even agrees with Gove's assertion
that the 1611 translation is a "thing of beauty."
Ecclesiastes, in the 1611 translation, is one of the glories of English literature. The whole King James Bible is littered with literary allusions, almost as many as Shakespeare.
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.
He adds: "A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian."
This is the same arch-atheist whose best-selling book The God Delusion
says that the Bible is “a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries”
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction," he writes in another passage, "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Did Dawkins have a road to Damascus
"I have an ulterior motive for wishing to contribute to Gove's scheme," Dawkins writes in his op-ed. "People who do not know the Bible well have been gulled into thinking it is a good guide to morality."
"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."
Dawkins gives us examples:
●"Honour thy father and thy mother." Well and good. But honour thy children? Not if God tells you, as he did Abraham in a test of his loyalty, to kill your beloved son for a burnt offering. The lesson is clear: when push comes to shove, obedience to God trumps human decency
●In any case, the commandment meant only "Thou shalt not kill members of thine own tribe". It was perfectly fine – indeed strongly encouraged throughout the Pentateuch – to kill Canaanites, Midianites, Jebusites, Hivites etc, especially if they had the misfortune to live in the Promised Lebensraum. Kill all the men and boys and most of the women. "But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves" (Numbers 31:18). Such wonderful moral lessons: all children should be exposed to them.
●"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy": this commandment is regarded as so important that (as our children will learn when they flock into the school library to read the Gove presentation copy) a man caught gathering sticks on the sabbath was summarily stoned to death by the whole community, on direct orders from God.
Things for Dawkins aren't any better in the New Testament, either. He says, "theologians will accept that the Old Testament is pretty horrible but will point with pride, and nods of approval from all sides, to the New Testament as a truly righteous moral guide. Really?"
●The central dogma of the New Testament is that Jesus died as a scapegoat for the sin of Adam and the sins that all we unborn generations might have been contemplating in the future. Adam's sin is perhaps mitigated by the extenuating circumstance that he didn't exist.
●But the unmistakable message is clear. We are all "born in sin" even if we no longer literally believe, with Augustine, that Adam's sin came down to us via the semen. And God, the all-powerful creator, capable of moving mountains and of begetting a universe with all the laws of physics, couldn't find a better way to lift the burden of sin than a blood sacrifice.
Dawkins adds: "Whatever 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," he writes
. "Not a bad way to find out what's in a book is to read it, so I say go to it."
The Department for Education says
copies of the King James Bible will be distributed to schools starting on May 14. All schools are expected to have received their copies by May 28.