Why I want all our children to read the King James Bible
The good book should be read as a great work of literature – but it is not a guide to morality, as the education secretary Michael Gove would have us believe
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.
Do you advocate the Ten Commandments as a guide to the good life? Then I can only presume that you don't know the Ten Commandments. The first two – "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" and "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" – come from a time when the Jews still believed in the existence of many gods but had sworn fealty to only one of them, their tribal "jealous" god.
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.
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, to say nothing of obedience to the next commandment, "Thou shalt not kill". This is the only one of the commandments that many devotees actually know. Its obviousness was appropriately mocked by Christopher Hitchens, but my imagination hears the response of the Israelites to Moses in the voice of Basil Fawlty: "Oh I SEE. Thou shalt not KILL. Oh how silly of me. You see, before you came down from the mountain with the tablets, we all thought it was perfectly fine to kill. But now that we've seen it written on a TABLET, well that makes all the difference. Thou shalt not kill, well, who would have thought it? Oh silly me … etc etc."
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.
Sophisticated" theologians (what is there in "theology" to be sophisticated about?) now treat these horrors as parables or myths, which is just as well. But many fundamentalist Protestants still take them literally and positively state that, if God told them to kill their own children, they would obey. Hard to believe, but it is fully documented in a brilliant film, In God We Trust?, by Scott Burdick. Other 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. In any case it never amounted to more than scrumping or, depending on your theology, seeking knowledge – which a minister of education should surely consider a virtue. 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.
In the words of Paul, the inventor of Christianity (or whoever really wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews), "without shedding of blood, there is no remission". And the scapegoat couldn't be just anybody. The sin was so great that only his son (or God himself, depending on your Trinitarian theology) would do. It was necessary for God to come "down" personally to Earth and have himself tortured and executed, after being "betrayed" (though why it was a betrayal since getting himself executed was the main purpose of the visit, is never explained, nor is the millennia-long vendetta against Jews as "Christ-killers").
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. The examples I have quoted are the tip of a very large and very nasty iceberg. Not a bad way to find out what's in a book is to read it, so I say go to it. But does anybody, even Gove, seriously think they will?