I wish Richard Dawkins (pictured) would find a way of championing rational belief that was worthy of a man of his intelligence, writes Deborah Orr. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rex
Not content with being a mere anti-Christ, Richard Dawkins has now declared himself to be the anti-Santa. (As Dougal from Father Ted would put it.) Dawkins has also informed an audience at the Cheltenham literary festival that a frog couldn't become a prince, not in a million years. Sometimes I wonder if this man really is the evolutionary biologist he claims to be at all …
Except … not really, not any of it. The autobiography-promoting scientistwas simply wondering aloud whether filling children's heads with supernatural stories could be damaging to them. He thought not, on balance. But by that point, presumably, journalists had already stopped listening and started typing gratefully. That's the trouble with cultivating a reputation as a controversialist. Controversy is expected from you, the same way water is expected from a tap. And people find controversy refreshing, even life-affirming. Whether one is delighted that one's own unfashionable thoughts have been voiced, or thrilled at the opportunity to rehearse one's own rectitude by pouring scorn on someone else's imbecility, controversy services a human need.
The trouble with controversy, though, is that it tends to polarise people, entrenching views rather than promoting reasoned debate. By accepting the label of "militant atheist", Dawkins sabotages the very thing he professes to want most – a rational perspective on religious belief. I have no religion myself, but I'd no more describe myself as an "atheist" than I would describe myself as an "aunicornist". If I have any spiritual credo at all, it's a belief in the idea that human beings can support each other best by focusing on the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. Lame, I know. But pleasingly non-controversial.
Militant atheism? Militant theism? These are divisive labels, adopted by people spoiling for a fight. And what they have in common, unfortunately, is their militancy. I despair when I hear people claim that "religion causes wars". People cause wars, people who think their own beliefs, ideas, perspectives and needs are at the centre of the universe, or should be. There's a lot of it about. Unsurprisingly.
We are all at the centre of our own universes, our personal perception that a universe exists entirely reliant on the fact that we are in it. For most of us, trying to envisage an infinite universe is overwhelming, as is trying to envisage what's beyond a universe that – even more mind-boggling, in a way – is not infinite. I'm grateful that I live in a time when I can literally ground myself, reminding myself of where I am, on the revolving planet Earth, of which I have seen photographs, within the solar system, revolving around the revolving sun, which I can see, as regular and predictable as the fact that night follows day. So to speak. Simple, basic scientific fact, easy to take for granted. I'm lucky that I live in a time and a culture that knows something of its physical place in the cosmos. Science is a comfort and a balm.
But it is worth thinking about what it must have been like, trying to get by without it. The idea of being a human trying to make sense of existence without such knowledge – life would surely be one long panic attack. Unless, of course, you could console yourself with the idea that making sense of it all was the responsibility of some other all-powerful being, who expected of you nothing more than adherence to a few simple rules. What a great relief that would have been, what a soothing alternative to a long and tortuous nightmare of existential fear. And for many people, it still is. Campaigning rationalists would do well to think a little about the size of the psychological prop they are trying to wrest off people, when they try to wrest away their God. No wonder they sometimes turn so very nasty.
I'm glad that Dawkins is not the scourge of the fairytale that he was briefly made out to be. But I wish he would find a way of championing rational belief that was worthy of a man of his intelligence. "Fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … Santa Claus again could be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true. Now isn't that a valuable lesson?" he said to the Guardian this week. "Unfortunately it doesn't seem to have had the desired effect in some cases, because after children learn that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God," he then went on, less beguilingly.
There's nothing mysterious about it. It's all very well to assert that it's childish or primitive to believe in God. As Dawkins must know, the difference between fairy stories and religious belief is that there comes a time in a person's life when societal consensus deems it no longer seemly to believe in the former. Likewise, no one would find it cute if they moved in with their boyfriend, only to find that come Christmas he was hanging out his stocking and leaving a glass of advocaat for Santa. There is no such consensus over belief in God, far from it. No British prime minister and no US president has thus far agreed with Dawkins that belief in God is silly and irrational. People are not yet ready to hear it, and ramming it down their throats just closes minds rather than opening them.
It's a luxury to have a fine mind that is highly educated. I'm certainly not saying that Dawkins has not earned his privilege – he has. But he is privileged nonetheless. His soul is not tortured. His mind is free. The human condition does not overwhelm him. But his lack of sympathy for those who cling to psychological certainties he does not approve of has no kindness in it, no compassion. It's a shame.
Dawkins has acknowledged that stories do not have to be true to be useful. This is certainly true of religious stories, too. You don't have to believe in God to see the wisdom of the judgment of Solomon or the goodness of the Samaritan. You don't have to believe in God to see that religion has served a purpose, fulfilled a human need, stopped as many going mad as it has made mad. I agree with Dawkins that its time of dominance now has to pass. But I don't think it's quite time yet to berate believers as nothing but tiresome fools. Apart from anything else, there are still too many of them, and some of them are still too powerful. It's easy to be brave when the consequence is a high public profile and continued book sales. Dawkins proselytises from a very safe place. A lot of people still live side by side with militant theists, and it makes them horribly vulnerable. That is no fairy story, made to be brushed aside. That is a fact of life on Earth.