Dawkins takes fight against religion into the classroom

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The Independent Online

Richard Dawkins, the Oxford geneticist, best-selling author and campaigning atheist, is to take his battle against God into Britain's schools after setting up a foundation to counter the religious indoctrination of young people.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason will subsidise books, pamphlets and DVDs for teachers to fight the "educational scandal" that has seen the growth in popularity of "pseudo science" and "irrational" ideas.

The foundation will also conduct research into what makes some people more susceptible to religious ideas than others and whether young people are particularly vulnerable. And it will aim to "raise public consciousness" to make it unacceptable to refer to a "Catholic child" or a "Muslim child"; Professor Dawkins believes that "it is immoral to brand young children with the religion of their parents".

The campaign comes after an increasingly bitter battle about the role of religion in public life. Controversial religious groups have also stepped up their efforts to spread their message to more young people.

Truth in Science, a Christian group campaigning to have "intelligent design" - the belief that the universe was created by an intelligent designer rather than natural selection - included in science lessons recently sent DVDs and materials to every secondary school in the country. And earlier this month the leaders of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in the UK attacked people who campaign for the removal of religion from public life - such as Professor Dawkins - arguing they are guilty of an "intolerant faith position". Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, leader of Catholics in England and Wales, believe that religiously inspired activity in public life can be "radically inclusive".

During a recent visit to a bookshop in London, Professor Dawkins attacked what he saw as a penchant for irrational beliefs. Professor Dawkins, whose most recent book The God Delusion has become a best seller, was horrified, although not surprised, to find the shop's shelves packed with books on fairies, crystals and fortune telling - "pseudoscience" outnumbering science books by at least three to one.

"The enlightenment is under threat," he said. "So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organised ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give."

Secular groups supported the move, arguing that it was vital to counter the growing threat posed by religious groups targeting schools.

Keith Porteous Wood, general secretary of the National Secular Society, welcomed the Dawkins foundation as an "absolutely wonderful idea" and warned that secular groups were "under threat" from religious groups in a way that was unprecedented.

"I think people in science are getting very worried about the intrusion into science of fundamentally unscientific ideas," he said. Andrew Copson, of the British Humanist Association, said there was a dire shortage of resources for teachers wanting to give lessons about atheism. "As a high-profile humanist Richard Dawkins is in an ideal position to do something about this."

But John Hall, dean of Westminster and the Church of England's head of education, said he was concerned that the new foundation was simply a new way for the outspoken atheist to "pick a fight" with the churches.

"He is clearly looking for a fight," Mr Hall said. "His clear intention is to push his view that religion is dangerous and that to bring up a child in their parents' beliefs is a form of abuse. Obviously I am concerned about that. There are good grounds for thinking that this would just be a charitable vehicle for pushing Richard Dawkins' views."

Richard Dawkins will be the subject of You Ask the Questions next Monday. Email your questions to: myquestion@independent.co.uk

His foundation's aims

* The foundation will sponsor research into the "psychological basis of unreason" that will attempt to answer questions such as why people find astrology more appealing than astronomy, at what age young people are most vulnerable to unreason and what are the correlations between religiosity and superstition and intelligence and educational level.

* It will support rational and scientific education for all ages, and oppose the "subversion of scientific education", for example by efforts to teach creationism in science classes. It will subsidise the publication of books, DVDs and other educational materials.

* The foundation will keep a database of secular lecturers willing to address schools and colleges.

* It will keep a list of secular charities.

* Professor Dawkins wants to raise public consciousness to make it socially unacceptable to label children by the religion of their parents.