Is 'Gerin oil' the root of all evil?

A professor blames this drug for history's major atrocities... clever readers will spot the anagram

In an article in this month's respected Prospect magazine, Professor Richard Dawkins, one of Britain's leading scientists, paints an apocalyptic vision of a world addicted to Gerin oil - a drug which works its way into the central nervous system and can cause "dangerous delusions" if used regularly.

Professor Dawkins, who was voted Britain's top public intellectual last year, blames Gerin oil for most of the major atrocities in history, from the Salem witch-hunts to the attacks on 11 September.

He also accuses governments of subsidising schools which have "the specific intention of getting children hooked". The drug does not feature on the Home Office's list of banned substances and is, Professor Dawkins claims, freely available without prescription.

Drug experts have never heard of Gerin oil, nor its scientific moniker, geriniol. And nor should they. Because there is one fact Professor Dawkins fails to mention: no such drug exists. The editor of Prospect magazine, David Goodhart, admitted yesterday that Gerin oil is actually an anagram for religion - something Professor Dawkins, Britain's most well-known atheist, has long railed against.

But Mr Goodhart revealed that he himself was confused by Professor Dawkins' anagram. "He mentioned that there was some kind of anagram when he sent the piece, but I was too thick to get it to begin with," Mr Goodhart said. "Driving in my car the next day it suddenly came to me - 'he's a militant atheist, it must be religion'.

"It has already generated a lively debate. We have had lots of letters on it - quite a few have been from people who feel religion has a legitimate place in the world." One letter writer has turned the tables on Professor Dawkins, referring to him as "Dr Dick Rainwash".

In his article, Professor Dawkins said his inspiration for writing about the "drug" was the reaction of the Bali bomber, Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, on hearing he was to be put to death. "This beatific smile, looking forward with unalloyed pleasure to the firing squad, is the smile of a junkie," wrote Dawkins. "Here we have the archetypal mainliner, doped up with hard, unrefined, unadulterated, high-octane Gerin oil."

The article is reminiscent of Chris Morris's satirical Channel 4 programme, Brass Eye, which once convinced politicians and celebrities that a dangerous new drug, "cake", was about to hit Britain. Tory MP, David Amess, was so taken in he asked a question about cake in the House of Commons.

Professor Dawkins - who has written many books on evolution and science, including, most famously, The Selfish Gene - is no stranger to attacks on religion. After the tsunami which hit the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day killed some 300,000 people, Professor Dawkins argued that if there is a God, "he is a terrorist". He pointed out that far more people died in the tragedy than were killed in the attacks on New York and Washington.

He first wrote about Gerin oil in an American secular humanism publication, Free Inquiry, in December 2003. At the end of the article, which appeared in this month's Prospect, the magazine dropped a hint to their readers, pointing out that Professor Dawkins is a "committed atheist". Mr Goodhart said he was confident his readers were clever enough to understand it.