Thomas Sutcliffe: Dawkins - what can't he be blamed for?

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The Independent Online

Listening to Start the Week yesterday I was startled to hear the theologian Karen Armstrong blaming Richard Dawkins for Islamic fundamentalism. She didn't put it quite like that, of course, but in the course of a passing remark about literalist interpretations of the Koran she made the point that this was a relatively new tradition in Islam and explicitly connected it with Dawkins' intellectual attacks on religion in general.

The implication seemed to be that if we could just get Professor Dawkins to pipe down then more hard-line Muslims would give up their intransigent views about evolution, among other things, and adopt a more Church of England approach to their Holy Book – treating it as a collection of useful parables and metaphors.

I have my doubts, to put it mildly, that any such mechanism exists – however unintentionally flattering it might be about Professor Dawkins' impact on world Islam. Sadly, I suspect Koranic fundamentalists are perfectly capable of coming up with their own follies without outside prompting.

I hope it isn't just an over-reaction anyway, because Professor Dawkins shows no signs of piping down, but has actually just expanded his sphere of operations – launching an organisation, the Out Campaign, which aims to act as a lobby group for bashful or sidelined atheists. Not big on faith in general, the Out Campaign does have one central belief – which is that atheists are far greater in number than is ever acknowledged in public policy or public debate.

I have a feeling this may be truer in the United States than it is here – where the balance of public embarrassment still broadly tilts against the publicly pious. That said I've been thoughtlessly guilty in the past of casually ticking the C of E box on application forms and census returns, thus falsely boosting the statistics for religious faith. I won't ever be doing that again – given how shameless the devout can be about enrolling even indifferent don't-knows into the fold. I might even buy one of the Out Campaign's scarlet letter T-shirts, on the characteristically British grounds that they are stylishly enigmatic enough not to thrust my allegiance into the face of passing strangers.

What I'm unsure about is whether such individual acts of witness can successfully transform themselves into a mass movement, as the Out Campaign clearly hopes. Because, if there is one battleground on which religion might be expected to continue to trump atheism it is that of collective ritual – the temporary suspension of individuality in communal celebration. Atheism has no problems, to my mind, in being more interesting than religion and absolutely no problems at all in being truer or more dignified. But it's quite hard for it to deliver an equivalent to the consoling satisfaction many people find in a church service or Friday prayers, in part because the withdrawal of false consolation is at its core.

Which has always presented a problem for the proselytising atheist. I find the uncertainties of atheism bracing, but "Come on in, the water's chilly" isn't going to appeal to everyone. I hope I'm wrong – and that the Out Campaign coaxes thousands of closet infidels into the light for a regular evensong of unbelief. In the meantime, perhaps Professor Dawkins can be held responsible only for the arguments he's actually put his name to, rather than those he's done everything to repudiate.

A wise move, Pamela

Congratulations to Pamela Anderson who, along with Rick Salomon, has just taken out a Clark County wedding licence, which allows the couple to splice whenever the impulse takes them in the coming year.

How nice, too, that they should have so much in common. Salomon, Paris Hilton's former boyfriend, gained global internet fame after a video of him having sex with his ex went viral and Pamela Anderson also has experience of the amateur porn industry, as the unwitting star of another explicit upload.

Given the brevity of their previous relationships, maybe they should have a pre-nuptial providing for the share-out of damages should another intimate moment leak out.

* The news that the price of petrol might climb above £1 a litre was greeted with predictable cries of pain from motoring organisations. The AA's spokesman said "this increase is going to hurt a lot of people", and his warning was echoed by the lady from the RAC who feared that it "is going to hit motorists hard".

Words like "agony" and "misery" were used in the tabloids. An image formed of forecourts across the land, filled with shrieking drivers until, after a few seconds thought, it vanished, leaving only a faint smell of diesel behind it. A price rise isn't "agony" – it's a minor inconvenience – and there are plenty of grounds for arguing that it isn't nearly inconvenient enough. Motorists must be one of the most self-pitying and unreflective tribes around – short-sighted self-interest on slowly turning wheels.

We're long overdue for a bit of hurting, frankly – but the power of the motoring lobby will no doubt ensure that any real hardship is felt by someone else at a much later date.

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