Caring and sharing is not abuse, Professor Dawkins

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The Independent Online

What Mass, I asked my children yesterday, shall we go to at Christmas? Will it be midnight, that most magical of times? Will it be the 9.30am, when children are dressed as angels? Or will it be the 11am, when the choir fills the church with carols?

What Richard Dawkins would tell me is that I shouldn't be taking my children to any mass at all, because I shouldn't be raising them as Catholics. The teachings of my faith, says the professor, are so terrible, and insidious and damaging that they're worse than sexual abuse. So what I am doing, according to him, is abusing my children in the worst possible way.

It's all such total tosh that I did wonder whether it was worth putting pen to paper to state the obvious. But, although Dawkins's comments are so extreme (apart from anything else, how offensive what he says is to victims of sexual abuse), there must be many people this Christmas who might wonder why some of us are still raising our children in the Christian faith. And not just as Christians ,but as Catholics, a denomination that has had a bad year PR-wise.

What other institution, in 2012, could boast quite as many own goals as the church in which I go to pray each week? It's had plenty to keep it in the public eye this year: from the faithful butler keen to protect the Pope from the grasping cardinals, through the endless child abuse scandals, to the inappropriate comments from senior churchmen about gay people.

But despite all that, I will be at mass this Christmas, with as many of my children as I can muster. And lest you should be thinking it's really all about their education, can I assure you that this is not the motivating factor? Yes, they have all been to Catholic schools, and yes, those schools have been good. But what makes these schools good are the same elements that make the church worth fighting for: a sense of a caring, sharing community that puts individuals at the heart of its value system.

People who are all too quick to note how well Catholic schools do in the league tables are often all too slow to note that the school community shares an unwritten mission statement that's about putting people first, and recognises the importance of being true to the small voice inside each one of us that tells us what we should do, and what we shouldn't.

The reality of the Catholic church is that far too much power is concentrated in the hands of far too few. But as a force for individual spiritual growth, the church has a colossal amount to recommend it; as a body that unites human beings across the miles, and across the centuries, it is second to none.

If Dawkins wants to say the Catholic church could be better at doing what it does, I'd be the first to agree. But if I stop going to mass, and stop taking my children, where are those improvements going to come from? So I'm hanging on to my faith by my fingertips, and I'm hoping my children will do the same. I don't think Dawkins's publicity-seeking views will do much to damage the Catholic church, but I hope my children's connection with it might do something to improve it.