Is God the root of all evil? No, and don't be so silly, would be one plausible answer. But as this was the headline on Richard Dawkins' article in this very newspaper launching his two-part television series under the same title, and as I have long been an admirer of Professor Dawkins' intellect and prose style, it would be wrong to leave it at that.
It is disappointing that Dawkins immediately cited Adolf Hitler in his case for the prosecution, and even more disappointing that Joan Bakewell in her otherwise brilliant commentary in these pages on Dawkins' programmes should have repeated the charge that Hitler was a Christian, with the implication that it was his faith that led him on the path to the Final Solution.
As Michael Burleigh points out in his The Third Reich - a new history, while Hitler on his climb to power in Germany found it politically necessary to tell an overwhelmingly Christian people that he shared their faith, "in reality his views were a mixture of materialist biology, a faux-Nietzschean contempt for core Christian values and a visceral anti-clericalism".
Burleigh goes on to quote from Hitler's Table Talk (as lovingly recorded by Martin Bormann), in which the Führer tells his dinner companions on 13 December 1941, "The war will be over one day. I shall then consider that my life's final task will be to solve the religious problem... The organised lie must be smashed... The final state must be: in St Peter's chair, a senile officiant; facing him, a few sinister old women, as gaga and poor in spirit as anyone could wish. The young and healthy are on our side."
That is a vision which I suspect is shared by Professor Dawkins, but I wouldn't leap from that to accuse him of being a Hitlerite. Nor would I blame Dawkins' great hero, Charles Darwin, for the distortion of his views on the survival of the fittest which led the Nazis into a programme of eugenic extermination, starting with the mentally handicapped.
The truth, however, is that while Dawkins is absolutely right to blame tribal religious sectarianism for many ancient and bloody conflicts, the modern era has dwarfed those crimes with the countless millions slaughtered or starved at the hands of purely secular powers: not just the Nazis but also by the Cardinals of Communism, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong.
What those campaigns of extermination demonstrate - campaigns compared to which the annihilation of the World Trade Centre by the Islamic fundamentalist Bin Laden was a mere bagatelle - is that no matter how much damage may be caused when man worships God, it cannot compare with the damage caused when man worships man.
To this the rationalist can reasonably reply: but why must man worship anything or anyone? That is an absolutely respectable theory. The fact, however, is that man has had and always will have a yearning to follow some form of doctrine or system of beliefs, which he will never be able to prove right beyond all reasonable doubt: and it is far safer to believe that the truth of such a doctrine will be demonstrated in the after-life. It is the purely political faiths' most toxic aspect, which asserts that perfection can be enforced on earth, rather than in heaven.
Strangely enough, however, I share Richard Dawkins' religious unbelief. I was brought up in a secular household, my parents' families having long ago abandoned the old faith of their Jewish forefathers (and mothers) without going to the trouble of acquiring a new one. I was sent to Christian schools and endured many years of a daily service without ever quite understanding what the point of it all was.
At university, like so many philosophy undergraduates, I fell under the spell of AJ "Freddie" Ayer: his lectures, most unusually in the general culture of indolence at Oxford, were packed, even though it was 40 years since he had published his revolutionary book Language, Truth and Logic.
Now Freddie in many ways was the Richard Dawkins of his day - he was the President of the British Humanist Association and debated on the BBC with the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston. Strictly speaking, Freddie was not an atheist. His view was that the statement "God does not exist" has as much meaning as the opposite - none whatsoever.
(He was therefore much less disconcerted than Richard Dawkins would have been, when, after his heart stopped for four minutes after choking on a piece of smoked salmon, he encountered "The Masters of the Universe" in his post-conscious state. He simply wrote: "My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death will be the end of me.")
But Freddie's much more controversial belief was that all moral judgements, not just ones based in metaphysics, were devoid of meaning. No wonder the lecture halls were full: we could decide on our own individual code of conduct. And if the Senior Censor of Christ Church asked to see me for some misdemeanour I could tell him that one of the place's most eminent former students had just taught us that "It is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements - they have no objective validity whatsoever."
Later, Freddie became my stepfather and I got to know him better. I would not say that he was an amoral man, but I did sometimes wonder whether his philosophy had been tailored to fit the peculiar dictates of his own conscience. When I discovered that he had, while married to my mother, made a crude pass at one of my sisters, I began to see what was meant by moral relativism.
In fairness to his memory, I should add that my mother was as happy as she was capable of being in her brief marriage to him. But I also remember his shaking rage when, after her death, I told him I was determined to ensure that we honoured her wish for a memorial service - in a church!
He would have been scarcely less appalled to learn that my children were to be brought up as Catholics - the faith of their mother. The peculiar thing is that I still regard myself as an unbeliever, but what has become absolutely clear to me is that the accumulated wisdom of the Church, the result of two millennia of social teaching, has far more to offer the young of this country than any secular ideology or philosophy. And if you doubt that, you need only wander the nation's city centres on a Saturday night, to witness what the abandonment of the idea of individual sin and individual responsibility has achieved - from the Lord's Prayer to The Lord of the Flies in two generations.Reuse content