This letter was sent by Richard Dawkins to my good friend and fellow skeptic Suzy Shaw of Bomp records. It is reproduced here with her permission.
What follows is an account, by Diana Bishop (The Freethinker, London, September 2000, pp
6-7) of her experience as a British visitor to Brandeis
University, where she taught a seminar to first-year undergraduates. It was
part of a Humanities course which required her to include some classical or
historical content. I was so struck by the following paragraphs from her
article that I have extracted them for circulation. She doesn't give the
exact date of the incident, but it was some time in the 1990s.
What makes the story the more disturbing is that Brandeis, of course, is not
some hick college from the Bible belt, but one of the most highly regarded
small universities in America. As the late Freddy Ayer, the philosopher,
said when he was told that a creationist student had somehow managed to get
into Oxford: "What? What's gone wrong with our admissions procedure?"
During my last semester at Brandeis, just before returning to the UK, I decided to combine
cultural and classical themes by including as my mid-semester project a comparison of one
or two "classic" creation myths with several from Native American culture. Of
the fifty-plus Native American creation stories in my collection I chose "Emerging
into the upper World" by the Acoma of the Western Pueblos, "The White Dawn of
the Hopi", by the Hopi of the Four Corners, and "Earth Making" by the
Cherokee. One or more of these creation myths was to be compared and contrasted with
Genesis and, if desired, the Islamic or Buddhist myths. I assigned the readings and asked
my students to prepare a report on them for a class discussion one
The three Native American myths make wonderful stories, and a (very brief) synopsis
appears here. The Acoma have a matrilineal society, and the first two human beings were
sisters. As they grow in the dark under the earth they are nourished by a spirit, who also
gives them seeds and images of animals that they may command into life. The badger digs a
hole big enough for the sisters to crawl through, and they emerge into the light, singing
more creation songs to bring more animals to life. They make mountains and other natural
features, but are not allowed to have children immediately.
One of the sisters is persuaded by a snake that she will be happier with children, and
that she can conceive with the rainbow. She bears two boys, and thus men come into the
The Hopi myth also starts with two goddesses, one in the east and one in the west, at a
time when there was nothing but water on the earth. The goddesses make a wren of clay and
sing it into life, sending it forth to search for dry land. They follow this with many
other birds and animals when the waters eventually recede. They decide to create human
beings in a similar manner, and give them two tablets to read, which the humans can only
understand after rubbing their palms against them. They build houses and multiply,
occasionally clashing with the humans made by Spider Woman.
In the Cherokee myth, Earth is floating on the waters and is attached to the ceiling of
the sky by four rawhide ropes. Water covered the earth as well and there was not enough
room for all the animals. The Water Beetle eventually finds mud and Someone Powerful
attaches it to the sky with cords.
The Grandfather Buzzard swoops onto the mud, creating valleys and mountains with his
wings. The land dries and becomes hard, and plants and humans are created, but the world
under the water continues to exist.
Well, nothing sinister or subversive there, you might think. However, when it came to the
time for group discussion, I could tell that all was not well. I should say, in all
fairness to certain students, that there were several who were genuinely interested in the
Native American material. Some were fascinated by the similarities (water everywhere, the
disobedient snake, the tablets of writing) and others were prepared to find as much
interest in these stories of creation as in the Judaeo-Christian myth in Genesis.
Unfortunately, these students were in a minority. The majority could not understand why I
had asked them to read "fairy-tales" and, worse, how I could possibly have asked
them to compare these tales with Genesis.
Over half my students were either Orthodox Jews or Evangelical Christians, and they had
clearly been insulted. I was astonished at the reaction, since this was not a religious
education class and I was not asking them to "believe" or "disbelieve"
anything, and certainly had no intention of imposing my own views on them. My aims had
been strictly academic, with the hope that we would all (myself included of course) learn
more about the culture of an ancient people different from our own. Comments ranged from
"I don't know how anyone could believe that clay figures had life breathed into them,
it's just ridiculous", to "No wonder these people almost died out if they're
stupid enough to believe garbage like this", and "God is not a woman, and
certainly not two women". At this point my professional veneer (such as it was)
cracked and I asked how anyone could seriously believe that someone could be created from
another person's rib in one day And why should this be any more believable than the story
of the clay animals? The reply was: "Because it's true, the Bible says so".