An apology from author Richard Dawkins published in yesterday's Guardian:
I am distressed to find myself reported as participating in a "literary spat", and as "pouring scorn" on an individual, comedian Peter Kay, for whom I actually feel nothing but goodwill (Heard the one about the atheist who scorned a comedian for his belief in a comforting God? March 8). The explanation is as follows. I am one of those whom reporters regularly telephone for a soundbite. Last week, I was fed a quotation from somebody, previously unknown to me, who said he believed in God because he found it comforting. Assuming I was one of a panel of usual suspects being asked to comment on this rather common sentiment, I gave my usual response.
Now it seems that I was being set up by a hired publicity machine, so that I would appear to be mounting a personal attack upon a particular individual who is my rival for a literary prize. And I also learn that the quotation they selected is an unrepresentative one from a book I haven't read (I look forward to doing so), which is competing with my own for the same prize. I hope you will allow me publicly to apologise to Peter Kay and wish him well in the competition.
The Guardian story that set it off:
It may be the least likely literary spat in history. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist famous for his rottweiler attacks on religion, has poured scorn on Peter Kay, the northern comic best known for a gentle joke about garlic bread.
The comedian and the scientist are rivals in the Galaxy British Book Awards, in which Dawkins is a frontrunner for his bestselling atheist diatribe The God Delusion, and Kay is nominated for his popular memoirs The Sound of Laughter. The controversy erupted after Dawkins read an excerpt from Kay's autobiography, in which he wrote: "I believe in a God of some kind, in some sort of higher being. Personally I find it very comforting."
The believer-baiting academic responded with contempt. "How can you take seriously someone who likes to believe something because he finds it 'comforting'?" he said.
"If evidence were found for a supreme being I would change my mind instantly -with pride and with great surprise. Would I find it comforting? What matters is what is true, and we discover truth by evidence, not what we would 'like'." Kay, at present appearing in The Producers at the Palace theatre in Manchester, was unavailable for comment last night and his publicist declined to respond on his behalf.
In fact, while his book has extensive passages on religion, Kay rejects the Catholic church and disputes the divinity of Jesus. The comedian, who was educated at a convent school, writes: "I believe that a man called Jesus did walk the earth at one time but I don't think he was the superhero that the Bible makes him out to be ... I think Jesus was just an ordinary person, like me and you."
He also criticises the teaching of the nuns at his school in Bolton, referring to an episode in which pupils were taught about abortion by watching a gory slide show and passing around a plastic replica of an aborted foetus.
He writes: "[The nuns] bundled a girl out of the hall when she informed them that her sister had had an abortion. I half expected to see her head impaled on the school gates at hometime - come to think of it, I never did see her again ... shit!"
There was consternation yesterday in the comedy world over Dawkins's choice of target. Steve Bennett, editor of the comedy website chortle.co.uk, said: "I know he came from a Catholic school but most of the stuff in the book from that is anecdotal funny stories. There were some nuns he liked and some nuns he didn't like. Peter Kay's not an obvious person to be at the centre of this sort of controversy. His stock in trade is a cosy world of things we can all relate to, and I suppose a belief in God is part of that cosy world."
It is not the first time Dawkins's atheist militancy has encountered an unlikely opponent.
He was criticised recently for describing Nadia Eweida, the BA employee who refused to take off her cross at work, as having "one of the most stupid faces I've ever seen".
The Phoenix Nights star's memoirs, which record his childhood and rise to the threshold of stardom, were the celebrity publishing sensation of last year. The Sound of Laughter sold a record-breaking 600,000 copies in the first two months after publication and sales are now approaching 1m. It is in the running for the book of the year and biography of the year awards.
Kay's line in Phoenix Nights: "Garlic bread - it's the future, I've tasted it," was named best one-liner in television comedy in a poll last year...