What do you get when the world’s most influential atheist teams up with a tarot card illustrator to write a book for younger readers? Well, apparently you get a book that accepts scientism on faith, mocks religion, and is full of occult-like imagery. Welcome to Richard Dawkins’s latest salvo, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.
The stated purpose of The Magic of Reality is to help kids understand both the content and nature of scientific knowledge. The real purpose is to get them to disbelieve in anything supernatural and to associate traditional religious beliefs with wacky superstitions that few have even heard of. Oh yes, you’re also supposed to learn to mock those who disagree with you as “dishonest” and “lying.”
Now the book isn’t all bad. On the science-content side, so long as it’s discussing objective and non-controversial science, it’s a fun read. Agree with him or not, Dawkins is an excellent writer, and illustrator Dave McKean is also clearly gifted. So you get cool illustrations of how much sunlight hits the earth at various latitudes, and clear explanations of why different parts of the earth experience different seasons. That’s on the left side of the page. Then, on the right side, you get a drawing of a fanged vampire face in the moon (p. 117).
Another chapter offers beautifully illustrated sections describing how stars work. That’s at the end of the chapter. The beginning freely associates the God of the Bible (whom Dawkins refers to as “the tribal god YHWH”) with the Greek sun god Helios and the primitive superstitions of the Barotse tribe of southeast Africa (they believe “the sun is the moon’s husband” p. 118). Dawkins wants kids to see them as all the same.
With a remarkable rapidity, The Magic of Reality switches back and forth between solid, well-accepted science and new atheist propaganda. Dawkins’s evident hope is that kids who read the book won’t be able to tell the difference.
Dawkins on Miracles: They Don’t Happen, Therefore They Don’t Happen
The last chapter of the book, “What is a Miracle?,” is dedicated to teaching kids to disbelieve in miracles. In his signature fashion, Dawkins knocks down wacky straw man examples, like claims that Jesus’s face appeared in toast — the kind of stuff that the average religious believer laughs at. (No joke: you can have Jesus on your toast every day now, with the Jesus Toaster!)
Dawkins then feeds kids shaky logic about why they should never believe in miracles. Taking the tired old Humean approach, he claims that if someone seemingly trustworthy tells you about a miracle, your first inclination should be to believe the person is lying because “the ‘miracle’ of their lying would still be a smaller miracle than the [miracle] they claimed…” (p. 255) But doesn’t this simply assume that miracles don’t happen?
Hume didn’t come right out and say miracles are impossible. Instead he asked us to think of a miracle as an improbable event — an event whose improbability we might estimate. The estimate doesn’t have to be exact. It’s enough that the improbability of a suggested miracle can be roughly placed on some sort of scale, and then compared with an alternative explanation such as hallucination or a lie. (p. 259)
Of course it’s good advice not to simply accept without investigation every claim of a miracle. But under all other circumstances you can think of, you would consider the testimony of a sane, credible witness trustworthy. Why not about miracles too? Dawkins wants us to disregard the testimony of such a credible witness, and hold miracles to an unreasonably high standard of proof — a standard unknown in any other human discipline of truth seeking.
Those who are familiar with the law will immediately recognize what Dawkins is doing: he’s trying to exclude evidence from consideration whenever it challenges his case. He’s acting more like a litigation lawyer who’s been paid by a party to vigorously defend one particular position than someone who is dispassionately seeking truth. C.S. Lewis addressed this mindset when he wrote in Miracles:
Those who assume that miracles cannot happen are merely wasting their time by looking into the [evidence]: we know in advance what results they will find for they have begun by begging the question.
Dawkins’s method similarly assumes the untruth (read: insane “improbability”) of miracles before the inquiry even begins. In other words, Dawkins says that by definition you must never believe in miracles, and instead should go around viewing people who do believe in them as “crazy” or “liars.”
“At least,” the skeptic may respond, “Dawkins admits the possibility of miracles. He’s just trying to be logical.'” Not so. Read on as Dawkins shows his true colors:
Suppose something happens that we don’t understand, and we can’t see how it could be fraud or trickery or lies: would it ever be right to conclude that it must be supernatural? No! … It would be lazy, even dishonest, for it amounts to a claim that no natural explanation will ever be possible. (p. 263)
So in reality, Dawkins’s parting wisdom to kids is that it is never, under any circumstances OK to accept a miracle. Kids must adopt the faith of scientism, which always denies even the possibility that miracles or the supernatural might be real. And if you don’t agree, then you’ll be branded “lazy” or “dishonest.”
Kids who read this book and understand its message will end up in one of two places: either they will (1) realize that genuine truth-seeking is worth the price of getting called a few names by Dawkins and his new atheist buddies, or (2) they will become new atheists themselves — assuming the truth of their position despite the evidence, and keeping those who might disagree in line by calling them all kinds of nasty names. In other words, they’ll be a lot like Richard Dawkins.
To help illustrate his view that science will one day explain everything, the book offers this ghoulish drawing of a plane:
(Image originally taken from Dawkins’s website here; originally from p. 263 of The Magic of Reality.)
Summarized by the drawing, Dawkins message is this: All supernatural claims are superstitions. And all superstitions are explained by science. Except for those that aren’t. But we have faith that they will be. And if you don’t share my faith, you’re lazy and dishonest.
This is the new-atheist message in a nutshell.
Why the Obsession with Occult-like Imagery?
One odd aspect of the book is its apparent obsession with occult-style images. A friend and I went through The Magic of Reality and together we counted over a dozen pages with pictures of demons, devils, and the like. The one above is pretty tame compared to other stuff in the book. These aren’t cute cartoony-devils — they’re probably enough to give the average kid nightmares. And I say this as someone who loves sci-fi / fantasy media and has a pretty strong stomach for this sort of thing.
Depending on your ideological leanings, right now you might be thinking either “Sweet!,” or “Uh, that’s a little weird.” As much as I enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I’m definitely leaning toward the latter end of the spectrum. After all, if you wanted to give your kid a fun book about science, why would you want it to be full of creepy pictures of demons and devils? I’m also left wondering: Why is Dawkins apparently so obsessed with occult topics and iconography?
(Out of respect for copyright I won’t be posting these images, but if you want to see some of them, check out The Magic of Reality on Amazon Reader and peruse some of the pages available from the book. Update: Amazon reader has removed access to the pages which have these graphics, but see pages 185-186 in the book for a couple examples of what I’m talking about.)
Dawkins Overplays his Case for Common Ancestry
Apart from miracles, another area where Dawkins rules out contrary evidence is when he declares the “fact” of common descent. According to The Magic of Reality, it’s “a fact beyond all doubt” that “we share an ancestry with every other species of animal and plant on this planet.” (p. 52) Dawkins explains: “We know this because some genes are recognizably the same genes in all living creatures, including animals, plants and bacteria.”
By this logic, when we find the same programming code in Windows 95 and Windows XP, then it should be “a fact beyond all doubt” that the two operating systems evolved through unguided descent with modification from a common ancestor. But of course that’s silly. They share similarities because they had a common intelligent designer, or design team of intelligent designing agents. Dawkins simply ignores alternative explanations like intelligent design.
And, above all, the genetic code itself — the dictionary by which all genes are translated — is the same across all living creatures that have ever been looked at. (p. 52)
Aside from the fact that this claim isn’t true, again, it raises the question of why merely sharing common genes necessarily demonstrates common ancestry as “a fact beyond all doubt”? After all, intelligent agents regularly re-use parts that work in different designs, so the fact that living species share so many functional genes could point to their common design just as well as their common descent. Add to that all the many conflicts between gene-based phylogenetic trees, and it is clear that the genetic data don’t establish common descent as “a fact beyond all doubt.” Common design is an equally good explanation.
Following his usual practice of non-disclosure, Dawkins tells kids about none of these problems. Instead, he suggests they take comfort in the following “wonderful thought”:
We are all cousins. Your family tree includes not just obvious cousins like chimpanzees and monkeys but also mice, buffaloes, iguanas, wallabies, snails, dandelions, golden eagles, mushrooms, whales, wombats, and bacteria. All are our cousins. Every last one of them. Isn’t that a far more wonderful thought than any myth? And the most wonderful of all is that we know for certain it is literally true. (p. 52)
Let me get this straight: We’re not supposed to look carefully at all the evidence, but instead should think about “wonderful thoughts” like common descent because it “for certain is literally true” and “a fact beyond all doubt”? Dawkins sounds more and more like the superstitious religionists he’s always telling us deserve our contempt.
Conclusion: There are Better Science Books for Kids Out There
When I was a kid, my parents filled my bookshelves with books about science. From The Way Things Work to the Eyewitness Book Series and many other lesser-known titles, science-related books fascinated me. If you want your kid to learn about the fascinating world of science, there are much better books out there than The Magic of Reality. So here’s my own “wonderful thought” to leave you with: Few people will be buying their kids The Magic of Reality for Christmas or Hanukkah this year, because most who would like this book probably wouldn’t celebrate religious holidays.