Dawkins’s 11th book spells out, in child-friendly language, how science is better than religion at explaining the way the natural world works. “Stories are fun,” he writes, “and we all love repeating them,” but “to claim a supernatural explanation of something is not to explain it at all.”
Winter isn’t really caused by Persephone’s trip to the underworld, rainbows don’t signal God’s promise to Noah, and dawn will break each day even if the Aztec sun-god Huitzilopochtli doesn’t get his daily dose of still-beating human hearts. We now know about atoms, orbits and refracted light, and Dawkins gives a clear breakdown of the scientific method, its virtues, and what it has uncovered.
When The Magic of Reality was published in hardback, it was lavishly illustrated: a coffee-table book for kids. Now, with a beige cover, no pictures and 257 pages, it becomes a less enticing proposition for anyone who needs to know what tectonic plates are and how the food chain works. The level fluctuates from pre-GCSE science to more advanced ideas: the Doppler effect leading scientists to their model of the big bang, comets’ tails being caused by solar wind, how radio waves are made from the same stuff as light.
The explanations are enlightening, but the ideas that underpin Dawkins’s central argument – that the world is fundamentally physical and knowable, that religion and scientific understanding cannot coexist – are more controversial.
Dawkins defines reality as what can be perceived with the senses, detected with scientific instruments, or predicted with models, such as black holes. He also adds “jealousy and joy, happiness and love,” as they “depend for their existence on brains”. While it could be retorted that zombies depend for their existence on brains too, and it doesn’t make them real, Dawkins is simplifying. He means that there’s no more to feelings than the physical state of our brains and bodies: a belief as unverifiable as anything about Huitzilopochtli.
Dawkins is currently battling against the teaching of creationism as fact in faith schools, and in that context his endorsement of the scientific method is important, but he fails to acknowledge that religion and science aren’t always trying to answer the same questions. His simplification of religious belief puts him in danger of preaching to the converted, at best, and, at worst, suggesting to kids that their Christian, Muslim or Jewish peers must be either ignorant or stupid.