“Give me the child,” the Jesuit maxim is supposed to have run, “and I will give you the man”. But not if Richard Dawkins gets there first. The arch-atheist’s new book, The Magic of Reality, is designed to inoculate tender minds once and for all against the supernatural and its apologists.
Actually, not just tender minds. While it’s aimed at children of 10 and up, the text is persuasive whatever one’s age. After all, Dawkins is a populariser as well as a proselytiser; his argument, beautifully complemented here by Dave McKean’s copious illustrations, has wonderful clarity.
He starts by defining his terms. “Reality” is everything that can be apprehended directly by our five senses or indirectly by scientific instruments and scientific models. (Emotions, which might seem to be excluded by this, are part of reality too, depending for their existence “on brains … or something equivalent to brains”.) “Magic” falls into three categories: supernatural magic, the stuff of fairy tales and myths (very bad, handle with care); stage magic, à la Penn and Teller (kind of fun, mostly); and poetic magic, when nature moves us (thumbs up, go for it). Dawkins’ purpose is to demonstrate that the real world, understood scientifically, is imbued with magic in this last sense. “Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world,” he writes, “supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison.”
Each subsequent chapter falls into two parts. A short opening section asks, for example, “What is the sun?” and Dawkins runs through various old myths, about Huitzilopochtli, Ra, Helios and “the tribal god YHWH”. These, straw gods set up for Dawkins to knock down, are not up to the job of accounting for reality but at least give McKean some great subject matter. (Does the deity have all the best illustrations?) Then the bulk of the chapter deals with the question of “What is the sun, really?” and Dawkins does his expository stuff.
He really is very good at this. The chapter on rainbows has the clearest explanation of how they appear that I’ve ever seen, while that on “Who was the first person (really)?” makes tremendous use of a vast line of snapshots of each of your ancestors: your 4,000-greats-grandfather looks OK-ish; your 50,000-greats-grandfather really doesn’t; your 185m-greats-grandfather – well, let’s just say there’s something fishy about him.
The last two chapters tilt more directly at the preoccupations of organised religion. “Why do bad things happen?” concludes that they just do, especially when you’re part of a food chain. Miracles get similarly short shrift. Dawkins elaborates Hume’s argument that you should only believe reports of them when the likelihood that they really happened is greater than the likelihood that there’s some misreporting going on – a condition that never obtains.
“The truth,” Dawkins concludes on the last page, “is more magical – in the best and most exciting sense of the word – than any myth or made-up mystery or miracle.” Or, as Christ (aka “a wandering Jewish preacher called Jesus”) put it, “the truth will set you free”.
The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, by Richard Dawkins, Bantam Press, RRP£20, 272 pages