Through science, nature’s wonders

Richard Dawkins explains why he wrote ‘The Magic of Reality’

Illustration by Dave McKean from The Magic of Reality

It is not the preferred style of Professor Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and militant atheist crusader, to preach to the choir.

No, the Oxford-educated Dawkins is a fiery and articulate orator, and over the past decades he has established himself as one of the foremost atheist public intellectuals. He has sought out debating partners with whom to publicly spar, hoping to trounce his opponents with sharp arguments and a quick, daggered tongue.

So given his penchant for challenging theists in the Bible Belt, it might seem that his Oct. 15 lecture at Macky Auditorium is an exercise in futility — Boulder is pretty godless, unless you count those who cling to their yoga mats and acupuncture meridians. But it turns out that the event planned for the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs was hastily rescheduled and moved to Boulder after the original was canceled for “reasons that remain mysterious,” as Dawkins says. (We might have some ideas as to why.)

When asked why he prefers speaking in areas that might naturally oppose his ideas, he reacts as if it’s a no-brainer.

“If they were antagonistic, that would be a good reason for speaking there — because one wants to have an influence — but surprisingly they’re not all that antagonistic,” Dawkins tells Boulder Weekly. “One of the most impressive things is that the most enthusiastic audiences I get seem to be those in the south, in the Bible Belt, and if you think about it, that’s not really all that surprising.

“There are a large number of free-thinking people in the states which one thinks of as being more religious,” he says. “When someone like me comes to the state, they feel extremely grateful. They turn in very large numbers, sometimes in the thousands. And they come to hear me. But what’s rather encouraging is that they see each other, they realize they’re not alone.”

Dawkins is officially in town to promote his 11th book and the first one aimed mainly at 12-year-olds, a book about the wonders of science called The Magic of Reality. The book aims to explain the fundamental question “how we know what’s really true” to children, and it contains brilliant, full-color illustrations by the English artist Dave McKean, whose hand has inked covers for the comics of Neil Gaiman and designed album covers for Alice Cooper, Tori Amos, Dream Theater and more. The book uses science to answer 12 of the deep, penetrating questions children tend to ask and that religions throughout the millennia have explained through supernatural phenomena and myths.

Chapters include “Who was the first person?” “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?” Religious fundamentalists have shouted all sorts of nasty things at him throughout his years as a public intellectual, and he is aware, and annoyed, that people might accuse him of trying to somehow indoctrinate children into science. Nevertheless, he says that he chose to write a book for middle school-age children because they are an important, worthwhile audience to which he had never before reached out.

Illustration by Dave McKean, from The Magic of Reality

“Children’s worldviews are likely to shape their adult worldviews, and I think a scientific worldview is one of the most precious gifts one can give anyone. And the right time to give them that gift is childhood,” Dawkins says. “I would object to anyone that would say that this is any propaganda and brainwashing or anything like that, because a scientific worldview simply is the truth, and the truth is wonderful and the truth is beautiful. I think that any child who is not given the opportunity to understand the scientific worldview is being shortchanged and being shortchanged very tragically.”

Though Dawkins has said his newest book is not about changing children’s attitudes towards the belief in supernatural deities, he has spent much of the past few decades trying to accomplish that with adults. In 1986, he published The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without a Design, which sought to debunk intelligent design, a theory proposed by the religious right as a way to inject religion into public school classrooms. His 2008 2006 book, The God Delusion, fiercely attacked the world’s religions as sources of violence, ignorance and intolerance, while simultaneously eviscerating theological arguments for the existence of God.

Of course, before he was an author he was a professor of evolutionary biology. He wrote influential books in his field, including The Selfish Gene in 1976, which helped shift the scientific community’s focus of natural selection from the propagation of species to the propagation of genes.

In the forewords of at least two of his books he discusses a response to his writings that perplexes him: that his science-based view of the world promotes an “arid and joyless message,” that the idea that human accomplishment is motivated by selfish propagation of genes robs life of any meaningful purpose. The Magic of Reality, though, takes the opposite tack. Science expands, rather than diminishes, the poetry of nature, and Dawkins is trying to spread that informed wonder to others.

“If a lot of people think [science spoils wonder] I’m very sad for them because that’s wrong,” Dawkins says. “It’s a truly ridiculous idea, that if you explain something scientifically, you somehow rob it of the magic, of the poetry, of the wonder. It’s exactly the opposite. It makes it more wonderful. It’s a wonderful thought. We actually do not understand everything yet, but a huge amount in the way that our predecessors in previous centuries did not understand. That is wonderful, that’s enthralling, that’s exhilarating, and that’s what all my books have tried to convey.”

Also present at the Macky talk will be the director of strategy and policy of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Sean Faircloth, and the foundation’s executive director, R. Elisabeth Cornwall.

Richard Dawkins and representatives from the Richard Dawkins Foundation will speak at Macky Auditorium Oct. 15.

The original version of this article incorrectly stated the year The God Delusion was published.