The Magic of Reality: an atheist’s bible?

Random House have wasted no time in converting Dawkin’s The Magic of Reality (released September 2011 in the UK) into an iTunes app. The digital version of this book has been available for five months. In terms of swishiness, it’s unbeatable. The illustrations are by Dave McKean, for one thing. For another, it’s a wonderfully accessible route into the (admittedly basic) questions of science.

In the course of one sitting I have become a mine of useless trivia. Ask me how rainbows are made! Or when the universe began! Or about those wobbly lines in the middle of DNA diagrams!

It’s a beautiful app, and a great idea. I shouldn’t feel cheated. And yet, I do. Richard Dawkins has yet again provided me with a superb exposition into The Wonder of Science – and my overriding reaction is, ‘So what?’

magic of reality

Because Dawkins is not purely showing us this to improve our grasp of physics. He is not the jolly, avuncular figure of making-science-fun. Like the rest of his output, the Magic of Reality is a tool for helping us reject magic and superstition in favour of scientific method. Science, we are told, is ‘magical in … the good-to-believe sense’. One of the closing chapters, entitled ‘What is a miracle?’, urges readers against the ‘lazy’ and ‘defeatist’ attitude of believing in the supernatural. It’s Dawkins to a tee, in other words.

Although I remain fully convinced that any message about the need for evidence-based reflection is a very important one to send out, I can’t help wishing that Dawkins had something new to say on the religious debate. He may wrap it up as scientific education, but the message remains the same, and brutally short. Belief in the supernatural is for the weak-minded. Science explains everything we need to know.

What this argument fails to even acknowledge is the basic difference in approach that religious people take to the subject of scientific method. It is a common failure which keeps people who venture into The Religious Debate spinning around in circles.

The key difference is one of proof versus faith. A nonreligious person trusts only to evidence; a religious person accepts there are things beyond and above provability. It really is that simple. That’s why screaming ‘Look at the science! We can explain the eye / the beginning of life / stigmata!’ in increasingly hysterical tones is useless. To an atheist, the supernatural is impossible – it refers to phenomena currently unexplainable by modern science. To a believer, there is and always will be something greater than human understanding, which eludes testing by scientific method.

This is the problem with Dawkins. (In fact, there are many, but this is the most fundamental.) His is an untested – an untestable – hypothesis. Look! he cries. My book The Selfish Gene explained altruism! The God Delusion disproved religious theory! I have a host of documentaries proving the importance, the beauty, of science over myth! Dawkins can only ever preach to the choir, because his debate begins and ends within the scientific parameters he sets himself. It is a frustrating tactic for a man who has done so much to shake up the discussion.

We’re stuck at a fundamental impasse in the religious debate. And the only way of working around this is by focusing more directly on which of these approaches to life – a trust in evidence, or a belief in the unsolvable – is the more useful, the more valuable. It’s by no means an easy path to take, but it would be by far the most revolutionary. An iPad app about that, I would be interested to buy.

Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality is available from the App Store. £9.99

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