Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Cure for Collective Insanity?

A review of Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean's The Magic of Reality

by Michael Dowd

Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have made my holiday shopping this year easy. Indeed, if I could pick but one book as required reading for every adolescent and adult in the world, it would be The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

Why am I so evangelistic about this book? Because it expands and deepens the powerful open letter that Richard wrote in the mid-1990s to his (at the time) ten-year-old daughter Juliet, “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” Now, just about anyone on the cusp of puberty and beyond can learn about their deep ancestry, why there are so many animals, what causes earthquakes, what powers the sun and the stars, why rainstorms sometimes produce rainbows, and even “why bad things happen.” Who can read this book and fail to see science as one of humanity’s shining achievements!

Early in chapter 1, which is titled “What Is Reality? What Is Magic?,” Dawkins lays out in a few simple paragraphs a key distinction: “Magic is a slippery word: It is commonly used in three different ways… I’ll call the first one ‘supernatural magic,’ the second one ‘stage magic,’ and the third one (which is my favorite meaning, and the one I intend in my title) ‘poetic magic’.”

Crucially, perhaps because youth are his intended audience, Dawkins maintains a tone throughout that is in no way derisive of anyone’s mythic story — including the mythic story that has been deployed for far too long in Western culture to prevent school children from learning that all creatures are their cousins and that it is a fact of chemistry that they are made of star stuff.

I do believe that, if read far and wide, this book could go a long way toward curing our species of its current collective insanity. Consider this recent statement by my fellow religious naturalist and noted philosopher of religion, Loyal Rue:

"The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed. But if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.”

The Magic of Reality is a stunning example of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality and how we’ve come to know (rather than merely believe) that science provides a more accurate map of “what’s real” and “what’s important” (or, how things are and which things matter) than ancient mythic maps could hope to achieve. I would argue that nothing is more necessary at this time in history than for people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to grasp the importance of distinguishing mythic and meaningful stories of reality from the measurable and meaningful truth of reality.

After all, isn’t the ability to distinguish one’s inner, subjective world from the outer, objective world pretty much the defining mark of sanity? When a person cannot consistently do this, we say that he or she has become a danger to self and others. When a large and media savvy segment of an entire culture insists on selectively using (and selectively ignoring) the discoveries of science, the danger is vastly compounded.

Clearly and compellingly helping readers draw a distinction between myth and reality (while valuing both) is what The Magic of Reality does so brilliantly—and beautifully! Richard Dawkins’ steady prose and helpful metaphors combine with Dave McKean’s stunning illustrations to make this volume a feast for head and heart.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times during the past two years (for example, see my “Thank God for the New Atheists” sermon that was simultaneously published in Skeptic magazine and Australasian Science), I consider Richard Dawkins and many of his New Atheist colleagues to be modern-day prophets. Traditionally, prophets were not so much foreseers or foretellers. They were men and women who spoke boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of reality. Their message (couched in religious terms, of course) was essentially this: “Here’s what’s real, folks—and here’s what’s emerging. We need to get right with reality, or perish.”

In the same way that the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin helped spark the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, I see Richard Dawkins and David McKean’s book helping 21st century religious folk to break free of idolatry of the written word and thereby spark an Evidential Reformation.

It is on this point that I depart from Dawkins in a major way. I truly do wish for reform of all the world’s religious heritages—not annihilation. And I wish for reform not just because reform is a more practical and realistic approach for smoothing out the harsh edges of literalistic religious zealotry. Rather, I work for reform because religions, historically, have had an important cultural evolutionary role to play.

Following evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (author of Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone), I understand that religions evolved, in part, to make possible vastly larger scales of cooperation than kin selection and reciprocal altruism tend to produce on their own. Religions that could evoke individual sacrifice in the interest of shared goals were those that helped their societies defend territory, conquer the less fortunate, and adequately provision generations to come.

Thus, in a heretical way perhaps, I regard Richard Dawkins as not only a gift to our species but as the boot in the butt my own Christian tradition requires to stay relevant—and to have anything useful at all to pass on to the young people who increasingly listen, globally, more to each other than to their immediate elders.

It is now up to those very same young people to make The Magic of Reality go viral!

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