by Tenzan Eaghll
Have you heard the good news? The world is not a dark and dreary place of myth but is filled with true magic and wonder! No longer must you live under the weight of sin and myth foretold by generations past, for you can step out of the cave of delusion and see the world for how it really is!
In Richard Dawkins new book, The Magic of Reality, this is the truth he reveals. Each chapter begins with a question, such as ‘what is a rainbow,’ or ‘what is the sun,’ and then discusses various myths from different cultures that try to account for these things. However, the real bulk of each chapter is spent discussing the magical scientific explanation of what a rainbow, the sun, or an earthquake (etc.) actually are. By his use of the word “magic” Dawkins does not mean anything supernatural, and he is not referring to the conjuring magic used by magicians, but the kind of magic you experience when you look into a telescope, glance down a microscope, or learn that consciousness is produced by thousands of firing neurons. What the book discloses is that we do not need myths about imaginary figures who live in the sky to encounter the wonder of reality, because the truth is far more magical than anything foretold in the Bible, or Ancient folktales for that matter.
In The God Delusion Dawkins argues that religion is like a misfiring gene or virus that is uselessly infecting mankind; it developed at some point in our evolution and just keeps replicating itself through cultural memes, regardless of the fact that it does more harm than good. Religion is of no cultural use, he suggests, because it causes fanaticism, bigotry, and ignorance, and does not improve the lot of mankind. What he claims is that religion is inoperative; it doesn’t work to some beneficial evolutionary end but is in fact useless, like the human appendix. As he writes,
The general theory of religion as an accidental by-product – a misfiring of something useful – is the one I wish to advocate. (188)
The very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false and for which the word ‘useless’ is a generous understatement. (165-166)
Dawkins argues that we should only keep those things around which work, and we should discard those that don’t work. This is especially true of dangerous things like religion because they only produce social ill. What is so special about his new book, The Magic of Reality, is that Dawkins provides a scientific replacement for the fantastic promises of religion. Dawkins argues that reality itself is magical and that we do not require the supplement of the supernatural. The truths that science gives us are so wondrous that they can replace myth with a magical feeling of awe.
I only have one question: Why the need for magic at all? What is the purpose of this wondrous supplement? Because I must say, it seems rather odd to make an argument to do away with all cultural elements that are useless, and then to claim that the actual truth is far more magical than the discarded myths. What I find interesting, is that Dawkins argues that the inoperative elements of society must be discarded but then also argues, with the same vigour and enthusiasm, for his own type of inoperativity. He seems to suggest, simultaneously, that religion is useless and that the feelings it produces are similar to those revealed by scientific discovery. Indeed, he seems to argue that the feelings reality generates match, nay, surpass, those feelings promised by religious myth.
My question here does not concern Dawkins science, but his magical supplement. What is this experience of wonder that reality generates? Why does he spend so much time attacking religion, only to turn around and appropriate the very sublime awe he condemns? Why the need for the magical supplement?
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.