The Magical Religion of Richard Dawkins


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)

And again,

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.

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20 Responses to The Magical Religion of Richard Dawkins

  1. Pierre Savoie says:

    What it IS is that they quite firmly believed that gods were needed for rainbows and lightning and earthquakes. If you DISbelieved, you were killed. But NOW we know the wondrous real-world physical reason for those things and no god is needed. No more Zeus or Hephaestus needed.

    So shouldn’t that alert you to the track YOU are headed, in believing there needs to be a God to create things because you can’t cope with the randomness of it all? You are in the wrong line of work, and need to get out of theology and learn a useful trade. Carpentry, anything with your hands is better than graduate work in illusion. Quit your Ph.D., now! The stakes are that high. Your mind will otherwise be sealed and committed to nonsense.

    • Tenzan says:

      Sir, I do not believe in any ‘gods’ (whatever such a thing might be), and religious studies is not theology (look it up). The question here, is why Dawkins needs feelings of magic and wonder to ‘sell’ his science. The appeal to experience lies at the root of modern romantic spirituality.
      For an example, read the work of the early Romantics, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher. The romantics also proscribed an encounter with the majesty of creation by describing the power and vastness of nature.

      • A.J. Smith says:

        A piece on Dawkins by someone who knows his Nancy? How delightfully odd.

        Is this latent romanticism not, ultimately, the problem with Dawkins’ atheism? That it replicates ‘Christian’ gestures without realizing it? On one hand, he can say we don’t need useless beliefs (like religion), but the feeling of awe he seems to think is a religious universal is more properly found in science because it has privileged access to the real. In this way, Dawkins finds himself trying to out-religion religion.

        • rationalobservation? says:

          The word “Christian” is usually interchangeable with the word “humanitarian” in most circumstances. However: Good, charitable, loving and humanitarian individuals were around in great numbers long before the Christian religion was cobbled together and brutally imposed upon the world in the 4th century.

  2. Randi Warne says:

    It really does reek of “my god is better than your god” doesn’t it? Note also, “my god is not dangerous or harmful; it is only when humans misbehave that trouble ensues”. He certainly is preaching his text, but frankly, I wish he didn’t have so much of a public pulpit (put another way, I wish he would undertake his magical adoration in private).

    • Trent Grindle says:

      I have not read this new book, but I suspect that what Dawkins is talking about is that the feeling of religious awe that people feel at times when they connect to their chosen diety. Of course, that feeling can be replicated in a lab with something called The God Helmet that stimulates certain parts of the brain to achieve that same feeling. It sounds like his arguement is that we don’t need religion, and the harms it causes, to achieve that feeling, but that is is also achievable by learning and exploring nature (throught science) and that that understanding the complexity and diversity of nature can give us that same feeling of being connected and belonging to an amazing universe.

      • Jarvis Poole says:

        Precisely. It doesn’t seem so hard to grasp. First, your title is off as his belief system is not a religion, which would require supernatural beliefs.
        If he didn’t state that the same or better sense of awe can come from a naturalistic understanding of the universe, his argument that religion is useless would be subject to the criticism that scientific explanation does not provide the same good feelings as religion. He isn’t saying religion is bad because of the sense of awe it inspires, just that it doesn’t add anything useful for that feature as its not required to have those feelings.

  3. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson says:

    You raise some interesting questions. I wonder, though, whether Dawkins would agree with your assessment that magic, here understood as a sense of awe and wonder, is merely an inoperative supplement. It seems to me that Dawkins recognizes that awe and wonder can be especially useful – at least in so far as these emotions have given rise to scientific inquiry. In the first chapter of The God Delusion, for instance, Dawkins relates how his boyhood experience of being “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major” led him to a lifelong pursuit of scientific truth (11). Later, Dawkins admits that all of his books aspire to “touch the nerve-endings of transcendent wonder that religion monopolized in past centuries” (12). It seems unlikely that Dawkins would be so interested in sharing his sense of wonder about the natural world if he understood wonder to be a useless cultural element.

    This, in turn, leads me to wonder whether Dawkins really has, as you suggest, appropriated religious awe for his own purposes. In The Magic of Reality, Dawkins takes pains to distinguish between supernatural and poetic magic. Supernatural magic is the magic of religion: it involves explanations of events with recourse to supernatural causes. Dawkins dismisses this kind of magic because, as he puts it, “we all know this kind of magic is just fiction and does not happen in reality” (The Magic of Reality, 20). Poetic magic, however, involves emotional responses rather than supernatural explanations. As Dawkins puts it, “in this sense, ‘magical’ simply mans deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive” (22). I wonder whether Dawkins would agree that this variety of awe and exhilaration is uniquely religious in character. I think, rather, that Dawkins’ distinction between supernatural and poetic magic might be a pre-emptive response to your thoughtful questions: The experience of wonder that reality generates is, for Dawkins at least, distinct from the experience of wonder generated by religious explanations of seemingly miraculous events. Whereas supernatural magic is culturally useless, poetic magic is both useful and enjoyable because it encourages scientific investigation and makes us feel more fully alive.

    • Tenzan says:

      I definitely agree that this type of magical feeling is not ‘religious.’ After all, what is a ‘religious’ feeling? What interests me is that Dawkins seems to fall victim to his own definition of religion by appropriating inoperative elements of experience to ‘sell’ his view of the world. This latter aspect is what I find interesting. Dawkins seems unable to do away with the very same ‘useless’ elements he condemns.

    • David Walker says:

      Yep. Ian’s comment pretty much does it. The original post conflates two senses of the word “magical” – the first being “supernatural and not rooted in evidence” and the second being “producing awe and wonder”. Dawkins dismisses the first and embraces the second. Understanding the difference between the two really shouldn’t be that hard a task, even if you disagree with him.

  4. james boag says:

    You people must be extremely wanting in the intellectual area, a metaphor is not a lie. The magic of which he speaks is revealed to be true in the delight of knowing the world you live in. Yes there is delight to be found in fantasy but then this for most of us comes crashing down with age and a dramatic increase in knowledge about what is possible in the world. However most of us maintain a sense of fear of the darkness on some level, a toe hold for you perhaps?

  5. Rationalobservations? says:

    I am always a little perturbed that some folk still attempt to smear those increasing numbers of us (the vast majority in Europe and a rapidly increasing cohort in the USA) who do not believe in magic or any of the many thousands of imaginary “gods” as being “believers” of another kind, or even more ridiculous; “followers of another religion”.

    The wonders of nature and reality, the 13,840,000,000 year old Universe and the many amazing achievements of our own recently evolved species of ape., are enough for an ever increasing number of billions of us. The joy and privilege of one – all too short – period of life between non-existence and eternal non-existence is also enough for most of us without the wishful thinking fueled fantasy that we are somehow immortal “demi-gods” ourselves and merely trapped temporarily in this recently evolved ape shaped lump of meat and bone that houses our brain that contains all that our intellect and personality comprises.

    Those that need to; are free to hold to the fantasies of ancient ignorant men. The rest of us in increasing numbers find nothing but lies and deception within the myths those many generations of ancient human barbarians wrote, re-wrote, embellished and passed down for others to “interpret” and further exaggerate.

    • Tenzan says:

      Read the work of the early Romantics, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher. They also felt no need for any theological or mythical remnants. All they proscribed was an encounter with the majesty of creation, the power and vastness of nature.

      • rationalobservation? says:

        I have read some of the nonsense you refer to. It is fantastical wishful thinking based only upon indoctrination and self delusion.

        Since you refer to some sort of magical “creation”, you appear to be ignorant of the much more probable entirely natural and magic free origin and observed progress of this 13,820,000,000 year old Universe and the equally magic free origin and 4,000,000,000 year progress of evolved and evolving life on Earth.

        I suggest that you leave the childish books of nonsense alone for a while and catch up with some evidence based science books for a change?

  6. Janice Clanfield says:

    I think he is invoking the numinous here. Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennet were all advocates for replacing the numinous with something reflecting reality, and explaining how that could be done.

  7. Sandra says:

    It would not surprise me when Dawkins opens his first ‘a la Comte’ Science Chapel

  8. Danielle Macdonald says:

    I wonder how much research Dawkins has done on the measurement of good and bad effects of belief to make such a statement. It seems to me he has a very limited understanding of human abilities to experience altered states of consciousness and innovate revitalization movements.

  9. Dan Linford says:

    It’s worth pointing out that in the beginning of the God Delusion, Dawkins distinguishes the sort of thing he wants to complain about from “Einsteinian” religion: i.e. the feelings of spiritual or religious awe invoked by science and which caused Einstein to embrace a kind of Spinozism. That sort of religion Dawkins identifies as the non-malign sort, with the only problem being the confusion which arises from conflating it with more traditional religions (such as Christianity and Islam) which are the more pernicious “delusions”.

    It is also worth pointing out — and it may interest you to hear — that Dawkins wrote a book previous to the God Delusion which focused entirely on the topic of scientific awe and wonder (Unweaving the Rainbow, which was published a full 8 years before God Delusion). Furthermore, he can be seen in a long line of scientific popularizers who saw the need to construct a sort of scientific religion or spirituality (this was the primary occupation of Carl Sagan, for example, whose Cosmos is filled with allusions to spirituality and is intended to cause spiritual experiences).

    Given all of that, I think one relevant task in understanding Dawkins is to distinguish the phenomenological experience of religion — which Dawkins is entirely on board with — from the threat that Dawkins perceives religions to pose. As “delusions”, religions cause us to reason incorrectly about the world. Reasoning incorrectly about the world leads us inevitably into disaster (we might be led to think that we should cut the genitals of children, for example, or hide priests who sexually abuse children). Here there are echoes of 19th century atheist W.K. Clifford, who declared it is immoral for anyone to ever believe anything without evidence.

    It is worth pointing out that Dawkins does not oppose traditions which arise from religions, since he publicly spoken about his fondness for and celebration of Christmas. Nor does he seem to be uniformly opposed to religious organizations: he seems most respectful when engaging with Anglican officials (such as Rowan Williams) and has even described himself as “culturally” Anglican. I think that Dawkins’s view is that these traditions and structures do not, by themselves, necessarily engender pernicious beliefs, even though they are often used that way. He has even publicly stated his love for Jesus and for the study of the Bible.

  10. Jeff Miller says:

    In a world utterly drenched in religion, spirituality (religion lite), and mystification, Dawkins is trying to make the reality of scientific clarity and truth appealing to folks who prefer clarity and truth to be magical. Look to what he’s pointing at, not the finger pointing.

  11. Nathan Rein says:

    Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope said it first, though…

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