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‘Children are indoctrinated. I want to open their minds'

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Richard Dawkins may be good at stoking argument, but he prefers agreement. I have promised to quote my taxi driver to him, on how the city of Glasgow — and the whole world — would be better off without Roman Catholics or Protestants or any other kind of faith-wielding believer. “It happens a lot,” he says over coffee in his hotel, “people coming up and saying they agree with me about religion.”

Less clear is whether Dawkins agrees with the driver’s final rejoinder. “Aye, but,” he’d added, handing over my change, “you can’t help what you’re born with.” Born with religion? In Glasgow to film for a new TV series about the meaning of life, Dawkins continues to argue not just against faith but — as an evolutionary biologist — for inheritance, in terms of the chemical genes we are born with and the cultural “memes” that may be transmitted from generation to generation. To what extent do we inherit mental traits? And at what points may we adapt and take conscious control of our beliefs?

In his crisp received pronunciation, Dawkins refers to the “Kissinger effect” as an example of a moment when one kind of cultural inheritance — a person’s accent — may be fixed. (Henry Kissinger, arriving in the US aged 12, never lost his German accent, though his 10-year-old brother adapted completely and grew up with an American one.) Similarly, if you reject your religious beliefs as a teenager, as Dawkins did with Anglicanism, how much of the mythic trace of that religion nevertheless remains with you?

In amiable mood at his Queen’s Park hotel, Dawkins concedes that he hasn’t looked into developmental psychology and has no particular theory as to when people are most susceptible to influence as they grow up. But he certainly believes that childhood, broadly speaking, is a period in which we may be influenced to become one kind of person, or another. Which is why he has just written a book for children.

“I’m very aware that people try to get their hands on children and indoctrinate them and I want to open their eyes, open their minds, show them the thrill of science — of really understanding so much of why we exist, why the universe exists, what life is.”

The new book, vibrantly illustrated by Dave McKean, is called The Magic of Reality. From the first sentence — “Reality is everything that exists” — it reads with the force and fluency of a classic. It has chapters on evolution, atoms, light, the Big Bang, stars, chance and the probabilities of alien life. Dawkins takes his cues from exactly the questions that animate curious-minded children, such as: “Who was the first person?” The answers come in luminous, authoritative prose that transcends age differences.

Dawkins’ career as a public spokesman for science has been defined by two principal urges — to explain and to denounce. It’s the explanatory urge, sustained by evidence and argument, that has animated his most influential books on evolution, from The Selfish Gene (1976) to The Ancestor’s Tale (2004). Then there is the more nakedly polemical style, aimed at condemning what he sees as erroneous claims and false gods: most stridently in his atheist bestseller The God Delusion (2006).

The Magic of Reality is chiefly of the explanatory type. But he isn’t only aiming to teach children about truths, he is also warning about lies. Dawkins is good on world myths, and not just the Western ones. His purpose in telling them to children, however, it to make it clear that they were descriptions of the world that people actually believed — and that they were wrong. But what if myths were, in a crucial sense, not tools of explanation? What if they sprang from mental structures that we have inherited, regardless of doctrine: myth as the basic form of storytelling?

Dawkins cleaves to the line of clarity and certainty. “I do think of myths as early attempts at explanation,” he says. “I’m interested in those aspects of them that involve factual claims.”

As with any literate child, Dawkins’ own early reading was full of the fictions that are not meant to be taken literally. Dr Dolittle was a childhood favourite and Fred Hoyle’s science fiction classic The Black Cloud was a key novel of his teenage years.

Hoyle was the English astronomer who coined the term Big Bang — as an insult, to reject the theory. He also rejected evolutionary theory in favour of a notion that life evolved in space, via a form of intelligent design. These are the kinds of belief that Dawkins has dedicated much of his career to repudiating. Yet, he says, The Black Cloud provided him with both a model for scientific curiosity and an imaginative encounter with the “deep problems of the universe” — a phrase of Hoyle’s that has never left him.

The Magic of Reality opens with a dedication — “O, my beloved father” — to Clinton John Dawkins, who died last year, aged 95. An Oxford-educated botanist, he became an agricultural civil servant in Malawi, where Richard was raised until the family moved back to England in 1949, when he was 8. It was from his father, Dawkins says, that he learnt a “scientific attitude”. I ask him to define that. He replies: “Ceaseless questioning, scepticism, wanting to know what the evidence is, understanding what evidence means.”

Such a mental propensity may just as well be inherited as learnt, but what’s striking is Dawkins’ ordinary desire to identify with his father. When it comes to religion, he argues that this is what our educational system should not do.

I ask him for his views on the kind of multicultural teaching of my son’s Anglican school, where “faith days” are presented as ways of getting children to understand each other’s backgrounds. “I’m glad it’s Anglican, at least,” he replies. “They’re less likely to indoctrinate than any other. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re teaching that today is Diwali and yesterday was Ramadan. I’m all for religious education in the sense of telling children that religions exist and exert a powerful influence. But identifying children with the religion of their parents — even to the extent of saying, ‘Ahmed, tell us about your religion’ — I think that’s wicked.”

Dawkins remains uncertain about whether he would prefer a purely secular educational system. “My only hesitation in supporting that would be what happens in America. One reason it’s such a religious culture is precisely because of the separation of Church and State, meaning that religion has become a free enterprise, big business, employing all the tricks of advertising. Mega-churches arise, luring people in with advertising cons. It has ushered me towards thinking laicisation is not such a good idea. But France is a very non-religious culture.”

I tell Dawkins about a science project on Galileo that my 10-year old wrote. My son and I had discussed the idea that what interested Galileo was not coming up with theories so much as testing and disproving theories. It was the experiment itself that Galileo really loved. “Yeah, but,” my son had qualified, “he still needed a theory to make the experiment.”

To my paternal delight, Dawkins endorses this observation with reference to an error made by the master himself. “Darwin was wrong when he said his mind had become a machine for grinding out theories from facts. That’s not how it works. You have the theories and then you test them. He had a brilliant idea — suggested by reading Malthus on how population leads to competition — and then he went and looked at the facts.”

Dawkins confesses that he has not examined the British curriculum in detail. His book is written in response to the poor way he remembers being taught — with blunt, practical physics experiments that failed to encourage the attitude he learned from his father. “What we probably missed at school was what you might call the Carl Sagan approach to the wonder of science.”

When Dawkins’ daughter, Juliet, was 10, he wrote an austere but touching letter to her in which he set out what he considered the most important lesson a child could learn. Entitled Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, he published it when she turned 18 as the final essay in A Devil’s Chaplain. In it, he described the feelings people may have, including “hunches” that can be useful to scientists. “Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.” As a statement of an empirical mindset — animated by sentiment — it would be hard to better Dawkins’ simple declaration to Juliet. But where do those “inside feelings” come from?

Dawkins’ most evident personality trait — his certainty — derives from a belief that there is such a thing as “real truth” and that it may be discovered only through a scientific attitude. Yet, as he writes in his children’s book, reality is everything that exists. And that includes things that are neither right nor wrong, mental traces of the children we were and the ancestors we were before that. Things we have inherited. Myths, perhaps.

The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean, is published by Bantam Press on Sept 15, priced £20. It is available for £18, with free p&p, from The Times Bookshop. 0845 2712134 or

Curriculum Vitae
Age 70
Educated Oundle School, Northamptonshire; BA, MA and DPhil in Zoology at Balliol College, Oxford

[Moderators' note: This is the complete article. The original can be found here (paywall)]



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