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The atheist who tried to steal Christmas

Larry Taunton is a close associate of John Lennox.

Richard Dawkins, the world's most famous atheist, is at it again. This time, Oxford University's professional unbeliever is out to spread holiday cheer with a new children's book, The Magic of Reality. Christmas is, after all, the season of magic, and lest children confuse sugar plum fairies and flying reindeer with the observable and repeatable, the professor has loaded neither toys nor goodies on his sleigh but a heavy dose of "rational skepticism." So gather around, children, and hear a new tale of Christmas.

Since the publication of his 2006 best-seller, The God Delusion, Dawkins has been railing against religion and its many manifestations. Whether you believe in Yahweh, Allah, Jesus Christ or Santa Claus, they are all the same in Dawkins's view: fictitious products of a "mental virus." More than that, Dawkins thinks that people of faith —any faith— are potentially dangerous and must be opposed. Disregarding all nuances of religious beliefs and practices, Dawkins seems to think that the Amish might just as easily have flown planes into the Twin Towers as a band of radical Muslims. So to save the next generation from this sort of religious extremism — it is all religious extremism — Dawkins offers a 271-page volume intended to help the young know the truth of things, or, more accurately, the truth as Richard Dawkins understands it.

The structure of the book is simple. Each chapter begins with a question, such as "What is a rainbow?", and presents an answer that the Sumerians or the Tahltan people of western Canada might have given. He then follows this up with a scientific explanation. Illustrations are added for clarification and are mostly attractive, even if some of them seem to have been inspired by a Wes Craven film. The implicit thesis of the book is that religious explanations of "reality" are silly and utterly incompatible with the scientific endeavor.

This format is not wholly ineffective if it is Dawkins's purpose, as it seems to be, to airbrush out those things that don't fit neatly into his thesis. Thus, he at once hails Sir Isaac Newton as perhaps "the greatest scientist ever" while ridiculing people who believe in God. That Newton was a deeply religious man is conveniently ignored. But ignoring things is necessary if the thesis of the book — indeed, if the thesis of Dawkins's life— is to stand. This leads him to profoundly mischaracterize the religious views he presents.

Furthermore, he repeats his error of seeing religion as monolithic. Jewish traditions are lumped with those of the Tasmanians, the Christian story of Jesus with that of Cinderella, because one is as absurd as the other. Never mind, kiddies, that it was the Judeo-Christian tradition (not Cinderella) that gave rise to the very science Dawkins occasionally practices and the civilization from which he draws most of his moral and intellectual sensibilities. Dawkins seems to think that revealing such details to children is to risk religious fanaticism in them at some future date. Or does he really just not know these apparently trivial bits of history?

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