Myths, magic and a little bit of God

7th October 2011 at 01:00
Richard Dawkins, who has written a science book for children, tells Michael Shaw that teachers don't have to blow things up to ignite pupils' interest. Meanwhile, he's really worried about Muslim schools, but the renowned atheist wants children to be taught RE

Britain's most eminent evolutionary scientist does not appear to have expected that he would begin his working day reading about the biology of the Loch Ness monster.

"Good heavens," Richard Dawkins mutters, peering at the school textbook extract. "That is amazing. How on earth did they use the Loch Ness monster for that?"

The extract he is examining is from a biology textbook, produced for an evangelical Christian education programme taught by some private schools in Britain. It argues that photos of the Loch Ness monster suggest it "appears to be a plesiosaur", so it is, therefore, proof that evolution does not occur.

TES brought the bizarre document along to show the renowned atheist because five years ago he paid a visit to a school in London that used the same evangelical curriculum. It is a visit he remembers vividly. "That school was horrifying because it was clearly indoctrination and they were dragging religion in everywhere - science classes, mathematics classes, everything."

Since then, his concern about the religious indoctrination of pupils has grown, and not just of those in the more extreme faith schools. "If you look at the children's section of bookshops there are great shelves full of religious propaganda. I once compiled a list of religious propaganda books for children and was horrified by the size of it."

This concern was one of the main motivations for the 70-year-old to write his first book aimed at a family audience, The Magic of Reality: how we know what's really true. Yet the book is not a grumpy, anti-religious polemic. "It's not The God Delusion for children," he says. "It's a science book."

Indeed, it is a delightful introduction to how science has shed light on the world and universe around us. The book tackles head-on the accusation that scientists want to take the magic out of life's mysteries, demonstrating that the more you explore them, the more magical they can seem - but only, Mr Dawkins stresses, in the poetical sense of "magical", wondrous or awe-inspiring, rather than supernatural.

"If there's one thing I wanted to do in the book, it was that I don't want to downgrade myths, but the science is even more wonderful," he says. "Children deserve to be inspired by the reality of science because it is inspiring. It should be possible to do that - perhaps even because children have a natural curiosity which needs to be satisfied."

The previous night, Mr Dawkins had been up late discussing The Magic of Reality on Newsnight and we are now sitting in his unassuming hotel in London. In front of us lies a copy of the book, open on one of its many striking illustrations by the graphic artist Dave McKean.

Each chapter poses a major question - "What are things made of?", "When and how did everything begin?" - and then offers examples of answers given by myths and religions before explaining what "really" happened. So a chapter on "Who was the first person?" begins with a Tasmanian myth about how an aboriginal god gave mankind kangaroo tails, then moves on to Adam and Eve before outlining the Norse mythology.

Although respectful, there is a glint of mischief to these sections. Mr Dawkins believes that what may wind up some Christian readers is not the contrast between the Bible and science, but "the fact that the Judeo-Christian myths are kind of just plonked in among the others without being given any special treatment".

In places, the book almost reads like a literal version of the Just So Stories. Indeed, Mr Dawkins occasionally seems to adopt a Kipling-like tone, to the point that it would not be a surprise if he addressed his young readers as "best beloved".

"I love Kipling," Mr Dawkins says. "I love the Just So Stories. But they are all Lamarckian, of course ..."

"Lamarckian", of course, is not an everyday word. Looking it up afterwards, it turns out to be the theory that an animal could pass on a characteristic acquired during its lifetime to its offspring - much as Kipling's elephant has a long trunk because it was yanked by a crocodile. Mr Dawkins' own book would never promote such misconceptions. Instead, it provides a pupil-friendly account of the modern theory of evolution, a theory he has been helping to explain and popularise since The Selfish Gene in 1976.

However, Mr Dawkins, a fellow of New College, Oxford, remains deeply concerned that some young people in Britain continue to be taught that creationism is true.

I point out that even at Emmanuel College in Gateshead - the school at the centre of past rows about creationist teaching - pupils are taught about evolution and have access to some of Mr Dawkins' books in the library, including The Selfish Gene.

But he explains it is actually the Muslim schools in Britain that now worry him the most. "Occasionally, my colleagues lecturing in universities lament having undergraduate students walk out of their classes when they talk about evolution - this is almost entirely Muslims. So I think there's a very, very pernicious influence that is lasting up to the university years. That must be coming from certain schools."

One of them, he says, is Madani High School in Leicester, a state school he visited last year while filming his documentary Faith Schools Menace?

"Every single person I met there believes if there is any disagreement between the Koran and science, then the Koran wins," he says. "I spoke to a group of girls, and to the senior science teacher who believes the world is 6,000 years old. It's just utterly deplorable. These are now British children who are having their minds stuffed with alien rubbish."

He has grown less worried these days about the general expansion of faith schools, even though more are set to open through the free schools and academy programmes.

"I don't like it, but I'd rather hold my fire on it and go for the ones that are teaching total nonsense. There is a difference between faith schools which just vaguely have a kind of Church of England assembly and faith schools that actually teach nonsense, like this school in Leicester."

Mr Dawkins, who was educated at Oundle, a Church of England public school, is similarly unbothered by the fact it remains compulsory for all state schools in England to hold a daily act of collective worship.

"Again, I don't like it. But it's not a priority - singing Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise doesn't really worry me."

More Sagan, less Bunsen

The outspoken atheist may even turn out to be an unexpected ally to RE teachers. While he is glad that science is part of the English Baccalaureate, he stresses that pupils should be taught about religion, too.

"I do think it's valuable to teach comparative religion as a sort of anthropological study and that's sort of what all my comparative myths in The Magic of Reality are about. There are thousands of myths from all around the world and it's part of education to learn of them - you've got to learn about the Greek gods before you can appreciate Keats and the Norse gods before you can learn about Wagner. Similarly, you've got to learn about the Jewish religion and the Christian religion before you can appreciate a lot of English literature."

When he was close to finishing The Magic of Reality, he showed chapters of it to teachers at two private schools, Moray Firth School in Inverness and St Paul's in London, and to their pupils, some as young as seven. "The children then all wrote little notes and reports that were sent to me - they were very charming," he says.

He is reluctant to pass judgment on the state of science education in Britain's schools. However, he does know what he would do if he were put in charge of it for a day. Many scientists would begin expounding here about the delights of practicals and the importance of not letting health and safety rules stop pupils blowing things up in the school lab.

But Mr Dawkins' view is different. "I think it's possible to over-emphasise the practical in the teaching of science. I do think it's important that we need to train up a new generation of young scientists and therefore practical lab work is important, but not everybody's suited to that and there's a lot of science which can be appreciated without actually laying your hands on a Bunsen burner, for example."

Here he quotes his wife Lalla Ward, an actress who played Romana in Doctor Who and who he met through the writer Douglas Adams. "My wife has said you can appreciate music without ever having learnt to play an instrument. It would be tragic if only people who were put through five-finger exercises on an instrument were ever exposed to music, because you can adore music and be moved to tears by music without actually playing anything. The same is true of science.

"So I do think there's another way of teaching science, to another type of child, maybe. Don't just put them in front of a Bunsen burner or make them measure the density of a brick or something."

Mr Dawkins is similarly concerned about those who think "science is only appealing if you drag it down to the level of everyday experience - the science of cooking, the science of the frying pan".

"I also think that there has been a push lately to make science relevant to politics: genetic engineering, genetically modified crops, global warming. That's important, but I'd be sad if science teaching was restricted to the aspects of science you need to read the newspaper."

The Magic of Reality certainly gives readers a look at the bigger picture, deftly linking why we see rainbows to how the colour of light from stars indicates that the universe is expanding. It is this sense of wonder that Mr Dawkins fears may be missing in education. He would like to see more of the approach taken by Carl Sagan, the American astrophysicist, whose programmes helped to popularise cosmology.

"So, if I were to reform the teaching of science, I'd say let's have more of the Carl Sagan and a little bit less of ... well, not less of the Bunsen burner, but to treat children with the sensitivity that not all of them want to do it in a practical way, but that they might still be inspired and uplifted by the Carl Sagan approach or the David Attenborough approach."

Or the Brian Cox approach? "Yes, and I'd like to think the Richard Dawkins way of doing it."

Mr Dawkins is keen to hear what teachers make of the book, and how they use it in schools. "I'd certainly hope to see it in school libraries. I would hope more than that - I hope every child in the country would be given one for Christmas!"

We end there. If there is one thing more unexpected than a sighting of the Loch Ness monster, it is hearing the public face of British atheism happily anticipating a religious festival.

The Magic of Reality is published by Bantam Press, #163;20. An iPad app version is also available


Richard Dawkins was born on 26 March 1941 in Nairobi, Kenya. The son of a civil servant, he attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire. He studied zoology at Balliol College, Oxford, was a professor at Oxford University until 2008 and remains a fellow of New College.

His books include The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and The God Delusion (2006).

His documentaries have included The Genius of Charles Darwin (2008) and Faith Schools Menace? (2010).

He topped Prospect magazine's list of the top 100 public British intellectuals in 2004.


What is reality? What is magic?

Who was the first person?

Why are there so many different types of animal?

What are things made of?

Why do we have night and day, winter and summer?

What is the sun?

What is a rainbow?

When and how did everything begin?

Are we alone?

What is an earthquake?

Why do bad things happen?

What is a miracle?

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