Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and atheist icon best known for titles The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006), will soon add another line to his resume: children’s author.
His newest book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, is set for release on Oct. 4. It is a collaboration between Dawkins and artist Dave McKean that aims to explain a wide range of natural phenomena. But the children’s book, in its quest to provide answers, seems only to continue to raise questions that plague the discussion over the role of faith in education: Is the presence of faith education within a secular public school system inherently proselytic? Would not the unilateral promotion of any singular set of beliefs, whether religious or scientific, be worth questioning?
Books for children and young adults that champion a scientific worldview are not a new concept. In 1990, Dan Barker and Brian Strassburg published Maybe Yes, Maybe No, an illustrated “guide for young skeptics.” In one section, a 10-year-old girl decides to check out a claim, made by her friends, that ghosts are moving the kitchen dishes. The book is less of an attack on religious thought, and more of a call for kids to question the supernatural: ESP, UFOs, astrology, and horoscopes, for example.
In 1993, Ellen Jackson took a more pointed approach, publishing The Tree of Life: The Wonders of Evolution. The illustrated book was aimed at very small children, as sort of an analog to the illustrated biblical tales that populate shelves of Sunday Schools. The concepts, then, were appropriately simplified: you won’t find a mention of proto-Darwinism or sexual selection in this tome.
Dawkins has always been a strong advocate for science education. In 2006, Dawkins was quoted in The Guardian as saying that “the enlightenment is under threat.” He went on: “it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance.”
However, many take issue with Dawkins’ absolute distinction between enlightenment—understanding of the world through reason alone—and religion. Columbia College senior and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship President Derek Turner says that in his view, faith and reason can coexist, but, “there may be a distinction between the two in the sense that a person must decide which of the two will be their absolute standard. [Although] I think reason can take you very close to God, you’ll need faith to take the final step. Faith without supplementary use of critical thought and reason can be very shaky.”
The belief that both reason and faith can coexist has caused many to wonder, and rightly so, how big of a distinction should be made between religious and secular indoctrination such as Dawkins’. A subtitle like How We Know What’s Really True implies a degree of certainty and infallibility that may be interpreted as atheistic arrogance. The question of whether scientific fact can be taught as an infallible truth, seems of little importance to Dawkins.
Turner believes secularism is taught in public schools as a universally-accepted worldview. “I believe [secular humanism] is just as much of a worldview as a Christian one, and thus it cannot be presented as neutral,” Turner says. “A public school system that understood that and communicated that to students would be ideal. Let the students develop on their own—don’t tell them to be secular humanists for the same reason you wouldn’t tell them to be Christian.”
In his book, Does God Belong in Public Schools? (2005), constitutional expert and Columbia Law School Professor Kent Greenawalt argues that students ought to be taught more about religion—both its contributions and shortcomings—especially in courses in history. “To do otherwise,” he writes, “is to present a seriously distorted picture of society and indirectly to be other than neutral in presenting secularism and religion.”
Sarah Ngu, a senior at Columbia College and president of Columbia’s Veritas Forum, believes there should be a balance that schools aim for, at the very least. “It’s about understanding different forms of truth,” she says. According to Ngu—who with the Veritas Forum seeks to provide answers to life’s hardest questions through discourse between all types of world views—fear of any ideology, whether religious or secular, is “symptomatic of a fear of [all] conversation,” and the desire to push aside one worldview completely seems to stem from fear.
Ngu, an American studies/political science major, says she believes that all ideas and arguments are worthy of consideration. “Let all ideas come to the table,” she says. “If you have nothing to fear then let these ideas stand for themselves. Let people have these conversations.”