Yesterday I was busy with a project all day, writing a short article which tries to show that someone writing about assisted dying is full of hot air. One of the first things that I came upon when I went online this morning was Ophelia’s post about Colin Tudge’s “review” of Richard Dawkins new book for children, The Magic of Reality. Since I am just reading the book in the time before I fall asleep each night, it came as quite a surprise that someone should so roundly and contemptuously dismiss Dawkins’ enchanting book. The subtitle of the book is “How we know what’s really true,’ and he spends a reasonable amount of time contrasting what we know scientifically about the world with myths and fairy stories. The last chapter, which I have not reached yet, asks the question, What is a miracle? Appropriately enough, this holds up to examination the claims that people have made about miracles. But it is simply not true, as Tudge alleges, that Dawkins “rails endlessly against fundamentalists.” He doesn’t rail in this book against anything, but he does, in a thoughful and a measured way, contrast what we know to be true with mythical stories from the past. Indeed, in telling the mythical stories he scarcely anywhere holds the stories up to contempt, although when writing about the sun worship of the Aztecs he does remark that it’s too bad they didn’t stop making sacrifices just to see whether the sun would rise the next day, and did not really need to be placated with beating human hearts torn from the breasts of living victims. He also explains elsewhere that the sun’s rising is an illusion based on the earth revolving on its axis, and might have pointed out that it would have made more sense to make offerings to the earth, to keep it spinning, instead of to the sun, to keep it rising. Perhaps some kind of vegetable would have served as an offering to the earth, instead of the thousands of living hearts cut from the breasts of sacrificial victims that were offered to the sun.
If you’re going to help children understand how we know what’s really true, we have to contrast what we know with claims that are in conflict with scientific knowledge. After all, science as we know it is a fairly recent phenomenon, and we need to see it in the context of the kinds of things people believed before science came upon the scene. But to characterise what Dawkins offers as a crude materialism, as Tudge does, is to miss the point of what Dawkins is saying. Perhaps people have been missing this point ever since Kant, whose revolutionary idea was that the world that we see and investigate is really the construction of human consciousness, although he realised that there are aspects of that world that are characterised by necessity, that is, by the laws which govern the regularities that we observe. Dawkins is certainly not one to deny facts about human consciousness, although he may not place a great deal of emphasis on the part that consciousness plays in scientific discovery. This is a very complex matter that is probably best left to philosphers to carry out; but we know from other things that he has written that Dawkins understands that the world that we are familiar with is modeled by the brain, in consciousness. This is quite clear from what he says about bats in the wonderful description that he gives in The Blind Watchmaker of a world modeled on the basis of echo-location. As I recall, he even imagines that bats could, by distinguishing between kinds of echos, whether the objects identified were hard or soft, rough or smooth.
But for Tudge to suggest that Dawkins presents in this book a crude materialism is simply nonsense.
All in all, [Tudge writes] what consciousness is is perhaps the most burning topic in modern science. The general conclusion so far is that the Dawkins-style concept of “reality” just won’t do. This crude materialism belongs at best to the 19th century.
As Ophelia points out, since Dawkins is very careful to point out that things like jealousy and love, happiness and joy, are real, and that they depend for their existence on brains, (p. 19) Dawkins is not a crude materialist. Feelings are real; they exist; and they depend for their existence on brains. It is simply dishonest of Tudge not to acknowledge that. But Dawkins’ interest is elsewhere, and, in fairness, since he acknowledges the limits of his knowledge in other areas, there is no reason to think that Dawkins is knowledgeable about cognitive studies. In any event, has cognitive studies moved securely into the ranks of the sciences yet? We are learning more and more about the brain and consciousness, but it is still in that no-man’s-land between science and philosophy. Going into great detail in this area, supposing that Dawkins is sufficiently knowledgeable, would very likely have added confusion to what little knowledge children have of science, and might have wrecked Dawkins’ project, but he is certainly not so crudely materialistic as Tudge suggests.
Tudge rails against Dawkins’ pose of “scientific omniscience”:
The notion of scientific omniscience is absurd for the reason that JS Mill pointed out a century and a half ago: that we can never be sure that we haven’t missed something and have no way of knowing what that might be.
Quite true, but does Dawkins ever adopt this pose? I do not think that he does. He acknowledges the limitations of his own knowledge, and he also stresses that what we know is known only by repeated testing. He has a whole section on models and testing (16-17). When we cannot observe things directly we create imaginative models based on what we think we know, and then, imagining things to be like the imagined model, we derive from the model things which should be true at the level of observation if the model is correct. If it turns out that our predictions do not work out, we reject the model and start over again. As he says in connexion with Watson and Crick and the discovery of DNA:
Almost everything we know about DNA comes indirectly from dreaming up models and then testing them. 
Does this really sound like scientific omniscience?
Tudge is clearly a careless reader, and he was reading with his review in mind, but, unlike scientists, he didn’t let what he read correct his expectations. He wanted to show that Dawkins was, as he claims, a Thomas Gradgrind (the utilitarian in Dickens’ novel Hard Times), that is, a crude materialist, railing against religion. But Dawkins methods are anything but Gradgrindery. His language is simple, never speaks down to his reader, always has a wonderfully imaginative way of making his point, and Dave McKean’s illustrations are very powerful. The book itself is an artistic delight. One of the thought experiments Dawkins devises to explain why things stay in orbit (or achieve escape velocity) is to show what happens if we imagine more and more powerful cannons, showing how, at the stage of orbit, though the cannon ball keeps falling towards the earth because of gravity, it never touches down but goes into orbit around the earth. None of this cleverly imaginative way of explaining things can be thought of as Gradgrindery of any sort. Tudge perhaps hasn’t read Hard Times. If so, he’s in for a surprise.
Does Dawkins misrepresent religion? No, I don’t think he does, though, of course, being Dawkins, he’s not going to be giving out prizes at the next church picnic. Tudge says it was time he was put a stop to. This in itself is a matter of concern, that someone writing for a prominent British newspaper should suggest that Dawkins should be censored, for that is what he is suggesting. But why did he suggest it? Because of this:
He condemns the Catholics for filling the heads of children with a particular view of life before they have had a chance to think for themselves – and now, in The Magic of Reality, written for readers as young as nine, he has done precisely that.
Is Tudge suggesting that science does not give us a more accurate account of what we know to be true about the world than religion does? And shouldn’t children have the opportunity to think these things through for themselves on the basis of accurate information? Of course, Tudge’s complaint is mainly about miracles and about “sacred cows” like the Virgin Mary. Tudge takes grave exception to Dawkins’ take on the “miracle” of Fatima, where “a ten-year-old shepherd girl called Lucia, accompanied by her two young cousins, Francisco and Jacinta, claimed to have seen a vision up on a hill.” Of course, in the story, this original apparition eventually grew to become a public vision of the sun, observed by many hundreds or thousands of people. The sun appeared to some to dance in the sky, then it threatened to come crashing down to earth upon a multitude of people who were struck with amazement and horror. Of course, the sun returned to the sky where it continued shining as it does today. A lot of people have suggested that this was a mass hallucination brought on by the horrors of the First World War. But the thing that so outrages Tudge, is a statement about which, he claims, theologians could have put Dawkins straight:
The children said the hill had been visited by a woman called the ’Virgin Mary’, who, though long dead, had become a kind of goddess of the local religion. 
Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time, far less space than Dawkins himself does, writing about this so-called apparition. There is simply no reason to believe that such stories are more than examples of religious hysteria. But Dawkins very patiently considers the alternatives, and asks, finally: “Which of these possibilities do you think is most plausible?” (258) Tudge asks: “Why are Dawkins’s editors afraid to edit?” But the real question is: Why do Tudge’s editors allow him to get away with palpable nonsense and misrepresentation, plus a suggestion that Dawkins should be censored? Why are Tudge’s editors afraid to edit? What Dawkins says is perfectly reasonable, and children should have the opportunity to encounter these stories from a critical point of view, a possibility that is denied them when they are taught these stories in an environment heavy with religious piety, which is designed to foster belief, not to encourage critical reason.
Dawkins’ (and McKean’s) book is an attempt to teach children scientific, critical reasoning, and they do so by teaching children (and this adult) a lot about science, and how science knows what is true. The natural contrast to this kind of knowledge is religious “knowledge”, and religion comes off second best. How could it not? There are hundreds of religions, and amongst believers of any given religion hundreds if not thousands of ways of interpreting religious beliefs. Claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared — often to children — are all of them dubious, at best, if not outright fakery, at worst, and they do, in fact, turn Mary into some kind of local goddess. Indeed, it is clear that the Roman Catholic Church has turned Mary into a goddess. She is often spoken of as co-redemptrix with Christ himself, and no less than Queen of Heaven. The worship of Mary, and prayers to Mary, and appeals for her protection are widespread in official catholic literature. John Paul II had a special devotion to Mary of Fatima, for some imponderable reason, almost as though she were a distinct figure from Mary of Guadaloupe, or the many other Marys that have appeared, mainly to simple folk over the years. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that it was Mary of Fatima that caused the bullet to miss his vital organs when he was shot by the Turkish man Mehmet Ali Ağca. He was that specific. It was the Mary who appeared at Fatima who deflected the bullet! And Tudge thinks that Dawkins should not address these preposterous beliefs, and that they should not be addressed with the same care and scepticism as scientific theories!
Nor, by the way, could theologians help us to understand and accept these ridiculous claims. They need to be seen for what they are, an attempt, by the old men in the Vatican, to keep alive the superstitions on whose foundation their pose as spiritual authorities rests. A few days ago I wrote about the absurd notion of victim souls, and the miracles associated with them. It is all part of a great masquerade, kept in place by the sheer antiquity of the claims made by the church. The beliefs themselves are hopelessly outclassed by the things that we now know with a great deal of certainty about the world. It is only right that children be given the chance to learn about these things before their minds and imaginations have been hijacked by religious beliefs which have no more foundation than the continued assertion that they are true, coupled with the rituals, the authorities and the sheer massive institutional presence of the church that seem to give all these empty claims a kind of public existence which many people dare not even question.
Tudge points out that “the 17th-century founders of modern science – Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Boyle, John Ray – were all devout.” And so they undoubtedly were. But if those same men were alive today it is very doubtful that they would not be forced, by the growth of scientific knowledge over the intervening centuries, to question their religious faith. It was dangerous to be an unbeliever when these men were devout. They could have been burned alive for asking too many questions, as Giordano Bruno found out to his cost. He was tried for “blasphemy, immoral conduct, and heresy in matters of dogmatic theology, and involved some of the basic doctrines of his philosophy and cosmology,” according to the Wikipedia account of his life, and he was finally burned to death at the stake in 1600. Even Dawkins might have been devout with the threat of that penalty hanging over his head. Bruno was, as Tudge so eloquently expresses it, put a stop to. Is he really asking for more of the same, now, today, in the world as it has come to be known in so much more detail than Bruno could possibly have known, and than those who judged, condemned, and killed him could even imagine knowing. Bruno had the imagination, but they killed him, and like Tudge, who lacks imagination, Bruno’s judges could not have known that Bruno’s name would be remembered because of their atrocity, a path, an unimaginative path, it seems, that Tudge himself seems determined to follow.