Annaka Harris’ New Book Teaches Children It’s Okay to Say ‘I Don’t Know’

Annaka Harris has written what looks to be a wonderful children’s book that atheist parents (and all parents, really) will appreciate:

I Wonder is about a little girl named Eva who takes a walk with her mother and encounters a range of mysteries — from gravity, to life cycles, to the vastness of the universe. She learns to talk about how it feels to not know something, and she learns that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” Eva discovers that she has much to learn about the world and that there are many things even adults don’t know — mysteries for everyone in the world to wonder about together!

Husband Sam Harris wholeheartedly recommends it:

Harris’ Kickstarter campaign has already surpassed its $10,000 goal, but additional funding will go toward a larger print run when the book is published.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Guest

    Sounds good, but can’t figure out how it has anything to do with atheists.  Sounds like something everyone could enjoy. 

  • Guest

    Everyone should be able to enjoy it, but it relates to atheism in that religious folks are afraid of using “I don’t know” to describe the world around them. Instead of seeing lightening and admitting they don’t know what causes it, they envision Zeus. Instead admitting they don’t know how life began on Earth, they say God created Adam and Eve. People join religion often because they want answers to their questions, whether or not they’re right, rather than living in uncertainty. This book is meant to make uncertainty not so scary.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Zeus? You heathen blasphemer! It is the Mighty Thor! But yes, it’s important for everyone, children and adults(perhaps especially the adults) to learn how to say “I don’t know.”

  • observer

    I like this. Admitting that we don’t know everything really shouldn’t be a crime, because in all honesty, we don’t. And more then that, it should also motivate us to actually try to know.

    As opposed to being a fundamentalist who pretends to know everything, and using fear to discourage or distract people from seeing your lies, and gaining knowledge themselves.

  • Guest

    No they aren’t.  I know a ton of religious people who have no problem saying there are mysteries in the universe that we can’t explain.  It’s just that atheists have one set of assumptions they believe would fill in the gaps, while religious folks think otherwise.  But acknowledging the mysteries is a hallmark of most of the religions I’ve come across over the years.  

  • Guest

    What “god of the gaps” do atheists believe in? The only mystery religious folks tend to believe in is that their higher power is so much “higher” than them that humans simply can’t comprehend all the workings in the universe. That shuts down discovery. That’s not what is meant here by “I don’t know”. This is an “I don’t know, so let’s figure it out”, not “I don’t know and never will because that’s not how I was designed by my higher power”.

  • Stan

    Uh, no.  They don’t acknowledge the mysteries of the universe.  They ascribe the workings of the cosmos to their chosen god, and when they are unable to demonstrate how he/she/it operates, they fall back on the “who can know the mind of god?” argument.

    The assertion of a god’s intervention has no explanatory value.  By and large, most non-believers would admit to not knowing rather than asserting some nebulous claim of divine fiat.

  • The Other Weirdo

     The “mysteries” you refer to are nothing of the sort, but are merely unexplainable differences between what’s written in a holy book and what’s observable in the real world.

    Q: “How could there be light before a light source?”
    A: “It’s a mystery.”

    Q: “Why does the Bible say the moon is a light source when we know it’s not?”
    A: “It’s a mystery.”

    In a religious setting, “mystery” is used to close off the worldview, to make it impossible for the religious person to question it. If you notice, all religious study revolves around the holy books, the ancient unchangeable holy books. There is never any new understanding of or insight into their idea of God, just new interpretations or reinterpretations of what previous theologians came up with.

    But an open mind saying “I don’t know” can easily follow that up with “Let’s find out.”

  • Brad Rhoads

    As a Christian, I wholeheartedly agree with this message. I find the Cosmological argument for God especially convincing. But as none of us where there to observe the beginning and it’s impossible to reproduce it, we all must say, from a stricltly naturalistic prospect, “I don’t know.”

    I can see how angostics would also embrace the book. It’s reasonable say, “I don’t know, at least not yet. And I may never know. And perhaps no one will ever know. And maybe we can’t ever know.”

    But it seems that (at least strong) atheists would have to reject the book’s message, at least when it comes to origins. (And let’s be honest, that’s what the book is really about.) Because what they really say, perhaps in not such clear language, is that “I don’t know where we came from, but I *do* know we weren’t created by any god.”

  • OverlappingMagisteria

     I think Guest #1 is referring to the idea that atheists assume that the answers to unsolved questions will always be natural and never super-natural. Our assumption automatically shuts out the possibility of God. I have heard this argument before, and though I don’t know that this is what Guest #1 is saying, it seems like it might be.

    Although I don’t know that atheists all assume that all mysteries will be answered with “not-God,” the track record has been heading that way. Countless super-natural explanations have been replaced by natural ones. I have yet to hear of an example where it went the other way around.

  • smrnda

    Being able to say you don’t know is essential once you get past the early years of school. The way we teach kids, we give them an incentive to ‘fake’ knowledge when they don’t actually know. You can see this trend carried on into adulthood where politicians give long, rambling, incoherent responses to questions that they aren’t equipped to answer, but where admitting they don’t know seems to be the bigger flaw.

    As you advance in education and employment, honestly admitting when you don’t know something is necessary to avoid huge mistakes.

    On the religion and ‘mystery’ angle, the problem is that religious dogma entails beliefs and ideas that can’t be reconciled with each other – the inability of it to do so is then described as ‘a mystery’ and not a defect of the belief system. Rather than a mystery, it just usually seems like nonsense someone is trying to rescue from criticism.

  • C Peterson

    Agnostics don’t claim not knowing, they claim something is unknowable. There are very few true agnostics in the world. Perhaps as few as there are atheists who claim they know we weren’t created by a god.

    This book has far less to say about atheist or theist ideas than it has to say about skepticism, something that is obviously stronger in atheists on the whole, but can be found in people of all beliefs.

    Of course, while it is absolutely acceptable to be honest about not knowing something, that should never be taken as implying that lacking the knowledge to know something with certainty somehow makes all views on a matter equally meritorious. That is very rarely the case.

  • John Alexander Harman

    The difference lies in the “we can’t explain” part.  Now, it’s possible someone could think like that and be an atheist, but it’s not possible to think that way and belong to the rationalist sub-set of atheists.  To most religious believers, a mystery is something inherently inexplicable; to a rationalist, a mystery is a natural phenomenon that hasn’t been elucidated yet.  There are mysterious questions in this universe, but there are no mysterious answers.

  • SJH

     Not all religious study revolves around holy books. Perhaps that is your experience with some Christians but that is not true for most more advanced Christians. Check out the Magis Institute. They are very interested in science and don’t use the Bible to explain any of it.

  • SJH

     I don’t think I agree with your last statement. Just because someone rules out one possibility (the possibility that God created the universe) does not mean that they think they know the answers to a particular mystery.

  • Bob Becker

    On the general theme, raised by several already, of whether this is in fact a children’s book: when I was an undergraduate (no, we will not discuss how long ago that was), I came to realky appreciate professors who occasionally answered questions with “beat’s me” or simply “I don’t know. ” When I became a professor, I did the same when appropriate, and I was always srprized, right up to two ywars ago when I hung ‘em up at last, how many students, especially in intto classes, seemed genually surprisedd to hear me say “beats me” or “I don’t know.” Talking with students for whom zi had some respect, I asked why the surprise, and they told me that in H.S. asking a question the teacher couln’t answer could get you in troubke, that if you valued your g.p.a you did not question what a teacher said or ask questons they couldn’t answer. Sad if true.

  • Blacksheep

    That’s not at all my experience. Many, many religious people that I know are pretty comfortable saying, “I don’t know” when it comes to the unknown or mysterious in the universe.

  • Blacksheep

    Some of the greatest scientific discoveries known to man were by people of faith, many devout. Whether that was just cultural is beside the point – the fact remains that faith did not ever “shut down discovery.”

  • Guest

    The belief that if you can’t explain it now, an answer will be found someday that does not rely on a supernatural explanation because you’ve already concluded there isn’t one.  Or, of course, an answer will never be found, but it still can’t be a supernatural explanation since you’ve already concluded there isn’t one.  

  • Guest

    I was saying that.  Though I don’t know the discovery of how gravity works or the ability to build a better plow in any way strikes at the existence of a supernatural reality. 

  • Guest

    Uh, you might want to read SJH’s answer.  Your first mistake is the common mistake of so many nowadays, the assumption that the Protestant Fundamentalist Biblical Literalist Dispensationalist approach to religion is all there is, and all you need to is nail that one approach, and suddenly every argument for the supernatural is defeated.  Believe it or not, the vast majority of Christian, much less religious, beliefs in the world have little similarity to the approach you mention. 

  • Guest

    No different than atheists saying ‘we don’t know how this works, but we’re sure someday we’ll be able to find an explanation without God.’  Simply an assumption based on a belief. 

  • Guest

    That’s a better response, and a true one.  Though, in all cases of course, it rests one what one has already concluded to be true in the first place.  A religious person may not accept an answer if it doesn’t include the divine, an atheist, or pure rationalist, may not accept an answer even if the only explanation is one that rests on the supernatural or divine.  In either case, it would be based on what was already believed.

  • 3lemenope

    It’s not so much gravity (which the Bible, so far as I know, does not opine upon as to cause) as the physical phenomena that the Bible DOES offer an explanation for. Like why rainbows occur, or how trait inheritance works in livestock, stuff like that. Also, engineering and invention really test the whole “nothing new under the sun” saw a bit. The Internet, airplanes, copy machines, are different enough that nothing even analogous existed at the time the text was written, so they are “new under the sun”, along with so much else, both tangible and ephemeral.

  • 3lemenope

    “Did not ever” is an unfortunately broad way to make the statement which makes it incorrect. Often, it is true, religious authority was comfortable enough with scientists to let them do their work, and often scientists themselves were religious. It was not always true, and at critical junctures religious establishment and people using religious reasons have impeded scientific exploration, denigrated the work they do, and denied their conclusions in favor of their preexisting assumptions. Often with violence, sometimes with the assistance of the state. The current stance of most religious institutions to the scientific enterprise is wary at best, and cannot really be characterized honestly with any more positivity than that.

  • machintelligence

    I also noticed (a long time ago) that freshmen were unable to accept “I don’t know” as an answer and felt the professor was lazy or uninformed. Even adding “Nobody knows and it would make a good thesis project” didn’t seem to help much. 

  • 3lemenope

    I would think, rather, that the assumption is that the Bible, as originally compiled, was intended to be taken fairly literally. That is to say, the explanations given for physical phenomenon were not originally intended to be allegorical of anything but were rather forwarded as earnest explanations. Most Christians, following Augustine’s advice, (and most Jews, following Maimonides’ similar advice) abandoned that sort of reading after they got made fun of enough by the rather more scientifically literate Hellenic and Roman societies, but this does not diminish their original intent. Criticizing that intended text as having provided clearly incorrect answers is a perfectly legitimate line of criticism.

    Now, given that many modern religious folk who use the Bible or a similar text as the bedrock of their religious belief do approach the text allegorically, the question then becomes not whether science is compatible with that religion (since they have explicitly made it so) but rather whether their use of the text in that way is a legitimate expression of that religious tradition. That is a rather open question, complicated rather fiercely by the claims generally made about the author of said text (omniscience and infallibility being the foremost problematic ones).

  • 3lemenope

    Agnostics don’t claim not knowing, they claim something is unknowable. 

    Both are properly called “agnostics”. People who wish to distinguish between the two positions usually call them “weak agnosticism” and “strong agnosticism” respectively.

  • Bob Becker

    Apologies for typos. My tablet posted inadvertantly before I could proof the post.

  • Blacksheep

    You are right – I guess I would re write the “Did not ever” bit – but my actual point, that some of the greatest scientific discoveries known to man were by people of faith, many devout, is 100% correct.

  • Guest

    You can’t observe or scientifically evaluate supernatural forces, so yeah, we have to rule them out as explanations because they in essence don’t exist in our world. As soon as we observe ghosts, gods, etc., they cease to be supernatural and can now be measured. So… where’s the problem again?

  • Guest

    Supernatural by definition means not natural, not a part of our world, immeasurable, so it must be ruled out. As soon as a force enters into our realm of existence, we can measure it, and it becomes natural. This is why no supernatural force can explain what we see in the universe. There certainly could be a god, but it can’t be supernatural.

  • Doug

    No, we don’t assume we’ll be able to find an explanation someday. We just realize that gods aren’t explanations at all, either.

  • Jeff P

    I think an atheist can say any of the following:
    “I don’t know”, “We don’t know yet”, “The human mind may not be capable of knowing that”.

    A religious person can, of course, say those same three statements. 

    The problem is when a religious person then goes on and says that “God wants this” or “Gods wants you to do that”, or “God doesn’t want you to do this”, or “God did these things you don’t know in this way”.  Anytime a person makes statements about God, they are either making it up themselves or repeating someone else who made it up (like the original scripture authors). 

  • smrnda

     It’s true much of the time, because education outside of college in the States is more about teaching obedience and submission to authority and rules – no matter how stupid the authority or rules might be. I can’t find it online, but I recall someone posting that one standardized test got a science question wrong, but that the makers of the test and the schools weren’t going to apologize – apparently their curriculum was just wrong and rather than testing knowledge, they were testing whether or not you had memorized the curriculum.

    In college, “I don’t know” sometimes ends up being “nobody knows” for ever greater honesty. An interesting experience I had was in a graduate level maths course where sometimes, we wouldn’t know for sure if an open problem mentioned in a book was still open or not of if it had been solved.

  • smrnda

     My take on origins is that the God question, as far as that goes, appears to be totally outside the realm of systematic investigation. Since it’s outside of that, I’m not going to waste my time pursuing that option. It’s like how it’s a waste of time to consider theories that are unfalsifiable.

  • Mike Laing

    Why would you even want to say, “I don’t know” when you damn well know the answer to everything is “Goddidit?” If someone says “that doesn’t make sense” you say “Look you f****** moran, God works in mysterious ways, FFS”
    Being that this is tattooed inside of your eyelids by the time you are 6, you have to plant the seeds of doubt by getting Big Bird to quit getting all the answers to questions like 2 + 2 = ? by saying, “You know, I’m not sure. The grown ups tell me it’s 4, but why would I take their word for it? Maybe they learned it from some old fashioned book, I think I’ll ask that atheist over there. They know everything, or they can find out, skwak!”

  • Stan

    Absurd.  I’d like an example of an answer to which the only explanation rests on the supernatural or divine.

  • Nora

    so awesome! just backed the kickstarter, can’t wait to get the book!

  • Rich Wilson

    When I was a TA, I once had a prof call me up at home and chew me out for telling the class “I don’t know”.  He told me to never let on that I didn’t know, but “leave it as an exercise to the student” or “that would give away the assignment”.

    Thankfully I ignored him.

  • C Peterson

    I don’t consider a person who simply says “I don’t know” to be an agnostic. I consider him to be intellectually dishonest, or perhaps cowardly.

    A skeptic admits he can’t know for sure, but he almost always has an opinion, since it is rare for there to either be no evidence at all, or evidence which is equally supportive of multiple possibilities.

    An atheist might be agnostic, so might a theist. But a person who simply doesn’t know and won’t state an opinion is probably an idiot, not an agnostic. I have even less respect for the vast majority of self-identified “agnostics” than I do for theists.

  • 3lemenope

    I don’t consider a person who simply says “I don’t know” to be an agnostic. I consider him to be intellectually dishonest, or perhaps cowardly.

    Well, OK, but the concern when labeling isn’t really what *you* would consider them, but rather with what they consider themselves and whether that intersects with the commonly accepted usages of the term. And as much as I basically share your existential displeasure with weak agnostics (though I tend towards considering the position simply lazy rather than mendacious or cowardly), it is nonetheless properly called “agnosticism” and its proponents “agnostics”. Being respectable is not a requisite to being called what one is.

  • Susan

    Yet it seems many atheists on this board (including me) are saying that they agree with this book’s message. :-/

    I know there are a lot of debates over the terms “atheist” and “agnostic,” but if you don’t self-identify as either, why are you claiming to know what either of those groups “would have to” do with this book’s message? Shouldn’t you just listen to what they actually say if you want to know how they would respond? (Honest question, not snark.)

    As a self-identified atheist, I describe atheism as not *believing* in the idea of supernatural gods (or any particular man-made religion). For me, the evidence that has been presented to support theism simply isn’t credible. 

    And, honestly, I don’t see how this book is necessarily about “origins” or even religion. It sounds like it’s about expressing the very important message that it’s okay to not know things. Which is brilliant. After all, not knowing things is the first step to possibly discovering answers.

  • Sindigo

    Except, that’s not what Atheists say. At least, not one I’ve ever met.

  • ReadsInTrees

    My favorite phrase is, “I don’t know, let’s find out together!”

  • Jim_Lahey

    Ouch! Right in the feelings! I was a born again for many years before I started to doubt. When I did, I did no heavy research. I simply realized my religion made no sense. I went on with life. During that time I identified as agnostic. It was completely honest at that time. I certainly didn’t feel I was a coward for not taking the time to look into all the arguments and decide at that moment. It wasn’t momentous or anything. I simply stopped believing the nonsense that was my church! I’m sorry you feel I’m an idiot, as I feel quite the opposite. I also don’t see why we need to identify ourselves by what we don’t believe or think is possible! If someone says “I don’t believe in Bigfoot” and someone else who has done no amount of researching says “I don’t know”, is he really being disingenuous or stupid? Or could it be that it’s not that big a deal? I now call myself an atheist but don’t define myself by it. I know a few people with no idea where they might stand because it has no effect on their life either way. So why not say honestly ” I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care! ” Please try not to judge honesty in a manner that in itself isnt attempting to be a bit objective!


  • Jim_Lahey

    A great deal was supernatural once and now is quite natural. This may yet be the case for many more I don’t knows. Remember, our conclusions are always subject to change given any sort of evidence. No reason to believe if there is any truth to the supernatural that is left it will also be discovered to be true and become quite natural.


  • ccaldwell314