Thursday 5 June 2014

What do you mean fairies aren't real, Professor Dawkins?

Fairy Sculptures, Cottingley

Richard Dawkins, High Priest of the New Atheists, has (or perhaps hasn't) been having a go a fairy tales:

Fairy tales are harmful to children because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism”, according to Professor Richard Dawkins.

Now part of me collapses in laughter at this statement since it is essentially the same as the desire by some over-enthusiastic Christians to ban Harry Potter because it has witches and bad stuff like that in the book. Or - and I wrote about this a bit ago - the campaign in the USA to ban Dungeons & Dragons. In the latter case, just as with Dawkins and his mates, with lurid tales of how D&D corrupted young people.

Now I'm sure that Dawkins didn't quite mean what he was saying (although this is very sloppy from a scientific literalist) - I'm sure he's not suggesting that Hans Christian Anderson's stories are torn from the shelves and burned or that age warnings should be attached to The Hobbit or to Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But what this does reveal is that some people - Dawkins being one - seem incapable of understanding a different sort of reality. For them, the only reality in the reality of St Thomas - proved by thrusting the atheist arm elbow deep into the spear wound.

A while ago I was talking with my son (who as far as I know is an atheist) about the latest fantasy series he was reading and one passing comment was along the lines of: "it has an interesting magic system". As ever with alternative realities in fiction (which is all fairy tales are really), we are able to suspend disbelief so as to explore what that alternative reality might mean were it, so to speak, real. However, one of the consistent themes in such tales - whether a twelve volume fantasy blockbuster or one of those Grimm stories - is that magic and the use of magic has consequences (oddly enough this isn't the case with Harry Potter where magic seems mostly effortless and free of downside).

Thus, what we get from fairy tales is a lesson about the use of power. Whether the debate is about the use of wishes or the application of power in pursuit of vanity, the tales have a moral depth that, perhaps, Dawkins is missing in framing his criticism.  Indeed Dawkins cannot get beyond his conception of 'supernatural' in discussing the role of magic in stories - perhaps he should remember the words of hard SF writer, Arthur C. Clarke: 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Once we have crossed the bridge, in the manner of Piers Anthony, from Mundania to Xanth (and children are much better as crossing from real to fantasy and back) then we can explore the world of magic safely. The idea that this exploration is without critical thinking is again to misunderstand - the same questions, fears, challenges and moral dilemmas exist in the land of faerie as do in our dull old world. It's just that the system of magic - whatever form it might take - allows for a different response.

To take a stark example of how this works. In David Brin's 'The Practice Effect' he creates a world where things improve with use - so to make a spade you make something that looks vaguely like a spade and start using it to dig. The more you dig the better it gets as a tool. After many years use it becomes the spade tool-lovers would die to own. But beware, if you neglect its use it will deteriorate eventually returning to the original vaguely spade-like thing.

So, while Brin constructs a story round this concept (where the hero is a physicist), he also explores how society would be different if this 'practice effect' applied. On one level it's a good bit of (slightly sciencey) fantasy but it also asks how environment shapes moral behaviour or forms society - Brin has peasants parading around in fine clothes because they're made to do so by aristocrats who want to stop their wardrobes going off.

In the apparent world of Dawkins, children who immerse themselves in these fantastic worlds are being harmed. The nature of the harm in question isn't specified - Dawkins, one presumes, is concerned that by reading stories about fairies, dragons or sorcerers, the child will be tempted by the atheist's demon - a thing called god. But Dawkins does this without any evidence of harm - he simply believes that because fairy tales have the "supernatural" in them they are harming the child. For a man so wedded to critical thinking and the skeptical scriptures, it seems odd that he should make such presumptive and unevidenced accusations about fairy tales.

And, as people in Cottingley know, fairies - or at least photographs of fairies - are definitely real!



proglodyte said...

'Once Upon a Time in The Land of Dawkins' would be far scarier for many kids than any fairy tale. And for many adults as well.

Anonymous said...

A fairy-tale of itself is generally innocuous, but when used in the course of religion, it becomes a 'gateway drug', drawing innocent and malleable minds into a well-proven brainwashing process, the negative effects of which we can see all around us.

Ask various ages of children which story is real: Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy or Jesus - you'll see two myths quickly evaporate but one remains, and it's no accident, just the effect of constant immersion in targeted fairy-tales from all kinds of 'authority' figures. Some might call that child abuse.