Dani Garavelli: Dawkins misses point of fairy tale

WHEN uber rationalist Richard Dawkins wondered aloud if introducing children to fairy tales could be dangerous because “it inculcates a view of the world which includes supernaturalism”, writes Dani Garavelli

Arch rationalist Richard Dawkins seems to believe that fairy tales are a gateway drug to religion. Photograph: Jane Barlow

All those rabid Bible Belters who disapprove of the Harry Potter books because, allegedly, they kindle an interest in the occult. And as for his reservations about Santa Claus: do you know who else has mixed feelings about our friend from the North Pole? Evangelical Christians convinced he diverts attention from the real message of Christmas. Imagine that: theists and atheists united in an attempt to extinguish a little spark of magic from children’s lives.

But it’s not so surprising really, is it? Just as in politics if you go far enough left you end up on the right, fundamentalists have more in common with each other than they have with moderates of any kind. Not content with embracing their own principles they feel obliged to foist them on everyone else. Anyone who does not believe in God will rot in hell. ­Anyone who does is a intellectual pygmy unfit to serve in civic society. Except that when religious fundamentalists speak they are subjected to a barrage of (mostly justified) criticism from the chatterati, whereas Dawkins has a cult following and gets lots of retweets, even when he is saying something truly objectionable, such as that the New Statesman should not publish the work of journalist Mehdi Hasan because he believes in the Prophet Muhammad.

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Dawkins is equally scathing of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or anything, it seems, which cannot be reduced to or expressed in a series of scientific formulae. Which explains his discomfort with fairy tales. All those imaginary worlds peppered with pixies and unicorns, trolls and dragons. No wonder he feels uneasy.

It has to be said – unlike some of the anti-Rowling brigade – Dawkins did not suggest his negative sentiments towards fairy tales were a reason to ban them. Indeed, soon after he voiced his doubts at the Cheltenham Science Festival, he distanced himself, claiming he had been quoted out of context. That seems to be his thing nowadays: make a contentious statement, usually on Twitter, then immediately back away from it, particularly if it’s something that reinforces his image as a party-pooper.

Yet, Dawkins never tires of telling us he’s a scientist. And he did say these words in a public forum. So he can’t really complain if people subject them to a degree of scrutiny. First he questioned if adults should play along with magical fantasies, “which children get enough of anyway”, and said there was an interesting reason why frogs couldn’t turn into princes: “It’s statistically too improbable.” Then later he reconsidered his position and said – since some children’s fiction could be true – fairy tales might actually be a valuable way to teach readers about plausibility.

Either way, Dawkins misses the point. Fairy tales don’t exist to dull or sharpen children’s critical faculties – how boring if they did. They exist to expand their imaginations, to broaden their horizons, to transport them to colourful new worlds. As for children today getting enough magical fantasy, I don’t agree. It seems to me our kids are constantly being served up dollops of gritty realism – in the classroom, on TV, on computer games – so anything that offers the possibility of escape is to be welcomed.

Of course, fairy tales do have a serious purpose: the scarier ones, such as Hansel and Gretel, are Olde Worlde public information films, warning children not to go wandering off alone or put their trust in sweetie-proffering strangers. Others, like Beauty and the Beast, have a moral (just like Bible stories, except no-one who reads them is expected to believe they’re real).

But mostly they are there to foster wonder. And even from a scientific point of view, encouraging the capacity to dream must be a good thing. If people had never spent time fantasising about statistically improbable things, such as standing on the moon, being able to access information at the click of a button or having a doppelgänger, the limits of science would never have been tested.

Though religions are often a force for bad, and atheists and believers have a duty to oppose their worst excesses, I do not get what motivates people like Dawkins to try to strip individuals of a belief that brings them hope or forms the cornerstone of their existence. OK, so you’re convinced the God they worship is imaginary. Would you try to stop them taking a placebo, if it cured their migraine?

Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand the human impulse to find out not merely how we have come to exist, but why. He doesn’t do faith. Or magical fantasy. Or anything that might allow us to throw off the shackles of scepticism. I wonder what he makes of Lewis Carroll – a man for whom a love of mathematics, logic and gibberish were entirely compatible. When Dawkins talks about fairy tales and says – Alice-like – that he can’t believe in impossible things, I want to answer like the Red Queen. “I dare say you haven’t had much practice, dear. When I was younger I always did it for half an hour a day. Sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Dawkins ought to lighten up. For children and adults alike, there’s pleasure to be gleaned both from things that defy rational explanation and things that make no sense at all.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1