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According to Richard Dawkins fairy tales are pernicious, or are they?

June 9, 2014

So what does Richard Dawkins think of fairy tales?

Last week the world’s leading atheist was alleged to have has questioned whether telling children fairy tales could be harmful. This was because they “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism”. He allegedly said that ‘“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

This is consistent with what he said in a 2009 ABC interview with Andrew Denton where he said that fairy tales might be pernicious, “I do wonder sometimes whether magical fiction- where you have spells and princes turning into frogs and things like that- whether that actually might have a pernicious effect upon the child mind.”

In that interview Denton responded by asking if fairy stories might be rooted in imagination, Dawkins said that was a good point, but that imagination was also important in science. He also said, “Saying that frogs turn into princes is a lie. It’s not just because it hasn’t ever happened. It couldn’t ever happen. It would violate a deep, deep scientific principle for anything like that to happen. I think there might be better ways of stimulating the imagination.”

Dawkins position seems clear and consistent: fairy tales might be pernicious because they teach lies and perhaps validate supernaturalism, moreover we have better ways of stimulating the imagination e.g. through science.

So it was interesting that Dawkins appears to have retreated and changed his mind in a more recent BBC interview. Dawkins now apparently thinks that  fairy tales might indeed have a beneficial effect on the child’s mind. They might be beneficial because through them the ‘child learns there are stories that are not true and the child learns to discriminate stories that are fun and wonderful from those that are true.’ He went on to say that fairy tales actually teach skepticism! “There are some stories are not true. You can work out ‘intrinsic implausibility’. There are strong principled reasons a frog can’t turn into a prince’. Hence they are ‘positively beneficial (over and above imagination) teach a child critical thinking.

1. This is a fascinating retreat, yet it is an overly reductionist view of fairy tales. Dawkins concedes that they might be beneficial but the primary benefit is to teach critical thinking and skepticism. Dawkins relegates ‘imagination’ to a secondary purpose. Unfortunately this presents atheism as a fairly sterile worldview. The thrills, excitement and creativity unleashed in fairy tales are relegated to secondary importance because it is more important to teach critical thinking and skepticism in every field of endeavour. i.e. we can’t ever jut relax and enjoy imagination as an end in itself, it must be justified in terms of some ‘critical thinking’ based outcome.

Moreover Dawkins suggests that science can somehow offer the same imaginative outcomes as fairy stories. He says that through fairy stories the imagination is tickled and that ‘science can do the same thing’. Now science is a great tool and an enormously helpful process, but it doesn’t offer the best solution in every field of endeavour. To propose that science can replace fairy tales devalues imagination and the power of ‘story’. For example I would always choose to take my kids to a fairy tale movie rather than watch a movie of the isolation of an animal protein, or the data analysis of an experiment involving the Large Hadron Collider. Science and fairy stories are both important but they are different. Perhaps Dawkins is worried that science can’t offer the best solution to every human problem?

2. In Dawkins’ schema it’s unclear how a child does learn skepticism from fairy tales. Fairy tales themselves don’t teach critical thinking. This article outlines several benefits to teaching fairy tales saying that they are essential to childhood. Yet it proposes that fairy tales give parents opportunities to teach critical thinking skills. Primary responsibility for developing critical thinking rests with parents as they help children process imagination and reality.

Moreover a key way in which fairy tales help children process the world comes as fairy stories encourage intuition. They can help children see that the world of the fairy tale is distinct from the world of the everyday. Intuition is taught through properly understanding genre and context.

A child is not simply going to be taught skeptisim through ‘intrinsic implausibility’ alone, for there are many intrinsically implausible things that eventually happen e.g. flying was once considered impossible, or even to do a Skype call with someone on the other side of the world was once ‘intrinsically implausible’. Teaching skepticism and critical thinking comes through understanding genre and context. When an adult begins a story, ‘Once upon a time’, the child is instantly transported into a different magical world where the creative possibilities are endless. Understanding this genre and context enables the child, for the most part, to distinguish between these stories and the everyday life (though not always, and read the next point).

3. Dawkins is ignorant on research and thinking done on the impact of fairy tales in children. This is a fairly disappointing outcome from a man who claims to base his life on evidence. Why hadn’t he done any research on the topic before doing his recent interview (or even his earlier interviews) rather than merely speculating?

Even a quick Google search reveals a number of research outcomes demonstrating some of the benefits and dangers of exposing children to fairy tales. For example this paper quotes Bruno Bettelheim’s, “The Uses of Enchantment”, where he claims that fairy tales “help lead children towards a more independent life, and that they must face all problems that confront them”. He concludes that “fairytales are genuinely good for children’s development, and have positive effects on children’s behavior.” Furthermore, as previously outlined other research indicates that fairy tales encourage imagination and creative thinking.

Yet there are some dangers with teaching fairy tales. For example they may perpetuate unhelpful roles and expectations of women, they may promote concerning stereotypes of self image i.e. a woman must be beautiful, and some who have exposed to many fairy tales may have a flawed view of reality e.g. a woman waiting around for her ‘Prince Charming’.

Hence it is important to discuss fairy tales with children and to help them distinguish between reality and imagination. Yet it is also important to be creative and enjoy the fun of the endless possibilities of creating new and exciting worlds.

This then raises an important question about Dawkins’ comparisons between fairy tales and the stories of the New Testament? Is the story of a frog turning into a Prince the same as Jesus turning water into wine? I’ll leave that for the next post.

Image courtesy of AKARAKINGDOMS / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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From → Comment, New atheism

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