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Richard Dawkins' Unscientific Jihad Against Culture
(A Rebuttal To His Attack On Fairy Tales)

by Samuel Marlow. Published 5th June 2014

I'm taking precious time away from post-production of Transmission Interrupted to write a rebuttal to Richard Dawkins' speech at the Cheltenham Science Festival covered in yesterday's Telegraph, as it has left me so incensed that I cannot concentrate on what I am doing.

Richar Dawkins

Richard Dawkins (Photo from The Gloucesterhire Echo)

In his speech Dawkins expressed his opinion that reading children fairytales is "harmful" and "pernicious". Firstly, I should say that he is entitled to any opinion he likes and is free to express them, as are any number of lunatics who insist the world was made by magic in six days. However, I would have thought such a fan of the scientific method would have at least done a little research before running his mouth, or at least not used such a broad approach to make his point.

I believe fairytales are not only not harmful, but actively beneficial to children though, as always, this comes with a few conditions.

From his words I can only assume Dawkins has not read, nor is even aware of The Uses Of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 book subtitled, appropriately enough, "The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales". Here Bettelheim outlines his own, researched, position in defence of fairytales and deconstructs a number of the more famous from a psychoanalytical standpoint to show how they bring unconscious fears and conflicts into the conscious in a symbolic form.

Jack and the Beanstalk

It is this symbolism that is so important as it permits children to express and experience these dangerous and frightening thoughts and feelings in a more acceptable way, where they can be safely resolved and returned to the psyche. To deny this would raise a generation of emotionally repressed psychopaths. It is also the fact that these stories are presented in such a clearly symbolic fashion that makes me think Dawkins has become a kind of hate-preacher on science's behalf. I know of no child who actually believes a prince was literally, physically turned into a frog, though they accept the emotional, symbolic truth of it. Even the stories themselves are framed with a narrative device to distance it from reality, "Once upon a time, in a faraway land..."

There! You see?! Even the story is telling you this is not the world as you know it. Other traditions make it even more explicit. The Hungarian version states, "Once there was, where there wasn't..." and concludes, "This is the end. Run away with it!"

A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far, Far Away....

As I have previously outlined in Why Real Horror Should Only Be Scary Once and Get a 12A Cert, being exposed to frightening ideas in a safe environment is important mental development for children as it allows them to develop the part of their brain and emotions to allow them to cope with a real disaster, should one arise. As such a proponent of vaccination, I would have expected Dawkins to recognise this mechanism in action.

I wholly accept that to insist these stories are literally true would not only be terrifying but extremely confusing for a child. I do think that the delusionally egocentric world presented by later Disney, which substitutes "a long time ago in a faraway land" for the here and now probably sets up false expectations in people about how reality works, but that is not what Dawkins was condemning, and points to a wholly different problem of peddling a consumerist ideal to promote consumerism as a lifestyle - unless you are financially successful, you have failed as a person. For such a commercial giant, it makes sense this is the lifestyle Disney would want to promote.

Disney's Hannah Montana

But I digress.

Dawkins, in his presentation, proudly claims that he "saw through Santa" by the age of 21 months. I have no idea whether or not this is true, though he is referring to a specific occasion when a family friend was dressed up as Father Christmas. Again, here, I agree that to insist and deceive a child into a belief in a literal Father Christmas will only set up disappointment and trust issues further down the line, but to collude in an exercise where each party pretends to believe is a fun game that the whole family can share. Children do this all the time. If you ever watch children play, they absolutely believe in that instant that what they are doing is real, but when the moment passes it is seen for what it is. They have an amazing ability to erect a permeable reality around them. It isn't a narcissistic reality of delusion, it is a collusional reality of suspension of disbelief. Children can experience reality on more than one level simultaneously - the symbolic level of emotional truth and psychic recognition, and the fantasy level where they realise this is not a physical reality.

Wicked Witch and Dorothy

I would even go so far as to say that if there were not the distinction between fantasy and reality, the exposure to the same thoughts and feelings, unmitigated by the symbolic prism would be so terrifying and traumatic that it would cause the child shut down emotionally and deny their feelings, setting up big problems for later, as with survivors of abuse as Dawkins simultaneously admits to and denies being in his presentation.

The thrust of Dawkins' argument is such stories "instil a false belief in the supernatural from a young age". Whether or not that is true, better scientists long ago solved the problem, using works of fiction as a route into science. James Kakalios, PhD, has written extensively on "the physics of superheroes" after discovering he could use the characters to discuss what is and isn't physically possible, including why such characters couldn't do what they do in reality, to a group of apathetic students. As a physicist and comic book fan, rather than rubbish the whole thing, he used their mutual enjoyment of the material to begin a discussion on physics.

James Kakalios PhD

James Kakalios, PhD (Photo from SciFi Now)

I have always believed that, with the exception of graphic and realistic violence as this triggers an evolutionary rather than cultural response, there is very little that even young children cannot be shown as long as it is properly deconstructed afterwards. Fairytales and even stories in general that show people doing horrible things to each other can be used to segue into a dialogue about thoughts, feelings, understanding of others and morality that we all have, but are socially unacceptable.

The best, deepest and most archetypal stories have always done this, allowing children, and adults, to air what would otherwise be repressed thoughts and feelings in the form of a symbolic third person. And this is something storytellers have known for thousands of years. Aristotle in Poetics clearly states that a Tragedy where the hero is undone by bad luck or events outside his control are of less value as it is of no cathartic benefit to the audience. So notions that stories are a symbolic reflection of the audience's own internal state were understood at least as long ago as the 4th Century BC.

Aristotle

I understand and share Dawkins' immense frustration that some people insist on believing insane ideas about gods, that creation myths should be given equal weight as evolution, and denying science. However, in his jihad against irrationalism, Dawkins is in danger of sidelining sciences he doesn't understand. Though it may be harder to conduct experiments psychology is as much a science as medicine, which Dawkins vocally supports, though psychology's tools are ethereal rather than chemical.

Moreover, as he becomes a prophet for scientific rationalism, Dawkins should be more careful when confusing unresearched opinion for scientific fact. Science is every bit as much a system of faith as is a religion, and many of its adherents will not look further or conduct their own research, believing what its scientific leaders tell them without question.

So to deny children access to a symbolic expression of these subjects not only risks stunting the child's emotional and psychological development, but also denies the important physical and emotional bonding of actually reading to a child.

As the forces of idiocy seem to gain more power it is tempting to take a reactionary standpoint, but it runs the risk, as Dawkins is amply demonstrating, of merely ending up as a different type of extremist, and one who is just as bad for society's mental progress. The solution in these cases is never prohibition, but duty to the truth, whether materially literal or emotionally symbolic, and knowledge is the answer to that, not flashy and glib soundbites.

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