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Richard Dawkins Has Reason to Fear the Fairy Tale

Jun 10 2014
How the realm of make-believe can bring us toward God.

As I child I dreamed often of flying.

What made these dreams deliciously haunting – the sort that linger pleasantly in the mind well after you've awakened – was how mundane everything else had been, save the surprising ability to fly. Upon waking, I'd lie in bed a few minutes, uncertain of the borders between the reality of my bedroom and the flights my imagination, in repose, had allowed me.

Years later, I had occasion to chat with one of my professor's daughters, then eight or nine, who would later stand as flower girl at my wedding. She clutched her white stuffed toy owl – a replica of Harry Potter's Hedwig – and chattered about her dreams:

"Sometimes, when I have dreams about flying, I wake up and still think that I can really fly!"

"Tara, are you talking Rachel's ear off?" a parent admonished.

"No," I replied quickly. "We're having a great conversation."

"That happens to me, too," I told her. "And it's my favorite kind of dream."

She smiled. "Have you read the third Harry Potter book yet, Rachel? What's your favorite?"

Why do I remember this conversation 12 or 13 years later? Perhaps because it was a moment all too rare in my (pre-parenthood) experience – when a child and an adult can meet as equals in the discussion of something deeply of interest to both, each treating the other's experiences and enthusiasms with utmost seriousness.

In his delightful little essay, "On the Three Ways of Writing for Children," C.S. Lewis observes:

Once about every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. It is accused of giving [children] a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression.

Last week, the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist well known for the missionary zeal of his atheism, remarked at the Cheltenham Science Festival that reading fairy tales to kids might be harmful. Dawkins, whose famous skepticism seems to have been particularly precocious, claims to have debunked the Santa Claus delusion at the tender age of 21 months.

He later backtracked on the question of fairy tales, allowing as how they may function as a sort of testing ground for cultivating skepticism: If we let kids have their fairy tales, when they later discover that it's impossible for a frog to turn into a prince, they'll be less inclined to place any trust in whatever religion is taught to them.

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