This site is not maintained. Click here for the new website of Richard Dawkins.

← Children need to be sprinkled with fairy dust

Children need to be sprinkled with fairy dust - Comments

Ian Edmond's Avatar Comment 1 by Ian Edmond

"Last time I tried remonstrating, quite mildly, with that honest atheist, he went ape [...]"

Let us remind ourselves that the last time she "tried remonstrating" with Richard, she said, about the fossil-hunting school trip in the first part of The Genius of Charles Darwin:

"The moment one of them found an ammonite on the beach, Professor Dawkins demanded instant atheism."

Which was an outright falsehood.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 00:24:00 UTC | #258428

Adrian Bartholomew's Avatar Comment 2 by Adrian Bartholomew

Quote: there is a worrying modern tide of thought that says that children must be allowed only dull bald truth.

The above is the entire problem. Fairy tales and stories are great but the TRUTH about the REAL WORLD should never be seen as DULL!

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 00:35:00 UTC | #258431

Lumifish's Avatar Comment 3 by Lumifish

I'm generally inclined to agree with this. Science fiction was always my first love, but I used to be quite fond of high fantasy, and even as a small child it never occurred to me that it was representative of the real world. Later on I would often have a great deal of fun trying to invent scientific models to explain the unusual physical behaviours of these alternate universes. Good fantasy settings generally do not disagree with the scientific method, just the particular environment in which that method is applied.

That said, there does exist a number of children that actually believe in the existence of certain fantasy universes. But in my opinion that is no more reflective of the genre itself than 'quantum healing' is of quantum mechanics. Children should be taught general skepticism, but that does not preclude interactions with far-fetched fiction (indeed, it is often useful to have a standard by which to judge the patently false!).

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 00:40:00 UTC | #258433

Laurie Fraser's Avatar Comment 4 by Laurie Fraser

This woman is a complete fuckwit. That's all I need to say.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 00:45:00 UTC | #258434

DanDare's Avatar Comment 5 by DanDare

I quickly progressed from Santa to Peter Pan and then on to "Have Space Suit, Will Travel". I have an active fantasy life as well as an inspired imagination. I never had a moment of disillusionment when I left Santa behind.

I think examination of the roll fantasy and imagination plays in both our development and adult lives is a great idea. It may show ways to enhance our appreciation of exciting and wonderful reality.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 00:56:00 UTC | #258439

Dr Doctor's Avatar Comment 6 by Dr Doctor

I suspect that her original byline for her last article on Dr Dawkins was "The Nutty Professor" and she was told to change it to "naive".

She obviously thinks she has a position whereby she has a right to remonstrate. This arrogance is funny enough, but for her then to use the description of Dr Dawkins response shows exactly how much it got to her.

The woman is a fool, and a fraud.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:05:00 UTC | #258440

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 7 by Richard Dawkins

The day after my valedictory Simonyi Lecture, I gave an interview to Channel Four news. The interviewer asked me my view on whether fairy tales might have a pernicious effect on the educational development of children (I can’t remember his exact words, but that was the gist). My answer – that I didn’t know, and it would be interesting to do research on the question – was picked up by the Daily Telegraph (referring to me as Professor Hawkins) and it is presumably this account, or a similar one, that Libby Purves has read:

There are times when intuition and anecdote are not good enough, and we have to turn to research. Most people have an intuitive answer to the question of whether the death penalty deters murder. And to the question of whether violence on television, or in computer games, begets violence in real life. Our intuitions on such matters could be right, could be wrong, and different people have opposite intuitions. The only way to decide is by research.

Same thing for fairy tales. Libby Purves’s intuition is that they are a good thing. My anecdotal experience of my own childhood points me towards the opposite intuition. Whether I actually believed in spells and magic wands and Genies of the Lamp, I can’t remember. But I do remember spending a lot of time at my infant school trying to call down supernatural forces to protect me from bullies. I had a distinct mental image of a large black cloud with a human face, which would swoop down out of the sky and deal with the bully. I can’t be sure that a diet of Grimm and Hans Anderson predisposes children to such futile imaginings, but at very least it seems plausible enough to be worth researching. Similarly, my intuition suggests that a diet of wizards and magic, where anything can change, at the shake of a wand, into anything else, might predispose a child to lazy habits of thought, avoiding the urge to question how and why things really happen. This is emphatically not true, by the way, of good science fiction, which respects scientific principles and never resorts to lazy magic tricks.

I might add – although I didn’t in the interview – that I find it plausible that early exposure to supernatural magic might predispose a child to religious indoctrination. What, after all, is the difference between Jesus walking on water, or turning water into wine, and a witch turning a prince into a frog? But, I hasten to add, Libby Purves might be right. Such magic spell stories might be a valuable, even essential, part of a child’s imaginative development. Both points of view are defensible in the absence of evidence, and research is the only way to decide between them.

In response to my modest suggestion for research, to answer a question to which I don’t know the answer, the Telegraph prints a couple of letters under the heading “Fundamentalist Dawkins”.
One of these letters, by a David A Robertson of Dundee, begins,

Richard Dawkins is sounding more like a religious fundamentalist every day, and wants to investigate whether reading Harry Potter books will have a ‘pernicious effect’ upon children.
It is the mark of a fundamentalist to know the answer to a question in the absence of any research on it. How very revealing, that a call for open-minded research to answer an open – and quite interesting and important – question should be damned as ‘fundamentalist’.


Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:06:00 UTC | #258441

Thor'Ungal's Avatar Comment 8 by Thor'Ungal

Comment #272067 by Lumifish

I agree. I think the main thrust of the concern Dawkins might have is that magical thinking in escapism might leak into general society. Skepticism is probably key here but society in general doesn't seem to respond positively to this idea.

I personally find fantasy (and to some extent science fiction) to be of enormous value. Part of the reason for this is that it provides a toy universe with different rules to stew over. It allows ones lateral thinking to play with problems outside normal intuition. I have not heard personally of anyone that has taken these toy universes as real. If anything the fictional existence of such alien universes reminds us of how little of it is true.

The problem seems to stem more over with how we form real beliefs. Too often we take it on face value. We trust our gut feelings or circum to wishful thinking. If we like it and it sounds kind of plausible we accept it (and fail to critically investigate).

To make things worse none of us is immune to this kind of fuzzy thinking. Just think how many times you hear otherwise rational people railing against GM foods (regardless of the research). Or even us (myself included) reading an article critical of Dawkins or the new atheist movement and respond viscerally rather than absorbing criticisms and sorting the wheat from the chaff to improve our strategies.

I don't like the tone of this article but I must admit it make some valid points (many of which I'm sure Dawkins must already realise).

Edit: Bleeding typical, I finish typing and my post appears right after Richard's. I appear to have oversimplified the issue enormously; the above response seems fairly apt.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:20:00 UTC | #258445

Lorne Oliver's Avatar Comment 9 by Lorne Oliver

I feel that imagination is a necessary thing for children and the fairy tales that we learned helped provide a background against which we can separate science from fantasy. We tend to think in comparison-contrast and having elements of magic and fairy tale as a child allow adolescents and adults a safe repository for other myths like Jesus, Odin, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

And Richard, please do not strap on a vest of books and explode in a furry of science in the lobby of Hogwarts. Fundamentalist or not, we still need you.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:22:00 UTC | #258446

Apathy personified's Avatar Comment 10 by Apathy personified

I think that most of the myths and stories are good for kids as it probably helps them develop their imaginations (as RD said).
The clear differences between say 'Harry Potter', 'His Dark Materials' and the religious books are that
A) Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are better written, and
B) Stories and myths are told to the children as such, stories. Whereas religious books are told as 'the truth' to be accepted no matter what.

You can enjoy reading the myths without believing a word of it and I guess that most kids understand that. It doesn't work that way with the insidious scriptures like the bible.

I'd be careful quoting 'DAR', as he has an uncanny ability to float in, like a bad smell, when his name is mentioned.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:27:00 UTC | #258447

Laurie Fraser's Avatar Comment 11 by Laurie Fraser

Good post, Richard - it is quite OK (in my opinion) to tell fantasy and fairy stories to children as long as they are grounded in reality in the rest of their lives. Gradually, they begin to discriminate between fact and fantasy, and work out for themselves where the line is drawn. When my son was three, he said to me "Dad, is Santa real or not?" I had to answer truthfully. He said "Good. I thought so." The point is, he was ready for the truth. Just about every child can handle the truth, as long as they are secure in all of the other important areas in life. Why we would foist some evil religious idiocy upon them, to boot, is beyond my ken.

All of that is anecdotal, of course; you are right to suggest that research is needed to ascertain what the reality is.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:28:00 UTC | #258448

Laurie Fraser's Avatar Comment 12 by Laurie Fraser

Ap - I was just thinking about you and left a message on your blog - spooky, huh?

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:30:00 UTC | #258449

Richard Dawkins's Avatar Comment 14 by Richard Dawkins

I feel that imagination is a necessary thing for children and the fairy tales that we learned helped provide a background against which we can separate science from fantasy.
Yes, that's what you feel. Maybe I feel the same, maybe I feel differently, I'm not sure. But my point is, WHO CARES what I feel, or what you feel? This is an answerable question, and my feelings and your feelings should be superseded by research on real children.


Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:32:00 UTC | #258452

MartinSGill's Avatar Comment 13 by MartinSGill

The difference between childhood myths and fairytales is that we stop pretending (in many cases never even start) that they are in any way based on reality or fact.

Even Santa, once figured out, is acknowledge as a myth.

The danger comes when we refuse to accept myth and fairytales as such; which is where religion comes in.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:32:00 UTC | #258451

Jesse.'s Avatar Comment 15 by Jesse.

If I might add a hypothesis to such research: it is possible that reading fantasy and fairy tales inoculates one against future religious indoctrination. After reading enough fairy tales you might more easily recognize the bible/torah/koran/... for what it is: fantasy, and badly written at that.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:35:00 UTC | #258453

SteveN's Avatar Comment 16 by SteveN

One of these letters, by a David A Robertson of Dundee, begins...

Richard, was your choice of wording a deliberate, albeit oblique, put-down or did you genuinely not recognise the name of this 'flea' author and frequent participant here? Just interested.


Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:38:00 UTC | #258454

Laurie Fraser's Avatar Comment 17 by Laurie Fraser

Comment #272086 by Richard Dawkins

Just what we'd expect from a bloody scientist, Richard! :)

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:40:00 UTC | #258455

Chris_The_Positivist's Avatar Comment 18 by Chris_The_Positivist

I am sick of this term 'fundamentalist' being banded about. Atheist fundamentalist.. lots of people I'm sure either don't understand what a fundamentalist is (or an atheist for that matter) and simply squark what they have heard from the stupifyingly pathetic literature, or their own religious community. That man from Dundee, is another example, eager to misunderstand and so make the outrageous comparison of calling a child 'English' to calling a child Christian or Muslim.

I'm quite sure one has more basis in reality than the other.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:41:00 UTC | #258456

Diacanu's Avatar Comment 19 by Diacanu


That was my experience as a kid.
Bible stories couldn't contend with Star Wars, and Hulk.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:43:00 UTC | #258458

Lumifish's Avatar Comment 20 by Lumifish

it is possible that reading fantasy and fairy tales inoculates one against future religious indoctrination.

A 'fantasy as immunization' analogy to go with the 'religion as virus' one? I like that =)

This is an answerable question, and my feelings and your feelings should be superseded by research on real children.

Dawkins is right, as usual. I am curious as to how such research would be done, though; given how pervasive fiction of all kinds is in our society, wouldn't it be kind of difficult to put up adequate controls to test any hypothesis about the effects of fantasy, harmful or otherwise? 'Correlation != causation' would seem likely to apply to many of the results, too.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:45:00 UTC | #258460

Laurie Fraser's Avatar Comment 22 by Laurie Fraser

Hi Diacanu - Still, RD's argument is entirely sound (of course) - the only way to test this is to test it, with controls, in a longitudinal study that looks at children's evolving belief systems when exposed to fairy stories. A hard business, though - what sort of "controls" could (or should) be placed upon such a procedure? Maybe Richard might like to elaborate on how such an experiment would be conducted. I, for one, am intrigued by this. It could be ground-breaking research, if conducted well.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:48:00 UTC | #258462

Jesse.'s Avatar Comment 23 by Jesse.

Comment #272094 by Lumifish

It might be difficult but it's not impossible. You don't have to control for every possible exposure to fantasy that the controlgroup gets.

You just read fantasy stories at bedtime to one group for say, a year, and other types of stories to the controlgroup. Presumably the uncontrolled 'daytime' fantasy exposure in the two groups would be the same and so cancel eachother out. The hard part would be getting the parents to cooperate in such a study.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:55:00 UTC | #258464

Sigmund's Avatar Comment 24 by Sigmund

In my opinion the value of fantasy figures, such as Santa, is not in the fact that children will come to believe in 'magic', but rather in the fact that they will gain something through the later realization that their initial belief was untrue.
It is important for children to grow up knowing that they will be told some things that are untrue, even by people speaking with the sincerest of voices. This linking of supernatural/magic with pure imagination is an important defence against religious notions that are based on the same level of evidence as the tale of the three little pigs (the holy trinity of fairytale land).

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:56:00 UTC | #258465

Chris Davis's Avatar Comment 26 by Chris Davis

Kids can do fantasy without help. When I was approximately 0, I learned - probably from my scientist mum - that diamonds were formed by pressure on coal. So I put a lump outside and placed a brick on it.

I knew it wouldn't be enough to make a diamond, but I hoped for some less valuable intermediate - I had in mind a chocolate bar.

Two days later, no change. I learned something about reality - without a feeling of betrayal, because nobody had lied to me.


Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:58:00 UTC | #258467

sunbeamforjesus's Avatar Comment 25 by sunbeamforjesus

How on earth can this woman earn a living as a journalist?Is she really expecting Richard to suggest the Bash Street Kids produce truancy or antisocial behaviour,or Dennis the Menace encourages bullying because he gives Cuthbert a hard time?
Get real woman, fiction has a hugely valuable place in developing imagination and constructive writing.The fact is some fiction can be scary to kids but one should just explain that it is only for the thrill of reading.When you inculcate fear into a child because you claim the fiction is true that is an entirely different matter and one that Richard will no doubt address.
Go back to your rosary you stupid cow!

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 01:58:00 UTC | #258466

Lumifish's Avatar Comment 27 by Lumifish

Comment #272098 by Jesse.

Yeah-- you'd need a fairly large sample size to overcome the many complicating variables, and controlling/observing that many families to an acceptable level of accuracy would be a real logistical pain..

I suddenly have a whole lot more respect for experimental psychology.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 02:02:00 UTC | #258469

Ian (South Africa)'s Avatar Comment 29 by Ian (South Africa)

As a child I remember reading or having read to me books and stories like the Water Babies, The Magic Faraway Tree, the Noddy and Big Ears books et al. I know I never confused them with reality but they did engender some great daydreams and playing at being the characters.

On an anecdotal level they certainly helped to expand my imagination and gave me a desire to explore between the covers of other books both fantasy and science fiction.

Being brought up as catholic it also seemed to me as a child that these stories put the bible stories into context and I thought of them in the same way, in that I thought that the adults were pretending the bible stories were real in much the same way that they pretended that Santa was real.

It was only when I went to high school (Christian Brothers College) that I realized that the adults had confused fantasy with reality and that I was in the evil mirror image of Hogwarts where all the teachers were teaching an evil mythology based on pain and retribution.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 02:12:00 UTC | #258473

Jesse.'s Avatar Comment 28 by Jesse.

Comment #272103 by Lumifish

-chest swells-

Yeah, we've got a tough job but somebody's got to do it.

Comment #272092 by Diacanu

That was my experience as a kid.
Bible stories couldn't contend with Star Wars, and Hulk.

I was a huge comic book fan myself when I was a kid. Also Terry Pratchett's bromeliad trilogy an later Tolkien where great. Oh, how I'd like to have read Harry Potter as a kid. Kid's have it all these days.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 02:12:00 UTC | #258472

Christopher Davis's Avatar Comment 30 by Christopher Davis

One thing that is important not to overlook is that children who enjoy reading tend to become adults who enjoy reading.

Up until the age of 25, most of the books I read were fiction. Now I mainly read books on science, history, and politics, and I dare say I am far more educated today than I would have been if I never learned to enjoy reading as a child.

My point is that any scientific study designed to assess the effects of reading fairytales would have to also take into account, and control for, the effects of reading in general.

Also, I do still throw in some fiction...I just finished John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" a couple of weeks ago and, even though it has serious religious overtones, I recommend it highly. I find that good fiction improves my mood and general view on life.

Mon, 27 Oct 2008 02:18:00 UTC | #258474