Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Scourge of Imagination

Last summer I commented on a study showing that atheists are just like everyone else. That is, most are reasonable people who simply want to be left alone, while a small minority can be just as dogmatic and obnoxious as fundamentalist believers. Many of the so-called "New Atheists" fall into this latter camp, and here's a perfect example.

Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent public atheists, has stated in an interview that fairy tales are harmful to children - because they're not scientific and include events that are "too improbable." Seriously? I know that atheism is getting out of hand when atheists start arguing that imagination is the enemy.

“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?” he said, according to The Daily Telegraph.

“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.”

I suppose, then, following this logic there should be no fantasy or paranormal stories in literature, and no science fiction that contains any scientific errors - which, statistically speaking, is just about all of it, because the odds that you're going to get your projections of future technological advances precisely correct are pretty low.

If we get rid of anything paranormal in literature all you're left with are stories about the real lives of regular people purged of anything out of the ordinary, which is generally so boring that I have no idea why anyone would read it. It's like back in 2011 when the Chinese government decided that banning everything interesting on television made for good policy.

If we want creative people in the world, we need to stimulate their imagination from an early age. And sometimes, that will include stories that clearly are not literally true. So what? Kids who read fairy tales don't grow up thinking they really happened. It's like when James Randi and his ilk argue that astrology columns in newspapers are destroying our civilization. Spoiler alert: they're not. Astrologers don't even take them seriously.

Many developmental psychologists will tell you that impossible tales told to children help them develop the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, which is a crucial life skill. And while you can make the argument that fairy tales and religious stories share some common elements, there is no cultural coercion surrounding Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. In fact, an adult who thinks such stories are literally true would at best be considered delusional.

With religious stories, on the other hand, there is generally a great deal of pressure to believe from family members and the culture at large. In my opinion the problem is not the stories themselves, but the coercion. Any reasonable person knows that princes don't turn into frogs. To contend that someone might believe otherwise simply because they don't have formal scientific training strikes me as pretty silly.

After all, it's not as if children are being instructed to "have faith" in every fantasy fiction story they encounter so they can believe, despite their life experiences and all evidence to the contrary. That particular dynamic appears to be reserved for religious traditions.

UPDATE: Dawkins' remarks were widely reported and he has already backpedaled, stating that condemning fairy tales was not his intention. However, he doesn't deny his remarks.

He said he was worried about encouraging children to believe in the supernatural. He said: “If you did inculcate into a child’s mind supernaturalim … that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I’m now thinking they probably don’t. It could even be the reverse."

Now he's thinking they probably don't. Because he was thinking they did before? Any developmental psychologist could have told him otherwise. It's been part of the legitimate scientific literature for decades. And while he claims in this latest interview that he actually finds fairy tales "wonderful," maybe if that's indeed the case he should have chosen a different example.

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