I have a love-hate relationship with Professor Richard Dawkins, sometimes dubbed “Darwin’s rottweiler”. One the one hand there is Dawkins the evolutionary biologist, the scientist, the teacher. A staggering genius, a sharp mind, and with a phenomenal ability to clearly and concisely explain complex subjects with enthusiasm and wit. His recent Channel 4 series The Genius of Charles Darwin gave a great insight into Darwin the man and Darwin the scientist, and demonstrated the vital importance of evolutionary theory to science. That, and the fact he resembles Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss, which amuses me…
Then there is Dawkins the atheist, a role that sees him become as fundamental as any American evangelist or Muslim cleric. To believe in something unprovable by science is irrational, and to Dawkins, irrationality is (excusing the theistic overtones!) a sin. I have absolute certainty in the existence of evolution, and that it is responsible for all life on this planet. However, I also have a faith in the existence of something else, a greater power. Although I have questioned the plausibility of theism, despite having a sophisticated theology that has strayed from my nominal Catholicism – in other words despite the fact that I have studied, considered, contemplated and rationally critiqued faith in general and my faith in particular – I am still an irrational person due to my belief and faith.
My beliefs do not contradict science, nor are they disproved by it, but because it cannot be tested (it is not a theory, nor even a hypothesis, merely a hope) it is inherently irrational; therefore as an irrational person my thoughts may be dismissed even on questions of rationality. For instance, Dawkins dismissed the opinions of the Archbishop of Canterbury on the subject of evolution, even though the Archbishop accepted Darwinian evolution. So long as God was part of the equation, even if it was a part wholly separate from science (touching on the question of “why”, not “how”), then his opinions were irrelevant. If I want to know about the species, variety and life cycle of a rose, I’ll consult science. But I’ll stick to poetry to appreciate the colour, and what memories the smell evokes in me.
Now, on to my main point, before we get bogged down in metaphysics. I like and admire Dawkins when he talks about the areas in which he is strong – biology, science education and the like. I began to dislike him however when he moves into other areas, like philosophy, and attempts to use the tools of biological science to analyse these fields. Scientific rationality is not a trump card in philosophical debates. Rationality stops with science, and as much as we may like to dismiss it, irrationality exists. It exists in all non-scientific areas, throughout the humanities and arts. Emotions are irrational, and cause us to act irrationally. Morality is irrational. The world of philosophy (which I consider to include religion and theology as much as political theory) is inherently irrational. Dawkins dislikes irrationality, and so dismisses it. Yet the irrational is so much a part of society that you have to confront it and engage with it, not pretend it has no value and dismiss it out of hand.
Something else that is irrational is our desire to fabricate stories, from the mundane to the fantastic, for our sheer entertainment. And it is this that Dawkins has decided to turn his attention to. Dawkins plans to study whether books aimed at children that involve fantasy and other “anti-science” are harmful to children.
Dawkins has said that he
“plan[s] to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing…. the scientific one will be substantiated, but appeal to children to think for themselves; to look at the evidence. Always look at the evidence.”
If this is solely the aim of his book, then all is well and good. However (and I hope that this is merely a misrepresentation of his intentions in the popular press), he is being reported as taking a wider swipe at children’s fiction in general.
I think looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.
Perhaps it is something for research, but it obviously did not have any effect on Dawkins’ rationality – why presuppose that it should have an effect on others?
If Dawkins wishes to examine whether bringing up children to believe in a religious explanation for the world affects their ability to think rationally about science is one thing, but the Telegraph reports that he wants to look at the effects of “bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards”. Underlying that, is the belief that when parents read fiction to their children, they are expecting them to believe these tales as unquestionable truth. Harry Potter is not the truth. The Chronicles of Narnia are not the truth. And if Dawkins believes that parents are reading these stories to their children and expecting them to believe them as true, then he has himself become irrational. Children may accept something as true if you tell them it is, but I don’t think that there is anyone out there telling their children that their wardrobe is a doorway to a land ruled by a talking lion.
Nor does this square with Dawkins’ avowed love for the works of Philip Pullman. A world where children with magical powers who go to school to learn to use them is wrong, but a world where children are accompanied by shape-shifting talking animals is fine? I don’t think so.
Fiction and fantasy encourage creativity in children’s minds. Without creative thinking where do our advances come from? Ignoring the simply recreational and fun aspects of fantasy, if we don’t dare to dream of flying to the moon, then we don’t explore rocket science. Fantasy and fiction are not anathema to rational scientific thought. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a mathematician and logician, yet as C S Lewis he provided many wonderful, fantastic tales. Linguist J R R Tolkien invented Middle-Earth. There are geneticists inspired to go into that field of science from reading X-Men comics. Palaeontologists who read and watched Jurassic Park as children.
Whilst Dawkins may, controversially, consider raising a child to believe in religion as a form of abuse, if he intends to place reading The Brother’s Grimm or Harry Potter to children as form of child abuse then he is as batty as the fundamentalists who want Harry Potter banned for promoting witchcraft.
Where would it stop? Father Christmas and the Easter bunny have to go. Any stories that involve mythical beings, or a hint of the supernatural, would have to be forbidden. Only rational thoughts for our rational, scientific children. And yet even then – what about science fiction? Would we have to excise the canon of sci-fi for books that have premises that we now know to be scientifically impossible? Faster than light travel? Your book is gone. Jules Verne? Nice ideas, but not the way you described them. You are unsuitable for children. Should we instead be reading technical journals and scientific papers to our children?
My final words. This is not a personal attack on science, atheism, or Dawkins. Nor is it a defence of religion, or any stripe of irrational belief. It is a defence of writing, of fantasy, of story telling. Fundamentalists have long made the claim that if atheists were in charge, there would be no art, no literature, nothing of beauty in the world, because it is not “rational”. I don’t believe that, but by seriously asking if children’s fantasy is somehow “anti-science” and therefore harmful, Dawkins risks leaving the door open to that charge.