Last night, I was reading The Wishing Chair to my son. I now feel very bad about this. At the Cheltenham Science festival yesterday, Richard Dawkins has apparently said that all demonically possessed furniture must be placed in a mighty bonfire and that all fairies and elves should face the death penalty. As he declared fairies did not exist, and the fairies across the UK died from the pain of his disbelief, I am told that his interviewer, Richard Bacon, frantically rang a little bell, hoping this would counteract the fairy death by at least giving many angels wings (copyright It’s A Wonderful Life).
Some may say what I have just written is not in anyway accurate, but please trust that it is, as then it can cause a blaze of indignation on the social media and people can be outraged and, thus, feel alive.
I was not at Richard Bacon’s interview with Richard Dawkins, and I am not sure how many of the journalists who have written about it were either.
A while ago, I was asked to conduct the interview with Richard Dawkins, but I was already committed to doing a talk at Jesus College (oh the irony etc etc). I am furious that I missed out on being a player in a controversy. Fortunately, on Monday’s Monkey Cage recording, I said something rude about Star Wars, so when that is broadcast I should have my house surrounded by furious chartered accountants dressed as Wookies and Jawa battle re-enactors.
On the few occasions that I attended events or riots that were reported by the media, I have found my version of events very different to the Chinese whispered reportage that was published. (I have now been informed Chinese Whispers is racist, so this is the last time I am allowed to use it, from hereon in it will be known as “the telephone game”) The first such incident was the march against student loans that was charged by police on horseback,and obviously there was the night Johnny Ball made some of an audience reactive when he talked of East Anglian Climatic Research Unit.
To this end, I am unable to discuss what Richard Dawkins actually said, as all I have seen are a few sentences and some well-aimed adjectives to help stir the comments section.
The headlines have included – “Reading fairy stories to children is harmful” “Richard Dawkins claims fairy tales are harmful to children” and “Should we Ban Christmas?” Now you can play “guess the newspaper”. I bet you get the third one correct.
The social media is currently haywire with fury that Dawkins wants to ban fairy tales, though I can’t find any evidence that he has demanded a ban (ah, what’s evidence anyway, that’s the kind of rubbish that meant the earth had to moved from the centre of the universe, at considerable cost to the taxpayer, and now my grandparents are all filthy apes. Oh my Charlton Heston Christmases)
Since the clamour began, Richard Dawkins has gone to Twitter as well, to counter the newspaper claims. Were his opinions that were reported as forthright posed more as possibilities. In the past, he has questioned whether fairy tale stories may be pernicious though also talked of liking the work of Philip Pullman which uses the mystical for the purpose of allegory. Today he tweeted –
“Interesting Q what effect fairytales might have on children. Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”
At the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub a few months ago, I was asked if I should be worried that I wrote my son a letter from the tooth fairy. Was I engendering the mystic beliefs in him that would eventually lead to him burgling and then blowing up dental surgeries? (well, that’s not exactly how it was asked, but I am spicing up the narrative)
It is not something I have taken on lightly. As any parent knows, the infuriating thing about Santa Claus is that you have to pretend all the gifts are from a mysterious benefactor, not your own effort and pocket. Blast this myth of altruism and Hasbro.
I have written before of the particular difficulties of talking to your children about issues such as death if you are an agnostic, atheist or skeptic, so I won’t go through all that again.
When the Oxford Skeptic asked that question, I had to work out how I felt. What was my alibi? Was creating an irrational world where winged creatures traded enamel unjustified and bad parenting?
I think that there are many ideas in the world where allegory and fable are the best ways of introducing them. The child’s mind is developing at quite rate, but will be developing until they are in their 20s. As I talk about in my current show, their reality tunnels are different to ours and I see no rich vein of evidence that suggests fiction will damn them. I can see the fraying edges of the Santa Claus and tooth fairy belief, and I wonder of there is a time when some children are really the ones playing the game with their parents.
“I have known it’s my mum as Father Christmas for a few years now, but I don’t want to destroy her illusions of my child nature. Let her believe I believe if it makes her happy”. I also mentioned that starting from the outset saying, “here are the fictions, here are the facts”, gives a child no room to investigate the world themselves. When my son discovers the tooth fairy was a game, will that sharpen his curiosity and scepticism. Will this be a tool for examining the world? The only thing I can be sure of is that there is no dead cert way of bringing up the perfect child, we can merely attempt to remain thoughtful and engaged and offer open questions and answers rather than create a dogmatic world of utter certainties.
There is a bleak entertainment in watching a scientist who talks about the importance of evidence, raked across coals by people who would rather go straight to the position of fury without checking the details (the devil is in the details, but apparently Dawkins doesn’t even believe in the devil, so it’s his own fault).
Evidence based thinker crushed by newspaper myth. Is this just another pocket sized reminder that news gathering is not about possible truths but about the quality of the story, the facts be damned?
With it merely taking a few hours for an interviewee to feel that their meaning has been twisted, what can two thousand years of being translated, edited, censored and utilised for power structures do to the original intentions of a possible prophet?
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