Truth, Fear, and Fairy Tales
Three or so odd months after finishing my thesis, I still find myself perking up when I come across some headline or article discussing the latest bit of wisdom from the pen of Richard Dawkins. Apparently the good professor is now directing his attention toward children’s fairy tales and myths, hoping to uncover the pernicious effects on scientific rationality contained therein (h/t: First Things). Those familiar with Dawkins’s bestseller, The God Delusion, will notice some similar themes:
Prof Dawkins is targeting children as the audience of his next project because he believes they are being “abused” by being taught about religion at school…. Prof Dawkins said: “Do not ever call a child a Muslim child or a Christian child—that is a form of child abuse because a young child is too young to know what its views are about the cosmos or morality.
“It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child. I think labeling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell.
“It’s a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn’t want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it’s as bad as many forms of physical abuse.”
Richard Dawkins isn’t totally out to lunch here. I think that many children are subjected to some crazy theology from an early age and this does have lasting effects. I’m currently in the middle of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness and last night I shuddered as I read one particularly chilling passage. The main character, Nomi Nickel, describes waking up at night and seeing Jesus standing with a baseball bat at the foot of her bed, getting read to “smash her head” because she had told a lie that day and forgotten to confess her sin. When kids walk around with ideas like that lodged in their head, the term “child-abuse” doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch…
But as usual, Dawkins’s “cure” seems just a bit drastic. The answer to the problem of contaminating the minds of children with horrid theology (or science fiction, fairy tales, mythology) is not to get rid of it all and replace it with “scientific rationality,” as Dawkins seems to recommend, but to teach better, more honest, and less fearful theology. Most of us would, I think, prefer treating the wound to amputating the limb, but Dawkins seems to see no other solution to the “problem” of non-empirical thinking than to just get rid of it.
The really ironic point—one that Dawkins seems almost oblivious to, at least based on what I’ve read—is that in declaring Christian, Muslim, Jewish (or any other religious) views about “the cosmos and morality” off limits to children, the child is not thereby given a blank-slate or an empty “cosmological/ethical container” until such time as they choose to fill it with the content of their preference. They are simply given a different ideological view (one among many) about the cosmos and morality—one more in line with Dawkins’s own views on the matter. At the end of the day, just as in The God Delusion, Dawkins is not really advocating keeping the minds of children genuinely open to the mysteries of the cosmos; he simply wants them to be open to the kinds of ideas that he is open to and closed to the ones that he has decided are silly and dangerous.
Having said that, I’m certainly not advocating a free-for-all, where kids are presented with as many weird and wonderful religio-metaphysical ideas as their parents can lay eyes upon. I think that parents have a responsibility to think hard about what they believe and to educate their children accordingly. I also think that one of the primary obligations of parenting is to teach children how to think. Children should absolutely be taught to critically evaluate ideas and practices, and to test their ideas with those around them. They should also be taught that the world and our place within it is complex and mysterious, and to at least be open to the possibility that what is true is not necessarily reducible to what can be delivered to us via the methods of science.
I am completely with Richard Dawkins in his distaste for fear as a pedagogical tool (in religious or secular contexts). But I hardly think the answer to the societal problems that Dawkins detects is excising anything with a hint of supernaturalism, magic, or mythology from the early years of children’s lives. Perhaps a sterile childhood of science and reason seems an appealing and politically benign option for the children of Richard Dawkins’s dream-world, but I suspect that most of us would rather keep our “fairy-tales” and embrace both the truth they contain and the means by which that truth is delivered.