The Dawkins Delusion

Beauty and the Beast illustration by Marianna Mayer

9/6/2014

Like some wicked ogre intent on ruining bed time for the worlds’ children, Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The God Delusion’, caused a bit of a hoo-ha last week when he queried the wisdom of reading fairy tales to the young: “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism […] There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

It’s not the first time in history that folk tales have come under attack from our self-appointed patriarchs. For the tales – traditionally told by women to children – provide a subversive alternative to the orthodox cultural narrative. They utter hidden truths about the abuse of power, about incest, cruelty and violence in the dark heart of the family, and they offer oblique stratagems of survival to the powerless and the mute.

Dawkin’s remark, if taken to its logical conclusion, condemns all works of the imagination – all art – and valorises science as the only way of describing the world. It also reveals the fact that he has no understanding of metaphor – that linguistic device that enables us to shake our prejudices and rigid habits of thought in order to see things a-new.

Science demonstrates that it is statistically improbable for an animal to change form. Fairy tales use metaphor to teach us that we need to learn humility, to look beyond outward form, if we are to become wise. Hags, beasts and frogs are paired with vain princes and princesses and redemption for both can only be found through the transformative power of love.

Dawkin’s dreary literalism does a disservice to science, which also requires imagination. It smacks of arrogance. Most of all, it betrays the limitations of his own thinking. As Albert Einstein said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

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