Richard Dawkins goes off in the deep end

Dawkins has always been a little bit strident for my taste. Now he’s gone after something near and dear to my heart, which means whatever patience I had for him is pretty much gone.

Namely, he’s going to write a book about whether fantasy is bad for children because it “has an insidious effect on rationality.”

Now, let me attempt to be fair. The Telegraph article contains some quotes that make Dawkins sound like an idiot. Example:

“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.”

In other words, he read fantastical stories as a kid, and CLEARLY it damaged his ability to think scientifically, so . . . so maybe the Telegraph is contextualizing what Dawkins said in a manner that is less than fair to him. Reading between the lines, it sounds a bit more like he’s poking around to discover whether there’s a there there, rather than already embarking on a crusade against an effect he believes in. Me, I don’t think any such “there” exists; I think it’s valuable for children both to experiment imaginatively and to learn how to distinguish reality from fiction. Then again, I also don’t agree with Dawkins on the invariably terrible horrible no-good very bad effects of non-scientific thinking, so take my opinion for what it’s worth.

And take his for the same. Like later on in the article, where no amount of reading between the lines can help me put a better spin on his declaration that it’s “child abuse” to call a kid Christian or Muslim. I’m all for letting kids form their own opinions on spirituality, but child abuse? I think not.

Ah, Richard Dawkins. I’m never quite sure whether to tak you seriously or not.

0 Responses to “Richard Dawkins goes off in the deep end”

  1. sartorias

    His “scientific thinking” has become just as rigid–a religion–as any of his worst targets, imo.

  2. fhtagn

    “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”

    Dawkins is a bloody menace, and doing more damage to the cause he purports to support than many more obvious individuals.

  3. cucumberseed

    I normally find myself arguing on the side of the atheists and am more or less one (softly) as far as it goes, but raging dicks like Dawkins and Hitchens do not make it any easier. And I am totally disavowing this bullshit.

  4. raisinfish

    I like that he automatically assumes that teaching a child about religion=telling a child they go to hell when they die. I’m really not sure how one makes that connection.

  5. sacredchao23

    How very Samuel Johnson. Oivey.

  6. kateelliott

    I don’t take Dawkins seriously on matters of religion, anthropology and – now – fantasy. Yegads.

    • Marie Brennan

      I never take him seriously on the topics; what I’m never sure of is whether to take him seriously as a person.

      • kateelliott

        Yeah. Actually, I don’t really take him seriously at all. I mean, if he is so unable to discuss religion rationally then how much has that colored his previous work? I no longer trust him as a scholar or even as a scientist.

        but then, I’m biased! *g*

        • Marie Brennan

          And you’re probably incapable of thinking rationally, too. All that fantasy rotting your brain, y’know.

          • kateelliott

            Well, in my case it would only partly be the fantasy rotting my ability to think rationally.

            Mostly it would be the fact that I am a practicing Jew, who together with my (also Jewish) spouse raised our children as Jews. Child abuse! Please. My patience is nil for this kind of thing.

  7. miintikwa

    Dude, child abuse?

    Clearly the man was never exposed to someone who was actually abused as a child. People like him give true rational thinkers a bad name. AGH.

    (Of course, I LOVED the interview that Penn & Teller showed on Bullshit, where basically they showed him drinking and smoking, and made him look like far more of an asshat than anything he could have said would have. Penn is an avowed atheist, but obviously he holds very few sacred cows “sacred.”)

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, he seems to lack perspective.

    • mindstalk

      Well, I think my father got to experience physical abuse as well as a Catholic upbringing, and *he* called the latter abusive.

      When did Dawkins appear on Bullshit? Did you confuse him with Christopher Hitchens?

      • miintikwa

        I suppose it all depends on your perspective. I attended Catholic school for eight years, and aside from one particular year with a very caustic former-military lay teacher, it was nothing to what I experienced at the hands of my father.

        And yes, I did! I am very sorry.

  8. diatryma

    Dawkins is why I read Terry Pratchett’s Nation as a book about atheism rather than about religion: it is how to be an atheist without being an asshole.

    I consider myself secular most of the time; I am not this kind of ass.

  9. mindstalk

    Oh god, you just found this?
    I disagree with, like, everyone. The actual quotes by him are “I’ve wondered this, I don’t know, I want to look into it”, which off-the-cuff comments the Telegraph blows up into something on Harry Potter which he says he hasn’t even read.

    Here, watch the source interview, all like 4 minutes of it.

    Dawkins responding to the article.

    And, for that matter, comments in general on his own site.

    I saw lots of discussions about this back in October, and there seemed to be a lot of kneejerk willingness to accept the Telegraph’s framing and believe he’s saying something stupid about children’s fiction, when he’s actually barely saying anything at all.

    As for whether “child abuse” is inflammatory, maybe. But his real point is that it’s problematic to be calling kids members of some religion — and telling them they’re members of a religion — when they’re so young. It’s like telling a five year old they’re a Republican or Democrat.

    • Marie Brennan

      I can’t even remember now where I got the link from — somewhere in my morning web wanderings. But yeah, I only just found it.

      He does come across as a lot saner in his response, which doesn’t surprise me at all. The Telegraph article seemed badly framed.

      The “child abuse” thing, though . . . okay, even if we leave aside the idiotic declaration that it’s worse than physical abuse (! — I find that not just idiotic but morally reprehensible), I still disagree with the comparison to politics. A five-year-old can’t vote, but a five-year-old can believe, and in fact often does. And every parent in the world makes choices about the things they teach their children to believe. Dawkins isn’t really against the labels, I don’t think; he’s against the religious beliefs in general, and teaching them to impressionable young minds. But I don’t share his belief that religion is a horrible influence we should try to dig out, root and branch.

      • mindstalk

        “worse than physical” — okay, that’s probably over the top. But there he’s narrowing down not on labeling but on the belief in Hell, and he’s not exactly a lone maverick on considering that abusive. That was my father’s opinion, raised Catholic in what I call Dark Ages Boston (they found he was smart, they told him to enter the priesthood), atheist in adulthood, and as he aged more and more critical of his upbringing (“every time you sin you kill Christ”) and the Church in general. The John Schumaker quote here is similar, and I knew an ex-Greek Orthodox in college with similar feelings, and lots of repressed sex guilt to work through.

        Worse than getting sodomized or even just beaten as a kid? No, and obviously lots of people aren’t affected much by this. But there seems a non-trivial pool of people, especially the more thoughtful kids, who take these warnings of hellfire seriously and are fucking terrified and warped by them. And that’s what Dawkins is largely aiming at; if I recall The Devil’s Chaplain aright, his niece is being raised in such an environment. So yeah, he’s against the beliefs, or certainly some beliefs and may be too broad, but I think it’s easy if one was raised in a secular or atheist or liberally-religious household and community to be dismissive of the power of his real targets.

        A five year old can believe lots of things, but what about informed consent to a religion, vs. indoctrination per the old Jesuit line?

        • Marie Brennan

          There are parents who put their children into gymnastics or football or whatever at a tender age, and drive them so hard it becomes physical and emotional abuse. Does that mean we should crusade against parents putting their kids into sports?

          I’d rather focus on the cases of actual abuse, not the activity that can be turned to evil or good.

          • mindstalk

            Obviously he’s more pessimistic about religious upbringing being turnable to good, and one can disagree with him on that; my main point here is that his “abuse” isn’t pulled out of thin air.

            And it’s hard to just agree to focus on the abuse when there’s disagreement as to what consitutes abuse in the first place. My father’s abusive upbringing is another person’s good Catholic education which inexplicably failed to take on him, for of course one *should* live in fear of eternal hellfire because that’s what they believe exists…

          • Marie Brennan

            You can reduce his argument to a point where it makes sense, sure. But let’s go back to his quote:

            “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 labelling 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.

            There may be disagreement as to what constitutes abuse, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who agrees that saying “my son is a Christian” passes that bar. If he wants to make a point about the psychological abuse of teaching kids they’re going to hell, then he should make that point, not one so absurdly broad that it causes people to dismiss him entirely. His own words make him sound like a kook.

            There are probably parents out there who psychologically abuse their children by telling them that when they die, that’s it, poof, they cease to exist, thus causing them to live in terror of the end of their own consciousness. But I doubt Dawkins is crusading against them.

    • mindstalk

      To use language I normally don’t: there seems to be a narrative about Dawkins. “He’s shrill and says stupid things about religion”, and expanding it to “he says stupid things about fiction” fits the narrative.

      Now, admittedly I’m more sympathetic to his messages than most, being that I could play myself as a Void Engineer in the widescreen game, and he does do things like title a book The God Delusion. OTOH, I have read every one of his books, and overall the narrative doesn’t seem to fit. He’s got a lot of hard things to say about religion — especially the Abrahamic religions, and especially anything within shouting distance of Creationism — but he generally seems cool and clear to me. Which makes a narrative of my own — “well-spoken misunderstood guy” — but it does have the advantage of having read him at length, while multiple published reviews of The God Delusion were light on evidence that the reviewers had actually read the book, seeming to respond to what the reviewers wanted him to be saying rather than what he was saying.

      “Gould vs. Dawkins” seemed to fit the pattern as well.

  10. neutronjockey

    If by ‘mythical thinking’ he’s referring to ‘magical thinking’ then I will agree that in children with severe OCD, clinical depression, schizotypal disorders…then yes, fantasy as an influence could potentially lead to magical thinking.

    Otherwise…Dawkins, you’re way, way out on a limb. Wrong dots to connect, dude.

  11. janni

    Children who aren’t taught to understand and be comfortable with metaphor lack tools for understanding the world, too.

  12. tybalt_quin

    The annoying thing about Dawkins is that I agree with a lot of his arguments, but he’s such a total arsehole about the way he makes them.

    He did a couple of programmes for Channel 4 where he was trying to debunk spiritualist beliefs and holding them up to ridicule. There was however a brilliant scene where he was at some kind of New Age Christian fayre and he was talking to a woman who claimed to be able to see a person’s guardian angel and the exchange went like this:

    Dawkins: (v. aggressive) “Well, do you see my guardian angel anywhere?”

    Woman: “Did you ask a guardian to watch over you?”

    Dawkins: (splutters) “NO!”

    Woman: “Well, hon, I’m not going to be able to see him until you ask him to be there.”

    What made it so brilliant was that he really couldn’t argue with her logic.

  13. lilifae

    And I quote:

    You see things; and you say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?” by George Bernard Shaw


    Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning. By Gloria Steinem

    Where would the world be without the enthusiasm for mysteries, faery tales and dreaming? Would we be flying all over the world? Would we be interested in other cultures? We would still be superstitious cavemen scared of the dark..oh wait, that would mean that those cavemen would have had imaginations to imagine those things in the dark to be afraid of…

    The man is a nutjob.

    • mindstalk

      A nutjob for *wondering* if childhood fantasies *might* have a negative effect on rationality (e.g. belief in Creationism or crystals or astrology), and calling it something for *research* (which, for him, might mean reading up on research already gone)?

  14. mindstalk

    As far as the “people shouldn’t label their children” argument goes, he made that at more length in The Devil’s Chaplain, I think. I’d be happier if people condemned him for his published arguments, rather than for hearsay or micro-interview one-liners. But that’d take research…

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