The controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has denied condemning fairy stories as harmful to children and claims he has been unfairly portrayed as killjoy.
Dawkins was widely reported as suggesting that reading fairy tales encouraged a lack of critical thinking. The Telegraph quoted him telling the Cheltenham Science Festival: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?” The Daily Mail claimed Dawkins also warned about the damage of the myth of Santa Claus.
In an interview with the Guardian, Dawkins, who is professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, attacked the way his remarks had been reported and insisted he thought fairy stories were wonderful and could in some ways stimulate the kind of scepticism he is keen to promote.
“I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales,” he said. “My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.”
He added: “What I actually think is that fairy tales can be wonderful. They are part of childhood, they are stretching the imagination of children.”
Dawkins, author of bestseller The God Delusion, was quoted as saying: “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.”
Dawkins’ reported remarks have been widely condemned. The former Labour minister Tom Watson described him on Twitter as “soulless bore”.
The children’s author and creator of the popular Charlie and Lola series, Lauren Child, defended fairy stories. Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, she said: “I don’t think they are anything to do with supernaturalism – I’m sure he [Dawkins] must know that. It’s about a way of working things out. Children are always using the imaginary to work things out. Fairy stories are not so much about the magic, they are about figuring out the world.”
Dawkins told the Guardian: “I wouldn’t mind being cast as a big bad wolf, but I don’t like being cast as a Gradgrindian bore. Because I love the imagination.”
He said he was worried about encouraging children to believe in the supernatural. He said: “If you did inculcate into a child’s mind supernaturalim … that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I’m now thinking they probably don’t. It could even be the reverse.
“It seems that all you have to do is say that x is the case, and immediately people will jump on it and say you want fairy tales banned. Like sheep, all the other journalists jumped on the Daily Mail bandwagon, including I regret to say the BBC.”
Dawkins admitted that he had once questioned whether a “diet of supernatural magic spells might possibly have a detrimental effect on a child’s critical thinking.”
But he added: “I genuinely don’t know the answer to that, and what I repeated at Cheltenham is that I think it is a very interesting question. I actually think there might be a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child’s critical thinking … Do frogs turn into princes? No they don’t. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true … So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility.”
He added: “Fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … Santa Claus again could be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true. Now isn’t that a valuable lesson? Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect in some cases, because after children learn that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God.”