Happy Christmas Santa; Bah Humbug Jesus

The Skeptical Teacher has a post on Santa.

In it he refers to Barbara Drescher’s post on An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

I’d agree with Barbara Drescher’s positive view on Santa, as echoed in one of the comments, where the Lahurongirl’s son realised there was no Santa, but still wanted to maintain the story for his younger sister. I’ve seen the same insight and intention from children I know – which is just spoiler avoidance. There’s the implicit assumption that their younger siblings will get to the end of the Santa ‘novel’ too, one day, so why spoil it for them now.

But Barbara seems to take the point too far. Does Richard Dawkins really not like fiction for children? This seems more like Barbara is jumping on a journalistic bandwagon picking up on a simple quote, attributed to Dawkins:

Guardian:
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/oct/27/richard-dawkins-childrens-literature]
Quotes Dawkins: “…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.”
And the author, Jean Hannah Edelstein, goes on to say, “Dawkins sounds to me not unlike the fundamentalist Christian mums who tried to get Roald Dahl’s The Witches banned from my primary school for fear that it would undermine what their kids had learned at Sunday school rather than acknowledging that sometimes, stories are just stories.”

Telegraph:
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html]
“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News. (a reporting of a reporting then)

Double Think Online
[http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2008/10/27/richard-dawkins-scourge-of-fun/]
“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.”

All sadly similar. Seems like some quote mining has been going on.

But I’m not sure what the controversy is here. Dawkins is expressing a good scientific response to the question of the effect of stories on children – i.e. he doesn’t know, and would be interested in any research to that effect. I don’t think he’s claiming there is an effect. Unlike someone like Susan Greenwood, who has been the butt of Ben Goldacre’s ire for some time for her claims, without evidence, about the effects of some modern media, such as computer games.

Much fiction for young children, such as the Santa myth, is expressed as truth, knowing full well that as older children and as adults they will grow out of it, hopefully learn something positive about the susceptibility of humans to gullibility, and, in the mean time, enjoy some magical fantasy for a while. There minds are malleable enough to learn and later unlearn, so what’s the harm? How many adults do we know that still believe in Santa to make that fiction worth worrying about?

The significant difference with religion – and this is where I see Barbara as being wrong – is that these fictions are carried on seriously into adulthood. In a religious family and social environment there is specifically, usually, no opportunity or encouragement to challenge the religious dogma, and indeed the prospect some traumatic ostracism for doing so. In fact the strength of belief instilled in children by adults, and seen by children to be genuine beliefs in adults, is what does the long term damage and causes serious disability when it comes to applying critical thinking to those beliefs.

And, it doesn’t matter that “Religion is not a barrier to science literacy”, as Barbara puts it – Francis Collins and Ben Miller show this; as long as you limit the science that we are being ‘literate’ about. If you do apply the usual requirement for evidence to everything then the only rational conclusion about the source of the universe beyond what current science shows is, we don’t know. Now, that certainly does allow, as metaphysical speculations, some passive ‘natural’ explanation, or even some active ‘agency’ explanation – though the latter then needs explaining too. But none of this speculation is sufficient to warrant the subsequent claims by any of the main religions. So, in that wider scientific sense, deeply instilled religious belief is a barrier to science.

So, if the Jesus story was to become an acknowledged myth, like Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, then that would be fine. But as yet it isn’t. The story of Jesus is a whole other industry, with a drive to capture the child’s mind (and the adult’s) as insidious as any capitalist behemoth advertising to children in order to sell the company’s wears; or, for religion, to buy the childrens souls.

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