Fairy stories never seem to go out of fashion, and frogs who turn into princes, mirrors that talk and mile-high beanstalks have been the bread and butter of bedtime reading for generations.
But arch-atheist Richard Dawkins has claimed that reading fairy tales to children could be harmful because they contain events that are “statistically improbable”.
The evolutionary biologist used a spot at the Cheltenham Science Festival to question whether we should allow children to go along with the “fantasies of childhood”.
He asked whether instilling a false belief in the supernatural from a young age could actually be “pernicious”, but added that that perhaps parents should use fairy tales to “foster a spirit of scepticism” instead.
“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,” he said.
“Even fairy tales, the ones we love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog: it’s statistically too improbable.”
The scientist went on to explain that he showed signs of not believing in Father Christmas as early as 21 months old. As a toddler, he correctly identified the bearded character who turned up at a party bearing gifts as his parents’ friend Sam.
But Professor Dawkins’ comments raise some interesting questions: if you are enthralled by fairy tales and the supernatural, does that take away your ability to be rational and questioning? Is it perhaps possible to believe simultaneously in the concept of Santa Claus and understand that the man in the grotto is actually Uncle Derek?
Even Professor Dawkins admitted to believing in religion when he was a child. “I did believe up to the age of 8 or 9, when preachers said if you really, really pray for something it can happen. Even moving mountains, I believed it could really happen.”
But he added: “I grew up. I put away childish things.”
Questions for your class:
- What is a fairy tale? Why might so many cultures have them?
- What does Dawkins believe the effect exposure to fairy tales will have upon children?
- Do you agree with Dawkins? Why or why not?
- Is there value to a story in which only ‘statistically probable’ things occur? Explain your answer.
Resources from TES Connect:
Get students adapting popular fairy tales for the modern era with this excellent drama activity.
Unravel the conventions of the fairy tale and disappear into a fantasy land with this colourful introduction.
Grapple with life’s big questions with this set of lessons introducing Religious Studies.
Explore the relationship between science and religion throughout history and in the present.