The princess and the priest: Dawkins’s attack on fairytales

Kiss me, promise I’m a prince. José Andreietta, CC BY-NC-SA

The probability of a frog turning into a prince is small. So small, in fact, that Richard Dawkins recently spoke out against the story and others like it, asserting that we promote supernaturalism by telling these unlikely tales to our children. We shouldn’t continue regaling our kids with these “pernicious” narratives, he says, but rather encourage in them a spirit of “scepticism”.

It was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement and he may have been misquoted, though he has made similar comments in the past. But the whole notion of banning fairy tales smacks of an austere, quasi-fundamentalist worldview.

This is partly because Dawkins is taking an absurdly literalist view of stories. Even my seven year old, still a devout believer in Santa Claus, doesn’t think croakers are likely to metamorphose into crown princes just because his Ladybird Book says so. And that doesn’t spoil his enjoyment of such stories in the slightest, because of their metaphorical dimension.

As children’s author Lauren Child told Radio 4’s Today programme, one moral of The Frog Prince is that “you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” and that ugly beings often seem beautiful once you get to know them. Accordingly, Disney’s 2009 adaptation The Princess and the Frog turned it into a predictably moralising but far from radical fable about race and racism.

Yet you shouldn’t judge this fairy tale by its cover either: it also has a darker meaning about puberty and a dread of the onset of female sexuality. The American confessional poet Anne Sexton explores this in her poem The Frog Prince:

Frog is as old as a cockroach.
Frog is my father’s genitals.
Frog is a malformed doorknob.
Frog is a soft bag of green.

Far from encouraging supernatural beliefs, then, the tale encourages us to make sense of this world: superficial appearances are less important than underlying characteristics, and girls (and boys) will over time come to terms with their own desire (and sometimes absence thereof).

The comedian and film-maker Chris Morris once compared New Atheist author Martin Amis to Abu Hamza because both “make [their] nonsense stand up with mock erudition, vitriol and decontextualised quotes from the Koran”. Similarly, fellow atheist Dawkins’s attack on The Frog Prince reminds me that one of the charges against the controversial, beleaguered al-Madinah free school in Derby is that it “banned fairy tales”.

The exhortation to stop recounting certain narratives is the same, even if the reasoning behind it comes from opposite extremes. Just as religious dogmatism caused some Muslims to support the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and to burn his novel The Satanic Verses, now we have a secular fundamentalist inveighing against a tale and saying it should be suppressed.

It is surely desirable to find a middle way between secular and religious fundamentalisms. As Zadie Smith shows in her novel White Teeth, the views of families like the secular Chalfens who are uncompromisingly scientific, atheist, and logical, affect children just as profoundly as Clara’s religiously extreme Jehovah’s Witness family.

No matter what one’s personal persuasion, coming down too hard on either side can warp young people who don’t need contact too early on with such absolutes. There is enough space within the years of growing up for children to be exposed to a little magic and for them to escape unscathed from the exposure.

Far more dangerous than any potential religious aspect of fairy tales is when their lessons about gender roles are taken too seriously. Indeed, so much has been written about the “princess myth” and its pernicious allure for ever-smaller females, that I’m relieved I have boys. But this aspect doesn’t seem to bother Dawkins, snug in his macho atheism.

As Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate show in their brilliant book The New Atheist Novel, authors like Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Amis and Rushdie are indebted to New Atheist non-fiction writers such as Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. They share in common an urge to wage unending war on religion and believe transcendence is only to be found in nature, love, and art.

For most of these figures, literature is the pinnacle of art, so narrative – and its messiah, The Writer – are almost deified. Other idols are science and Enlightenment values, which the New Atheists often only partially understand or take on “faith value”. Dawkins, of course, knows science far better than the others, but he has scorned the reverence for literature inherent in their creed and can expect a backlash even from these atheist high priests of the written word.

The Indian novelist Amit Chaudhuri writes, “secularism is a religion like any other, and its sacred texts are literary works”. The only surprising thing about Dawkins’s joyless opinion, therefore, is the attack he makes on one of New Atheism’s shibboleths, literature. Stories are crucial to culture and shouldn’t be prohibited but nor should they be installed as secularist totems, as some New Atheist writers try to do. It’s perfectly possible to be sceptical of magic while still believing in the enchantment of stories.