Leave My Elves Out of This 3

NOTE: This is a time travel entry – it comes from the past! I just got around to posting it today.

I am at TAM still as I write this, though it won’t be posted until I get home since I am, you could say, highly skeptical of the South Point Hotel’s claim that a day of internet access is worth a thirteen dollar fee. So hello from the past, I’m having a lot of fun and hope you are as well.

We just got done watching DJ Grothe interview Richard Dawkins. For the most part I found the discussion quite fascinating, and I really liked the interview format. It meant that DJ got to be a little combative (but not hostile, mind you) and force Dr. Dawkins to clarify some of his points. Generally, it was fun and very interesting.

There was one point where I got a bit riled, however. DJ mentioned an interview that Dr. Dawkins had done yesterday, where he had something to say about fantasy literature. Basically, Dr. Dawkins said that he thinks (though by the time DJ had thrown a couple “hey now, you realize that I’m a giant nerd” salvos his way, he’d backed down to “I wonder if…”) that fiction involving “profligate” magic contributes to children being credulous and thus more susceptible to religion. And he basically came down against fantastical fiction that was not exceptionally hard science fiction.

As someone whose hobby is writing fantasy and speculative fiction, you can imagine I had a rather negative reaction to that statement. Because some day I would like to make some money off of this hobby (not that I’m going to stop writing if I don’t) and no one likes to be pointed at as a possible source of mental decay among children.

I tried to ask a question at the end of the interview, and didn’t get to. Then, while waiting for the elevator and complaining bitterly to my dear friend Micah about this terrible injustice to the fantasy nerds of the world, Micah pointed out that Dr. Dawkins was standing right behind me. I had a moment of utter panic, where I tried to justify just slinking quietly away and saving my cranky point for when I could expand it to a work of total and passive aggressive blog spew. I didn’t want to be that person, however. Somehow I found the courage to walk over to Dr. Dawkins and say, as nearly as I can remember it:

“Dr. Dawkins, I would like to make a point as a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction. Have you considered that if you read these sorts of stories, you might be less likely to accept religion. Because sure, Jesus can turn water into wine, but Harry Potter can kill you dead with two words.”

And then he smiled politely and escaped down the hall, though I’m pretty sure I did speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard. I did not pursue, as he looked rather harried and I didn’t want to be one of Those People.

That done, I now feel like I can engage in some passive-aggressive blog spew, guilt free.

There are a lot of factors coming in to why that particular statement – which likely would have been a throw-away if DJ Grothe weren’t a proud Nerd-American – really set me off. For one, I already get a bit snippy when it comes to privileging science fiction (hard sci fi particularly) over fantasy. It’s an old, old argument and one that can probably raise the blood pressure of anyone that’s spent any amount of time in the fan communities. Suffice to say that I fall on the side of fantasy/scifi-ish spec fic simply because I already live in a universe with our laws of physics, and if I’m going to escape into a book, I’d be quite charmed if the laws of physics wouldn’t read over my shoulder for five minutes because damnit, I happen to like elves. I am well aware of the beauty, majesty, and wonder inherent in the natural world. I am a geologist, and for a reason. But if I want to read a book about elves, I’m going to read a book about elves, and the majesty of the natural world can damnwell amuse itself for ten minutes while I willingly suspend my disbelief.

I also don’t take kindly to people looking down on my hobbies. I don’t think anyone does. And while I’d never claim that most of what I read is “great” fiction (however you define THAT) I take real exception to the notice that reading fiction rots one’s brain in any way. Particularly when my next best option is watching an episode of Lockdown on MSNBC1.

But Rachael, you say – you, of course, being the voice of an actual reasonable person in my head – he’s not talking about you. He’s talking about kids. Sure, fine. I’ve been reading fantasy since I could read. I grew up on books that had pictures of unicorns on the cover. My mother read The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to my brother and I when we were little, and I don’t think she did it in order to make us more credulous. At least I sure hope not.

I can almost – almost – see where Dr. Dawkins is something from. Almost. If I try really hard, I can imagine what it might be like if a child were given nothing but fantasy works and then allowed to read them in a complete analytical vacuum. A negative effect in that case is perhaps plausible. And I will also be the first to admit that I am not a psychologist, and I have not researched this topic. But there are several reasons beyond my knee-jerk moment of temper that I find this idea highly suspect.

  • There seems to be an assumption that the parent/guardian of the child would actively encourage them to think of the fantasy world as one as real as our own. There may be parents like this out there. I wouldn’t know. But I doubt it’s the majority. I would wager that just about any parent, their child frightened by something that happened in a fairy tale2, would then assure the child that it’s only a story, that the frightening thing is not real.

    And supposing there is a parent who either actively encourages a child to blur the line between fantasy and reality or simply remains completely uninvolved in their child’s developing relationship to literature. Is it then the fault of the fiction the child reads, or the fault of terrible parenting if that child eventually becomes a very credulous adult who is willing to believe in magic? Do we expect that such children would become serial killers if they were fed a steady diet of horror and true crime stories rather than sword and sorcery fantasy? Would science fiction (of the Richard Dawkins approved variety) cause such children to be more grounded in reality if they’re reading things that couple reasonable physics with, say, aliens?

  • Even in the complete absence of parent input, children are quite capable of observing, on their own, that the laws of the fantasy world do not work. Particularly when we are talking, as Dr. Dawkins did, of “profligate” magic, where its existence is intrinsic in the world and its use is simple and matter-of-fact within the story. No matter how hard you pretend that bit of wood is a magic wand, it’s still not going to turn your annoying little brother a dog. No matter how many frogs you chase down in the swamp, none of them turn into princes. And so on. One wonders if this is actually a case for skepticism, since after the fourth time you jump off the back of the couch and do not, in fact, fly even after your best friend SWORE that was fairy dust, you may well start wondering if you were a bit hasty to believe the claims of that Peter Pan person.

    Children also believe in Santa Claus because we tell them that he is real and then deliberately provide evidence that he is real as well – even evidence as simple as presents with a “From: Santa Claus” tag on them and an empty plate with a few crumbs on it, left from when Santa supposedly ate those cookies. If given absolutely no corroborating evidence, how long would a child continue to believe in the myth of Santa Claus, particularly when exposed to peers who are eager to disabuse them of such a babyish notion?

  • As a personal observation, as far back as I can remember, I was very well acquainted with the difference between pretend and reality. When I pretended to be a tiger, I knew very well that I was not actually a tiger. When I pretended there was magic, I knew very well that it didn’t exist. There may very well be some children that simply cannot tell the two apart after they’ve hit a certain age. I would daresay that those children likely require psychiatric intervention.
  • Consider the Christian Literature industry. In the book Rapture Ready, Daniel Radosh points out that there is a lot of general Christian fiction and romance, but not a whole lot of sci fi/fantasy. There’s also the point that there are fundamentalists of many stripes that think Harry Potter and Dungeons and Dragons are of the devil. Why is this? Are they frightened of a fantastic tale that posits miraculous powers that do not come from their god? Is there some latent fear that fantastical fiction that doesn’t have a religious bent to it may actually negatively effect someone’s beliefs somehow, particularly since these books often utilize elaborate (and completely made up) religious systems? I can’t say for sure, but I think this is a point that really ought to be considered.
  • From what I’ve observed in regards to children growing up Christian – particularly in the more fundamentalist sense of the world – they’re often completely inundated with the Bible, told repeatedly that it is without a doubt true. Rather than picture books of fairy tales, these children often read picture books of Bible stories. I’m really forced to wonder if this constant reinforcement of “No, THESE stories are real” is what is necessary to convince children that they ought to believe them. I rather doubt any parent treats fantasy stories like this.
  • One might point out that it’s not too hard to find people in the scifi/fantasy nerd culture that have some very credulous beliefs. I don’t particularly buy this as proof. Is the rate of credulous belief in these communities greater or smaller than in other groups that form around common interests? And even if that ends up being the case, we are often fond of saying that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Does fantasy fiction encourage credulity, or do credulous individuals enjoy fantasy fiction because they are already prone to a plethora of irrational beliefs and the stories feed in to those beliefs?
  • I posit that it is just as likely that if you are well versed in fantastical fiction – and also well aware that there is a solid difference between fantasy and reality – it may actually make it a little harder to believe in religious stories. If you read Lord of the Rings and understand its complete and beautiful mythology AND also know that something so complete and detailed was created by one man, I wonder if that would make you just a little skeptical of other complete and beautiful mythologies, written down by human beings – even if you’ve been told that they’re actually true.

    I am not going to get ridiculous here and trumpet the super awesomeness of fantasy or speculative fiction as reading material. We all have our own tastes and our own reasons for reading what we do, and we all gain a certain something from what we read, or we wouldn’t be reading it. Some of us (and from a tender age) need a little break from reality now and then, and we’re comfortable with the idea that reality will be waiting for us right where we left it once we emerged. I suppose you could argue “garbage in, garbage out,” but I’ll say this. There’s certainly worse garbage out there than elves.

    1 – No, really, what is with this show? It’s completely awful and without merit – it’s basically like Convict Zoo or something – and yet I can’t look away. I’m very worried what this might say about me as a person.

    2 – And here I mean “fictional story that the parent believes is only a story.” Just to be clear.

    3 thoughts on “Leave My Elves Out of This

    1. Reply Cacodaemonia Jul 21,2010 15:12

      –If you read Lord of the Rings and understand its complete and beautiful mythology AND also know that something so complete and detailed was created by one man, I wonder if that would make you just a little skeptical of other complete and beautiful mythologies– Exactly! I’ve always wondered about that.

      It never even occurred to me that some people might think that reading fantasy or soft sci-fi could make you more gullible. But I also don’t buy into the whole “video games make kids violent” thing. I’ve never raised a kid, but I spent many years helping to raise my cousins’ kids and the rugrats my mom had in daycare. I firmly believe that the vast majority of kids’ actions are shaped by the people who take care of them, and how those people react to the world. So if someone says that a fantasy book made their kid believe in magic, then i have to ask there the parents was while the kid was reading the book. Was there no involvement, none of that parental guidance? As you said, at that point it’s not a matter of the story being at fault, but the parent. /rantrant

    2. Reply Emily Jul 21,2010 20:56

      lawl. i’m not a fan of dawkins, so i enjoy it when anyone brings him down a peg or two. he’s a brilliant evolutionary biologist. he should keep his mouth shut about anthropology, sociology, or any other “ology” for which he has no academic training.

    3. Reply John the Scientist Jul 28,2010 17:55

      I’ve been in a few classes that talked about the utility of magical belief for the development of the scientific revolution. The class notes here give some arguments pro and con.

      The pro idea is that magical thinking made the road easier for the study of invisible forces such a magnetism, electricity, and even germ theory. Not sure I totally buy it, but a heck of a lot of the early scientists were highly religious (Copernicus, Kepler, etc.), which makes Dawkins’ assertion a bit problematic.

      If you rip LOTR apart as a model, and it’s certainly a book I’d say a majority of scientists read as children, Tokien definitely shows he’s on the humanities side of C.P. Snow’s two cultures. His hostility towards machinery, and his utter disinterest in the mechanics of his magic are a bit offputting when I re-read the books as an adult. On the other hand, Galadriel’s dialog with the hobbits to the effect that she doesn’t quite understand what they mean by the word “magic” seems to be a veiled reference to Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law.

      I wonder if Dawkin’s isn’t engaging in sloppy thinking here. People who are predisposed to irrational thought will gravitate to the fantasy genre, but that doesn’t mean that the majority of fantasy readers are predisposed to irrational thought.

      A similar debate is going on about cell phone use and driving. While cell phones certainly can be a distraction, the rate of accidents on the highway does not track with cellphone adoption. One reason may be that the people who use them irresponibly are chronically distracted drivers, and if we take phone away from them, they just go back to eating a cheeseburger, fiddling with the radio or something else instead of paying attention while driving.

      I agree with Emily that Dawkins gets way out of his depth when he comments on anthropological issues. I think his entire approach to things shows how far out of his depth he is in the field of the social sciences, and it’s got to be kind of embarrasing to be reminded of this by a physicist.

      (I’m allowed to make fun of the perceived social skills of physical scientists, I’m a P-Chemist :D)

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