- The Washington Times - Friday, November 7, 2008

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and “God Delusion” polemicist, recently offered a frightening glimpse of what might be called the reverse-fundamentalist worldview.

Mr. Dawkins mused to a British television network that fairy tales and supernatural-themed books such as the “Harry Potter” series are “anti-scientific.”

“Whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” the 67-year-old British writer said. “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 effect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

It’s telling that, in this case, the conclusion, provisional though it may be, reached by a hyperrationalist scientist mirrors exactly that of those who object to “Harry Potter” on religious grounds: that a mind that too frequently wanders from the realm of settled truth becomes vulnerable to poisonous falsehoods.

Mr. Dawkins’ suspicion of fairy tales - of imagination - is an indication of the extremes to which philosophical materialism can lead.

Here’s a guy, after all, who confesses to having read “so many” “anti-scientific” stories. Yet he grew to become one of the most eminent popular-science writers of his time - not unlike, one presumes, any number of scientists who, as adolescents, graduated into the fantastical realm of fiction writers such as J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov.

Why the hand-wringing?

Mr. Dawkins has a grown daughter. I wonder how well he recalls her storybook years.

If she was anything like the 4-year-old I observe daily, Mr. Dawkins must have noticed that the still-forming toddler’s mind is as open to the natural world as it is willing to believe that frogs turn into princes. It inquires about stars in the night sky as hungrily as it grapples with the concept of “heaven.”

As we grow older, many of us, sadly, lose interest in math and science. During the same time, we outgrow fairy tales. There is, I believe, a connection there.

Brian Greene, a physics professor at Columbia University and the author of “The Elegant Universe,” put it this way in a moving Op-Ed column for the New York Times: “As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work - we begin life as little scientists.

“But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss.”

An equally profound loss would be the realization of Richard Dawkins’ vision of children as little Richard Dawkinses - humorless pedants whose sense of awe is strangled at precisely the time it is being awakened.

Mr. Dawkins’ qualms about fairy tales are misplaced for a very practical reason, too: An environment hostile to “Harry Potter” would ultimately be counterproductive for science.

Christopher Hitchens, one of Mr. Dawkins’ anti-theistic comrades in arms, has argued that religious myths were not established as escapist fantasies - they were human beings’ first and oldest attempt at science and anthropology; they were primitive explanations for the seeming order of the universe, the stunning variety of life and of human customs.

If Mr. Hitchens is right, it’s very unlikely that a Richard Dawkins-approved, fairy-tale-scrubbed science curriculum could even exist. The complex machinery of the mind doesn’t have separate spigots for “science” and “fantasy.” Scientific man cannot live on rationalism alone.

At least not the narrowly construed, desiccated rationalism Mr. Dawkins seems to favor.

As Columbia University’s Mr. Green writes: “It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the ‘real’ world in the form of technological or medical advances.

“In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.”

Why, come to think of it, does Mr. Dawkins question stories about frogs turning into princes?

Wouldn’t a pre-Darwinian naturalist have dismissed as pure fantasy the theoretical arc from single-celled organism into walking, talking, reading primates?

Reason and empiricism are essential to the quest for truth, of course.

But an active imagination is the pilot light that ignites the quest in the first place.

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