Richard Dawkins: Against Harry Potter? October 26, 2008

Richard Dawkins: Against Harry Potter?

Since Richard Dawkins is retiring from his post as Charles Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford this week, you’ll be reading a lot about him in the next several days.

There is a nice personal interview with him in The Guardian.

Some highlights:

In Dawkins’ view, there is a battle taking place in Britain between the forces of reason, and religious fundamentalism and it is far from won. He is one of its most famous and prolific combatants – but the question might be whether he is among its most effective. The God Delusion’s stated aim was to “convert” readers to atheism – but he admits that as a proselytising tool it has broadly failed. “Yes,” he smiles. “I think that was a bit unrealistic. A worthwhile aim, but unrealistic.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Dawkins interrupts. “I know. People say I’m shrill and strident.”

Does he ever, I ask, envy people who believe in God?

“No.” He shakes his head firmly. Even though faith is said to be so famously comforting?

“You see,” he says, “I’m so eager to say well maybe it is comforting but so what? I suspect that for every person who is comforted by it, there will be somebody else who is in mortal fear of it.” Does he not envy those who manage not to find God mortally fearful?

“If I envied them that, then I’d have to envy people who are on some drug, which just makes them feel good. So to the extent that religion’s comforting, it’s probably not …”

… [Dawkins] never worries that one day in old age he may wake and find himself feeling drawn towards faith, though. If he did, he would put it down to senile dementia. He seems much more worried about spurious reports of a fictitious deathbed conversion being put about by his enemies after he dies. He is probably not joking at all when he says “I want to make damn sure there’s a tape recorder running for my last words.”

He also wins the award for douchebaggery for this incident:

Dawkins once described the British Airways employee dismissed for wearing a gold cross to work as having “the stupidest face”. Did he regret saying it? A slightly naughty smile flickers over his face.

“Well … well … yes, I do really. Yes. That was an unguarded moment. Although I think I said stupid-looking. Did you see the photograph of her? I think if you look up the story, and they’ve got the photograph … ” He checks himself, and stops. “But this is unkind.”

Another article in the Daily Mail confirms that he will be writing a book about science specially for children.

Included in the book?

Argument against stories like Harry Potter which support magical, mythical thinking:

‘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.’

However, the outspoken atheist said he hadn’t even read Harry Potter and admitted he “didn’t know what to think about magic and fairytales”.

He said the book will be “science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking” and will talk about the “Judeo-Christian myth”.

That would be unfortunate. We already know he and Hermione from the movies are really the same person:

Before his children’s book comes out, Dawkins is supposed to be releasing a book about evolution aimed for adults. That book is supposed to come out near Darwin’s birthday on February 12th, 2009.

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  • J. J. Ramsey

    One thing I’d be careful about is that we are talking about an interview in the Daily Wail, as many on Ship-of-Fools have called it. It has, shall we say, a causal attitude toward the truth. Notice that the article never outright quotes Dawkins as saying outright that he is against Harry Potter. Rather, that is what the article writer is suggesting from quoted snippets glued together with a heaping helping of the writer’s own words.

  • llewelly

    Er. The Daily Mail is a crank magazine.
    You’re better off trusting Von Daniken’s crazy shit.

  • Pseudonym

    I agree with llewelly in part: Reading Von Daniken, you can be certain it’s crazy shit. With the Daily Mail, as I understand it, you never know what’s truth, half-truth or outright lie.

    Having said that, maybe the gem of truth is that Dawkins is getting a bit crotchety in his old age? He’s nowhere near as bad as James Watson, and I trust never will be, but still. Maybe us kids should get the hell off his lawn.

  • Saint Splattergut

    Dude. Been following news of him for a while. Still believe that if I can be half as charming as he is in his age, then I win. Still, the comment on Harry Potter is silly but regarding the air stewardess incident, we all think like that sometimes.

  • I know I say stupid, mean crap all the time, so I can’t get too upset when someone else does it. However, if someone wants to be a spokesperson for a group that includes me, I do wish they would do a better job of editing themselves. I wouldn’t want to see (for instance) Obama meeting a slightly heavyset woman, saying:

    “Heya baby, when’s the baby due? Can’t be your first one, ’cause you’re getting a little saggy in the mammaries, if you know what I mean!

    PS, you have a stupid face!”

  • QrazyQat

    I say show us a picture of the British Airways employee so we can decide for ourselves.

    I’d say dull looking, but then she’s trying for sympathy a little too hard which affects her looks.

  • Daniel H.

    so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes

    Ha, that makes me chuckle.
    My high school science books allowed for that possibility as well, provided a sufficient amount of time and enough generations in between.

    I don’t mean to caricature or straw man… it’s just ironic.
    Ok, carry on.

    PS, I thought it was “fundamentalists” who had a problem with Harry Potter. Is Dawkins on a crusade against imagination now?

  • I actually think that it would be interesting to see what effect fairy tale fiction has on rationality in later life. Mostly because I think it is none, but it would interesting to delve clearly into what makes such stories so relevant to us: because they are so very quaint and charming that we wish they were true, despite knowing very well that they are not. I know that pretty much every non-religious supernatural phenomenon I could think of was of interest to me when I was younger. Didn’t mean I thought that they were real, but still, it was entertaining to imagine the “what-if’s”.

    But, it is clear that there many people who just can’t settle for “what-ifs” and demand that one particular romantic speculation into the unknown and unknowable should be viewed as ultimate truth, and every other similar account is inferior. I call it…fandom.

  • Aj

    Dawkins should have a policy of not doing phone interviews, especially when he’s in a bad mood. The Daily Mail sensationalized the Harry Potter thing, they’re known for doing that.

    Skeptics love sci-fi and fantasy. Yet these also influence religion and other magical thinking, “woo” reflects culture. I think there may be some sort of relationship but I bet atheists love Harry Potter as much, if not more, than Christians.

    Children may be influenced by fiction into accepting superstition, I agree with Dawkins, I’d like some research done. I doubt that it makes them superstitious, it may guide them to certain superstition.

    Dawkins likes fiction, I think he’s suggesting that with fiction there needs to be also science and critical thinking books for children.

  • I wonder if Elles will have anything to say about these pictures here at the end of this post…

  • I felt the Guardian interview was very positive. It humanized Dawkins. Not everyone realizes it, but Dawkins is just the most gentle guy ever (also, PZ Myers is cuddlier than a cephalopod). The Guardian brought that quality out.

    As for the Daily Mail article, that was stupid. Either Daily Mail is distorting the story, or Dawkins said something very stupid again (as he occasionally does). Why should fantastical fiction promote superstition? Arguably, realistic fiction would be worse, because it seems more real. Maybe it’d be interesting to test these hypotheses, but I’d think it harmful to speculate about it in juvenile literature.

  • From the sound of it, Dawkins is only wondering whether fairy tales and mystical fiction have an adverse effect on rationality. He’s not outright dissing HP, nor is he saying that fairy tales undeniably affect rationality. Daily Mail is deciding to take his ambivalent words and make them say something they aren’t.

  • I wonder if Elles will have anything to say about these pictures here at the end of this post…

    Speak of the devil!


    I did just write a post about it. I doubt that Dawkins really does have something against Potter but just in case here’s essentially what I said…

    If a kid went and read Harry Potter and wasn’t able to understand that it was fiction, the fault does not lie in the parent for letting their child read Harry Potter, but for not teaching their child how to distinguish fiction from reality. And, something that comes up with people of faith, for not teaching them the radical idea that just because you want something to be true makes it true.

    One more thing, if Dawkins really does have something against Harry Potter, I’m not going to rearrange my bookshelf so that his books are further away from my Potter books, but I will confront him about it next time I see him. If I want to annoy him enough I’ll also have a backwards baseball cap on and the biggest wad of chewing gum I can find in my mouth.

  • I don’t think fairy tales of magic are a problem at all for kids when learning rational thinking. My kids (ages 7 and 5) are just now getting to the age where we can talk about whether magic is real (they’ve been watching “Mary Poppins” and some episodes of “The Muppet Show” where some magical stuff happens).

    My son Nico (7) was saying that it’s sad that magic isn’t real. I replied that it isn’t sad at all because he can imagine and invent any kind of magical stories he likes. That seemed to satisfy him, and he’s excited for the day when he’s old enough to make his own movies! 😀

  • John Morales

    He also wins the award for douchebaggery for this incident:
    Dawkins once described the British Airways employee dismissed for wearing a gold cross to work as having “the stupidest face”.

    Hm. I take it that either we’re supposed to hold Dawkins to a higher standard than yourself, or else “douchebag” is not objectionable whilst “stupidest-faced” is.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Oh, I hope at some point Professor Dawkins does read the Harry Potter books. I think he might like them very much, as do my thoroughly skeptical children. The Potter books portray what a universe might look like in which magic actually works: magic is predictable, measurable, and follows rules. In other words, it’s “science”. The kids in the book have lab courses, mountains of homework, and practical exams in magic, and their professors do research and write scholarly papers. The ghosts aren’t mysterious fleeting apparitions; one can have conversations with them. Goblins are real and run the bank. There is no serious “woo” in the Potterverse; only one major character has “faith without evidence”, and she is considered a crazy eccentric for it. The fundies criticize the books for being about “magic”, but they really should fear them for their encouragement of rational thinking.

  • noodleguy


    He does look just like Emma Watson.


    On a more serious note, I have absolutely nothing against reading fantasy and fiction. The Bible for instance: very good fantasy story 😀

    Okay, really serious this time. Really, what is wrong with Harry Potter or whatever for kids? In my opinion he’s acting scarily like the religious right who condemns the books: they both just need to chill out.

  • Marzipan

    Right on, John Morales. Hasn’t everyone said someone looked stupid at some point in their life? We all must be douchebags, then.

    It bothers me when atheists apply higher standards to other atheists than to fundies in an effort to demonstrate how unbiased they are. I don’t recall seeing any posts here slamming theists for calling someone stupid-looking. Theists do plenty of other waaay, waaay more significantly harmful things, and, frankly, in light of those things complaining about them commenting on people’s faces would seem pretty petty. But when Dawkins does it, everyone goes out of their way to register their disdain. Who do you think is impressed with your indignation? Not the fundies, that’s for sure. Your self-identification as atheists is enough to make them want to tell you to sit down and shut up, at the least. Maybe you could impress the moderates, but I agree with Sam Harris that they are the ones who pave the way for extremists, and pandering to them is a big mistake, IMO.

    I mean, look at the comments. We have pinnacles of balance and fairness like noodleguy here who thinks that a biologist merely wondering if fairy tales could have an effect on rationality and then stating he actually doesn’t have an opinion on fantasy and fairy tales one way or the other is juts as scary as fundies trying to actually ban books and do everything in their power to obstruct access to those books. Really? Really?!?

  • Jack Carter

    Many in the atheist community are all too eager to distance themselves from Dawkins. This always rankles me. For those of us interested in mainstreaming non-belief, we should be more grateful to the man who has done more to achieve that end than anyone else and allow him his “unguarded moments”. We should be defending him when articles like these come out. Accusing him of “douchebaggery” is downright un-friendly. Honestly, is it really that bad?

    I’d have let it go but this post really is a hatchet piece on Dawkins. Sad.

  • noodleguy

    *shock* Me? A pinnacle of balance and fairness? WHY THANK YOU! I feel just like Fox News!

    Alright, Dawkins is not being as bad as the fundies that want to BAN the books. That’s just unacceptable.

    But he’s still being frankly silly about it. They’re childrens books. This is something the fundies also fail to recognize. The purpose of the books is not to push some hidden agenda to make kids act irrationally (or to make them all satanists.) I, personally, read incredible amounts of science fiction and fantasy when I was younger and never was swayed to think that it was real. Actually when books didn’t have believable, consistant enviroments I never liked them.

    I mean, really? Its Harry Potter. The only hidden agenda in it is that J.K. Rowling wanted to make a lot of money from minimal work and somewhat shoddy writing.

    Also: the thing about calling the woman stupi looking was not acceptable. Its just not nice…

    And why can’t we hold our fellow atheists to higher standards then the fundies? They expect anything up to and including satanism and bestiality from each and every one of us, and complete purity of eachother. We might as well hold our own up to high standards: Do we need more of a bad reputation? People already think that atheists are jerks, so Dawkins calling some girl stupid looking because she was wearing a cross is giving us all a bad name.

    However, accusing him of “douchebaggery” is just rude. Also: I agree that this piece is a hatchet piece on Dawkins. I think maybe a scalpel was needed here, instead of the axe.

  • RD responded himself. In his own words:

    I NEVER said I was going to take on Harry Potter. I have never even read Harry Potter. All I did was to muse, aloud, on how interesting it might be to do RESEARCH on the possible effects on scientific education of children’s stories about magic spells. I had in mind not Harry Potter at all (I’ve never read him, so how would I “take him on”) but Hans Anderson, Grimm, and the Arabian Nights. I never said I was against magic stories, merely that I’d be interested to see some research done. Yet from this — you might think harmless — curiosity about possible educational research, I find myself accused of hostility to fiction, hostility to imagination, hostility to children, hostility to science fiction — all of which I of course love.

  • noodleguy

    Oh, well there you go.

    Then the above piece was really misleading, wasn’t it? Unnecessarily and unfairly harsh against Dawkins (as much as I love this blog) Seriously: not cool for misleading me about this.

    I totally feel bad for Dawkins now.

  • John Morales

    FWIW, Dawkins had a cameo on Dr. Who (which I’d characterise as an imaginative children’s SF/fantasy show).

  • Marzipan

    Well, it really was pretty obvious from the article that Dawkins is not against Harry Potter or magical stories. It’s sad that now he has to write a response to acquit himself of being an enemy to the imagination. You just have to keep in mind that the media tend to try to create a controversy where there is none. Once you read what he actually said, there’s nothing even remotely shocking. Frankly, I don’t recall finding anything he’s ever said shocking. But people somehow still manage to get their panties in a bunch over his every comment.

    As for higher standards, noodleguy, I guess I didn’t phrase it very well. Of course you can’t expect fundies to adhere to the same standards as people who are not so far removed from reality. What I meant is that we as a society are sort of willing to let fundies get away with things that an atheist can’t expect to get away with instead of having one standard for everyone. And like I said, you’re not going to do much about the people who think atheists are jerks. The real issue here is that they are unable to treat people as individuals instead of members of a horde, and until they are able to do so, prejudice is not going anywhere.

  • Designer


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