Is it good to encourage belief in the supernatural?



Thursday 5th June 2014

This discussion stemmed from the recent suggestion by Richard Dawkins that we should question exposing young children to fairy tales, not because, as one might expect, they’re scary, but because “it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world that encourages supernaturalism”.

What’s the difference between the following statements?

1/ I’ll win my tennis match but only if I ensure I tie my left shoe before my right one.

2/ I’ll start losing weight if I regularly wear my recently purchased Gerrier ‘Beauty Patch’.

3/ I’ll go to heaven if I strap a bomb onto myself and explode it in the middle of a crowded area.

Most people would argue that 1/ is one of many harmless superstitions (we all have some kooky ones) that are driven by mild fears about an anticipated negative outcome if we don’t adhere to them. Such superstitions almost border on behaviour diagnosed as obsessive compulsive.

The behaviour in 2/ is similar, except here the accompanying belief about weight loss is tied to a financial cost: you’re not only emotionally invested in an outcome, but also financially invested, so the need to hold onto the belief is somehow stronger.

The behaviour exemplified in 3/ is extreme and harmful to others. Usually, the belief (as well as the act) is justified by the perpetrators of such behaviour in the name of a higher power or greater spiritual cause. It takes no account of cultural differences nor represents any form of tolerance for others’ beliefs.

However, all three beliefs have one thing in common: they all implicitly adhere to a notion of causality whereby something very much non-physical (a superstition, a mind, a God) seems to have an effect on the physical world of human action. Tying my right shoelace will cause me to lose my match; not buying and wearing my Beauty Patch will cause me to be fat; committing suicide and taking down others will cause me to go to in heaven.

Supernaturalism of this kind is hardly different from the kind that is found in our fictions, like fairy tales: when did you last see a frog turn into a handsome prince? Or when were you last chased by a wolf disguised as your grandmother?

However, such fairy stories are largely in the realm of statement 1/ and should be encouraged as being helpful to broaden and expand our imaginations and also to create strong emotional bonds between people in the recounting of them. However, they also have the potential to spill over into beliefs of the kind expressed in statement 2/ and in some cases to the extremist statement 3/ and as such should be discouraged, especially for those of us vulnerable to manipulation.

Dawkins’ suspicions about fairy tales are, it seems, a challenge to us not to allow harmless superstitions to escalate and grow into potentially harmful extremist beliefs as promoted by some religions and cults.

So even if you tend to disagree with him, the underlying message is crucially important…


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