As Richard Dawkins continues to make a very profitable public intellectual spectacle of himself, it's actually quite amusing to watch him transverse the very narrow divide between skeptic and outright curmudgeon.
As it turns out, he's also learned the golden law of religious proselytizing - "hook 'em while they're young" (at least as George Carlin says in Dogma).
Dawkins, the author of the best selling book The God Delusion, has apparently decided to take a crack at the world of children's literature. His inspiration? Is none other than Harry Potter.
Not that he's actually read any of Potter creator JK Rowling's books.
"I haven't read Harry Potter," Dawkins confessed. "I have read Pullman who is the other leading children's author that one might mention and I love his books. I don't know what to think about magic and fairy tales."
"I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don't know," he added.
"I think 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," Dawkins continued. "Perhaps it's something for research."
So Richard Dawkins is concerned about potentially harmful effects of fairy tales on children. So, in his never-ending quest to "demolish the Judeo-Christian myth", he's taking aim at children's literature.
The moral panic Dawkins is on the verge of fostering here is nothing unfamiliar to comic book readers, in particular.
In the immediate post-war years comic books -- in particular, crime comics -- were accused of contributing to the rise of juvenile delinquency. Despite having served as useful propaganda tools during the war -- Captain America, Namor, The Invaders and Superman all fought the Nazis in their periodical titles -- comics had long been judged as non-contributory to a war effort that demanded contributions from all members of society.
Throughout the remaining years of the 1940s and 50s -- which had been marked by a rise of concern over juvenile delinquency, partially due to families being disrupted by the war -- comic books were viewed with continuing suspicion. The apex of the moral panic arrived in 1954 when Dr Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book postulating that comic books were:
"Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed - a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems - the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child's natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic' magazine."In short, Wertham insisted that anything that could be wrong with comic books was wrong with comic books.
Which sounds an awful lot like Richard Dawkins and his atheist cabal's take on religion: anything that can be wrong with religion is wrong with religion, and they're out to make you believe it by wrapping their prejudices around a protracted adaption of the Batman-Superman argument, wherein Batman (religion) is judged to be inferior to Superman (atheism) not because of any particular virtue of Superman, but because Batman doesn't possess any of Superman's powers.
Religion is irrational, insists Dawkins. Ergo religious people are inherently irrational. Religion can't be proven through the scientific method, and so is inherently inferior to rationalism. Religion inhibits rational thought, they insist.
Of course, all of this is rather shallow rhetoric, and does nothing to demonstrate any superiority of atheism over religion. Being religious certainly doesn't mean that a person cannot think rationally. After all, the number of great scientists who were religious largely speaks for itself. And while religion certainly cannot be proven through the scientific method, neither can atheism.
Furthermore, just because the questions that religion asks may not be entirely rational, they deal with issues central to human consciousness. It may not be rational to wonder what happens to human consciousness after death, but the question is central to the human condition. Humans are afraid of death at a deeply primal level, not merely because it embodies the prospect of a definitive end but because most people cannot imagine what it's like to simply not exist.
To refuse to ask such questions because the questions themselves are judged irrational isn't in and of itself an answer to the question. Unanswered, the question remains.
Fairy tales represent somewhat childish answers to these same questions about the human condition. While Richard Dawkins may begrudge children for having many questions about a world that so often seems beyond the understanding of grown adults, let alone children, it doesn't change anything. Attempting to dispel the questions at the root of most fairy tales doesn't answer them. Unanswered, these questions remain.
Dawkins seems to suspect that he'll dispel these questions by dispelling the myths built to offer an answer for them.
"I plan to look at mythical accounts of various things and also the scientific account of the same thing," Dawkins said. "And the mythical account that I look at will be several different myths, of which the Judeo-Christian one will just be one of many."
"And the scientific one will be substantiated, but appeal to children to think for themselves; to look at the evidence," he added. "Always look at the evidence."
How many six-, seven- or even ten- or eleven-year-olds will choose to accept Dawkins' invitation, only he can imagine.
On some level, it seems that Dawkins would like to frame his book as educational. But that ignores the underlying motive behind everything that Dawkins has done over the past several years -- the promotion of atheism.
"It is evil to describe a child as a Muslim child or a Christian child," Dawkins insists. "I think labelling children is child abuse and I think there is a very heavy issue, for example, about teaching about hell and torturing their minds with hell. It's a form of child abuse, even worse than physical child abuse. I wouldn't want to teach a young child, a terrifyingly young child, about hell when he dies, as it's as bad as many forms of physical abuse."
On this note, it's quite ironic that Dawkins would want so badly to proselytize rationalism to children, considering that he fervently believes it will lead them to atheism -- his religion.
In order to write his children's book, Dawkins is quitting his job at Oxford University. Atheism was once a nice little hobby for Dawkins. His job was science -- researching ambiogenesis, a scientific hypothesis that would have to be accepted on purely faith-based terms, as it could never be proven through scientific observation.
Now atheism is Richard Dawkins' job, and he needs a new hobby. Maybe he'll take up knitting or something.