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Jesus, Dawkins and the Fairy-Tales

June 12, 2014

Last week, Richard Dawkins made headlines (again) with some comments about fairy-tales.1 Firstly, he is concerned about giving children the idea that the supernatural might actually exist:

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism…”

He then back-tracked a bit, saying that he doesn’t know if fairy-tales actually do that… But even if they don’t, something does, which lead him to another reflection:

“I am interested in the question … of why it is that children, having given up believing in the tooth fairy and Father Christmas, nevertheless go on believing in God.” He blames adults not coming clean about God – which (again) betrays his utter inability (or unwillingness?) to accept that many adults actually do believe in God themselves!

And the obvious answer to his question (obvious to me, that is, not to Dawkins) is that there is a huge difference between Father Christmas and God: one is real, the other one isn’t.

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. I am interested in this alleged connection between fairy-tales and faith in God, which keeps popping up in debates with atheists.

I’d like to start by pointing out that my wife and I never allowed our children to believe that Father Christmas, the tooth fairy, the Teletubbies or Postman Pat were real. We had no intention of lying to them about reality, and if pretending fairy-tale creatures are real doesn’t count as lying, it must surely come very close!

Having said that, it’s also no secret that we’ve always talked to our children about Jesus, and are very pleased that currently, they both profess faith in him. This “discrepancy” is due to the fact that my wife and I also profess faith in him! Dawkins is wrong: we have “come clean” about God – making sure our children know that he is real, even though Santa isn’t.

There is actually quite a big difference between fairy-tales and Christian faith, and I would like to point out a few – hoping (against hope?) that even those who disbelieve in God will at least be able to understand us a bit better…

1)      Nobody has ever staked their life on a fairy-tale being true. There are no Followers of Cinderella in the world. Jesus, on the other hand, has millions of followers. This fact alone should make you wary of treating the stories about Jesus the same as fairy-tales; but there are more important differences to consider.

2)      Fairy-tales are generally set in a land far away, once upon a time, with untraceable characters and places. Christianity is based on a particular person, Jesus, who is clearly located in a particular country at a certain time in history, and whose existence can be scientifically verified.

3)      Fairy-tales are not told as if the narrator was an eye-witness, or had any first-hand knowledge of events. Christianity claims to be based on eye-witness reports; you may want to discredit the reliability of that claim, but you can’t equate the serious Christian claim to historicity with purposely ahistorical fairy-tales.

4)      In many fairy-tales and legends, there are talking animals, walking trees, magical objects and people with special “powers” – all as a matter of fact, no explanation needed. This again demonstrates that they are set in a different kind of world from ours. In Christianity you find the supernatural breaking into regular human history at irregular intervals, but it’s always presented as God’s direct intervention, not something to take lightly. Remember: Joseph planned to divorce Mary, because he knew as well as we do that virgins don’t get pregnant! Jesus’ miracles are marvelled at and labelled “miracles” precisely because everybody knew things like that don’t normally happen.
   And for the record, there are only two talking animals in the whole Bible. One (the serpent in Gen 1) is later revealed to be Satan in disguise, and in the other case (Balaam’s donkey) the text specifically states that God opened its mouth on that special occasion. It’s not a talking donkey; it’s a donkey that once talked. It’s in no way comparable to Puss in Boots or the three little pigs!

5)      In fairy-tales, even the main characters are bound by the natural rules of their universe; they are subjects, not lords. Yes, magic might exist in that world; yes, there may be talking animals; but even the magical creatures are subject to rules and limitations greater than them. In the Bible, the world is under God’s authority; he is greater that the universe, and he is not bound by any of the natural laws that govern human existence – on the contrary, he created them.
    It’s also worth noting that fairy-tales seem to assume that magic just exists; there is never any mention of any ultimate source of supernatural powers. In the Bible, the supernatural is always seen in relation to God: it’s either God and his angels, or Satan and his minions, that are the source behind anything supernatural.
   This doesn’t mean that God is some kind of super-human magician in the sky! The biblical God is not just a super-human, and he is not a magician (operating from within nature, trying to manipulate it); he simply has full power and authority over everything that exists, since he exists outside and independently of everything!

6)      One final observation: virtually all the supernatural events in the Bible “make sense”: they aren’t just irrational violations of natural law, but stem from God’s compassion and his plan of salvation for humanity. Unlike many legends and fairy-tales, the biblical universe is coherent and fits together. One difference between the New Testament Gospels and some of the later ones is exactly this: the non-canonical ones include bizarre, unnecessary miracles that don’t fit with the general picture. Healing the sick and providing food for a hungry crowd fits; making clay pigeons come alive doesn’t.

You may have noticed that I keep comparing fairy-tales to Christianity, rather than “religion”. There’s a very good reason for this: the differences I have outlined don’t necessarily hold true for other religions and their stories of the supernatural. Since I believe Christianity is true, and other religions are not, this does not surprise me; it can even be seen as another piece of evidence in favour of Christianity…

And after all that, there still remains one interesting similarity between Christianity and fairy-tales. Both end with the main characters living happily ever after – the big difference, of course, is that according to Christianity, it really will be “forever”!

Note:

1)      BBC Radio 5 interview, 5th June 2014: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b04573vh?rpSt=dawkins&rpSrp=5.0

 

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From → Christianity, Faith, Jesus

7 Comments
  1. So you’re saying here that every faith that is not Christianity believes in fairy-tales and made up stories?

    • Basically, that’s the logical conclusion: if Christianity is true, other religions aren’t. That wasn’t my main point, though; my main point is that you can’t treat Christianity as a fairy-tale. You may disagree with it, but you have to choose to agree or disagree; you can’t just ignore it like you can Sleeping Beauty or Aladdin.

      • I believe Religions in general shouldn’t be treated as fairy-tales, out of respect. Note the use of the word “treated”. You are free to believe whatever you want, as long as your actions don’t hurt or discriminate people who believe differently. So, to a certain extent, I agree with you.

  2. Thank you for your post!

    Despite my own avowed atheism, I am actually in agreement with the main thrust of your article, here. I completely agree that Dawkins’ comparisons of fairy tales to the gospels is specious and intentionally offensive. That said, I do have to say that I find some of your more specific points fairly curious.

    3. Some Christians may claim that the gospel accounts were based on eyewitness reports, but the gospels, themselves, do not make this claim (except in exceedingly rare instances, like John 19:35). Most of the stories in the Bible make no explicit claim to being recounted by an eyewitness, and are instead told in much the same “omniscient narrator” style as are legends, folklore, and fairy tales.

    4. Even if we ignore the talking animals in the Bible, there are still numerous instances of magical objects (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Moses’ staff, the Ark of the Covenant, et cetera) and people with special powers (Moses, Joseph, Samson, the prophets, the magi, Jesus, Peter, et cetera).

    6. There are certainly quite a number of supernatural events recounted by the Bible which do not make any more sense than the types of things one would find in fairy tales. Transmuting a wooden staff into a snake, strength proportional to the length of one’s hair, summoning she-bears to maul children, stopping the sun in the sky, turning water into wine, walking on water, et cetera.

    Finally, in your penultimate paragraph, you seem to be saying that your belief in the veracity of Christianity can be seen as evidence in favor of Christianity. This seems a rather curious statement, considering the fact that it does not seem likely that you would agree that other people’s belief in the veracity of their faiths constitutes evidence in favor of those faiths. Am I mistaken, here? Do you think that, because people completely and wholeheartedly believe in Odin, Thor, and Frey, this lends evidence to the veracity of Norse heathenry?

    Again, thank you for your time!

    • Thanks for your serious response! I guess technically Luke doesn’t claim to be an eye-witness, but John definitely does, and probably Matthew. The magical objects are always clearly linked to God providing special qualities, it’s never inherent in the object. Same is true for those people. (I agree about Samson’s hair, that’s a bit of a mystery to me as well!) As for the events you mention, I don’t have time to go into them here (except to point out that the “children” mauled were more likely a big group of rowdy “yoof” (some 40-odd of them against one prophet!) – hooligans, we’d call them today.
      As for the last paragraph, I meant to say that the fact that Christianity doesn’t really feature fairytale-like miracles, whereas other religions do, this lends more credibility to Christianity. Sorry if it wasn’t clear!
      Again, thanks for your input!

      • Thanks for your reply! For now, I’ll leave the miraculous events I had mentioned aside, since evaluating their sensibility is obviously a fairly subjective issue, and I respect your difference of opinion on the matter.

        As for being eyewitnesses, the synoptics do not claim to have been written by eyewitnesses, at all. Luke claims to be handing down an orderly account of events, just as the eyewitnesses had handed down orderly accounts. The author does not claim that he received any of his information directly from eyewitnesses, but does claim to have investigated the matter carefully. I’m not seeing where the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. To which passage are you referring, here?

        I think I understand your penultimate paragraph better, now; however, I would assert that the adherents to those other faiths do not view miracle accounts in their own traditions as any more fairytale-like than Christians view the gospel miracles. If I am again to use Norse heathenry as an example, a heathen would not view Egill Skallagrimsson’s rune magic (which is provided directly by the gods, in their faith) as being any more fairytale-like than Peter’s healing of the sick (which is provided directly by God, in your faith).

        I am doing my best to be cordial, in these responses, but this can certainly be difficult when discussing comparisons of faith and fairytales. If anything I say comes off as offensive, please let me know, and I’ll do my best to rephrase my position. I really am trying to maintain a respectful dialogue. Thanks!

  3. You are definitely setting a standard for good discussion – unlike some I have come across (on both sides of the debate)!

    The biggest difference between Yahweh and the Norse gods (and as I’m Swedish, I know a bit about them!), is that Yahweh is never under any compulsion to act in any way, and there are no conditions imposed on him by outside forces, there are no laws that apply to him that he didn’t invent himself. The Asa gods can be fooled, defeated and even killed; there is definitely an outside force, possibly “fate”, that controls even the gods. I think the same would apply to Hindu gods, although I’m not sure how Brahman fits into it…

    You’re of course right in saying that “adherents to those other faiths do not view miracle accounts in their own traditions as any more fairytale-like than Christians view the gospel miracles”. I was writing as a Christian, and from my point of view, most of the miracles in the Bible are “reasonable”, whereas most pagan ones (e.g. Athena born fully armed from Zeus’ head) are just gratuitous and unreasonable. There are exceptions, and I wouldn’t use it as a strong argument for Christianity, but it still adds to its strong points.

    As for eye-witnesses, Luke states that he has investigated carefully, which should have included talking to eye-witnesses, and he travelled with Paul and so should have encountered the apostles a few times. It’s even possible he talked to Mary, Jesus’ mother, as he seems to have more “inside information” about Jesus’ childhood than the others!

    John’s gospel ends with the words that “the disciple that Jesus loved”, who features throughout the gospel, testifies to these things and “wrote them down” (John 21:24), so he clearly claims to be an eye-witness (even if those last verses were added by another disciple).

    Hope this helps a bit… 🙂

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