The Ideological Jihad Against the Creative Imagination

I want to highlight what I find to be a very disturbing trend emerging in the militant skeptic/atheist community: a baffling blindness to the value of the humanities and, in particular, an ugly ideological assault the imaginative arts. My compulsion to write about this began when I caught wind of this “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” blog post about a cover story on gems and birthstones that appeared in National Geographic Kids magazine.  The author of the post, Ed Brayton, is a former stand-up comedian who now writes for FreethoughtBlogs. Here's the cover of the magazine (my kids got a copy in the mail):


Brayton faults the magazine for the birthstone article, shaming National Geographic for “flat out lying to kids.”

Putting aside valid concerns that National Geographic, under the leadership of Rupert Murdoch, has lost sight of its mission—the promotion of environmental and historical conservation—in favor of dumbed-down infotainment, I was struck by the overreaction to a rather innocuous article about birthstone mythology. Scholars suggest the myths surrounding birthstones go back as far as 16th-century Germany, while the current standard month/stone correlations were adopted by the National Association of Jewelers in 1912.

If anyone is still convinced that the article is propaganda to convince children that birthstones have real magical powers for those born in their respective months, there's a very clear disclaimer: “If these descriptions don’t match you, that’s OK. These are just for fun.” (1)

Now I can see why someone might think birthstone mythology isn't the best choice for a cover article in a magazine purported to cover science and history, and how he might have an issue with the suggestion that children readers should find out “what your birthstone says about you.” Okay, that's fair. But the vitriol was surprising and out of proportion to what was a fairly harmless piece of fluff. And it reminded me of other similar jeremiads equally against equally innocuous fictions.

Richard Dawkins famously expressed his concern that fairy tales and fantasy books might have “an insidious affect on rationality.” I thought that was daft and maybe just his own isolated brand of idiocy, but a friend recently alerted me to this statement by the late skeptic (and usually quite reasonable fellow), Paul Kurtz:

"At their best, books of fiction can inspire human imagination while remaining in touch with the empirical world. One might argue that books of blatant, untrammeled fantasy such as the Harry Potter books and films have a negative effect, especially when these tales are not presented—or understood—as pure fantasy. I surely believe in freedom of the press and the aesthetic power of novels; but I wish that there were counterbalancing literature to pure fantasy."

There is something deeply wrong here, and it's not just the bizarre belief that readers of fiction—even kids—would read Harry Potter and run out to sign up for their local quidditch league. It's deeper and much more insidious.

From my perspective as a writer and an artist, Kurtz's statement is baffling, as is his call for more “counterbalancing literature to pure fantasy.” But as a human being, it is even more baffling—and I'd even go so far as to call it revolting.

I can't remember when I learned to read, but I can remember some of the first books I read. Nearly all of them had elements of the fantastic—monsters, witches, ghosts, alien worlds, hobbits, dragons, and various forms of magic. I also read science books, and one of the books I checked out most from my elementary school library was Time/Life's The Mind, which covered everything from optical illusions to the artwork of schizophrenics to brain physiology, dreams, and psychedelics (a photo of a woman on LSD staring at a rose never failed to intrigue me). To call that book influential on my life's trajectory would be a major understatement.

So while I was reading books about fantastical worlds and creatures I was also learning about the mind and brain and how they cooperate in the still barely-understood messy phenomenon known as consciousness. I was lucky to be born with an intense desire to learn and understand new concepts and also a strong artistic and creative compulsion, and with parents who encouraged me to explore wherever my curiosity took me. So I dove into the humanities and the sciences, and never saw the need for pitting them against each other.

I developed (and still cultivate) a deep appreciation for science and the scientific method at an early age, but as I grew older I realized my primary talent was in converting my thoughts and dreams into strings of words. The creative process is something I still barely understand, but I know what it feels like to be in the weird trance where the Muses are operating through my fingers on the keyboard—it feels (sorry, my dear rationalists) magical. Ask most artists where their really good stuff comes from and they'll shrug. If you are prepared and go to work, the Muses sometimes show up and art happens and it's all a huge mystery.

So when someone seems to lack an appreciation of that magic—the magic of creative imagination, the magic of fairy tales, and ghost stories, and tales of talking horses and witches and frogs that transform into princes—I have to wonder just what the hell is wrong with him (and it's usually a him). The very idea that Dawkins thinks that fairy tales and fantasy may be somehow harming children belies a deep psychological breakage or wound in his psyche. The fact that Kurz, too, believes that Harry Potter and his fantastic ilk are having a negative effect on the precious minds of children is even more alarming because it points to a trend among the prominent “new atheist” Materialists. Not only do their bizarre fears (and clearly, fear is the root) illustrate a profound lack of respect for the creative imagination, they point to a lopsided deification of Holy Reason as the primary guiding principle of human culture.

Well, guess what, Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Kurtz: though it may make you tremble in fear, we are not rational machines made of meat. We are souls, and spirits. Dream-makers and dream inhabitants. I do not lock my rationality inside a jail cell when I read a book that takes place in an imaginary world, nor do I expect my readers to finish my books and lose their powers of discernment. Do you cry at sad movies, despite your rational mind knowing it's all a scripted fantasy? I certainly do. The imagination, though it cannot be pulverized and autoclaved and smeared across a slide to be viewed under a microscope, is as real as you are, Mr. Dawkins and Mr. Kurtz.

I, like most human beings, do not structure my life around data from the latest peer-reviewed journals. I do not love my wife and my children because it has been proven in a double-blind, placebo controlled, meticulously replicated experiment that I should. I don't dismiss a deeply meaningful dream just because a scientist tells me it's nothing more than the random firing of neurons emptying my brain of its daily garbage. And you can show me as many pretty fMRI scans as you like, but you're never going to show me the location of my deepest, most true self, or where the Muses are hiding from your prying eyes.

Fiction and myths and stories and poems and metaphors are real. The witches and monsters Dawkins and Kurtz hide from are also real, and their power enormous—as can be seen in the way they cower in fear of them.

We are rational, thinking creatures and we are soulful, dreaming beings. If you cut off one side of us, the other side withers and dies. It seems to me that Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Dawkins are in need of critical care.(2)

Harry Potter vs. Richard Dawkins

(1) Ironically, my oldest daughter (7) and I had a discussion about the birthstone article in which she clearly exhibited the ability to grasp the difference between the mythology of birthstones and the reality that a stone cannot have “powers” or that a single type of gem can represent all the people born in a particular month. So the article actually encouraged her—all on her own—to come to a rational conclusion!

(2) Well, Kurtz is no longer alive. But his ghost needs critical care, unless he's come to grips with his error in the afterlife.

Note: My friend Leonard George wrote: I think an appropriate response to the extraordinary claims of Kurtz, Dawkins etc. is to ask for evidence. Please provide the evidence—not anecdotes or speculations, any skeptic knows what those are worth, but actual quantitative outcome data—that a rich imaginative life has negative effects. By the way, and apparently unbeknownst to Dawkins & Co., there is a growing body of empirical research on this and other questions related to imagination. There are data to consult, so there is no excuse for making these claims without reference to the available evidence. (I taught a semester-long university course on this subject last year.) For instance, as an entry point to the relevant research literature, see this recent summary published by Oxford University Press: