Away with the fairies (with Polish translation)

Apr 22, 2013

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies. In an age of pre-Photoshop innocence, Doyle was fooled by a pair of mischievous schoolgirls who fabricated cardboard cutouts and photographed them.

With Polish translation – see end of article.

How should we react to such gullibility? As a minimum we might simply call attention to the paradox that the creator of the unfoolable Sherlock Holmes, and the belligerently sceptical scientist Professor Challenger, could be so credulous. “It’s a rum do” or some such cliché might occur to us, and we might make a mental note to increase our own scepticism of other causes that he might espouse, for example his unshakeable belief (even Houdini himself couldn’t shake it) that Harry Houdini had supernatural powers. We would not, I think, stop reading Doyle’s excellent fiction simply because he was, in one respect, a credulous fool.

Lord Dowding,  Head of RAF Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain, also believed in fairies. Once again we might be moved to comment on the paradox that a man silly enough to believe in little gossamer-winged human creatures seemed to be rather good at managing squadrons of  Hurricanes and Spitfires with machine guns in their wings – and of winning a major victory with them.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I wrote of the British journalist Mehdi Hasan’s belief that the Prophet Muhamed flew to Heaven on a winged horse.  It is a belief at least as silly as Doyle’s belief in fairies, and it merits the same “It’s a rum do” comment on the paradox that Mehdi Hasan is simultaneously a very good journalist and political editor, who writes penetrating and sensible articles on current affairs and world politics. That such an effective critical intellect should simultaneously be capable of  believing in winged horses seemed to me to merit some sort of wry comment, comment of the “It’s a rum do” variety:  isn’t it odd, what a paradox, like Conan Doyle or Dowding and the fairies.

Unfortunately, I phrased it poorly. Instead of saying “Isn’t it quaint that such a successful journalist can simultaneously believe something so daft”, I wrote, “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.”

I cannot deny that this sounds horribly like a call for New Statesman to sack him, and it is not surprising that it was taken in that way and became controversial as a freedom of speech issue. Even worse, some respondents went overboard and thought I was saying that no Muslim should ever be employed as a  journalist, or even that no religious person should ever be employed as a journalist.

I certainly never intended any of those meanings. Twitters’s 140-character limit is notoriously inimical to nuance. If I were to attempt a nuanced account of what I really intended to say, it would be a rather confused mixture of the following three – admittedly not wholly compatible – spellings-out:


  • Isn’t it an odd paradox that a journalist good enough to be employed by no less a journal than New Statesman is capable of simultaneously holding a belief at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies?
  • Given that he believes something at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies, is it possible that I’ve over-estimated Mehdi Hasan? Could it be that he’s not such a good journalist as I had thought?
  • Conversely, it seems so odd that a good and intelligent journalist should believe obvious nonsense, that I can’t help wondering whether he really does believe it, or whether he only pretends to out of loyalty to a loved tradition.


None of those three meanings was well conveyed by my ill-judged words, and I withdraw them with apologies.  I’m grateful to the many tweeters who came to my defence and saw no problem with my original formulation. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that my words were carelessly chosen.

I remain genuinely curious about the human mind’s capacity to hold silly and sensible beliefs simultaneously, sometimes even flatly contradictory beliefs. The best example of the latter that I know was told me by an astronomer colleague at Oxford. He spoke of an American professor of astronomy (he didn’t tell me his name) who publishes competent mathematical papers in astronomical journals, theoretical papers that assume that the universe is more than 13 billion years old. Yet at the same time he privately believes, on scriptural grounds, that the universe is less than ten thousand years old. Mehdi Hasan’s belief in a winged horse doesn’t contradict his sensible journalism in quite the same literal way. But I think it could fairly be said to run badly afoul of the spirit of critical thinking that we expect in a 21st century journalist.

There is a distinction between the Doyle/Dowding belief in fairies and Hasan’s belief in a winged horse. Hasan’s absurdity stems from a major religious creed and is for this reason treated with an over-generous portion of respect. Doyle’s belief in fairies was an individual eccentricity, fit only for mirth. People would blithely write off Doyle among the fairies as a comic nutter while agreeing that he was a very good storyteller; or laugh behind Dowding’s back while agreeing that he was handy with an Air Force. But if you describe a religious believer as a nutter because he believes in a winged horse (or a follower of another tradition because he believes water miraculously turned into wine) you will be in for trouble.

It was an additional intention of my tweet (spelled out in subsequent ones) to emphasise, yet again, this remarkably widespread double standard. It is a double standard that is applied, with peculiar vitriol, by some who call themselves atheists but bend over backwards to “accommodate” religious faith. If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot”; or say to you, as a British Member of Parliament tweeted to me,  “You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man.” The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege. And perhaps that is the most important take-home message of this whole affair.


Precz z duszkami

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins
Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wierzył w duszki. W wieku niewinności przed Photoshopem Doyle dał się nabrać parze psotnych dziewczynek, które sfabrykowały duszki z kartonu i sfotografowały je. 

Jak mamy reagować na taką łatwowierność? Co najmniej możemy zwrócić uwagę na paradoks, że twórca niedającego się nabierać Sherlocka Holmesa i wojowniczo sceptycznego profesora Challengera mógł być tak łatwowierny. Na myśl może nam przyjść słowo „dziwactwo" i możemy zanotować sobie w pamięci potrzebę wzmocnienia własnego sceptycyzmu w innych sprawach, za którymi mógł się opowiadać, na przykład jego niezachwiana wiara (nawet sam Houdini nie mógł jej zachwiać), że Harry Houdini miał moce nadnaturalne. Nie uważam, że powinniśmy przestać czytać znakomitych książek Doyle’a tylko dlatego, że pod jednym względem okazał się łatwowiernym głupcem.

Czytaj dalej


Written By: Richard Dawkins
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