I came across this piece written by the late Paul Kurtz (RIP) in which he bemoans young people's interest in books of fantasy, wishes there was more counterbalancing literature grounded in reality and speculates that fantasy novels like the Harry Potter series might have negative effects.
I find the view that fantasy novels are somehow negative or dangerous to be quite ridiculous and I am usually disappointed when I come across someone espousing this opinion. In Paul Kurtz's case, I am disappointed because I would not have expected such sentiments to come from him. Although I believe him to have been unnecessarily aggressive in his stance on psychic phenomena and other elements of the paranormal, he had always appeared to be a reasonably tolerant, fair-minded individual, displaying none of the rudeness and nastiness that I have come to expect from some prominent media sceptics. He did not appear to be prejudiced against religious or spiritual people and he acknowledged that religion contained positive elements. He was critical of the behaviour and attitudes of some of the New Atheists and stated that he objected "to militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons." I respected this about him.
So I was surprised and a little disappointed to see his criticism of the Harry Potter novels - and, by association, fantasy books in general. For the benefit of readers, here is the passage to which I am referring:
"I am astonished by the fact that six books on atheism have been published by five authors (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor Stenger) to such vitriolic comment in the press. Taken together, these six titles constitute perhaps one million to one and a half million books currently in print (before returns). Yet nary a word of criticism has been made about the fact that the latest Harry Potter book by author J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, had a first printing of twelve million copies. I do not wish to be accused of being an old fuddy-duddy, but I deplore the fact that millions of young people rush out to devour books of fantasy, touting witchcraft and other paranormal phenomena, without even a semblance of skepticism. Bookstores are so eager to stay in business, they’ve had special parties for readers heralding its publication. Why not have such parties for best sellers that are science fiction but at least ground their speculations in responsible extrapolation from the known? 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."
I can't help thinking that Kurtz's objections are off-base and that he appears to have missed the point of people reading fantasy in the first place. One point that he seems to miss, or ignore, is that most people don't just read to learn things, they also read for FUN. For pleasure. For entertainment. Reading to learn is commendable and should be encouraged, but the role of entertainment should not be devalued. Just as learning should be celebrated, so should simple, light-hearted fun. The biggest and brightest academics like to take breaks from their studies and indulge in hobbies for pleasure, whether that be reading fiction, listening to music, watching films or TV, playing sports, etc. And reading fantasy novels is one such activity that people like to do for fun.
Kurtz states, "I deplore the fact that millions of young people rush out to devour books of fantasy, touting witchcraft and other paranormal phenomena, without even a semblance of skepticism."
But surely scepticism is only necessary when dealing with purported facts and knowledge, or beliefs and opinions stated as fact? How is scepticism necessary when one is reading children's fantasy books like the Harry Potter series, in which the reader is already fully aware that what they are reading is merely the product of someone's imagination?
This is the point that Kurtz seems to have missed. Readers are not applying scepticism to fantasy books such as the Harry Potter series, because there is no *need* for scepticism - they are already aware that it is all fantasy! They don't question or consider for a moment that what they're reading might be factual - they take it for granted that it's all fiction.
To further emphasise this point, imagine you are watching the old animated Disney movie of 'Cinderella'. Imagine you are watching the scene in which the fairy godmother appears and creates a horse-drawn carriage for Cinderella with a few flicks of her wand. Now imagine that someone approaches you and insists that you should apply scepticism to what you are watching. How would you react?
Most people, I believe, would find the suggestion laughable - because they know that what they are watching is purely a fantasy movie! They are well aware that they cannot wave a wand and cause a carriage to appear out of thin air! They do not NEED to apply scepticism, as it is not necessary in such context!
Kurtz's criticism of young people devouring books of fantasy "without even a semblance of skepticism" can be construed as insulting to young people's intelligence and implying that they cannot comprehend the boundaries between reality and fantasy. I am sure that Kurtz did not mean it in that way, but that is how it could be taken.
I feel that the majority of young readers of fantasy - even those as young as, say, seven or eight - are well aware of the difference between reality and fiction and are well aware that the actions taking place in their fantasy books do not pan out like that in the "real world." I read fantasy books as a child and was aware from a very young age that it was nothing more than fiction - that things like this just didn't happen in reality. Perhaps there are a few young people who blur the lines between reality and fantasy, but they are surely few and far between and make up the tiniest of minorities. The vast majority, I believe, are perfectly capable of distinguishing fact from fiction.
Kurtz goes on to say that "books of fiction can inspire human imagination while remaining in touch with the empirical world." That is certainly true and all well and good - but what about people - readers and authors - that don't want to be restricted to the "empirical world?" What about people who like to *escape* from the "empirical world" from time to time and throw themselves into a purely fantasy world? What Kurtz seems to be missing is that the empirical world is often just not enough for a lot of people - not interesting enough, not exciting enough. That's one of the reasons that so many forms of entertainment and art forms exist. Not everyone is interested in this world, or at least not interested in being restricted to it. Some people like to get out and create and explore imaginary worlds of their own or others' making. Surely Kurtz does not object to this? Yet, one might think so by reading his piece.
Certainly, reading books about the 'real world' - scientific texts about the nature of reality, for example - is to be commended. But it is by no means the only thing that people should be praised for reading. As I said earlier, many people read purely for entertainment purposes - and there is nothing wrong with that. How many people are going to read, for example, 'The Origin of Species', for fun? Perhaps those who have a passionate interest in science/biology/evolution, but for many people, they will not be interested enough to be entertained by it. A lot of people want, require, need, even - something 'out of this world' to give them enjoyment and pleasure.
Fantasy books perform a great service. They are a necessary and beloved means of entertainment to many people and they can help get children interested in reading.
Kurtz adds, "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."
Fair enough, it's valid enough to speculate on - but is it actually the case? I highly doubt it. As I said before, there may be a small number of people who read books such as the Harry Potter series and have trouble grasping reality, but they must be a very, very, *very* small minority, negligible, almost. Kurtz can speculate that fantasy novels could, conceivably, have a negative impact - but does he actually believe that that is the case? I sincerely doubt that there is much substantial evidence to support such a claim. There seems, to me, to be much more evidence that fantasy books such as the Harry Potter series have a positive impact. Firstly, they give a lot of people (adults and children alike) a lot of of joy, entertainment and plain old FUN. And, as I pointed out earlier, they can also be instrumental in getting children interested in reading. And I firmly believe that most people are well aware of the difference between fantasy and reality, so I am in complete disagreement with Kurtz's suggestion that fantasy books might have a negative impact.
Kurtz finishes by saying "I wish that there were counterbalancing literature to pure fantasy." Well - there IS counterbalancing literature to pure fantasy. Literature isn't just made up of fantasy novels and nothing else. There is a huge amount of fiction, for both children and adults, which is set in the real world, and deals with "real world" problems. So I'm not sure what he is complaining about here? There is far from a dearth of literature dealing with reality.
To conclude, it really does seem to me that Kurtz was complaining about nothing. He seems to miss the point of why people read fantasy in the first place and ignores the fact that a lot of readin is done for fun, rather than academic purposes. I have always believed Kurtz to be a kinder and more tolerant individual than some other media sceptics, but I find his views here to be disappointing.