Some years ago, when we lived in Southampton, we used to visit Furzey Gardens on a regular basis. It was a perfect destination for a family with two small kids – compact, interesting gardens, big enough but not too big, and the essential café. The other big draw however, which resulted in minimal resistance from stubborn toddlers, were the fairy doors. Throughout the garden fairies had, we were told, gradually set up home, creating a Tolkienesque alternate world alongside the paths and the azaleas of the garden. The kids were entranced, and we were happy for them to be so, when it meant for a peaceful hour or so until all the houses had been rediscovered.
I was reminded of this when I read of a similar fairy colony that has emerged in Wayford Woods near Crewkerne in Somerset. Here fairies have by all accounts found the environment so much to their liking that 200 or so houses can now be discovered amidst the trees of this 20-acre wood. A fairy metropolis. A parallel world through the looking-glass, over the fence, down the rabbit hole, for those with eyes to see and imaginations open for business.
The proliferation of fairy houses in Wayford Woods has however started to cause a bit of concern from the authorities. Apparently there is no planning authority that has any jurisdiction over fairy doors – they just pop up seemingly overnight. And some are a little garish, less Tolkien, more Homebase – pink ply and glitter by all accounts. Oh dear.
But whilst the Wayford Woods wardens sought to bring some order to urban planning amongst the fairy community, they were also at pains to point out that they weren’t ‘anti-fairy’. In order to assure us of their tolerance and inclusive attitude to all things natural and supernatural they made clear that new guidelines were designed to protect the landscape rather than discriminate against the fairy community.
What I liked about this story then was a willingness to embrace superstition, imagination, make-believe on the part of the normally rather prosaic authorities. They probably knew they were likely to be on the wrong side of popular opinion if they just started banning fairy houses. Declaring their ‘pro-fairy’ stance was a brave piece of PR genius.
Whilst inviting ridicule from the wider scientific and conservation community it did however give tacit support to the value of make-believe in people’s lives. Such a stance does not go down well amongst Dawkins et al. When quasi-public bodies start suggesting that superstition is a good thing, or at least a thing to be tolerated, a small battle in the supposed war between secular and pluralist thinkers has been lost. Where will this end? Except in a new generation growing up thinking they can believe just about anything, and tolerate such beliefs in others too.
The new atheists of course think theirs is an enlightened view free from the constraints of superstition or the supernatural. But it is a view, a world view, and one that seems to have overreached itself by saying that everything in the universe can (or will be) explained by the scientific method of empirical research. What I believe we see in things like a Somerset wood full of fairy doors is evidence that that view has been tried and found wanting. We want superstition – ok, we say we want it for our kids and not for us, but we still embrace it to some extent – and in effect we are saying that we will not hold truck with the overconfident assertion of naturalism that only that which we sense, only that which we can attest as materially explicable, is really real.
There is something unsatisfactory about the naturalism of Dawkins and his disciples. You might argue that its deficiencies are only temporary and that science will eventually fill all the gaps where superstition, the supernatural, faith and religion rather annoyingly get in. Or you can see the irritating vitality of religion, faith and fairy doors as evidence that the human person, in all her complexity, material, psychological and spiritual, is made of more than atoms, molecules and other configurations of matter. And that we yearn for a deeper connection with ‘the other’, the world beyond the world we see, the spiritual dimension that is within touching distance of us if we only have eyes to see. That desire for the satisfaction of our spiritual yearnings is, for many, precisely the evidence that it exists. As CS Lewis wrote “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We are made of more than matter and we are all seeking a connection that satisfies our material and spiritual beings. The fairy-doors will not go away. Nor will religion or faith. We will continue our searching whether in the woods or in places of worship, not because we are ignorant or childish but because we are responding to a desire within us to reconnect with that part of us that science, has not and will not, be able to explain.