Volume > Issue > Cinderella & the Soul

Cinderella & the Soul


By John Macnamara | November 1990
John Macnamara is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science at McGill University in Montreal. His latest two books are Names for Things: A Study of Human Learning and A Border Dispute: The Place of Logic in Psychology.

One odd thing about religion is that, though on a broad view of mankind it is universal, it is not obviously practical. We are not puzzled by the fact that eating is universal. But why religion?

It is not enough simply to say that there is a God, and that he manifested himself powerfully to people long ago and demanded a certain sort of service. We still need to know what it was about people that elicited so deep a response to the manifestation, why so many others who received no such auspicious manifestation continued for thousands of years to worship an unseen God — and why this faithfulness issues in expensive and magnificent buildings and artwork, in weekly if not daily rituals for believers, and at least exceptionally in lives devoted completely to religious observance and religiously inspired service to mankind.

William James gave an interesting answer in his Varieties of Religious Experience. He surveyed a vast literature to attest to the contribution of religion to mental health. While his claim may well be true, I find the appeal to mental health a colorless explanation for the great cathedrals of Europe (or the great mosques of the Muslim world). Instead, I would like to steal an idea from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and use fairy tales to illuminate the psychological dimension of religion. Unlike Chesterton, I base my whole case on a single story, “Cinderella.” And while my case is not exactly his, it is in the same spirit. Obviously, fairy tales do not tell us all there is to know about the power of religion, but they may tell us something about why religion touches so many people so deeply.

The grip that “Cinderella” can have on the mind of the young was revealed to me some 30 years ago when I spent a week at a center for very disturbed children at the Creighton Royal Hospital in Dumfries in Scotland. A young woman teacher read the story to a class of some 15 children who ranged widely in age and in psychological disorder. Some were what we would nowadays call, with a looser terminology, autistic. There were also a couple of boys aged about 12 who had formed a habit of heaving bricks through the windows of passing trains in the vicinity of Glasgow. The teacher’s reading was not particularly dramatic, and I fancied the children would be either bored or boisterous. I was wrong. They were glued to their chairs, cheering when the fairy godmother appeared, booing when the slipper failed to fit the ugly sisters, and clapping when it fitted Cinderella’s foot easily and snugly. The old story had touched something deep in what seemed to be the least susceptible hearts.

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