Popular Delusions V: Santa Claus

I write the Popular Delusions series to critically investigate widely believed pseudosciences and superstitions. And while the topic of my latest entry in this series may seem odd, I think it fits – for after all, are there not tens of millions around the globe who are taught to believe in Santa Claus or other seasonal gift-givers? There are many pseudosciences believed by adults that do not command such a wide following.

The figure of Santa Claus is uniquely paradoxical for atheists. On the one hand, this teaching is used to accustom very young children to unquestioning supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, we do eventually disillusion children about the reality of this figure, and is this not a valuable lesson about rational skepticism and the inadvisability of putting total trust in authority figures? Is it not possible that getting children to realize the truth on their own is a more potent lesson in skepticism than if we told them the truth from the beginning?

What I find remarkable is that many of the very same arguments which apologists use to defend God’s existence are also used to defend Santa Claus’ existence to children, or can be used with almost no modification. In the latter case, however, there comes a point where all admit the fallacy of these arguments, while in the former case their use persists into adulthood.

For example, take the way we deal with the argument from divine hiddenness as applied to Christmas. We tell children that Santa only comes after they have fallen asleep, so they cannot see him with their own eyes, just as apologists for religion say that God works in mysterious ways not perceptible to human beings. And just as the existence of presents under the tree on Christmas morning is held up to children as evidence of Santa’s existence, so the occasional instance of apparently answered prayers is proclaimed to be evidence that there is a god who cares about us.

Or consider the way Santa Claus is used as an inducement to good behavior. We warn children that they must behave during the year if they want to receive presents (and that they are under supernatural scrutiny all this time), and that children who misbehave or throw tantrums will get lumps of coal or some other undesirable object. In much the same way, religious preachers warn people that they must behave if they want to achieve salvation, or else they will be damned; and many people regard this teaching as a necessary inducement to morality, the only thing that will keep society in check. However, when children eventually become enlightened as to the non-existence of Santa Claus, we do not fear that they will suddenly become uncontrollable.

Third, consider the argument from desire. Many religious apologists argue that every human desire has an object that satisfies it, and that humanity’s widespread belief in and worship of God is best explained by assuming that there is a deity who is the proper object of that belief. But the very same argument is applicable to Santa Claus! After all, there is a truly remarkable array of Christmas gift-giving figures, from cultures from all over the world, who bring gifts to children during the holidays. If the argument from widespread desire is convincing evidence of God’s existence, it should also be convincing evidence of Santa’s existence. How could so many different traditions have gotten started unless there was a real being to which they all refer?

Even the way more guileful theologians defend their religion finds parallels in Santa belief. Take the mall Santas we send our children to see so that they can tell him their Christmas wish list. Children who believe that the person they are meeting is the real Santa are usually allowed to continue in this belief. However, when slightly more skeptical children wonder how Santa could be in so many different malls, parents often explain to them that these men are not the real Santa, but just Santa’s “helpers” who report back to him later. This is uncannily similar to the way in which more “sophisticated” theologians blast atheists for supposedly buying into the overly literal, anthropomorphic fundamentalist conception of God as a being. These learned men explain that the vision of Jehovah as a bearded figure in the clouds is hopelessly simplistic, and in reality, God is pure meaning, or pure love, or some other reified concept vague enough to evade clear definition that would render it susceptible to attack. (Notwithstanding this, these theologians continue to pray, to invoke God’s blessing and talk about God’s will, to participate in church rituals like communion, to profess belief in miracles, and otherwise act in ways that only make sense under the “overly literal” conception of God they supposedly do not believe in.)

But the strongest and clearest parallel can be found in the emotional argument for belief in Santa Claus. It is widely assumed that belief in this figure fills children’s lives with a sense of magic and wonder, and that without Santa Claus, childhood would be gloomy, meaningless, and bereft of the uplifting power of faith. This viewpoint is summed up in one of the season’s most famous epistles, the 1897 editorial Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

These very arguments are used later in life, to adults, to defend belief in God: without such belief, we are told, the world would be bleak, meaningless, adrift without purpose. And yet, we do not consider the inevitable disillusionment of children about Santa to shatter their world or withdraw all beauty and meaning from life. On the contrary, we expect that as children grow up, they will find more abiding sources of meaningfulness, deeper and more powerful than faith built on illusions. Yet many otherwise perfectly sensible, rational people somehow fail to grasp this lesson when it comes to God and religion. Though they concede that those illusions are childhood fancies that can safely be surrendered, they persist in believing that these ones really are necessary, and that we must cling to them or admit life is purposeless.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • TPK

    So how do you explain the fact that I prayed I would receive a copy of Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” for Christmas, and in fact did?

  • ellen

    I have been having this same conversation with my spouse, re whether to perpetuate the Santa myth with our 4 year old. However, it seems at this age to be a losing battle given all the outside influences and unkind to disillusion him entirely. We do try not to fuel the fire.

    Sadly, some poor local woman wrote a letter to the editor re her own disillusionment as a child when she found out there was no santa. “Teaching a lie while teaching a truth means that when the lie is found out, the truth is doubted. I was 8 when I was forced to face the bottomless pit of Santa being just pretend. My first thought was wondering if Jesus was real.” However, she (and others who wrote in to the paper) maintained their faith in the latter….too bad they didn’t connect the dots.

  • MK

    Well, I know there’s no god – that’s obvious, but now you tell me there’s no Santa? This is too much! You’re taking disbelief much too far! Like TPK I also prayed, but for a copy of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and I got it. What more proof do I need? Long Live Santa!

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m not sure what Trish and I are going to do with Joey, as far as Santa goes. Trish seems to like the idea of feeding her the Santa thing, essentially “because I liked it as a kid” (her main argument for taking Joey to church, oddly enough) but also admits that she herself never regarded him as a “real” being and, aside from a sense of participation and inclusion, she was mostly humoring the adults in her life by acting as though he were real (this reminds me of the beliefs about both Santa and “god” I held for most of my childhood; even when I thought of myself as “believing in” these beings, I don’t recall ever thinking of them as “physically real somewhere out there”).

  • Alex Weaver

    Bleh, posted too soon. I personally don’t like the idea for some of the reasons you stated and because I hope to build a relationship with her where she justifiably feels she can rely on me to be truthful, but the possibility that learning the untruthfulness of the Santa thing may be a good object lesson in skepticism makes me wonder.

  • http://townofautumn.com/blog/ Naomi

    (Wow! Cool way to deal with spammers! I’ve never seen that simple and elegant method before…)

    I like your reasoning on allowing the myth to continue until the child realizes that “s/he has been had”. I know, it sounds cruel to say it that way, but if the outcome is a healthy skepticism (with a pinch of resentment for being lied to), reality has arrived.

    A child who takes it too hard is another story; there are probably latent psycho-social issues that may need to be addressed by a good therapist (but not a “christian pastoral counselor”, please!). Who knows? It could be a way of red-flagging children who will probably have more serious problems later…

    Naomi

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    Here’s a coincidence. I just posted an image of Santa “moonlighting” on the throne of judgment (judging the newly deceased), a deliberate conflation that a friend and I used as our theme for a Christmas card 16 years ago (see http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=875).

    I’ve got two daughters, aged 6 and 8. At the request of my wife, I haven’t gone so far as to tell them there’s no Santa (I think that doing this constitutes a federal crime in the U.S.). On the other hand, I have never affirmatively told my children that Santa is really real. The thing that I value more than anything else with them is our mutual sense of trust. I don’t think that fibbing to them about Santa will cause them to lose trust in me in other matters, but why step onto what might be a slippery slope?

    They’ve just about figured the whole thing out without my help, so the crisis will soon be over.

  • billf

    My parents did not start bombarding me with god indoctrination until I hit age 7. And I remember thinking at that point “Hmmm. This sounds an awful lot like that Santa stuff they threw at me. They are not going to fool me a second time with this magical man story crap.”

    So as much as I don’t want to actively lie to my children, I think the Santa myth can be a valuable life lesson. Think for yourself. Question everything.

  • http://undiscoveredfuture.blogspot.com Rebecca

    I was thinking about this the other day, if in the future I have kids, whether or not I will feed them the Santa Claus lies. I found out the truth rather late, and was quite angry when I learned Santa wasn’t real. It ruined the fun of Christmas, the anticipation on Christmas Eve, and I was angry that everyone had lied to me for so long.

    I was also disgusted with myself that I had simply believed everything I had been told about Santa, without questioning it. I should have realized that a man delivering presents to all the children in the world on one night was impossible.

    However, after learning the truth about Santa, I began to question the existence of God, and after many years of thought, I know that he does not exist. Many times I had wished that my parents hadn’t fooled me with this Santa Claus character, but if I hadn’t experienced it, and learned to question everything, would I have accepted God?

  • Snail

    Yet another similarity between Santa and God, and the one that I think bothered me the most as a child: Why don’t poor kids get many presents? Or, at least, as many presents as rich kids. Something about it seemed so intrinsically unfair that I suspected there could be no benevolently generous Claus. Looking back, it sorta looks like the Problem of Evil, haha.

    Another similarity that bewildered me for years: if Santa isn’t real, why do grownups talk about him all the time? They make movies and TV shows and take you to see him and ask you what he brought…unfathomable.

    The question whether or not to perpetuate the Santa Claus myth is interesting. I remember a year or two ago, my little brother was scoffing at Santa Claus, and my mum looked at me mournfully and said “You always believed when you were a kid.” I broke it gently to her, “Mum, for years I slept with the door open, right across from the staircase you schlepped the presents down, and who falls asleep on Christmas Eve?” She was shocked. “So you knew? You were lying to us?” “You were lying to me!”

  • http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/troff2k/ Troff

    TPK wrote:

    > So how do you explain the fact that I prayed I would receive a copy of Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” for Christmas, and in fact did?

    Perhaps prayers to Sam Harris are more effective than prayers to Joe Pesci?

    The symmetry of this is almost disturbing me (but actually I’m just really, really enjoying it). At my own place, there’s been a recent (and slightly heated) debate on the value of the Christmas/Santa myth (just follow the link from within here, sorry, Yahoogroups mangled a link on me).

    It was put to me that there’s more to the world than merely Truth and Fiction, that the Santa myth is necessary, that the UK schoolteacher fired for telling a class there was no Santa “deserved everything she got for her disgusting behaviour” (to paraphrase). There you go, Erich.

    I made the point that this sort of thinking is what allows something like “Intelligent Design” or somethings like “Ken Ham” or “Kent Hovind” or “Ted Haggard” to occur.

    Next thing I know, I pull up my semi-regular RSS and find “Popular Delusions V: Santa Claus” on my screen. Beautiful, just beautiful. Many thanks, Ebonmuse and commenters above.

  • http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/troff2k/ Troff

    Doh. Sorry. http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/troff2k/message/1404 and http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/troff2k/message/1405. I couldn’t even get THESE two to link properly, even after going both manually AND running it through Composer. I appear to be having a very bad night with links. Apologies.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Your links seem fine to me, Troff.

    It occurs to me that there’s something very telling about the way this whole Santa thing is presented: although we eventually admit to kids that there is no such person, we do it almost with a sense of shame, and people like this teacher who blow the lid off the secret early are reviled for somehow “ruining” it. Even in the cases where everyone acknowledges a supernatural belief to be untrue, it seems that we’re reluctant to say so too loudly, that there’s something wrong with admitting it. What does that say for the prospects of atheists, who attack an even more widely believed-in supernatural figure and do so in an even more public fashion?

  • http://sovereignjohn.wordpress.com Sovereign John

    The surprising thing about parents lying to their children is the fact that all children learn Santa is a lie. I never told my daughter this lie. She was told that we share gifts with each other as an expression of our love for each other during the Winter Solstice which is the time the sun returns to begin the process of another year.

    Here’s another reason for Santa…

    http://jamesarthur.net/mm_01.html

  • schemanista

    Hi Ebon, and others.

    I’m bringing this over from the atheist parenting thread.

    My 3 1/2 year-old daughter already straddles the magical and the “real” worlds with ridiculous ease. Santa, for her, is another kind of “let’s pretend”.

    She can watch and adore “My Little Pony”, and when she plays with her toy horses, they “talk” to each other. But when she meets a “real” horse, she’s not surprised that it doesn’t talk back. That there are two separate “worlds” doesn’t faze her at all and she has no problem switching between the two. Would that all adults could do the same.

    As I mentioned on the other thread, my partner and I don’t attach any morality to Santa Clause, and we certainly don’t invoke the “argument from desire”. We’ll cheerfully violate any logical justification for Santa because Santa is “pretend”.

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe
  • kisara

    Hi.

    This is the first time I’ve ever commented, although I have been working my way through your posts from the beginning, Adam. I appreciate the well-thought analysis and critiquing of religion in culture, and I draw upon many of your essays from Ebon Musings for arguments with my religious boyfriend : )

    I just wanted to offer my experiences as a child. My parents immigrated from Cambodia in the 1980s, and they had me in California. The first time I’d ever heard of Santa Claus was in first grade, when two classmates were “debating” his existence. I have never believed in the figure, and this non-belief has never diminished my enjoyment of the season. In fact, I think believing would have been detrimental, since my mother never knows what I wants and always gifts me with clothes; I can’t imagine an all-knowing, old fat guy, however cheerful he may be, not being able to do any better than give me a new fuzzy shirt and socks.

  • Rollingforest

    Here is the letter “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” It is obviously meant to be somewhat metaphorical, but it is startling how much the arguments match religious arguments for the existance of God.
    http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/