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:

When Rationalists Reinvent Religion
The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
Weekend Coffee: July 5
Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness
About Adam Lee

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