If You Have to Believe, It Probably Isn’t Real

the polar expressWhen I was little, my parents taught me to believe there was a person who was always watching me, keeping record of all the good things and bad things I do. I couldn’t see him, they told me, but somehow he could be anywhere and everywhere without any limitations of time or space. I shouldn’t even bother looking, they said, because he wouldn’t show himself to me under any circumstances. Some kind of principle for him, I guess. But this person was going to either reward me for being a good boy or else punish me for being bad. At one point I began to question the existence of this person but I was told I had to believe. It was crucial for the magic to work. If I didn’t believe, I wouldn’t receive the benefit of the magic. For some reason, my believing was essential to the work of this all-seeing, ubiquitous, yet practically invisible person. It finally occurred to me one day that this person is totally made up. Whom am I talking about? I can think of a couple of options for whom this description fits very well. But at this point in my life my conclusions about both are the same: If you have to believe in something for it to become real in any practical sense, it’s probably just in your head.

At Christmastime we are bombarded with movies and stories touting the importance of believing in Santa. If you don’t believe, they tell us, he can’t do his thing. My kids love Polar Express, and like most movies about Santa Claus it reminds us that Santa’s magic only works if you believe in it. It’s not that he will cease to exist, mind you; it’s just that you won’t personally benefit from his work if you fail to acknowledge his existence. Grown-ups know this is a fairy tale of course, but we continue to pass this tale on to our children anyway because, hey, our parents did it to us. It makes Christmas more exciting and fun, and there’s the added bonus that sometimes it persuades kids to straighten up and act right. It works quite well on kids. But if a grown-up still believes this fanciful tale, well, that is the stuff of great comedy. That’s why the movie Elf is so funny. The very thought of a grown man bouncing up and down, excited about Santa coming to town is just hilarious.

In that movie, Santa’s sleigh was fueled by Christmas spirit. If an insufficient number of people believed in him, the sleigh couldn’t even fly. In Legend of the Guardians, all of the imaginary creatures derived their power from the subjective beliefs of the children. This is apparently a thing for everybody from the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny to Santa Claus, the Sandman, and even Jack Frost. See, when you are an imaginary creature, you depend on the imaginations of others for your very existence.

I also remember that when I was a Christian, I was told that I must believe in order to reap the benefits of the Christian faith. I was told I was a very bad person—so bad, in fact, that I deserve to be punished for all eternity (good grief…I know I have my bad days but come on, now!). That was the bad news. The good news was that if I’d only believe, I could receive in myself the benefit of a magical transaction which would erase, at least temporarily, the deleterious effects of my own awful wickedness. I say temporarily because after I performed my part of this initial transaction, I was informed that future mistakes still had to be paid for in some way or another (that part was very vague, mind you). But the benefits of my new membership in the Chosen People Club were always tied to how much I believed. God was real, I was told, regardless of whether or not I believed in him. But without the believing, I would receive little or no outward evidence of this person’s presence in my life.

Hmm. This feels very familiar. I think I’m beginning to see a pattern here.

Prayer works. But you have to believe.

People can be healed. But you have to believe.

You can be saved! But you have to believe.

The Holy Spirit can make you a new person! But you have to believe.

You can have a relationship with God and he can speak to you and guide you. You can “hear” his “voice.” But you have to believe.

So…what if I decide this whole thing sounds like another fairy tale, and what if I said it seems to me that this person (or these people, however many invisible people you want me to believe in) doesn’t even exist? How exactly can I know that this stuff isn’t made up? The answer, I am told, is that as long as I’ve decided I don’t believe in this person, it will essentially be to me as if he doesn’t even exist. Oh sure, he’ll still exist for everyone else, they tell me. But he’ll be completely hidden from me. All evidence of his existence will be as if it weren’t there. It’s just a thing for him. You have to believe before you can see the evidence. That’s just the way it works. So if you say you don’t see any evidence, that must mean you chose not to believe. It’s your fault, you see. You are the reason he seems not to exist. If only you would have believed, you would have seen. In this alternate reality, believing is seeing.

It took me till my mid-thirties before I finally realized that, if you have to believe something is real in order to make it real, it’s probably not real at all. It’s in your head. Oh sure, I know there’s power in positive thinking, and sometimes you can accomplish greater things if you keep a positive attitude and learn to visualize achieving your goals. My old football coach used to chant before a big game, “You gotta believe!!” And to some degree he was right. We’ve even learned that sometimes the expectation that you will recover from an illness can speed up your recovery. The human immune system is an amazing thing, and sometimes a dose of optimism is all it needs to kick it into high gear and do its job. But for most things it just doesn’t matter what you believe—whatever is, simply is. If I swallow arsenic, it won’t matter what I believe about arsenic…I’ll be a goner. If I believe I can fly and I jump off a tall building, I’m gonna be a pancake in the end. If I believe I have a million dollars in my bank account, it won’t do me any good and the debt collectors will still keep calling me until I present them with real money. And it didn’t matter how firmly anyone ever believed the sun goes around the Earth, the reality is still what it is no matter what you “think in your heart.” For most things in life, believing doesn’t make things true.


It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve come to be fond of this time of year for a number of reasons. As a teacher I obviously appreciate time off of school, so I suppose that goes without saying. I get to eat some really good food and see family members I don’t ordinarily get to see. Some of the best and funniest movies come out about this time of year. And of course it’s always fun to exchange presents with the ones you love. I’ll also add that Christmas music (both sacred and secular) can be some of the most beautiful and charming of any music I’ve ever heard. But I’ve also come to be entertained by the way Christmas has become for me a microcosm of the rest of my culture.

Here is a season in which one religion out of dozens feels entitled to assert its superiority over all others (How dare you say “Happy Holidays,” as if there are any others which matter!). And it doesn’t seem to matter that the event they are celebrating, if it ever happened at all,* probably didn’t happen at this time of year. The timing of this holiday was borrowed from other religions, as were many of the details of both the religious and non-religious traditions of the season (virgin births, decorated trees, door-to-door singing, etc). People who celebrate this holiday most fervently are blissfully unaware of the many non-Christian roots of their traditions, and they become quite upset if you try to tell them about it. They take it as an assault on their faith and culture, and common decency and respect demands that you show them tolerance for their beliefs even if they will do no such thing for you in return. All of this I see at Christmastime, and it encapsulates well the way things are.

But most of all I love that we can get together and laugh and say “Aww, how cute!” at all the movies which teach that imaginary beings depend on your faith in them for their very existence (or at least for them to be able to accomplish anything at all). It’s healthy for us to shine a spotlight on this concept every year because eventually it will start to sink in that this stuff is for chidren. It’s quaint. It’s sweet. It’s charming. Perhaps it’s even enjoyable for grown-ups to live vicariously through our children, remembering how magical it was to believe a guy in a red suit would circle the globe in one night, bringing presents to you while you slept peacefully in your bed (never while you are awake, mind you!). But the grown-ups know the secret. The truth is that we are Santa Claus. We are the ones who make all this stuff happen. We know better, even if we enjoy playing along. Maybe one of these days we’ll all learn to take that to its logical conclusion. One day we’ll see that anything that must be believed in order to be real…isn’t.



* I happen to believe Jesus existed, contrary to many of my fellow skeptics. But the birth narratives were clearly developed later, such that the earliest gospel (Mark) doesn’t even mention them. Even the concept of a virgin birth seems to have developed because of an ambivalent translation of a word from the Septuagint.

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  • Linda R

    For me, it is not a pleasant time of year, family is wide spread and dysfunctional, and I don’t carry a lot of warm and fuzzy childhood memories in my head either.

    I am always glad when the calender tells me it is almost over. December 27th was the day I met and fell in love with the love of my life who is now gone, and that day is far more meaningful for me.


  • Thanks, Neil! Your article went down like a bracing drink of ice cold water, washing down the saccharine after-taste that often characterizes this season of ‘belief’.

    When I was a Christian believer, I remember how sensible I found the dictum of Anselm, “credo ut intelligam” (I believe in order that I may understand); without faith it was impossible to really ‘get’ God, let alone please him. I even advanced in my faith to the point where Tertullian’s twist on the theme—”Credo quia absurdum” (I believe *because* it is absurd)—made perfect sense to me; after all, “it is not within man, who walks, to direct his own steps” (Jer. 10:23), and “trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Since being ‘enlightened’, I have been trying day by day to walk by the light of reason, not faith, and although I am sometimes nostalgic for the old days—just as I miss the magic of believing in Santa—I agree with Carl Sagan when he wrote, “It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”

    Like you, I indulge myself the enjoyment of this season of Christmas, including the beautiful old carols; now I hear in them the very human yearning for peace, universal brotherhood, and the radical transformation of old paradigms as we move from ‘darkness’ to ‘Light’. Merry Christmas, and rejoice! The light returns!

  • Even if Jesus did exist and he said & did the things attributed to him, that doesn’t make them true or any less magical. It doesn’t matter if he existed; it’s still a fairy tale.

    Christmas is such a load of crap; I am glad every year when it is over.

  • Adam

    This made for a good read during the time I had to spend in church today (I am an Athiest while my wife and family are Christians). It was funny because the pastor was actually repeating many of the same things that Neil talked about here. He kept saying we must all believe in Jesus and God for them to be real. This post made for a much better discussion than did whatever the pastor was going on about. I hate looking around the church and see so many good people believing in all of that nonsense. Its like one massive delusion, that only a few can get out of.

  • It isn’t hard to predict what will be said from the pulpit, is it? After a while you’ve truly heard it all. You don’t get far in a religion by coming up with fresh stuff. In fact, when I was entering the seminary they gave us a personality test. The lady interpreting the test for me was surprised to find that I had registered high on creativity. I asked if that was unusual in this seminary’s applicants and she said, “Very rare.”

  • Great post, thanks for writing it. As someone who only lost his faith this past year, it is a rather weird time to be around my quite religious family. My first secular Chirstmas, if you will ;)

    Merry Christmas!

  • …and so ends the Ontological Argument. Poor Anshelm (and heirs).

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Christians have it all backwards…If you ‘believe’, it will be true. I postulate that if it is proven to be true, then I will ‘believe’. When $10,000,000 is deposited in my bank account, I will ‘believe’ (that I actually won the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes). I don’t ‘believe’ I will ever see that money!

  • Linda R

    Wow, just got a taste of xtian backlash, and on their most important day of all days!

    I am a member of a message board dedicated to eating low carb/wheat & sugar free/paleolithic/hunter gatherer. Been enjoying this site for several months, until now. On Tuesday, one of the members was having an anxiety attack worrying as to whether or not the damn communion wafer might include wheat. OMG Needless to say, several others chimed in with suggestions as to how to avoid this calamity. I avoided that particular thread for the most part, and assumed it would have lost interest by now.

    This morning they are STILL commenting on this, and I got angry. There is a rule from the moderator stating that we should AVOID politics and religion. So I simply stated that in a brief sentence.

    When I came back and hour or so later, one of the members jumped, telling me to keep my secularist views to myself and that the thread had every right to be there.

    How the hell does this poster even know what my beliefs are? I have never discussed it. He or she is simply assuming that I am one of those damned atheists, always causing trouble.

  • Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    Great post

  • Gra*ma Banana

    Hypocrisy of the faithful, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.

  • alex

    The birth story also just feels made up. There are so many forced attempts at fulfilling prophecies etc, etc… The whole virgin birth is a mistranslation or intepretation of the Torah. The part of the prophecy where the messiah (which is another whole basket of misinterpretation and mistranslation) is from nazareth is not a prophecy in the torah, and the same with being born IN bethlehem.

  • Thinker1121

    I think for many Christians (and non-Christians), while the miracles and other biblical stories have to be “believed,” the love of God can actually be experienced. As an ex-Christian myself who was raised in the church, I regularly experienced (and still experience) the “love of God.” What changed was that I began to realize that the love of God I experienced in church was not coming from a supernatural being, but rather was the natural consequence of a transcendent experience that occurs among the religious and non-religious alike across the world. Religious services are very good at generating the conditions that help people have experiences of being uplifted, or feeling as though they are simply part of a whole. These experiences also often occur to people in nature, at raves, and in times of war. For example, self-sacrifice is relatively easy in war, precisely because soldiers lose themselves in the group and feel part of a whole. Of course, if a person has transcendent experiences in church and believes that the source of those experiences is God, then these experiences makes God’s reality self-evident.

    I wonder what the breakdown is among religious people who “believe in God” or “experience God,” or both. My hunch is that people who “just” believe in God are more likely to leave the church than those who experience God. Most of my non-believer friends who left the church as I did don’t profess to ever having experienced God in church like I did.

  • Adam

    I think that’s one thing I hate about attending any church service with my wife. I have heard it all before in my time. There are no new ideas that come from church. Its always the same thing over and over and over. It would be nice to for one hear something different.

  • WhatDoYouAlsoBelieveIn

    Do you ‘believe’ that life has any real meaning, value, or any point to it if it doesn’t come from a creator?

  • Meaning is something we create. Just like there is no real pattern to the stars above but we find images of familiar objects in them anyway, we make meaning out of what happens to us, and we choose to make other things happen which we want. Having meaning imposed upon us from an outside source may be comforting to some because it provides the illusion of “being right,” but it’s still just an illusion.

  • Got to this post a little late. Another great one. I also look forward every year to the Christmas/Holiday season although I have no superstitious beliefs. I enjoy a couple of days off, sleep in, spend extra time with immediate family and extended family that I may only see once a year, and also enjoy about a million calories worth of great food that I would not indulge in at any other time. Like Neal, I also derive great enjoyment from exchanging gifts with my loved ones. Although my wife is Catholic, she never attends church any more, nor does she insist on any of the nonsense like prayer that I was raised to perform. I am grateful for the fact that she is a very secular Catholic.

    I hope to see a future post(s) touching on the belief of Jesus’ exsistance. I am on the fence about this. What kind of authentic eviddence is there to support your belief? I also would look forward to the discussions about this topic. Finally, I hope to learn more about the inherited symbols and timelines you mention. This would make for very interesting reading and debate.

    Thanks, and everyone have a fantastic New Year’s with their families and loved ones.

  • Linda R

    I am also interested in a post regarding the existence of Jesus. Wasn’t that a very common name during that time? From all I have read, there just isn’t any historical evidence of him. I put him into the same category as Paul Bunyan, Santa and Tinker Bell.

    Of course, if you read the negative and cruel remarks that he supposedly uttered, I think I would rather hang with Tinker Bell.

  • I’ll have to spend some time researching and thinking some more before I would be prepared to write a post of its own arguing for the historical existence of Jesus, but my initial reaction is this: We often say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and when stories claim that a guy walked on water or mass-multiplied food or floated up into the sky, a few ancient stories won’t be enough. But the simple claim that a guy existed, taught some controversial things, and was executed isn’t so extraordinary, and as far as ordinary evidence for ancient people existing is concerned, the New Testament itself is a pretty decent artifact on its own. Extrabiblical evidence for miracles and the resurrection are virtually non-existent (the only possible exception would be a single passage in Josephus which even the Josephus experts now pretty much agree was probably an interpolation). But they do at least point to a movement which began in Jerusalem and spread elsewhere from there. Personally, I think Paul was more responsible for the character of the new religion more than anyone else (including Jesus), but that doesn’t mean Jesus was completely fabricated. It just doesn’t strike me as the most logical conclusion. To me, what seems most likely is that the guy existed but the stories about him got embellished over time (like the Chuck Norris jokes) until an entire religion was born. I’ll make a post out of that some day when I’ve got the time to do some digging first.

  • Patrick

    Enjoy your blog. As you probably know, Richard Carrier will have a book out soon on this historicity of Jesus. Looking forward to it.

    A lot depends on how we define our terms. What is enough to consider Jesus historical? Clearly if you define the historical Jesus as a man named Jesus who lived in Palestine, and since Jesus was a common name, you can say with almost certainty that he existed! Or you can extend the definition to include a man named Jesus who preached reform within Judaism. There were many people who preached reform, so again, the odds are in your favour that one of them was named Jesus! You seem to extend this further: named Jesus, preached, and was crucified… Again, since it was not uncommon for Romans to crucify “criminals” for anti-state activities, it is likely that many reformists were crucified, once their activities crossed certain red lines.

    Do we need to attribute specific preachings to a historical Jesus? If so, what is the minimum required? Clearly what it means to be a Christian has evolved dramatically over the past two millennia. If Jesus existed he was almost certainly a reform Jew, with little intention of creating his own religion. Is that good enough for him to be historical to us atheists?

    I agree that Paul was the great salesman of Christianity. He, in my mind, was the true founder of Christianity. He basically watered down Judaism and sold it to the masses. To give one example, no religion that forced circumcision on adult converts was going to go far, especially before antibiotics. Paul was a great salesman, but he recognised a defective product when he saw it. Fortunately, Jesus appeared to him in a vision with all the product enhancements required to dramatically increase sales.

    In the end, it doesn’t really matter. If someone existed, preached some things, and died a violent death is irrelevant to the question of whether “God” exists, and his son came to earth to preach his Word. Those that wish to believe, will. There is little you can do to convince them otherwise.

  • Linda R

    “He, in my mind, was the true founder of Christianity. He basically watered down Judaism and sold it to the masses. To give one example, no religion that forced circumcision on adult converts was going to go far, especially before antibiotics. Paul was a great salesman, but he recognised a defective product when he saw it. Fortunately, Jesus appeared to him in a vision with all the product enhancements required to dramatically increase sales.”

    Thanks, that is one of the best descriptions of xtianity I have ever read!

  • Good post! I read an article last year (and can no longer remember where, so perhaps it’s all made up) that talked about things that only exist once we believe in them. The one example I remember was currency—money only has buying power because we all believe it to have it. Something like that. And definitely not the same as your example from Elf. :)