Atheists, Christians, and Santa Claus December 21, 2010

Atheists, Christians, and Santa Claus

When Jon Acuff of Stuff Christians Like appeared on a radio show, a caller talked about her problem with Santa:

One caller said something I have heard often from Christians when it comes to the man in red. She said, “We’re not telling our kids about Santa, because when they find out he’s not real, they won’t believe that God is real when we tell them about him.”

I gotta say, there’s some truth to that. They’re both fictional characters, so if you say one’s not real, why should anyone believe the other one is real?

Jon doesn’t see Santa as a problem, though:

Kids are imaginative, that’s what they do. If I play along with their American Girl Dolls or take my oldest daughter to a Narnia film and she really believes it, I’m not afraid that I’ve effectively prevented her from believing in God. We’d never say, “I’m not taking my son to see Lord of the Rings, because if he ever finds out Gandalf is not real, he won’t believe in God.”…

No one says that. And we’re also not seeing the damage of a generation who grew up believing Santa was real only to learn he’s not. By that I mean there aren’t any books for adults designed to help you get over your Santa problems… There’s not an industry to support the thousands and thousands of 30 year olds struggling with Santa Claus, because there are not thousands and thousands out there who do.

Of course there’s no need for those things. That’s because we expect children to wean themselves off of the Santa myth at a young age — If parents don’t do it, other kids will. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Santa Claus is a culturally-acceptable lie.

However, when people don’t tell you that your belief in god is equally false, you might go on believing it through adulthood. Millions of people are victims of that. We atheists are in the position of trying to remedy that problem.

Back to that lady calling in to the radio show. I think she makes a good point — there’s really no difference between Santa and God. Unfortunately for her kids, she doesn’t want to introduce them to Santa out of fear they’ll equate the two.

I can’t wait to talk about Santa when I have kids.

As Dale McGowan wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief, Santa is just a “dry run” for God.

His essay on the subject is a must-read for any current or future atheist parent:

It’s hard to even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed — until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one…

Even if Santa and God aren’t used interchangeably by Christians, it’s easy for atheists to point out the similarities. When those kids get older, our logic is much more coherent than anything their pastors might say — and likely to have a larger effect on them.

If you still choose to believe in god when you’re older, you have to rationalize like crazy to find a difference between the two.

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  • Jon Peterson

    …because when they find out he’s not real…


  • Erin

    I’ve read Dale’s book and loved it. My mother never had Santa in our house growing up because of the commercialism attach with Santa, so the idea of having Santa for my 2 year old is hard to really imagine. My boyfriend had Santa as a kid and says he loved having the magic and wonder associated with it.

    Maybe we’ll compromise and have only one Santa gift every year, instead of the excess I’ve seen with other families. I do agree that I can be a wonderful dry run for religion. Now we just have to make sure the grandparents know not to give anything from Santa, although they still think we are lazy Christians, not the true godless heathens we are 🙂

  • The problem is that religious parents know Santa isn’t real, whereas they don’t know God isn’t real. Thus they’ll keep reinforcing the God myth as true, while not bothering to reinforce the Santa myth.

    “Dad, my friends said there’s no Santa!”
    “OK, son. You had to find out the truth eventually.”

    “Dad, my friends said there’s no God!”
    “Don’t listen to them, son. God is as real as I am, and they’ll go to hell for not believing in him.”

  • RJ

    Just went thru this with my daughter about a week ago. She came up to me and said, “Santa’s not real, is he?” I said, “what do you think?” , which I’ve used numerous times over the past couple years to see what she thinks. She says, “I think it’s you and mommy”, to which I said, “what makes you say that?”. She responds, “I’ve thought so for a couple of years or two and all of my friends are telling me it’s my parents. You never answer the question, you always ask me what I think.” That made me smile. At this point I had little choice but to break down and tell her that yes, we are indeed Santa Claus. She clearly knew and was not going to relent with her questioning any time soon. She took it fine. Just like I did when I found out. At that age, they aren’t so concerned about who gives them presents anyways, as long as they are still going to receive them. I just had to make sure she doesn’t spoil it for her little brothers or anyone else yet. I’m happy to report that one week later she’s still alive and doing fine.

  • Meredith

    My problem with the Santa story is that I don’t like its moral.

    “If you’re GOOD, you get stuff. If you’re BAD, you don’t get stuff.”

    It’s not too far of a stretch to believe that people who were born into privilege are actually better people than individuals born into poverty or other hardship. Or that people come to acquire belongings and wealth because they are better than others. Goodness knows we hear those messages in our society all the time.

    I’m going to skip Santa with my daughter (and other future kids) and focus our Christmas traditions around charity, thoughtfulness, and thankfulness.

    We get enough of the odious “having stuff = being good” attitude from churches and their messages about “God’s gifts.”

  • snaggletooth

    Jesus: Santa Claus for adults. Nuff said.

  • I found out last week that about 6 years ago my second daughter stayed up all night on Christmas Eve in order to test whether or not Father Christmas came. She even caught us delivering presents but pretended to be asleep. Apparently she was sceptical of her parents giving her a truthful answer.

    I love my kids. They make me proud.

  • OhThatStevie

    I figured out the Easter Bunny was my mother when I recognized her handwriting was the same as the “Easter Bunny’s”. I was three. When I was in second grade, “Santa” visited my class. I told my mom that I knew it was my music teacher and, thus, that Santa wasn’t real. And the world continued after that.

    Sure I’m 25 years old and an atheist but I still smile and wave when I see Santa at the mall this time of year.

  • Trace

    My son found out about the tooth fairy first (money under the pillow) when accidentally he found one of his teeth in one of my pockets. He then made the connection with Santa…. he just could not believe we had “lied” to him. However that did not last long and moved on.

    This will be his first Christmas when he will help us put presents under the tree. He has been quite excited about going shopping with me and or her mother and wrapping gifts.

  • TH

    Part of what did Santa in for me was realizing that the kids down the street who had a bigger house, nicer clothes, etc. also got cooler presents than I generally did, despite the fact that they were mean obnoxious kids. Which told me that either Santa’s surveillance system sucked, or he didn’t exist. Being pretty logical even then, I concluded the latter.

  • Richard P.

    My son found out about Santa at 3 when I played Santa at the x-mass party for the daycare at the YMCA.
    He shouts out, hey that’s my dad. Then try and keep a three year old quiet. I think there were a few crushed kids that day.
    My son is alive and doing fine too. I can’t speak for the other ones.

    “We’re not telling our kids about Santa, because when they find out he’s not real, they won’t believe that God is real when we tell them about him.”

    This lady is right to fear this from a believers view.
    I think this is why the “you know it is a myth” campaign is so important I really do think we need to infest the open dialog that christianity is a myth. Every thought that gets pushed into the masses dilutes the effectiveness of religion.

  • Revyloution

    Hemant said

    I can’t wait to talk about Santa when I have kids.

    I can hear his mother squealing in glee from here.

    I never could bring myself to lie to my daughter about anything. We do play pretend at Christmas, setting out cookies and milk for Santa and raw oats for the reindeer. Suspending disbelief, without intentionally trying to deceive does’t kill the Christmas spirit. I think it enhances it.

  • NotYou007

    I told my daughter when she was 5 there was no Santa. She quickly moved on with her life after I broke the news.

    I think Santa can be fun but it was never used as a dry run for believing in a God or Jesus. It was simply something I was brought up with and was fun. I enjoyed going to see Santa when I was a little boy and I remember looking out the window on Christmas Eve staring at the sky trying to spot Santa.

    Now days NORAD tracks Santa for you.

  • Rich Wilson

    I confronted my mom about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck when I was 4. As soon as she admitted that they were people in costumes, I said “So Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real either.”. It wasn’t a question.

    My son is almost 4, and I’m not going to jump through hoops with the myth. I do agree with @Meredith. The way I explain it to other adults is that the NT Santa visits our house. The OT “knows when you’ve been bad or good” can go visit North Korea.

  • This is timely for us, as my 2-year-old only sorta kinda understands the Santa idea. We’re trying not to use it as a means of behavior control, but it’s hard not to fall back into the traditions you grew up with. Ms. EA and I may need to have a talk tonight about how to proceed. On the one hand, I appreciate magic and wonder in childhood. On the other, those things are all around in the real world if we teach our kids to look.

  • Our plan with our son (not quite 2 right now, so this will mostly be a worry next year) is to do the Santa thing, but with a clear wink-and-a-nod. e.g. like maybe papa (me) will put on a Santa hat and a beard, but not the full get-up, and pretend to be Santa. I mean, even for a toddler it’s got to be pretty obvious that something’s fishy about that, eh? 😀

    Neither my wife nor I have any recollection of no longer believing in Santa. There was no moment of great disillusionment. Even from about as far back as we can remember, our own “belief” in Santa was a bit of a wink-and-a-nod in itself… That’s sort of my target area. Never a literal belief, but sort of a fun tradition-y belief.

    But we shall see.

  • Disconverted

    There’s not an industry to support the thousands and thousands of 30 year olds struggling with Santa Claus, because there are not thousands and thousands out there who do.

    I love this part.
    Churches anyone?

  • Alexis

    In years past, my fundy friends have sent a chain e-mail describing the parallels between Santa and god. Of course they only examined the good things, giving gifts and such, not the bad things i.e. hyper-judgmental. The punch line was “Except for one thing, Santa doesn’t exist.” Whoever wrote that thing needed think his think one think further.

  • Olu

    The Father Christmas’ story in the time s of Xmas is synonymous with giving of gifts to little kids, According to the legends, while the Santa Claus is always attributed to Christmas; the season of Christmas is a unique period for Christian and to remind the whole world of his birth of Jesus. While an atheist may feel indifference about the celebration, Christians are always reminded of the events that surround the birth of Christ. In as much as there is the need for more emphasize to be drawn towards Christ during the season, atheist and non believers alike are nevertheless left out of merry of this wonderful season. Kids need to be taught what this events means and all the symbolism that are associated with it. Christmas is a season that everyone can see and feels whenever it comes, denying it is a form of lies, an atheist parent might not celebrates, but hold it a duty to explain it to their kids what the season is all about.

  • Deanna

    We’re Christians and we are not at all threatened by the idea of Santa. It’s fun and harmless. I really don’t see how you can compare that myth to God. The idea of Santa has been around for minutes compared to the idea of God which was around before even the time of Jesus. And just because you believe God is a false idea doesn’t mean that’s what the truth is. Let’s all have a little humility and admit that we don’t know. Be mindful that your beliefs aren’t any more or less valid than mine. We’re all taking bets that we are right. I’m bettin’ on God…and I’m all in!

  • I was so crushed when I found out Santa wasn’t real (Told to me by my angry brother) but not because there was no Santa, but because my parents had lied to me. After being told so many times that telling lies is bad – they tell me this whopper! They used that lie to make me go to bed early and threaten me with coal if I was being hyper and excited after my 10th candy cane!

    I resolved to never lie to my kids about Santa, and I’ve kept that oath. My kids know the stories about Santa, but they know Mom and Dad buy the presents. It was interesting having a talk with my kids when they started school to not tell the other kids about there being no Santa. Both times they told me someone else had already blabbed about it ages ago. One on the first day of school.

  • ACN

    Have you also placed a bet on Zeus, Odin, and Mithra?

    There are thousands of gods humanity has invented and discarded over the course of written history, do you truly mean to say that you really don’t know, but are deciding to bet on only one of them? If you really believed what you said, wouldn’t it make far more sense to worship all of them (covering every square on the roulette wheel as it were) or to worship none of them, hoping not to offend anyone who has your eternity in mind?

  • @ Deanna:

    Let’s all have a little humility and admit that we don’t know. Be mindful that your beliefs aren’t any more or less valid than mine. We’re all taking bets that we are right. I’m bettin’ on God…and I’m all in!

    You seem like a nice person, so please understand I’m about to attack your idea, not you.

    This is the kind of statement that drives atheists nuts. You claim to not know if God exists, but you are a Christian and are “taking bets” that you’re right. Which means you think you do know. Which isn’t particularly humble. You’re talking out of both sides of your mouth here.

    To that extent, I think my beliefs about God are more valid, because mine are based on evidence (or the lack thereof), not a cosmic bet that amounts to wishful thinking.

  • I never met god or received anything from him. I met Santa at the mall and he always left gifts for me under the tree. Santa is more likely to be real.

  • Magen

    My father has always said “If you’re going to believe in something, believe in Santa. He’s a much nicer guy than this god dude people are always spouting about, and he makes just as much sense”. Both of my parents were raised Catholic which is why we continued to celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter even though my parents raised their 4 children without any form of religion. Holidays for us are about fun, family, pretty decorations, delish food, silly stories, gifts and a great excuse for a party. Santa has always been a part of our holiday celebration because it’s a fun story. By age 5 or so, my brothers and I all realized that there was no fat man breaking into our house one night a year to leave us gifts, but that didn’t take Santa out of the holiday. I am 29 years old and still get gifts from Santa, written in the same special Santa handwriting my mother has always used. She’s not “lying” to us. Its all part of the Christmas fun!

  • Carlos

    So prescient…

    Since having read Dale’s book some time ago, I’ve been looking forward to the day my oldest (now almost 8) would ask me directly about Santa. He’s such a bright kid; it’s wonderful watching him ponder mysteries – I can almost see the gears turning and churning in his head. I couldn’t wait to watch him figure it out himself, and then he could also be in on the fun as we wait for his younger siblings to work it out on their own in their own time. It would be so great!

    Unfortunately, my wife couldn’t stand lying to them any longer, be it by commission or omission, and flat out told him and his younger sister (5 1/2) and brother (almost 3) that Santa is a fun, festive myth, but that mommy and daddy, and all our family members and friends who love us, are the ones who get them the gifts they open on Christmas morning.

    Sorry, no dice – they refuse to believe us and maintain that Santa IS in fact real, that he DOES make all those toys in his workshop, that his reindeer DO fly (including Rudolph), and that he DOES deliver all those presents in one night, and by gum he gets it all done because he’s MAGIC.
    Oh well, maybe next year…

  • Good post, Hemant. I’m currently wrestling with the ethical implications of maintaining the Santa Claus myth. My young son is a burgeoning critical thinker and I try to allow him to come up with his own hypotheses on the subject, hoping all the while that he won’t flat out ask me if Santa’s real. Because I’m not going to lie to him if he does. Nobody prepares you for this kind of thing 🙂

    If you’re interested, I’ve got a short post on this topic at my blog:

  • I’m with @ChristopherTK. I watched “Miracle on 34th Street” last night and realized that Kris Kringle helped people; answered their requests; exposed the one person spreading fear, guilt and self-loathing as a power-seeking fraud; didn’t punish those around him when they had doubts and was able to make a more credible appeal to evidence for his existence than most deities.

    It just reinforced how far gods fall short of their own PR and how the evidence for their existence is so very weak. To say nothing of the people using fear, guilt, etc to encourage belief in the religion and obedience to them. @Deanna should consider shifting her chips to Kris Kringle if she still insists on betting-the odds are the same and as a role model he is much more reliable and loving.

  • If I play along with their American Girl Dolls or take my oldest daughter to a Narnia film and she really believes it, I’m not afraid that I’ve effectively prevented her from believing in God. We’d never say, “I’m not taking my son to see Lord of the Rings, because if he ever finds out Gandalf is not real, he won’t believe in God.”

    False analogy. The speaker is not actively telling his children that the American Girls Dolls are actual people, or that Narnia truly exists, or that Gandalf is real. In fact, he is probably explicitly telling them that those things are fictional. Whereas with Santa for the very young, and for Jesus for all ages…

  • In response to RJ’s statement (nearly halfway down the comments from here, but not quite): “At that age, they aren’t so concerned about who gives them presents anyways, as long as they are still going to receive them.”

    Haha, yeah. I remember when I had started to piece things together. I finally asked my mom one day when we were out shopping or something near Christmas, “Santa isn’t real, is he?” And she just sort of got flustered and said we’d talk about it when we got home. Later that day she and my dad talked to me and my sister (2 years younger than me, she was in the car with us when I blurted this out) and explained that no, Santa is imaginary. (Of course they continue to lie to us about God.)

    I had figured it out a while before that, but I was scared to mention it because I was scared that if they knew that I knew that they were really the ones giving me the presents instead of this imaginary magic man that the presents would stop coming!

  • I grew up with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but I was always skeptical of both… I guess that’s why my fundamental Christian mother raised me secular! I failed the dry run.

  • Santa is the best damned lesson in freethought you can give a kid. They all figure it out by age 8 or so at the latest. My grandson’s 7 and he’s asking big time questions this year. For now, he still wants to believe but I already whispered to my daughter to brace herself and enjoy it this year because it’s on its way out.

    Though I don’t put it past my grandson to pretend to go on beleiving in Santa (possibly already) in the false assumption that he’ll get more gifts if he does. He’s one sharp cookie. We’re baking chocolate chip cookies Christmas Eve because they’re Santa’s favorite kind. I’ll play along as long as he wants to. Unless he does actually reach the double digits then I’m kind of going, you don’t really believe that any more, do you?

    I think it’s really important for kids to not take anyone’s word without thinking for themselves. Even mommy and daddy’s (and Grammy’s) shouldn’t be sacred. Respected but not automatically right just because it came from them. We’re fucking human; we err and kids should learn to decide things for themselves. Finding out loved ones bamboozled you with Santa gives you the freedom to question what they say. This is a good thing when even the best of them do err.

    My mother considered Santa a false idol and, at going on 53, I still feel gypped.

  • The Christmas holiday is just a pagan proxy anyway. And given the fact that Santa is actually represented by a physical human throughout the malls of the world, I say let the kids believe in Santa. They eventually find out on their own anyway.

    Maybe a cool stepping stone towards helping them feel less inclined to believe in a god later in life.

  • Deanna

    I believe in the God that I have had an experience with. I don’t have a particular name for him. What I meant by that there has always been an idea of a God is just that. There has always been an idea that there is something greater than ourselves out there. Our own concepts about what that is differ. I can only speak of my own experience of what that something greater is. As far as me saying that we don’t really know for sure, but being Christian myself…. I am trying to meet you where you are at. Logically, in this world’s thinking…we don’t know. I can’t prove to you that there is a God…but you CAN prove it to yourself if you are willing. However, no one can prove that there isn’t one! (And don’t give me that “can’t see Him” silliness…that doesn’t even fly intellectually. There are lots of things that just are which we can’t see.)With all due respect, for being such intellectuals you guys are being pretty closed minded.

  • Ed

    Has anyone seen the movie “The Polar Express”? After watching it a few months back I found myself very clear on why I don’t want to perpetuate the Santa myth with my kids. Basically the main message of the movie is that blind belief, faith in the unseen and unproven, is a virtue and will magically reward you.

    Santa, and God, do exactly the same thing; They confuse and obscure what is best about the world, trading in the real for the imagined. With or without Santa or God, virtue exists. Compassion, charity, altruism, turning the other cheek and the golden rule, don’t rely on the idea or belief in a god (or Santa) for their virtue and value. They are good, desirable things for their own sake.

    Why teach a child to believe in something that we all know is false (Santa)? Not only does this confuse the child about virtue and altruism, it teaches the child that the world operates in a way we all know it does not. If you believe in something strong enough it doesn’t become real, reindeer can’t fly, and God has yet to regrow an amputees limb no matter how hard or how long they or their loved ones or a random stranger have been praying.

    Deanna does have a valid point, one can’t disprove God’s existence, because one can’t prove a negative as James Randi eloquently and topically illustrates in this clip.

    But this only means God, like flying reindeer, Santa, fairies, Odin and Carl Sagen’s invisible dragon are all equally “irrefutable”.

    All arguments aside, it strikes me as best to “bet” on and teach my children about what is unquestionably real and good in this world. With that in mind, I plan to continue to donate blood, to volunteer, to clean up my dirty dishes, to donate what money I can, to smile at strangers a little more often.

  • Magen

    @ Deanna, I think you’re confusing “close-mindedness” with an unwillingness to just take that which we don’t necessarily know and label it “God”. This has been a common theme throughout history. So much was attributed to God(s) before science was able to provide an explanation. I can look at the world around me and think, wow, there sure is a lot more to learn and discover. I do not look around and see God, because it just doesn’t make any sense at all. And if it happens that I am wrong, and there has been a God all along, I would still prefer to keep him out of my life, because that guy sure seems like a dick. What a waste of omnipotent powers.

  • Deanna

    He seems like a dick based on what? Your concept of Him or your experience of Him? Both? Just curious.

  • I can’t prove to you that there is a God…but you CAN prove it to yourself if you are willing. However, no one can prove that there isn’t one! (And don’t give me that “can’t see Him” silliness…that doesn’t even fly intellectually. There are lots of things that just are which we can’t see.)With all due respect, for being such intellectuals you guys are being pretty closed minded.

    I don’t think this is very respectful at all. In fact, let’s reverse it and see how it sounds.

    I can’t prove to you that there isn’t a God…but you CAN prove it to yourself if you are willing. However, no one can prove that there is one! (And don’t give me that “I can feel Him” silliness…that doesn’t even fly emotionally. There are lots of things that we feel that we don’t necessarily understand but we still don’t attribute to a God.)With all due respect, for being such attuned individuals you guys are being pretty closed minded.

    Does that really sound respectful to you?

  • Magen

    I have no personal experience with any god that would make me have my afore mentioned opinion, because I do not, and have never at any point in my life believed in the existence of any god. A main point that I can attribute my atheism to, is the concept of god in general. My life is pretty awesome. Sure it’s not all lollipops and glitter, but I hardly have any room to complain. When I look at the world around me, however, I see so much suffering, disease, famine, war, etc. And a great deal of this is caused and done in the name of religion/god. If God happens to exist, which I find highly unlikely, but I don’t claim to know everything, I think that it certainly qualifies as a dick move for this omnipotent being to sit back and allow such horrible atrocities to take place. Why not just be like, hey, it’s me God, I exist, and here’s how things should be. And if this God truly is all about the hateful things that can be derived from various religions holy books, then as I stated previously, I’d still want nothing to do with God, because I don’t have people who hate in my life. Santa, however, is a concept I can get behind. That guy seems cool and I’d much rather he be real.

  • Rose

    i think this entire debate right here is ridiculous. honestly, who cares? let the kids do their thang, and let them decide later. god and santa are two different concepts and have nothing to do with each other. stop overanalyzing everything. all of you. youre starting to sound like the evangelicals.

  • Rose

    god and santa are two different concepts

    Old bearded guy who knows when you’ve been naughty or nice and who rewards good behaviour. Is that Santa or God I’m talking about? The concepts seem pretty close to me.

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