How Do We Know That Santa is Imaginary? December 12, 2014

How Do We Know That Santa is Imaginary?

This is a guest post by Marshall Brain. Marshall is best known as the founder of HowStuffWorks.com. He is also the creator of popular websites like WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com and GodIsImaginary.com. His new book How “God” Works will be available in January from Sterling Publishing.

In the United States, December means that hundreds of millions of people are preparing for the big day on December 25. We see the preparations all around us: People are putting up trees in the living room and wreathes on the door, we see lights on buildings and bushes, and then there is the huge retail frenzy that is impossible to miss.

Mixed in with all of this is Santa Claus. You can sit on Santa’s knee and talk to him at the mall, and see Santa in parades all across the country. There are TV specials about Santa, songs about him, cookies in Santa shapes, posters, books, ornaments, etc. Santa has one of the best PR departments on the planet.

Even so, and even though many of us believed Santa to be real as children, I do not know a single adult who believes that the actual Santa Claus exists. You probably find yourself in the same position. You do not believe in Santa, even though you see him everywhere, and neither does anyone you know.

How does this happen? Have you ever thought about that? Because it really is quite remarkable. How can you, and I, and just about every adult in America, know that Santa is imaginary with 100% certainty? What gives us that level of confidence? Why do we have not a bit of doubt?

If you think it through, you will realize that Santa has one big problem when it comes to his PR department — they over-promise and under-deliver. In other words, there is a definition of Santa that has been widely distributed to the general public, and this definition just does not stand up to scrutiny.

Historically, the whole Santa persona was consolidated by the poem ”‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” first published in 1823 in a New York magazine called the Sentinel. That poem has since been republished and sung millions of times, to the point where most Americans can recite all or parts of it from memory. In this poem, which is less than 600 words long, all of Santa’s major attributes get cast in stone because of the poem’s huge popularity. Here we learn about the flying sleigh, the eight reindeer (including their individual names), the chimney as the point of entry, the sack of toys, the white beard, and the round belly. This persona was amplified by widespread Coca-Cola ads and other illustrations in the twentieth century. If you notice, Santa is dressed in fur in the poem, but Santa’s suit is now universally red with white trim — identical to the colors on a can of Coke.

Thus, you, and everyone in America really, has a set of attributes for Santa stored in our collective memories. In addition to the sleigh, the reindeer, the chimney, and the sack of toys, there is the workshop at the North Pole, the elves, Rudolph, and so on.

The problem is that, as we grow up, we come to understand that none of these attributes are true. There is no such thing as flying reindeer, for example. Everyone knows that. Thus there is no flying sleigh. And even if there were, there is no way for the sleigh to hold all the toys for all the good girls and boys around the world. Nor is there enough time for the sleigh to alight on every rooftop in one night. Furthermore, the poem is based on the model of single-family detached dwellings with fireplaces, and that model does not really apply to millions of apartments and their missing rooftops and chimneys. We also know that there are not giant factories at the North Pole, nor enslaved elves making toys, especially since most of the toys today come clearly marked with their Chinese point of origin. And so on.

What we all realize as adults is that none of Santa’s key attributes hold up in reality — in fact they cannot possibly be true. Therefore, we know that Santa is imaginary, and we are quite certain in that judgment.

What we have described here is a technique that can be used more generally to disprove things.

Step 1 is to make a list of the attributes or properties of the thing.

Step 2 is to look at each attribute in Step 1 and see if it holds up to scrutiny in the real world.

Step 3 is to then look at the status of all of the attributes together after step 2. Using this technique on Santa is easy because all of the attributes end up failing in step 2 and therefore we are left with the null set in step 3. Santa is obviously imaginary.

What if we apply this same technique to the God of the Bible? It really is an interesting exercise. We would need to make a list of attributes, but that is easy to do by looking at things like the dictionary, the Bible and the Apostles’ Creed. For example, omniscience is one of God’s well-known attributes, so we ask: Is God omniscient? It is possible to find places in the Bible where this clearly is not true. Genesis 2:18-20 is one good example. Genesis 3:9-11 is another. So the omniscience attribute is not true.

God supposedly answers prayers. But if we take the time to scrutinize this attribute, we find that in reality, every “answered prayer” is actually a coincidence. We note, for example, that if we pray to God to heal an amputee by restoring a lost limb, these prayers always fail. Because we have eliminated the possibility of coincidence in a case like this, coincidence cannot create the illusion of an “answered prayer” and so the prayer never gets answered. After studying prayer in detail, we realize that the belief in prayer is in reality a superstition.

If we make a list of all of God’s major attributes like these, we come to understand that they all fail, and that’s why we can be just as certain that God is imaginary as we are that Santa is imaginary.

This really is fascinating if you think about it. If God and Santa are equally imaginary, and certifiably so, how can billions of people on planet earth believe that God is real? The first reason is because most believers have never taken the time to do any sort of analysis, in part because they may have no real desire to know the truth. For example, if you currently believe in life after death, and if you are planning to meet up again with your beloved Aunt Sally when you die, you may have no desire at all to prove to yourself that God is imaginary.

The second reason is that there are a number of fallacies and biases that work together to prop up the belief in God. For example, if you are not trained to be a critical thinker, you can use confirmation bias and coincidences to make it seem like prayers are being answered. You can also make use of the placebo effect. The post hoc fallacy creates the appearance that prayers are having an effect when in fact they are not. And so on. If you succumb to all of these mental derailments, you are left with the illusion that prayer works. Then when large groups of Christians get together in the echo chamber at church, groupthink takes over and everyone in the community thinks prayer works.

But the reality of the situation is obvious to every rational, unbiased observer: prayer is a superstition. And God is definitely not omniscient. And God did not write the Bible. And so on through all of God’s attributes. And thus we know, without any doubt, that God is imaginary. Not a single attribute of God is left standing after analysis.

Now what? The challenge comes in educating the general population so that they can become critical thinkers. It really would be worth our while as a society to do this. First, if the general population were trained in this way, it would inoculate all of us against confirmation bias, superstition, the placebo effect, groupthink and the post hoc fallacy, especially when they are used in the political realm. In addition, it is not healthy to have a society filled with millions of citizens who believe in and talk to imaginary beings on a daily basis.

God is imaginary. He is as imaginary as Santa and Rudolph. The sooner we can create a society where the large majority of the population can think critically and understand this, the better off we will all be.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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