Should parents collude with the Santa Claus myth?

The Santa Claus myth: deception or harmless fun?

Most parents make their children believe that there is a jolly fat man in a red suit, who lives at the North Pole and comes down in a sleigh every Christmas Eve to give children presents. Most of us have memories of this fun fantasy. We have memories of the making of lists; the excitement, making it difficult to sleep, that Santa was coming in the night; the devastation that Santa didn’t give us the presents we wanted; smarty-pants siblings and classmates telling us that Santa Claus isn’t real, to which we responded either with misery or denial. Or we worked it out for ourselves, feeling proud of our cleverness or disappointed at finding out the truth. We might have deliberately kept that we had worked it out from our parents for a while, to keep the myth going.

I have a rather different story to tell than most others, both amusing and rather embarrassing. I was very interested in science and the idea that belief in God was a delusion when I was ten. But (unlike my younger brother) I still wasn’t convinced that Father Christmas didn’t exist. God? What a load of pre-scientific nonsense; I was far too clever to believe in him. But Father Christmas? Tough one, that. It took an article I read when I was eleven, in the Christmas special issue of the NewScientist, on whether it’s right for parents to deceive their children into believing in the big FC, to finally convince me that it was a myth. Talk about selective credulity.

Father Christmas according to Tim Stanley

The excellent Telegraph journalist and historian Tim Stanley has his own theory on Father Christmas:

The legend of a jolly old fat man who brings children presents has to have some root in reality. My theory is that he is real but he’s also incredibly lazy – so he encouraged the world to think that he doesn’t exist to get adults to do his job for him. If you travelled to the North Pole, you’d find him sitting in his underpants watching the Eastenders Omnibus, chuckling at his luck.

There is, in fact, a sense in which the legend does have some root in reality. The idea of Father Christmas is descended from a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey called St. Nicholas. According to Wikipedia, the particular legend that led to the Santa Claus myth was when a father had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry, or marriage portion, for them, and due to the near-complete lack of work for unmarried women were liable to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas heard of their plight but was too modest to help them in public, so instead secretly threw three purses of money – one for each girl – through a window (or down a chimney, depending on which story you believe).

On the question of whether it’s right for parents, particularly Christian ones, to keep Santa Claus as part of the Christmas experience, well it’s clear that the Santa element can be very good. Father Christmas is a symbol of, and is descended from a legend about, giving, and giving is a central theme of the real Christmas message, with God giving his one and only Son that we might be saved from our sin and have eternal life. I suppose, from a Christian point of view, the Father Christmas element should aid the central meaning of Christmas and not replace it, as it all but has in the post-Christian world.

The other aspect is that it’s very fun. A sense of wonder and belief in what can be seen is a very good thing for children to develop, in a world where what is unseen is seen as less important, less real or non-existent. In 1897, an eight-year-old girl named Virginia Hanlon wrote to the New York paper The Sun, saying that some of her friends had told her there was no such thing as Santa Claus. She received this captivating response, published as an editorial, which I will quote in part here:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge…How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus…There would be no childlike faith, then, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

But can lying to one’s children ever be justified? Michelle Arnold at Catholic Answers argues that the fact that we consider this lying is a vindication of the message of Francis Church (the editorial writer), except that it’s now the adults, not the children, who are victims of “the skepticism of a skeptical age.” We see things as either black or white, literally true or completely false. Perhaps this explains the belief of so many – Christian or not  that the scientific theory of evolution is incompatible with the stories in the first two chapters of Genesis: we find it hard to accept that something can fail to be literally true without being any less true in another sense.

There is of the contention that this doesn’t change the fact that the Santa Claus myth is a direct deception, intended to actually make children believe something that isn’t true, unlike myths which are understood to not be literally true but are supposed to convey a message. The argument is that knowing that, for example, the worlds of imagination in the Narnia and Harry Potter aren’t true, or that witches don’t really fly around in broomsticks, doesn’t necessarily make the books or Halloween less enjoyable (leaving the ethics of Halloween for another time), and therefore it’s not necessary for us to lie to our children for them to have fun.

But do children even draw the same line between imagination and literal truth as we do? Do children who love Halloween really believe that witches fly around on broomsticks? When they play pretend or make-believe games, do they really end up believing what they are pretending? Well, I’m not particularly well-acquainted with small children, but my suspicion (and that of my father, who obviously is) is that they just don’t draw the clear line between genuine belief and imagination that we do. Therefore, instead of believing in these things in the sense that we believe what we read in non-fiction books, they enjoy the fantasy and pretence in stories and, most importantly, they enjoy the luxury of not having to admit to themselves that they are not true in a literal sense.

This probably explains the fact that children do actually enjoy fantasy stories and making believe more than adults do, and perhaps this is what belief in Father Christmas is. Perhaps the transition from believing in Santa to not believing in him is the transition from blurring truth and imagination to separating them – an inevitable and healthy transition that has to start from somewhere. Perhaps the Father Christmas myth is not so much a lie as helping a child to enjoy the stage in life when he doesn’t have to distinguish between myth and reality.

The ethics of deceit: ‘Lying’ by Sam Harris

The neuroscientist and “new atheist” writer Sam Harris has recently released a short book called Lying. It’s a very interesting book which is well worth reading; it’s so short it’s more of an essay (and it’s described as such in the acknowedgments) than a book and very cheap. If you have a Kindle, or a smartphone or tablet for which you can download the free Kindle app, you can get it for only £1.99.

As an atheist, Dr Harris has a utilitarian ethical framework. But this book shows how even a framework which approaches ethics purely based on its consequences can, when consistently applied, lead to stances which are very similar to what the Bible says. In Lying, Dr Harris argues – in his usual direct, clear, calm writing style – that there are very few instances in which lying can be morally justified, and shows through anecdotes and reasoning how much harm to our relationships and to our societies our habitual use of “white lies” does. The positive flipside of this is how much we could improve our relationships and increase trust between people simply by telling the truth when others don’t.

Despite strongly disagreeing with Dr Harris on Christianity, I do find him to be interesting and perhaps worthy of guarded admiration. I don’t like his hostility towards Christianity or, like so many of his allies, his repeated claims that there’s “no evidence” for the existence of God, despite not actually dealing directly with the evidence and arguments that are put to him. I also think that his affirmation of objective moral values, while admirable, is not really consistent with atheism, no matter how much he tries to argue that it is. However, I think one thing that can be said about Dr Harris and his “new atheist” colleagues is that at least they think religion is important and consequential, and, from this blog post, at least partly understands why many religious people are so devoted to their faith. There is a compelling argument that atheist who feel deeply about religion, even if against it, are in a better place to understand the dangers of Islam than the mostly indifferent population of most Western countries. 

How to save the church: sincerity or compromise?

The Hitch preferred authenticity to pandering

I have not yet watched the documentary film Collision, which follows the late Christopher Hitchens and the conservative American pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson on a series of debates about Christianity. However, I watched this video of the rather funny ending of the film. Being interviewed with Wilson in the back of a taxi, Hitchens recounts discussing with Richard Dawkins this question: If there were only one remaining religious person in the world, would you try and convince that person to be an atheist?

Hitchens’ answer was that he wouldn’t. And he says it’s not just because then there would be no-one left to argue with, although that’s certainly one reason. But there’s something else, he said, a gut feeling he has that he just wouldn’t do it. And, he says, “the incredulity with which he [Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still.”

I think there’s definitely a difference between Hitchens and Dawkins. Professor Dawkins, in The God Delusion, praises the extremely liberal Episcopalian Bishop John Selby Spong, whose belief system incorporates New Age elements and who doesn’t believe in the literal truth of the resurrection. “Bishop Spong…” he writes, “is a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so advanced as to be unrecognisable to the vast majority of those who call themselves Christian.” Note the snobbish and patronising use of the word ‘advanced’ to imply that the beliefs of more conservative men of faith are somehow less advanced. And, though I certainly wish Bishop Spong’s views were unrecognisable to most self-identifying Christians, when you consider that, according to a 2012 IPSOS Mori poll done on request of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, only 49% of ‘census-Christians’ even believe Jesus is the Son of God, that statement is unfortunately false, as I’m sure Professor Dawkins now realises.

Another example of Richard Dawkins’ lack of respect for brilliant orthodox Christian theologians is this article he wrote for the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free on why he refused to debate with the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Dr Craig is one of the most respected apologists for the Christian faith in the world, a person whom both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have been happy to debate, yet Professor Dawkins had the nerve to say that a debate with him “would look good on your CV, not so good on mine.”

He goes on to say that he won’t debate Dr Craig because of his defence of the “genocide” against the Canaanites which God demands in Deuteronomy 7. Of course, this is one of the more disturbing passages of the Bible and it is very unsettling to find God commanding something so apparently morally wrong. But how do you respond to something like this? Do you do as the preachers endorsed by Professor Dawkins in the article do, and attempt to brush these difficult parts of the Bible under the carpet, dismissing them as “metaphor” or “myth,” and mumbling, “well we don’t take that literally anymore”? Or do you, as an apologist, actually do your job (the Greek for ‘apologetics’ means ‘verbal defence’) and seek to defend the Bible and the Christian faith, and to incorporate passages like these into a consistent set of ideas? If God is all-good, all-knowing and all-just, then maybe it’s our imperfect understanding of morality and justice that’s at fault, not God’s, and we need to try and see where we’ve gone wrong.

But it’s evident that Professor Dawkins prefers the evasive approach to the consistent, engaging approach. Contrast that with what Christopher Hitchens says in this intriguing article about his debates with Douglas Wilson:

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.

For all his faults, Hitchens strongly believed in sincerity, authenticity and intellectual integrity; unlike Dawkins he preferred the Christians who are consistent and who actually believe what the Bible says. Another example of this is when he was asked why he didn’t attack Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation in his debates with him. His answer: “Because you believe it.”

Now I don’t want to be disrespectful to Bishop Spong, and I’m not arguing that liberal Christians necessarily hold their views due to a lack of sincerity. I admittedly know very little about Bishop Spong and I’m sure he is very intelligent, thoughtful and knowledgeable person, despite his very heterodox beliefs. I suppose the point is that most people, like Christopher Hitchens, are more likely to be engaged by Christians whose worldview, ethics and lifestyle are actually different to those of the world. This is shown by this article in the Christian Post, which tells about why the young atheists that the aforementioned Larry Taunton has interviewed left Christianity. One imagines that American young people would be most turned off by the judgementalism, fundamentalism and scientific illiteracy of some on the Christian right, but although that plays a part (in another survey of young American non-Christians, the top two adjectives that people used to describe Christians were ‘anti-gay’ and ‘judgemental’), I think the responses of Taunton’s interviewees show that even in America, lukewarm and pandering Christianity is at least as damaging. And half a century or more of modernisation and liberalisation of the Church of England has not stopped the sharp decline of Christianity, especially among the young.

Of course, an orthodox Christian will have many more disagreements with the average unbeliever than a purely nominal Christian, and adapting the style and delivery of evangelism to fit with the times is important. But I do think unbelievers have more respect for Christians who are different from the world and actually believe and try to adhere to what the Bible actually teaches. They admire the courage and integrity it takes to live a Christian life that clearly conflicts with the culture of the day. They are also arguably more attracted (at least in the long-term) to this kind of life than the nominal-Christian life, because it’s different and therefore more interesting and compelling. Conversely, if the church gives into pressure to “move with the times” and adopt beliefs that clearly contradict the Bible then people think, in many cases rightly, that it’s not really a genuine change of belief; they just think that they can convert more people by compromising the core tenets of Christianity.

But this attempt backfires because, though unbelievers in general are not like either Hitchens or Dawkins (they tend to greet religion more with indifference than hostility), they are more like Hitchens in that they respect believers who have integrity, rather than those who are willing to compromise their beliefs.

Lady Thatcher again

A few days ago I posted a blog about the death of Lady Thatcher and the abuse against her after her death. Forgive me if I sounded like a finger-wagging idealist who was all well-meaning but didn’t have the faintest clue what life was actually like for people who unemployed because of the closure of mines. I’m sure there are many heartbreaking stories of the effects of deindustrialisation – which Thatcher allowed to continue through the 1980s by stopping subsidising the mines, while doing very little to cushion the effects it had on the communities – and I can understand why there are very strong feelings about her premiership. And despite what I said about death being a universal experience, Margaret Thatcher was deliberately divisive, and David Winnick, a Labour MP since 1979, is right to say that it would be hypocritical for people who opposed her strongly at the time to keep their mouths shut and pretend not to feel the same way now. I wouldn’t mind betting Lady Thatcher would agree with him too. 

There will always be idiots in the world and I suppose the “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” phenomenon, the abuse and the celebrations of her death are proof of that. But I won’t lump all of her critics in the same group as those people. Also, although I think she had admirable qualities and was certainly the most successful prime minister of the last thirty years, her admirers need to remember that she had flaws and she made mistakes. Peter Hitchens puts it well: “I advise both her enemies and her worshippers to remember that she was human – deserving in the hour of her death to be decently respected, but to be neither despised nor idolised. May she rest in peace.”

Lady Thatcher – death of a formidable leader

So Lady Thatcher has died. What a sad time for so many people. My thoughts and prayers are with her family, friends, former colleagues and everyone who was close to her.

For all her faults (real and imagined), she was a courageous woman with many achievements, especially considering the sense of despair just before her election that I’m sure anyone who was alive then will recall. Peter Hitchens, in this wonderfully written blog post (and not an obituary-style piece of unqualified praise either; he “[doesn’t] share the adulation” that so many conservatives have), notes “her resilience the night after the IRA tried very hard to murder her, and had succeeded in murdering or gravely hurting several close friends, another moment which even the meanest of her detractors must surely admit does her credit.”

Beyond that, I will not comment on the success (or lack thereof) of her premiership. This is not the time to argue about such things; it is the time to be united in sadness that a fellow human being, whatever her actions and whatever her politics, has died. Politics may divide us, but death is an experience common to us all, which should unite us when we otherwise wouldn’t be united, and there are honourable opponents of Lady Thatcher who have been respectful and sensitive to her family. Even when Osama bin Laden died, I didn’t agree with all of the rejoicing and celebrating over his death. People of integrity may, at most, be relieved that someone has died, but they never actively enjoy it.

All the celebration parties and all the abuse is sadly predictable. Such is the sickness of the human heart that bitterness and division persist even through death, and of course few people have a sense of respect and honour for people in authority anymore. I have no desire to search Twitter for all the idiotic and disgusting remarks that are all over that website.

The hatred of Lady Thatcher is clearly motivated by more than this, but as a general observation, it is certainly a tendency for people, knowing they’re not perfect, to shift the blame for the ills of the world onto two categories of people: the rich and the powerful. Take the current frenzy against bankers or, among Conservatives, the focus on the “mess left by the previous government” as the sole cause of the economic crisis. Yet how many of these people themselves accepted the huge loans the banks were giving out, and used the economic boom period to spend and borrow irresponsibly, just as the Labour government did? And, as a very loose paraphrase of Luke 16:11, if you can’t be trusted with the power and the money that you do have, who would trust you with greater power, or greater riches?

I don’t expect to change the hearts of the nastiest of her critics, but to anyone who feels resentment because of the negative impacts she had on communities and the hardship she caused for the poor, ask yourself this: during her reign in the 1980s, or since then if like me you weren’t alive then, were you doing all you could with everything you had, to help the poor and the vulnerable? If not, then criticise her, but see her as a flawed human being just like you are, and maybe you can join me in thinking of, if not her, at least her family who are going through a universal human experience that you either have or you will go through, at some point in your life.

Jonathan

10 things about me

Hi. Apparently there’s this blog tag thing going on on WordPress, where one blogger writes ten things about him or herself, then nominates 10 other bloggers to do the same. Well here goes my list…

1. I’m indecisive. Very. This makes me quite slow in chess, for example. Also I entered into the D of E (Duke of Edinburgh) Award in December last year and I’ve done the expedition but I still haven’t decided on what else to do for it, when probably the rest of my school year has finished it by now.

2. I often think of a really good thing that I should have said or mentioned in a conversation hours after it. I find that with blog posts too. It’s often better for me to leave a finished post for a few hours, then come back and see if my unconscious mind has thought of something good to add or change.

3. I don’t have enough Christian friends – not enough friends generally but I really want to start making an effort to find friends who I can fully relate to. The Bible and all Christian leaders emphasise the importance of fellowship among Christians, so I’m definitely lacking in something.

4. I’m somewhat of a Radiohead nerd. Their music is amazing, though I’m actually beginning to get slightly bored of it now. But I’m still fascinated by them for some reason. I know too much about their setlists

5. I’m an INFP (Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, Perceptive), according to the most recent personality test I took.

6. When I was ten, I read The God Delusion and decided I was an atheist before I found out that Father Christmas wasn’t real. I eventually found that out when I was eleven, by reading a NewScientist article on whether it’s right for parents to tell their kids that he’s real.

7. I used to be fascinated, and still am quite interested, by the Pitcairn Islands. They’re a remote group of 4 subtropical Pacific islands owned by the UK, about halfway between New Zealand and Chile, with a tiny population of 67 people descended from the HMS Bounty mutineers. I’d love to go there but, as you might guess, it’s a very difficult place to visit.

8. I’m not really sure what I want to be when I’m older, although I’ve often considered being a journalist. I’d also like to study Philosophy at university.

9. I love improvising on the piano and I often come up with musical ideas in my head, which I record onto my phone if I can. But it’s often very inconvenient to have these ideas at random times, like in a lesson, knowing you’ll probably forget them.

10. I prefer holidays (vacations) where you actually do stuff, like walking in Switzerland or the Lake District, rather than holidays like the one I had in Greece, where you relax on the beach and go to bars in the evenings and it’s just England by the sea. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not as good.

Instead of nominating ten people, I’ll just do what DL Aiden (whose blog I linked to with the “apparently” link) did and invite anyone to reply and post their ten things, either in the comments or on their own blog, linking it back to the comments section. Thanks for reading.