In Support Of Santa

I’ve just recently noticed that a number of people aren’t too keen on Santa Claus – the imaginary jovial old man in red who brings toys to good girls and boys each Christmas, but might only deliver a stocking full of cinders to the naughty. What’s going on here?

I noticed in Mike Hallowell’s Gazette column last week that he thinks it’s about time youngsters were told “the truth”. As he puts it when he ponders whether it’s time to send Santa into retirement:

“I’m certainly no kill-joy, but I think the reformers have a point when they say that enough is enough, and that its time we told the youngúns the truth about where those presents really came from.”

Mike’s point is understandable, of course; since he converted to Islam a few years ago, everything he writes is now from a strictly Islamic perspective, and also explains why his Gazette column now avoids his previous beliefs in psychics and mediums, and his former belief that UFOs are alien space ships from outer space.

But he does echo the beliefs of his and some others’ religions; I’m thinking in particular of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who worship Jesus Christ, for example, but for whom Christmas itself is not celebrated, never mind it being a time for Santa and presents.

For the religious, the idea of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad is clearly something that children should not be taught. Mike Hallowell and other religious people think they should be taught the truth: in other words the story of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad.

Oh. Er…

To be fair, though, there are some some sceptics who seem to have a similar idea about what children should be taught. Take a look at this:

DearChildren

DEAR CHILDREN One Day You Will Learn About Santa Claus. On That Day Remember Everything The Adults Have Told You About Jesus.

That’s going a bit too far, I think. It’s a good idea to teach children how to be rational as they grow up, and over time encourage them to develop logical thinking skills, but there’s plenty of time for that.

Despite what any religion might tell you, all babies are born atheists. They have no knowledge of any gods, after all. In fact, they have no knowledge of anything at all. As the philosopher John Locke put it, the mind of a new born baby is a tabula rasa – a blank slate upon which life’s experience writes itself. That’s why children adopt the religion of their parents and every other belief they come to hold. Superstitious parents raise superstitious children; educated parents raise educated children; criminal parents raise criminal children. There are exceptions, of course, but the general pattern tends to hold true.

Is there really something wrong if children believe in Santa – or the Tooth Fairy, or the witches and wizards in the fairy stories their parents read to them a bedtime? I don’t think so.

I look at it this way: children are not expected to believe in Santa into adulthood. It’s a nice fantasy that parents know their children will grow out of. Same thing with the Tooth Fairy. Unlike religion, which is designed to ensnare children for life, belief in Santa is part of a learning process in which children eventually find out that there are going to be many disappointments as they travel life’s highway. It can be tough to find out that something you used to believe is just wrong, but that’s the way it is, and it’s a useful learning experience.

Both the religious and, obviously, some sceptics should stop to consider that young children don’t care about religion or scepticism. Offer a child the option of a religious ritual, a logic puzzle to solve or a new toy to play with, what will a child do? In my experience, a child will go for the toy, haul it out of the box – and then pretend the box it came in is a ship, or a plane or anything else: so often, the cardboard box is more interesting than its contents, and the child’s imagination takes it on a journey that we, as adults, just shake our heads at in wonderment. (Why didn’t we save a lot of money by just getting a cardboard in the first place?)

But what about those bedtime stories about witches and wizards and princesses held hostage in castles and everything else that isn’t real? Oh, come on. Bedtime stories are a child’s introduction to literature. Like Santa, we don’t expect a child to spend its life believing that nonsense, we expect a child to develop an appreciation of literature, art, music, drama and also develop the critical ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. All of those things are used as a vehicle to express and critically examine what can be called “the human condition,” understandable to other humans who can discern reality from fantasy, but also recognise the basic truths about life that talented writers, dramatists, musicians and even comedians can express in a way that a thinking person can ponder in a meaningful way. I think I could argue that the most important experience of any child’s life is its introduction to its own existence through bedtime stories, and yes, even its early belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

At least a child can tell you he or she has evidence for the existence of Santa: the presents are there on Christmas Day! Eventually, though, a child can be guided to think rationally without spoiling what is, after all, the amazing and wonderful universe we inhabit. For me, the experience of a magnificent sunset loses none of its beauty by knowing that photons formed in the heart of the Sun spend a million years getting to its surface and only then travel across space for about eight minutes and then through our atmosphere to be diffracted into a range of colours, obeying the laws of physics. Some people are satisfied to be ignorant by explaining sunsets and everything else they don’t understand with the words, “God did it.” It’s an explanation that explains nothing at all, and a lot of adults are happy to not know things, although they seem to think that a non-explanation that relies on a non-existent  deity is sufficient. Those adults can never outgrow their superstitions, and are hardly in any position to complain that children should not believe in a Santa that has no more of an objective existence than any man-made gods.

Our children deserve to have their innocence; they are not really born as sinners, or as ready-made members of any religion – they are a completely new person who has to take a long time to work out what this new world is that they have been born into. Parents have a duty to guide their children as they grow up, hopefully teaching them to be rational and responsible people in their own right, ready to produce the next generation of humanity. A child’s belief in Santa is a part of its learning experience, an experience that should be enjoyable but at the same time can be let go of as it develops intellectual maturity. Religion and other superstitions are what holds back human potential. If only adults had learned to shake off their beliefs in various deities and superstitions as easily as children shake off and come to terms with the non-existence of Santa, we could now be heading for the stars.

But that is still a long time in the future, I think. Not because children believe in Santa, but because so many adults still believe in gods.

The Bad Thinking Blog Says: Long live Santa.

Let kids enjoy themselves; they have plenty of time to come to terms with reality – and surely a lot of them will do just that.

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5 responses to “In Support Of Santa

  1. I think the article was a good example of cognitive dissonance in action:

    “Sorry Santa, but I’ll plump for the real story every time.”

    What real story? The two biblical nativity stories are inconsistent with each other and are inconsistent with recorded history. Further, they disagree with the Koranic version. Which version is the real story?

    Well, we know the answer to that – none of them. In the article Mike Hallowell revealed that the timing of Christmas was shoehorned to replace existing religious festivals. It’s bigger than that – the nativity story was cynically constructed to fulfil Old Testament prophesies.

    Is the real story one of successful marketing of one religious product over another?

    See you at the Atheists of South Shields evil lair later?

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  2. “Mike’s point is understandable, of course; since he converted to Islam a few years ago, everything he writes is now from a strictly Islamic perspective.”

    Wow, it must have taken you a while to work that one out. Let me guess; as a sceptic, do you tend to see things from a sceptical perspective? Would you be shocked to discover that Jewish people tend to see things from a Jewish perspective, and that Liberal democrats tend to see things from a Liberal Democrat perspective? Isn’t life amazing?

    “…and also explains why his Gazette column now avoids his previous beliefs in psychics and mediums.”

    Actually, you’re wrong there, so it’s obvious you aim to continue in 2015 as per 2014. No change there, then. I STILL believe in “psychics and mediums” – and I have no doubts about the abilities of the genuine ones. The only thing that’s changed is my perception of where those abilities may sometimes come from. As for my Gazette column, I don’t avoid anything. Here’s how you can put it to the test, and give the lie to your own assertion. Tell me you’d like to see me address the subjects of mediumship, psychic phenomena, etc, in my column and I’ll do so. Just for you.

    Now to prove my point even further, I’ve trawled through every column I’ve penned in the Gazette SINCE I embraced Islam. For your information and edification, here is a list of the number of columns I’ve devoted to the two subjects you claim I’ve studiously avoided:

    Mediumship: 5 / Psychic phenomena: 11.

    FYI I’ve also penned 13 columns on sundry religious topics since my reversion to Islam.

    You must have missed those.

    “…and his former belief that UFOs are alien space ships from outer space.”

    I’ve also written 31 columns on the UFO enigma since my reversion to Islam, and I’ve only found three in which I’ve mentioned the ID hypothesis, although it’s possible I might have missed a couple. I don’t completely discount the possibility that some UFOs may be spacecraft that hail from other worlds. It’s just that there are other plausible explanations I edge towards. There’s nothing in Islamic theology that would prevent me from believing in the ET idea anyway, so why you should link my favouring of the ID hypothesis with my being a Muslim is puzzling. This has nothing to do with Islam. It’s to do with me. I was already positing the idea that many UFO incidents were inter-dimensional in nature as opposed to extra-terrestrial long before I embraced Islam, and other creditable researchers – not Muslims – had embraced it long before I did, such as the computer scientist and astronomer Jacques Vallée. Maybe you’re just taking a side-swipe at Islam by trying to attribute your own skewed ideas to it. If not, I’m sure you’ll enlighten us all.

    In any event, your readers might be interested to know what my view regarding the extraterrestrial hypothesis really is, as opposed to your assertion. Here it is:

    “The idea that aliens hail from some distant world light years from our own… is one that still holds the popular vote today…Many researchers now think that aliens are not so much extra-terrestrial as inter-dimensional; that is, they hail from another dimension which is in the same location as our own, but invisible to us…The truth is that since the dawn of human history visitations by other-worldly creatures have been recorded… we simply can’t say that life doesn’t exist on other planets. We just don’t know.” (Shields Gazette, June 7, 2012).

    For the record, this was penned way after I reverted to Islam.

    So, although I favour the idea that ETs and UFOs are inter-dimensional, as you can see, I certainly haven’t ruled out the extra-terrestrial hypothesis completely and it’s certainly misleading to imply that it’s simply a “former belief” which I abandoned because I became a Muslim. Your understanding of Islam is a poor as your understanding of the paranormal, it seems. Still, you could always start criticising what I write on religious topics as well as paranormal ones. After all, according to you my belief in Islam must be as deluded as my belief in paranormal phenomena, right? Why don’t you start attacking my spiritual beliefs with the same degree of gusto you do my beliefs in paranormal phenomena? I’m sure both your readers and my readers would welcome the change as refreshing.

    “Is there really something wrong if children believe in Santa – or the Tooth Fairy, or the witches and wizards in the fairy stories their parents read to them a bedtime? I don’t think so.”

    Amazing. You promote yourself as a champion of truth and decry those who believe in anything supernatural. You want to defend thinking adults from embracing what you vilify as the fanciful tales of the “Woo-wooh Brigade”. Yet, you are openly happy to let children whose discernment and critical faculties are not yet fully developed, be deliberately fed lies about Santa – a truly supernatural being if there ever was one. You’re happy for kids to believe in “witches and wizards”, and yet you let rip at the practices and beliefs of witches and wizards at every opportunity! You don’t want people to believe in the supernatural, and yet you’re happy to reinforce that very idea in them when they are at their most vulnerable and impressionable age. I’m sure this must make sense in your dimension, but it doesn’t in the one the rest of us inhabit. Such inconsistency deserves explanation, surely? Of course it does:

    “I look at it this way: children are not expected to believe in Santa into adulthood. It’s a nice fantasy that parents know their children will grow out of. Same thing with the Tooth Fairy.”

    Ah; I get it. It’s okay to lie to kids providing they learn the truth later. And why? Let’s find out:

    “Unlike religion, which is designed to ensnare children for life, belief in Santa is part of a learning process in which children eventually find out that there are going to be many disappointments as they travel life’s highway.”

    “Designed to ensnare”. Really? So let’s pick this apart. Religion was deliberately designed to ensnare children. It doesn’t do it by accident. It was consciously designed that way from the outset. Please provide me with proof. I’d like to see one iota of evidence, for example, that my own religion, Islam, was DESIGNED to ENSNARE children from its inception. The Qur’an itself teaches that “there is no compulsion in religion”, and evangelising people – children or adults – with the idea of getting them to become Muslims is a distinctly un-Islamic practice. To say that the idea of “ensnaring children” was a mechanism deliberately and consciously built in to my religion is deeply offensive and patently absurd, and I suspect my Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Sikh friends will feel exactly the same. Still, you’re entitled to your opinion.

    “It can be tough to find out that something you used to believe is just wrong, but that’s the way it is, and it’s a useful learning experience.”

    I see. So the lie that Santa is real is merely a “useful learning experience”, whilst the alleged lie that UFOs are real is something to be fought against with all of our vigour. You want kids to believe in something you admit is a lie, yet you don’t want adults to believe in something that hundreds of people who are in a good position to know now admit is true.

    Seems to me like you’re happy for people to be lied to; as long as they’re innocent kids and not thinking adults, of course. As I’m a few years older than you I’m fortunate enough to remember a time when learning experiences were enhanced by being told the truth about things, not by being told lies.

    “Let kids enjoy themselves; they have plenty of time to come to terms with reality – and surely a lot of them will do just that.”

    Are you sure? you should be careful. Deliberately feeding youngsters with false, supernatural ideas could be interpreted as a nefarious “design to ensnare children”. And we can’t have that, can we? Oh, I forgot. That principle only applies to religious people, and not to you. Skeptics can tell their kids any old tosh and its actually a constructive “learning experience”!
    One man’s lie is another man’s “useful learning experience”, right?

    Don’t forget to write your note to Santa next year. Who knows, he might bring you a brand new cherry picker. Your old one must be almost worn out by now…

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  3. “What real story? The two biblical nativity stories are inconsistent with each other”

    True, but I wasn’t referring to either of the Gospel narratives as “the real story”.

    “…and are inconsistent with recorded history.”

    Also true.

    Further, they disagree with the Koranic version.

    Right again.

    Which version is the real story? Well, we know the answer to that – none of them.

    Possessing a version which is consistent with provable historical facts doesn’t mean that that the story is “true”, of course – just that it cannot be proven false, which I admit isn’t the same thing.

    A lot of Biblical assertions have been howled down over the last two millennia, only to be proven accurate later. The existence of Pontius Pilatus is one example. Scholars regularly denied Pilate’s existence until evidence external to the Biblical narrative was eventually discovered. However, it’s true that there are thousands of provable errors in the Bible, and some of them do concern the Nativity. To date I’m not aware of any alleged historical or other discrepancies in the Qur’anic account of the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to look at them if readers know of any.

    The Qur’an is different to the Bible in one, crucial respect. Whereas the Bible is ostensibly and primarily a historical account with a strong religious theme running through it, the Qur’an is largely a religious or spiritual work peppered with historical facts. The Qur’an is concerned far less with history, and there are therefore far fewer historical assertions within it to be scrutinised.

    “In the article Mike Hallowell revealed that the timing of Christmas was shoehorned to replace existing religious festivals. It’s bigger than that – the nativity story was cynically constructed to fulfil Old Testament prophesies.”

    There’s actually a degree of truth in this. For example, the author of Matthew’s gospel (1:22-23) quotes Isaiah 7:14 to support the virgin birth of Jesus. However, he renders the Hebrew “alma” as “virgin” in the koine Greek. Alma doesn’t mean virgin at all, but simply “young woman”. Whatever one thinks of the virgin birth – and the vast majority of Muslims accept it – misquoting the words of others to support the idea (or any other, for that matter), is just bad, period. Some things are simply a matter of faith, and each individual has to decide whether they’re prepared to accept things or not solely on that basis.

    “Is the real story one of successful marketing of one religious product over another?”

    I think it is, in a way. Paganism was successfully marketed over the faith of the early Nazarene followers of Jesus. It’s just that the later Paulinist Christians didn’t actually realise what they were buying – Paganism dressed up as something else. Christians sometimes say that the Church conquered Rome. In religious terms, I think that Rome actually conquered the Church. What has been passed off as Christianity since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus. Still, to be fair to the Bible, I’d have to say that many of the alleged discrepancies in it are really just misunderstandings of the narrative or the language it was written in.

    I just don’t buy this idea that teaching kids to believe in Santa and Harry Potteresque entities now actually makes them better equipped to handle life’s disappointments later. Why not beat and starve our kids as well? That’ll toughen them up, eh? I don’t think so. There are myriad children around the world, from religious, agnostic and atheistic backgrounds, all of whom survived their formative years without Santa and grew to be productive members of society well able to handle life’s knocks. I can’t remember ever hearing a weaker argument to justify lying to children.

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  4. Mike, I think we’re probably pretty close when it comes to the historicity of Jesus. It’ll come as no surprise to you that I don’t think the historical Jesus ever existed, and what we see in the gospels is a framework of stories stitched together, attempting to put Paul’s ‘spiritual’ experiences into a physical and (almost) contemporary context, whilst trying to satisfy prophesy. But I’m getting off topic.

    You may be surprised that I’m in some agreement with you in terms of lying to children. I can see Swifty’s argument about Santa being an opportunity for an early learning experience in establishing the truth behind mythical claims within a safe non-judgmental framework. However, I would take the ‘don’t lie to children’ concept further than you. I think parents should ensure that their children are equipped to objectively examine all truth claims, and discard those that cause harm, don’t stand up to scrutiny or don’t work. In short, parents should help their children develop a solid, fact-based epistemological framework. Until their children have developed this, parents (and schools) shouldn’t fill their heads with nonsense, or allow them to be put through barbaric rituals, for instance like culturally or religiously sanctioned genital mutilation.

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    • Mike Hallowell

      “Mike, I think we’re probably pretty close when it comes to the historicity of Jesus.”

      I suspect you’re right there.

      “It’ll come as no surprise to you that I don’t think the historical Jesus ever existed…”

      I agree, in the sense that the Jesus who has come down to us in the history books is nothing like the true personage.

      “and what we see in the gospels is a framework of stories stitched together, attempting to put Paul’s ‘spiritual’ experiences into a physical and (almost) contemporary context, whilst trying to satisfy prophesy. But I’m getting off topic.”

      Well, you might be, but your comment deserves a positive response. You may be interested to know that I’ve almost finished a book manuscript on the whole subject which essentially makes the same point. Paul’s epistles were written long before the gospels, and it can be easily proven that whoever penned the gospels (and we don’t know who the authors were) did so in an effort to shore up Paul’s weird theological perspective and give it some faux credibility. Its interesting that if you look at some of the words ascribed to Jesus in the gospels they give the lie to just about everything Paul said. Paul started Christianity, not Jesus. If you can get a hold of Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by the late, great Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby, I suspect you’d love it. If you can’t, you’re welcome to borrow my copy.

      “You may be surprised that I’m in some agreement with you in terms of lying to children.”

      I thought you might be.

      “I can see Swifty’s argument about Santa being an opportunity for an early learning experience in establishing the truth behind mythical claims within a safe non-judgmental framework.”

      I can see it, too. I just think its horribly weak.

      “However, I would take the ‘don’t lie to children’ concept further than you. I think parents should ensure that their children are equipped to objectively examine all truth claims…”

      Which – and this might surprise you – is what Muslims believe. When I reverted to Islam the very first thing I was taught was, “Don’t believe anything just because someone tells you its true. Study it yourself.” I know this doesn’t dovetail with the popular concept of Islam as a terrifying cult which forces everyone to do everything at the point of a sword, or whatever, but thinking Muslims know that this is the authentic Islamic approach, and that the Qur’an strictly forbids Muslims from coercing anyone into believing anything. Those who do this don’t represent authentic Islam, but unfortunately they’re the only ones the media likes to focus on.

      “and discard those that cause harm…”

      I agree.

      “…don’t stand up to scrutiny or don’t work. In short, parents should help their children develop a solid, fact-based epistemological framework. Until their children have developed this, parents (and schools) shouldn’t fill their heads with nonsense…”

      I agree again, Brian. But here’s the dilemma. How do we decide what is nonsense? Swifty would immediately appeal to science as the final arbiter, as it seems to be the only one he’s conscious of. Others (like me, I suppose) would look to an infallible deity. I’d be wary of looking to science for final answers, as scientific understanding changes with the passage of time, and what science teaches today as an absolute truth may be discarded as a quaint but nonsensical idea tomorrow. Swifty and your good self would not look to religion or God for reasons you’ve both spelt out here, and I’m sympathetic to some of them. After all, religion has an appalling track record. But the question remains, who decides what is nonsense? All a decent parent can do is rear a child to the best of their ability. You and I will teach our kids what we sincerely believe to be true until they reach an age where they can decide for themselves. I think we’d both agree that neither of us would want our offspring to believe anything solely on the basis that we believed it.

      “or allow them to be put through barbaric rituals, for instance like culturally or religiously sanctioned genital mutilation.”

      Millions of Jewish and Muslim males have been circumcised with no observable negative effects and quite a few positive ones. However, a balanced perspective offering both sides of the argument can be found here: http://jme.bmj.com/content/30/3/238.full

      Regarding female genital mutilation, there is no sanctioning of this in the Qur’an and it has been condemned by Islamic scholars. (In 2007, for example, the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research ruled that FGM had “no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions” and condemned the practice.)

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