Should Atheists Ground Santa?

December 22, 2010

Last week, I wrote about one winter tradition: disputes over nativity scenes and other Christmas-themed displays on public property. There may be another seasonal tradition in the making, namely disagreements among atheists about whether it’s permissible to indulge in the Santa fantasy with children.

Everyone is already familiar with differences of opinion among the nonreligious about how or whether we should observe the holiday(s) that occur around this time. Some celebrate Christmas, although they may not call it that; others the Solstice; others HumanLight; others the “holiday week” from December 25 through January 1; and others disdain any holiday observance altogether. Tom Flynn (editor of Free Inquiry ) and I aired our differences of opinion on the celebration issue in the very first blog post on Free Thinking .

But now Tom has broadened his attack. In Amherst last Friday, I attended Tom’s revamped presentation of “The Trouble with Christmas,” a lavish, hour-long PowerPoint condemnation of just about anything having any connection with Christmas. Tom’s latest version of his clarion call to warp up Christmas and throw it in the dumpster does not limit itself to questioning the consistency of secularists celebrating a holiday with religious overtones. No, Tom also vigorously maintains we should avoid having anything to do with Santa Claus, even though today Santa seems largely a secular figure. In particular, Tom contends that encouraging children to believe in Santa is wrong and harmful. 

Tom does not stand alone. Some of our branches have had debates on the Santa question. Perhaps we should consider what the Santa nullifiers have to say. Since I’m acquainted with Tom’s brief against Santa, I’ll focus on his arguments.

Tom has essentially two arguments for eliminating Santa. First, he asserts that in encouraging belief in Santa, parents are lying to their children and lying is bad. Second, indulging in the Santa fantasy harms the ability of children to engage in critical reasoning, especially if their first questioning of Santa’s existence is dismissed by parents. How is a child supposed to learn how to conform her beliefs to the evidence if her doubts about Santa fitting in the chimney are countered by the assertion that Santa has “magical” powers? 

Tom delivers his arguments forcefully. In fact, he makes such a searing indictment of the Santa fantasy that audience members may be tempted to punch the first Santa they see.

But color me skeptical. I think the case against Santa is unproven, at best.

Let’s take the lying accusation first. To begin, this is a tendentious characterization of what parents do. “Lying” typically suggests deceit for the benefit of the person making the false statement, and that element is absent here. Parents aren’t trying to swindle their kids out of their money.

But leave that point aside. Let’s acknowledge that what parents say is false, is known by the parents to be false, and is uttered with intent to deceive—so technically it might be described as a “lie.” Even so, I don’t see how this by itself converts the Santa fantasy into something that’s immoral. Condemning the Santa fantasy on the ground that it results in false statements to children suggests an absolutist understanding of morality similar to that embraced by the religious. I would think the humanist understanding of morality takes into account the specific circumstances in which an action takes place. Lying is presumptively wrong, but that presumption is easily rebutted in some cases. Parents do lie to their children occasionally, but typically the lies are morally neutral if not morally good. (“Yes, Johnnie, you’re just as smart as your brother Jake.”) So it’s not sufficient to condemn the Santa-enablers to say they lie; for the anti-Santa argument to be persuasive, one must establish that the lies are harmful. 

This brings us to Tom’s second argument, which maintains that lies about Santa do harm children’s critical reasoning ability. But as Tom, to his credit, concedes, there is next to nothing in the way of scientific evidence to support such a claim. Tom is not really offering an argument from established facts, but is instead advancing a hypothesis—a hypothesis that rests uneasily on his projections from the known facts about parent-child interaction in many cases (parents tell children about Santa, children’s questions prompted by evidential doubts not answered truthfully by parents, and so forth). One could say that “common sense” suggests children must be harmed by their parents’ support for a fantasy that flies in the face of evidence, but it seems to me that “common sense” could support a contrary hypothesis. Far from damaging critical reasoning abilities, the Santa fantasy might help to develop them. The child may have to find out on her/his own there is no Santa, without relying on the assistance of parents. Indeed, some children may have to determine the truth in the face of their parents’ attempt to perpetuate the fantasy. And when the child is sufficiently mature to insist that Santa does not exist, s/he is rewarded with an acknowledgment from the parents that yes, s/he is right—there is no Santa. This scenario suggests, to me at least, a honing of the child’s critical reasoning ability, as well as a healthy development of increasing independence from one’s parents.

Admittedly, this is speculative, but Tom’s alternative hypothesis is speculative as well. The reality is we do not know much about the effect that playful fantasy has on a child’s development and maturation—apart from the fact that children almost universally engage in fantasy regularly, without any apparent damage to their mental capacities.

Moreover, the time period that has seen the Santa fantasy take hold in Anglo-American countries—roughly the last 150 years— has seen an increase in scientific knowledge, technical progress, and religious skepticism. At least on a macro level, the Santa myth does not appear to have caused any appreciable harm to our reasoning abilities.

In my opinion, the case against Santa has not been established—and since we nonreligious do believe in the importance of critical reasoning, I think we should be hesitant to condemn a practice that seems to be enjoyed by many when the basis for that condemnation rests almost entirely on speculation. Conjecture is not a sufficient justification for confiscating Santa’s sleigh.



#1 Mikel (Guest) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 at 7:08pm

I think the Santa game is a great thing for parents to play with their kids! It was my first lesson in critical thinking though I don’t think my parents intended it that way. I saw a poster on the internet that I love: “Kids, one day you will know the truth about Santa. On that day, think also about what you have been told about Jesus.”

#2 susan elizabeth (Guest) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 at 7:48pm

Santa Claus is a harmless fantasy for children.  The tooth fairy and easter bunny also.  Jesus and the bible are a toxic mix of hate and intolerance disguised as unconditional love and forgiveness.  Parents eventually admit that santa, the tooth fairy, and the easter bunny are a game for young children.  The myth of jesus is suppose to continue for a lifetime.  Children are brainwashed from birth in their prospective religions.  Trained to never question or doubt.  How mild a belief is santa! How ironic that the light up santa sits right beside the light up manger in front yards all over this country during the holiday season!

#3 EndReligion (Guest) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 at 8:07pm

I used to think Santa harmless, now I don’t.  SOME kids’ critical thinking may be sharpened, but other kids’ may be harmed.  How can one know for sure which category her/his kid is going to fall into?  Why roll the dice?  I think kids should be taught the difference between fantasy and reality A.S.A.P. so there’s much less chance of muddled thinking later. 

Besides, religious or not, finding out that there is NOT a Santa is such a huge let-down!  Santa was the reason Christmas was my favorite holday as a child.  As soon as I realized there wasn’t a Santa (& all that magical stuff that went with him), Christmas became blah to me (and was automatically replaced by Halloween as my favorite.  Yes, Halloween involves fantastical creatures too; the difference is that children aren’t generally told these things are real and there’s more to the holiday than that). 

Of course all lying isn’t bad, but I feel that lying about something as huge as the existence of a major creature has huge potential to be bad.  This is a lie that can heavily confuse one’s perception of reality!  The sooner humans can grasp reality, the sooner they can build their lives appropriately.

Also, Santa lays the groundwork for feelings of things magically working out, benevolent, magical forces that will reward you, etc.  In other words, feelings that may hold one back from taking actions for one’s self & waiting/hoping for something/someone to come along and save one, solve one’s problems, etc.  Self-sufficiency and independence are some of the most-needed life skills (if not THE most-needed).  One cannot learn this too early. 

Lastly, even though Santa is a “positive” lie, it is still a HUGE lie and lets children know their parents ARE capable of lying to them in a huge way.  I wouldn’t want my kids to ever doubt me like that.

I loved the Santa myth as a child but, if I could do it all over, I’d skip it (along with, of course, religion!).  I’m quite sure I’d have been better off and that I’m far from the only one.

#4 Greg (Guest) on Wednesday December 22, 2010 at 8:30pm

Santa supporters never flew hijacked sleighs into packed office buildings, or stoned people to death for being on the naughty list. I don’t like lying to my children about Santa and the tooth fairy, it feels highly hypocritical but approaching it as a long term exercise in critical thinking is great. Greg Lake’s Xmas song I believe in Father Christmas had a major impact on me as a maturing child (I urge you to you tube it and listen to the lyrics) and there definitely are useful parallels to draw between lies to support childlike belief in a fat red fantasy man and the systematic lies spread by all religions. Great post!

#5 Randy on Thursday December 23, 2010 at 3:33am

I can’t believe you actually tried to say that a lie wasn’t a lie, based on the motivation behind it.  The Santa lie is reason enough to end it.  The only benefit to it is learning that even parents will lie to children about nearly anything, but I think the harm to the relationship outweighs the benefit.

#6 Mikel (Guest) on Thursday December 23, 2010 at 4:40am

Does a fantasy fall into the same category as a lie?

I always had the impression that my parents had a hint of the “nudge nudge wink wink” about them when they talked to me about Santa. There is a tradition in Christmas songs about Santa of the kids being skeptical and trying to stay up and see for themselves on Christmas Eve. I wondered how Santa got in (since our chimney lead directly into a gas stove) and how the reindeer never make noise on the roof, and what if there is no snow (I could just imagine the sleigh getting stuck in the mud)?  I wasn’t even disappointed that there was no Santa, but I was worried when I figured it out that my parents would get me less presents if they knew I didn’t believe. How delighted I was when I found out my worries were unfounded.

I guess it must affect different kids differently…

#7 Tom Flynn (Guest) on Thursday December 23, 2010 at 10:13am

Thanks to Ron Lindsay for a stimulating commentary. Readers may be interested in a point-counterpoint I did with humanist educator Dale McGowan in his recent book PARENTING BEYOND BELIEF. Dale argued that learning there’s no Santa helps prepare children to eventually think their way out of religion; I argued that the discouragement many children experience when they share their Santa suspicions with parents conditions them to accept religious teachings more uncritically. We both agreed that there’s precious little psychological research out there that might enable us to settle our disagreement by (hey, what a concept) looking at the evidence. That’s what strikes me as the biggest problem where the Santa myth is concerned. We’re seven or eight generations into the world’s largest child-psychology experiment, one without human-subjects review or any visible control group. It’s a rite of passage for most American preadolescents to discover that the fondest belief of their early childhoods was an elaborate parental deception—and as far as I can tell, no one is researching what the consequences of that might be. As Ron notes, this period “has seen an increase in scientific knowledge, technical progress, and religious skepticism.” It’s also seen the rise of a pernicious—and uniquely American—strain of popular antipathy toward science and reason (see Susan Jacoby’s THE RISE OF AMERICAN UNREASON or Chris Mooney’s UNSCIENTIFIC AMERICA). Might either phenomenon be linked to the nearly-universal experiences American children have with the Santa myth? I find it disturbing that this question has so far gone unexplored by social scientists.

#8 liberalartist on Thursday December 23, 2010 at 1:54pm

I think it’s fine to enjoy the Santa myth and let kids figure it out for themselves. I do think it teaches them critical thinking (Santa at the mall looks different than the one in the parade). Of course I think it also depends on how the parents answer a child’s questions - increasingly complicated explanations to keep up the pretence or simply saying - you know that’s a good question, wonder why that is? It is an important lesson in life: don’t believe everything you hear, even when it comes from authority and don’t assume that something is correct because everyone else says so.

By the way, I stated something similar to this on my Facebook page and one of my friends who is an Evanglical Christian posted a note on her wall pointing out what I said and expressing her views about the need for Jesus to be the focus of Christmas. Conservative Christians don’t like Santa not only because it usurps their deity but because it too closely resembles the bearded guy in the sky and neither are true.

#9 J. (Guest) on Friday December 24, 2010 at 11:03am

Are atheists going to be complaining that Christmas has become too commercial?

#10 asanta on Wednesday December 29, 2010 at 2:19am

My sons believed the Santa myth, and figuring it out was their first lesson in critical thinking. My oldest had it figured out by the time he was 6 and he told me he’d been thinking about it for a long time before he said anything to me. He asked good questions and figured it out. It was his first time using a scientific method to solve a problem. I was as proud of him as he was of himself for figuring it out. He continued to ask questions about everything, and still looks for the evidence—30 years later.

#11 Hilarious (Guest) on Saturday January 08, 2011 at 8:00pm

It seems to me that almost every person posting on this page was told the “Santa Lie”, yet not one of you said you were irreparably damaged by it.  That in itself is scientific research.  It seems most of you want to complain about something just to complain and create harm where there is none.  If religion isn’t important to you, then that is ok, but why must you force your non-belief on those that don’t agree with you.  Its purely hypocritical.

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