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.