This is something I wrote last year, but I didn’t have a blog then. Merry Christmas to all those Santas out there.
I’m an atheist. I was born an atheist, and then various people talked me out of it. As a child, with a relatively non-religious immediate family but a deeply religious, southern Baptist extended family (who by the way were and are all warm, loving, and amazingly tolerant and easygoing people), I was eventually sucked in to various bits of the church scene, including being “saved” at one point.
Deep down, though, I knew it was all nonsense. There was a little voice inside me all the time saying, “Come on, really? People actually buy this stuff?” It was a lot like a belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and so on.
Such a comparison inevitably offends religious people, but I think it is important to understand that in a child’s mind these are all big, weighty issues, and it isn’t really clear which ones carry the most weight. I think I have a skill that sets me apart from many people. That skill is that I still remember what it was like to be a kid, even though I’ll soon be – well, not a kid.
The Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are minor players, so I’ll leave them out. Santa is the big guy, and we all know it. As a child, I went through the gamut with Santa, at the same time I was going through thoughts about God. First there’s belief. Sure Santa exists, where else did all the toys come from? Then there’s doubt. Wait a minute, I saw my parents buy that. Wait a minute, I saw that toy under their bed. Wait a minute, there’s no snow, how does the sled work? Wait a minute, our chimney is blocked, how’d he get in? Wait a minute, I couldn’t sleep and got up and found my parents putting toys together.
But there’s still a chance. You hear explanations, rationalizations. The sled doesn’t need snow, of course. Santa brings some of the toys and your parents buy the rest. Santa uses time dilation, the rotation of the Earth, a snap of his magic fingers, etc. etc. etc. You gather scattered bits of evidence, ignoring the rest. I thought I heard sleigh bells. I saw a leg out the basement window that looked like a reindeer. I heard something go bump in the night. Someone ate all the cookies.
It all sounds pretty implausible, but you say, eh, maybe it could all work. I don’t understand enough about the world yet, so I’m reserving judgment. Besides, what if I’m wrong? What if I don’t believe, and then Santa doesn’t come? A year is a long, long, long time when you’re a kid. Why take a chance?
Then you hear someone say something like “Santa is the spirit of giving” and you start to see. My parents are Santa Claus! It all fits. The secret shopping trips. The bags you’re not allowed to look in. The forbidden closets. The “early to bed and don’t come out of your room” commands. Ah, that’s how they did it!
For me, and I remember this distinctly, there was no anger or resentment. I loved the fact that my parents would go out and buy all these toys, then not take credit for doing the buying. It was about this time that I started to find out how much fun it was to give presents to other people, and Christmas for me started to become much less about getting and much more about giving. I started to realize that I was Santa Claus, too.
Later, all the doubts about God started coming to the fore. I felt like I wanted to hang onto this idea of God; so many people I knew believed, there must be something to it. Again, I started gathering scattered pieces of evidence. All the supposed miracles, all the eyewitness testimony. But then those got pretty thin when you looked close. What about the spark of life itself, though, wasn’t there something about life that made it different from non-life, and was it that spark that required God? And, most notorious, what if I’m wrong? Do I really want to risk eternity in Hell? Is it really too much to ask, to just believe, to give up that little bit of your mind in order to receive a get out of Hell free card?
And yet inside was that little voice. “Oh, come on. You know the truth, just like you knew about Santa Claus. There is no God. You decide your fate. You make the choices that matter. You decide for yourself if you’re going to be a good person or a bad person, and not because of any reward or punishment, but because it’s who you are, who you want to be, who you see yourself as. It’s not outside you. It’s inside you, and it’s been there the whole time. You’re an atheist, and you always have been, really.”
And so I teach my children about Santa Claus. And the Tooth Fairy. And the Easter Bunny. I also teach them to be skeptical, to doubt the things they’re told, to figure out for themselves what kind of person they want to be. I believe (and maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but that’s what experiments are all about) that my girls will follow my own line of questions, use the tools of skepticism I’m giving them, and figure it out for themselves. I hope they’ll see the beauty and joy of giving as opposed to getting, and decide that they want to be Santa themselves.
From there, I hope they see the power within themselves to make the choices regarding their own lives. What kind of person will you be? How will you treat others? How do you want to see yourself? No one else, not me, not your mom, not God nor Santa Claus, can tell you who you will be. Only you can do that. Just as you are your own Santa, you are your own God.
That’s why, in our house, we believe in Santa. For now.
And just for fun, here’s the same idea in much more succinct language: