Have you seen Liam Neeson’s audition for Santa Claus? It’s hilarious, and I thoroughly recommend you check it out below. He delivers Santa’s classic lines in the character of Bryan Mills, an ex-military security agent from the movie Taken.
Neeson’s calculating menace results in a dissociation, for the viewer, between Santa himself and the cuddly fat-grandpa veneer we’re brought up with. The effect is that you get to see what Santa stands for, clearly. One suddenly realises who the biggest purveyor of atheism in the Western world has been. It’s not Richard Dawkins. Forget Sam Harris. You philosophical types can even drop Hume. The answer is: Santa Claus!
Every December children around the world think of Santa Claus in exactly the same way that children of yesteryear used to think about God. Santa is invisible to the naked eye; Santa bestows gifts; Santa knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice and rewards you appropriately; Santa is innately good… the list goes on. Heck, Santa isn’t even bound by time or space, having the capability to travel the whole world in a single night. He’s even got angelic servants who carry out his will—elves!
Studies have found that aspects of our personality as adults are deeply shaped by our experiences as children. For example, if you were close with your father as a child, you’re more likely to have healthy intimate relationships as an adult. If you had parents who abused alcohol or drugs, you’re more likely to be a super-serious adult. If you had a rough childhood, characterised by abusive events, you are more likely to be obese as an adult, in addition to being twice as likely to be depressed and more likely to have less working memory. Is it any surprise then that religious beliefs and atheism might also be intimately related to childhood traumas?
Now consider Santa. Children are told by their parents for as long as they can remember, (literally), that this affectionate annual bestower of gifts traverses the globe just to give them presents. They write letters to Santa and do whatever they can to please him, before waiting in rapturous anticipation for the fruits of their labour every Christmas Eve. Then, one day, be it through parental confession, taunting siblings, or (these days) an internet meme, they find out their best friend Santa doesn’t exist.
If parents can lie so persistently and convincingly for so many years about a being who, on the superficial level, seems to possess similar attributes to the Divine, is it a surprise that children also come to regard God as just another myth?
Indeed, Dawkins himself has made a link between the two. But he’s all for it. “Fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes… Santa Claus again could be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true.”
Not only this, but the Santa-lie can be immensely damaging to the trust between parents and children. An article published by psychologists Christopher Boyle and Kathy McKay, from Exeter, UK and Australia in the Lancet Psychiatry highlighted the negative effect on the parent-child relationship the Santa-lie can have. They highlighted how involved and protracted this lie is, often spanning the first decade of the child’s life, and perpetuated through all manner of seemingly innocent deceptions.
On this, McKay notes: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
And that’s the key point: “what else can they lie about?” Unbounded scepticism—a quality generally celebrated by atheists—is not a natural one. Humans naturally trust the words of others, because trust forms the basis of every relationship, and the formation of a society in which we depend on each other has been fundamental to our success as a species. Scepticism is born of being lied to.
Religious belief on the other hand, begins with trust (like every pursuit for knowledge). Just as we trust our university lecturers on the claims they make, without individually and empirically verifying every fact they tell us, religious belief too begins with trust in individuals who claim that God spoke to them – Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Socrates, peace be on them all. When you travel the path set out by them, one ultimately is led to such experiences yourself, and then faith or belief is transformed into knowledge and experience.
Sadly, because of scepticism—whether born out of the Santa myth or out of religious dogma which refuses investigation or evidence—trust is broken and stifled at any early age.
The Santa myth is not just a myth. It’s a lie. And a pernicious one at that.
NB: Some atheists will no doubt raise the question that if we think the idea of Santa is ridiculous, then we should also say that the idea of God is ridiculous. But to get metaphysical for a moment, we should realise that the idea of Santa is absurd because he’s basically a superhero—a physical person who lives among us and yet can randomly do all these superhuman things. However, he has no right to those abilities, because unlike God, he didn’t create the universe, exists in a physical body, and has no way of knowing what we’re doing or thinking. God however is the proposed Creator and Sustainer that our finite universe requires, and existing beyond time and space can control natural processes as He desires. #SorrySanta