December 16, 2018

An Adult Who Believes in Santa

Santa in front of a fireplace

What would you say of a modern adult who genuinely believed in Santa Claus and all the associated stories (e.g., flying reindeer, visiting every home)? I imagine some of you might be able to refrain from openly mocking such a person, but most of you would probably have a hard time thinking that they were serious. I'd have a hard time moving past the possibility that someone was playing an elaborate joke on me by finding someone to pretend to believe something so silly. But really, what makes this any sillier than a modern adult who genuinely believes in gods and accepts religious dogma as true? Is there any more evidence that Jesus is still around in some capacity than there is for Santa?

There is at least one big difference between a modern adult who believes in Santa and one who believes in Jesus. The adult who believes in Jesus has far more company. And while most of us recognize that the popularity of a belief does not make it any more likely to be true, some religious believers seem to forget this when it is convenient to do so. Even if the popularity of a belief tells us little about the likelihood of the belief being true, we should recognize that it often does make the belief seem less silly. Extremely popular beliefs are, by definition, normal. When enough of a culture holds them and passes them down across generations, most people in that culture grow up perceiving them as much more normal than other belief systems. It should come as no surprise that Jesus-belief seems more normal to most of us raised in Jesusland than Santa-belief does, at least for adults.

But what about the evidence? Is there any more evidence that the Jesus character was based on a real person than we have for Santa being based on a historical person? I don't think so. Is there any more evidence that Jesus is involved in human affairs today than there is for Santa delivering presents in a flying sled today? Nope. The Christian god, which may or may not be distinct from Jesus depending on who you ask, does not fare any better. If we do a side-by-side comparison between Santa and the Christian god, we find many similarities but no evidence for either.

Many parents, including atheists, lie to their children about Santa for entertainment purposes or because they have fond childhood memories of when their family used to lie to them about Santa. Many Christian parents lie to their children about Jesus too. Of course, they also have the benefit of elaborate cultural structures that continue to prop-up this belief as being very different from Santa-belief. They even derive benefits from expressing such a belief (i.e., Christian privilege). As a result, relatively few adults outgrow Jesus-belief in the same way they do Santa-belief.

I realize that atheists may differ on this, but I suspect that most of us find the possibility that gods (and/or Jesus) are present and involved in human affairs is no more plausible than Santa flying around delivering presents. This might not have always been the case for those of us who are ex-Christians, but we can see it now that we have been able to step outside the belief system. Perhaps it is time to recognize that those who cling to these beliefs are not all that different from our hypothetical adult who believes in Santa.