Why is Santa such a Problem for Christians?

It was a long while after I became and adult that I first started to wonder about Father Christmas and what the Christian approach should be to the Santa myth. I think it wasn’t until I knew I was to become a parent that I really began to ponder it seriously.

What if my child draws a parallel between Santa and Jesus and concludes that they must both be in the same state, either real or myth? How do I make a distinction between them? These questions can only point to some sort of Cognitive Dissonance in the mind of the thinker.

I decided very quickly to be relaxed about it and face the questions as they came rather than to try and manipulate a position.

A modern problem?

As a child I never recall their being any issues about Santa. I knew from very young Santa was a myth, but a fun one and that Jesus and very real. The primary school I attended in Zambia always made a thing of giving all the children presents at the end of the school year and one of the fathers would always dress up as Santa and give out the presents. It was always fun guessing whose dad it was.

I don’t recall much of a Santa fuss at home though. We had stockings, but I don’t recall any pretence on there being a Santa. He wasn’t utterly ignored though, he was spoken about as though he existed, but it was always in tones that you knew were not really believed. Very much how I talk to my daughter about him really.

A few years back, I recall chatting with Christian friends about Santa and they were concerned about how to approach the issue and whether or not to reveal the myth and what to do about them telling school friends who might still believe.  It wasn’t a trivial issue, that’s for certain. One father in particular had a very real issue about the Santa Myth. He was a recent convert, married to a long time Christian wife. He had been a very fierce atheist and part of that atheism came from his realising as a child that Santa and company were a myth. As a result of all those childhood myths he rejected God too. His conversion was very emotional and he carried the fear that his children would follow the same path and him, so his view was tell them it’s a myth from the beginning and tone the whole Santa thing down.

My wife’s family has always had a Santa tradition and they have always had the concept of ‘tree presents’ small gifts that they always mark as from Santa to the family members. They are never anything fancy, those are the main gifts given from them. They enjoy that aspect of giving and I see no reason why it should be stopped, I take the view that it adds to the ‘magic’ of Christmas and does not in any way devalue whatever meaning one wishes to attach to the season.

The Unexpected Conversation

This year my daughter threw me a curve-ball. It was just her and me in the car and she started asking about why we bother with the pretence of Santa. I don’t know when it was that she worked out Santa wasn’t real, it certainly wasn’t this year, it been a couple of years at least. She is seven currently. She’s also known for a couple of years that the Tooth Fairy is just Mummy and Daddy pretending and she is okay with that. I suspect that when she twigged about the tooth fairy she also twigged about Santa; maybe she asked us at the time, I can’t actually remember.

Anyway, the point is, she knows and has done for some time. So she asked me directly, why bother when we know its bunk? Nothing like the directness of a child to catch you off guard!

I asked her to expand.

Her thinking seemed to be that it was silly to put up all the pretence of there being a Father Christmas making and delivering presents when everyone knew that he wasn’t real. She makes a good point.

She didn’t seem to have a problem with the Santa themed decorations and cards, or even the story, it was the talking about him as though he really did do the things the story says he does that causes the problem for her. I tried to counter by saying that talking about Santa as if he were real adds to the ‘magic’ of Christmas and that Christmas would lose something if we didn’t have the fun pretending. She didn’t buy any of that at all. While she didn’t actually say it, I suspect she basically considers it lying and therefore not good.

Where does that leave Santa?

In this modern era of rationalism and proof, is there any place for Santa? I’m not just talking about Christians here, but everyone.

Personally, I am okay with the myth and I don’t mind the pretence and I think if you leave out Santa, you leave out an essential part of the Christmas tradition.

What about those poor disappointed kids who believe for years and get very disappointed when they discover they’ve been lied to? Well, the important thing there is to ask why the parents made it so real for so long. In our household its works out okay, Little Miss Limey hasn’t had an earth shattering shock and we’ve not tried to perpetrate the myth beyond credibility. If we’ve got the balance right its more by accident than design and so I can’t offer any formula.

Wherefore Art Thou Free Will?

Free Will is fascinating. Well to me at least. As a Christian I believed that all humans have free will, God given, because without that free will we could not make the choice to have faith.

As an atheist, I still believe that the choice I made to abandon my faith was a conscious decision based on a rational response to evidence.

However, it is not all that clear cut. Experiments on Free Will and our conscious brain are questioning what we understand as Free Will and the conclusions are fascinating. In essence, it seems that what we think of as Free Will is just an illusion and what we think are conscious decisions are simply our conscious brain being made aware of a decision that has already been dictated to it by subconscious process that are simply the result of our brains chemical and biological makeup.

The Why Evolution is True blog has many posts on the subject and the latest one is here (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/the-no-free-will-experiment/), its worth popping over too even if its to watch the 5 min embedded video. If Free Will and the puzzles surrounding it are of interest to you, then the wider discussions on Free Will at WEIT are worth digging out.

It’s the definition of Free Will that I find most challenging, which is rightly raised here too (http://prairienymph.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/the-cost-of-no-free-will/). One definition I have seen (I think it was on WEIT) is that if you could present someone with the exact same scenario again and again, they would make the same decision each time. Now this brings about massive logistical problems and I am not sure there will ever be a way in which such an experiment could be done because once the decision has been made, a repeat of that decision brings with it the memory of the previous decision and so the scenario is not identical.

Personally I am very reluctant to give up on the concept of Free Will and if I am brutally honest, I will go so far as to say that I find the idea a little bit concerning, frightening even; even if it is intellectually fascinating. I mostly understand the reasoning behind the suggestion that Free Will is just an illusion; however, it currently does lack the slam dunk that is absolute proof.

But what about morality?

If you accept that Free Will but an illusion, then I guess the only conclusion to come to regarding morality is that is also not chosen for us either. This brings about the discussion of responsibility and the consequences of our actions. If what we do is pre-determined by chemicals in our brains and we have no control over the decisions that are being made for us, how can we be punished for our actions when they cause harm?

My answer is that even if there really is no such thing as Free Will that should not change the existing ideas of actions, consequences and punishment.

How do we prove it either way?

For me, this is the far more interesting question. Until we knew for certain, all discussion on the consequences are largely academic. I know some have already embraced the idea that it is all an illusion. For me I need something more concrete than fascinating experiments. The suggestion that some rudimentary decisions appear to be made in the subconscious brain long before we know about it needs to be more nailed down for me and I also need convincing that the same is true for significant decisions, those that we ponder about and weight up in our conscious minds before deciding. Is the thinking process also just an illusion?

I don’t know how we can prove it and I will continue to follow the discussions and the science because on a personal level I think it is important. If it does in fact turn out that Free Will is an illusion then it pretty damning for religion. Hence I am not at all surprised to see that religious commentators and apologists are resisting this idea.

Personally, I think it is not something that is going to be nailed down anytime soon and the philosophical arguments will continues for a long time to come. I also think that its not a simple ‘yes it is’, ‘not its not’ conclusion. I think that what we consider as Free Will is far more likely to be a mixture of conscious and unconscious processes and that some decisions will appear to be consistently made for us by our biology, while others will be not so clear cut and show evidence of being far more conscious involvement. My prediction is that its not at as black and white as some blogs and articles would have us believe, rather the Free Will concept will be a varying scale of grey between illusion and cognitive thought.