Just to finish off Atheism Week, a Christmas Story…
Like so many kids, I was a total believer in Santa Claus when I was a kid – unlike my experiences at church, not one aspect of the story rang false – probably because I so strongly *wanted* to believe.
Magic sacks that could hold enough toys for every kid in the world? Sure. Flying reindeer? Of course. A self-contained company town in one of the coldest environments on Earth? Makes sense to me.
Eventually, you start to have your doubts but they start small and your parents, who you trust implicitly at that age, always have an answer.
“Why did Santa Claus use the same wrapping paper that you did?” Oh, he must have bought it from the same store as us. “What if he goes to a house without a chimney?” He has a magic key that can unlock any door. “How come the Santa in the mall smells like Uncle Charlie when he gets a bit louder on Christmas Eve?” Santa’s busy at this time of year so sometimes it’s the real Santa at the mall and sometimes it’s a helper. Now, wait here while mommy goes to write letter!
You get a year or two into elementary school and with wider exposure to kids in the class and on the playground, you start hearing…rumours. They sort of make sense but how could they possibly be true? When questioned, your parents have flat out told you Santa exists. That magical story has been such a huge part of your few short years on earth so far. And of course, if the rumours are true, no more presents!
So you have your doubts but now, you keep them to yourself (except for joining the whispering on the playground as December rolls around again.) And one night when you’re maybe six, maybe seven, maybe eight, your mom says she’ll be busy for awhile but you can hang out and watch the Rudolph cartoon on TV with your dad and sister.
You watch for awhile but mom’s been gone awhile and your curiosity is piqued. You make some excuse about having to go to the bathroom, go down the hall past the bathroom and see mom and dad’s bedroom door pulled tight. Holding your breath, you push open the door. It’s a quick glimpse before your mom spins, wide-eyed, and slams the door on you.
But the next day, when you open a Stretch Armstrong doll that’s from “Santa”, you know the truth. You saw it in the pile of presents on your parent’s bed the night before.
It’s a really simple trick but it’s a technique that helps remind me of why I’m not religious. Frequently, when I’m watching TV or talking to someone or whatever, if the subject of God or Jesus or the Bible comes up, I just substitute in the word “Santa” or “Elf” or “Christmas” and see if it still sounds the same.
- God is omnipotent. Santa will be visiting every child on earth during a single day.
- The Bible provides moral guidance. “You better watch out, you better not shout, you better not cry, I’m telling you why.”
- Jesus walked on water. Santa slides down chimneys.
A couple readers have both pointed out, in slightly different ways, that this series of posts (especially when I shared my theory that religious belief ultimately boils down to conformity, comfort or community), that I haven’t accounted for the unknowable magic of religion/spirituality.
To me, that mystical element of religion/spirituality is one other thing that shares a strong similarity with our Christmas experience. There is no doubt in my mind that there is something magical and mysterious and which brings joy to many people around the Christmas season. I know because I feel it every year when I see that first Christmas display in the stores in late October, when we get that first snowfall, when the tree goes up.
But, as with religion, I think that sense of wonder and magic is something we generate from within – in our chemistry and our biology and our psychology. To ascribe it to something external, whether a sky god or a flying spaghetti monster or whatever is to not give true credit to the incredible complexity and capacity that we embody as human beings.