CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Skeptics and atheists often compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus, the main element of the analogy being that there is insufficient evidence to believe either of them exists, although we cannot conclusively disprove that they do not. Another element is that both (presumably) are childish beliefs that we grow out of as adults. Finally, belief in both persons is said to be the result of wishful thinking, and leads to manifest absurdities (how does Santa manage to visit all the little boys and girls between midnight and morning on Christmas Day?).

Atheists never tire of this rhetorical zinger, which leads me to doubt their basic intelligence. None of the elements of this analogy are even remotely plausible. The biggest dis-analogy, which I am amazed no one seems to have noticed, is that Santa Claus has never been anything other than a fictional character (I am talking here of the popular version involving red-nosed reindeer, the base at the North Pole, etc. not of the various historical personages associated with him, such as Basil of Caesarea-to Greeks Santa Claus is known as 'Agios Vasilis'-or St. Nicholas). There may be a period of disillusionment after a child has been fed with stories of Santa's list and what will be sitting under the Christmas tree, but with it comes the recognition that the story was never meant to be taken seriously as a description of a really existing being (in most cases; there are a few exceptions). It is the highest of absurdities to look for evidence of Santa Claus's existence, or to try to disprove his existence, not because it is somehow beyond the realm of empirical science or because it is a 'matter of faith', but because from start to finish it is a fable, a harmless piece of fiction parents use to entertain their children, never intending them to cling to it as truth when they are older.

The case with God is very different. Far from being a fiction that everyone recognizes as such, the idea of God features prominently in the vast majority of humans' most fundamental orientation to the world, and is taken seriously as an explanation for very real features of human experience. Claims to encounters with God are made by sane, serious, intellectually adept grown-ups, and the coherence of the idea has been defended by some of the greatest minds in human history. Furthermore, unlike Santa whose existence and nature (did Santa get that belly like a bowl full of jelly from downing too many Budweisers or is Mrs. Santa just a really good cook?) are utterly inconsequential to the story and fundamentally incompatible with the way the world is, there are many reasonable proposals for how God relates to and acts in the world. Though God and Santa might both be said to violate the laws of physics when they perform their marvelous acts, we can coherently imagine God doing so on account of Who He is-the creator and sustainer of the whole Universe, the laws of which are expressions of His will-whereas there is no way to account for flying reindeer or an inexhaustible toy bag. Santa, like the lesser gods of polytheism, is presumably part of the furniture of the world and as such is either biologically plausible or not.

But again, the above discussion is completely superfluous because God and Santa Claus are nowhere near in the same class; to compare them is really to compare apples and oranges. One might as well compare God to Randall Flagg in Stephen King's The Stand. Nobody in their right mind, least of all King himself, ever had any inkling that Flagg is a real demon who roams the highways of history in stylish cowboy boots spreading mayhem and chaos throughout the world. The character is fictional from start to finish and appeared for the first time in King's novel (though he would make subsequent appearances in other books, for example the Dark Tower cycle) as such. Even though some people might believe (with little evidence) that God was first made up by some devious shaman as a fiction to gain power and influence, this is not something that is recognized as obviously true by all reasonable people, as is the case with Santa or Flagg.

There are supernatural creatures which might better serve the atheists' intended analogy of a being in whom many people believe but for whose existence we lack sufficient evidence, such as fairies or djinns, but none of them remotely compare to the concept of God as a metaphysical postulate. The real reason atheists like to compare God and Santa so much is because they are hoping the obvious absurdity of believing in Santa Claus somehow rubs off on people's understanding of belief in God; but critically thinking people with even a hint of common sense won't buy it for a second.

14 comments:

“There are supernatural creatures which might better serve the atheists' intended analogy of a being in whom many people believe but for whose existence we lack sufficient evidence, such as fairies or djinns, but none of them remotely compare to the concept of God as a metaphysical postulate.”

Actually, I think that’s a good place to draw another distinction. For example, suppose that poltergeists really exist. If people in different cultures experience poltergeists, then we’d expect different cultures to develop mythological/folkloric narratives about the origin and nature of poltergeists. The details would vary in time and place.

Keeping that distinction in mind, the question “Do you believe in the djinn?” is really two different questions bundled into one.

It could be asking, “Do you believe Islamic folktales about the djinn?”

Or it could be asking, “Do you believe in malevolent supernatural beings who form the basis of folktales about the djinn?”

You could well answer the first question in the negative without answering the second question in the negative.

Yes, good point.

The Santa Claus comparison is surely not a serious argument of any value.

But I always considered Santa Claus to function as training wheels for adult belief in God. Note the similarities:

He judges who is naughty and nice.

He knows everything that you do.

He gives presents to the nice and gives coal or brimstone (each implying fire) to the naughty.

He's commonly depicted as an old man with a white beard.

JD,

I think you correctly identify the context in which an intelligent atheist might make an analogy between Santa Clause and God in your first sentence, though I realize that the comparison might be made in other, less appropriate, contexts as well. I have often seen theists (including one of the contributors on this blog) make the argument that one cannot be an atheist unless one can prove that god does not exist, otherwise one is admitting the possibility that God exists, and should describe himself or herself as an agnostic. The Santa Claus analogy is meant to show that this is not how people normally describe the positions they take. If we say that Santa Clause doesn’t exist, we do not mean we can prove his non-existence. It means that we do not think there is any credible evidence that Santa Claus exists and we consider him a human invention. So the atheist is claiming, effectively: “Yes, I am agnostic on the question of the existence of God in the same way that you are agnostic on the question of the existence of Santa Claus.” So I think it’s incorrect to say: “The biggest dis-analogy, which I am amazed no one seems to have noticed, is that Santa Claus has never been anything other than a fictional character.” The atheist has indeed noticed that Santa Claus is a fictional character and chosen him as an example for that reason. To make the argument he is making, the atheist must choose an example that the theist accepts does not exist, despite the fact the theist cannot prove that. If he chooses an example which the theist seriously does believe in, then the point of the analogy is lost.

Apistos

I think it's perfectly comparable:

- Largely mythical figure with loose ties to a historical character

- Legend mutates according to current state of society

- Descriptions of magical powers that were seen in the past by the common folk

- Said magical powers said to be still in existence, though not available for scrutiny

- Everyday, ordinary events often attributed to the supernatural workings of said figure

- People under the illusion of the myth don't really want to know the truth

- People perpetuating the myth justify it by deeming the myth beneficial for the deceived

I could go on.

Santa is a myth about someone out there that loves you and wants to give you good gifts, but he can't unless you behave yourself properly during the year. Sound familiar?

The only difference is that you believe your myth and don't see how others recognize it for what it is.

Anonymous,

Obviously, you are kidding. After all, if you generalize enough, you can compare any two things. And your comparisons are so general as to be absurd.

Apistos,

You don't understand. We did not start by believing in Santa Claus, then after finding there is no credible evidence for his existence, conclude that he must be a human invention. Rather, no intelligent adult has ever even suspected that Santa Claus is real because everyone knows that he was a fictional character from the beginning. I'll repeat: Santa Claus has NEVER been ANYTHING BUT a fictional character. I am not agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus, because I KNOW that he was an invention, and so does everybody else. This qualifies as a disproof, as sure as any disproof human beings can come up with. There is no 'Santa agnosticism', except in the minds of atheists who are trying desperately to tarnish belief in God by linking it with an obviously absurd belief in Santa which nobody, not even the most gullible believer in fairies, UFOs, Loch Ness creatures, has ever taken seriously.

Anonymous,
Please. You're only embarrassing yourself.

JD Walters,

I think Anonymous deserves a serious answer. Consider his perspective:

Historical characters:
Jesus of Nazareth ~ Nicholas of Myra

Both have amazing stories, even post mortem adventures:
Jesus Christ ~ Saint Nicholas

Both have competing characters/stories:
Arian/Nestorian/Marcion Jesus ~ Basil of Caesarea

Continuos evolvement of the story:
Apocryphal writings, Mormon version of Jesus, Raelian Yahweh, The Shack, modern day appearances of Jesus and Saints ~ different regional stories Santa Claus.

Anonymous knows that last stage is fictional. He/She is not agnostic about the existence of characters in the last versions of the stories because he/she knows that those inventions.

So your 'Santa agnosticism' is a false analogy to him. Santa to him/her is a good illustration of what happens with stories and I think it is worth addressing.

"Common folk" anon? How unbelievably elitist and chronologically snobberish of you. You do not deserve a good answer. JD covered them all in his post. Respond to his arguments, or be quiet.

Derek said to anon
"You do not deserve a good answer"
LOL, how about at least a bad answer ;-)
But I do remember reading something like never give an answer to anyone who asks you (1 Peter 3:15 ?) or something like that.

Peter,

Hmmmm, well lets see. I said, "JD covered them all in his post. Respond to his arguments, or be quiet."

That's the way it is. All anon does is repeat the very argument that JD is addressing, and assure us it is indeed valid. Well and well then. But it means either anon is unable to read or anon is unable to form a coherent response. In either case, my point is anon already has his/her answer. Thus the biblical requirement is fulfilled.

As far as the Santa argument goes, I don't think anon has in mind what you do, but if he does, your both wrong. JD is addressing the lame charge repeated by atheists that God belief=Santa Claus belief. Not Santa Claus belief=historical Jesus belief.

JD notes that the metaphysical postulate of God, know the world over across every geographical/cultural line and relating to the deepest questions of human experience, is in no way analogous to something that was from the very beginning a harmless childs tale. Never intended for anything more.

If one wants to compare to Jesus however, the solution is just as simple. Weigh the historical evidence. I'm quite sure no historical Jesus scholar takes the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, the Shack, or Veggie Tales into consideration when he publishes his research.

peace

I think the flaw in a Santa-Jesus comparision is what I call a false class analogy. Read the following sentence and tell me what's wrong with it:

"No, of course I don't believe in the Moon Landings, in the same way I don't believe in Roswell or the canals on Mars."

The problem is that Roswell and Mars canals are not in the same category as the Moon Landings, even though superficially they are similar. We judge the truth or falsehood of an idea on its own merits, not the merits of what we happen to liken it to. Otherwise...

"Of course I don't believe in Evolution. Do you believe in the Flat Earth Hypothesis or Protoplasm?"

Peter and Anon,

I did answer Anon, but apparently Peter didn't see how my short response already did answer Anon, let me elaborate.

I think that the problem is that the comparisons hardly prove the point. Pointing out that there are vague similarities between the accounts of the historical Jesus with accompanying belief that he is God and belief in Santa Claus as a magical Christmas gift giver while pointing out that he was originally based on a real person is hardly a good comparison. Just because Jesus was a real historical person and St. Nicholas was a real historical person is not enough to otherwise compare the two especially when no one has encountered the real St. Nicholas since his death in 345 A.D., while millions of people have testified to meeting the risen Jesus since his death around 33 A.D.

Lets look at each of his comparisons:

- Largely mythical figure with loose ties to a historical character

That is a statement of belief, not a statement of fact. Both Jesus and St. Nicholas were historical figures, but the belief in God predates the belief in Jesus as God. No one believed in Santa Claus prior to the existence of St. Nicholas. The claim that they are mythical is a conclusion not an argument, and is almost certainly not a good conclusion in the case of Jesus.

- Legend mutates according to current state of society

Yeah? Assuming that is true, what part of the Jesus "legend" are you claiming has mutated and exactly how does that relate to Santa Claus? You see, this is a claim that has nothing to do with comparing Jesus and Santa Claus because it could be claimed about any two figures in history.

- Descriptions of magical powers that were seen in the past by the common folk

Again, this is a nonsense comparison. As far as I understand, the claims of magical powers to St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is alleged to have performed a couple of miracles in the name of Christ (hence, his sainthood in the Catholic church), but then all of the early saints are said to have performed miracles through the power of Jesus. Nothing in this comparison makes Jesus and St. Nicholas equal.

- Said magical powers said to be still in existence, though not available for scrutiny

Jesus doesn't have magical powers. I could go on, but calling Jesus' work "magical powers" is simply demonstrating either ignorance or disrespect.

- Everyday, ordinary events often attributed to the supernatural workings of said figure

Yup, people often attribute the miracle of creation to Santa Claus, right? In other words, the only ordinary even attributed to Santa Claus is when Christmas gifts are found under the tree at Christmas, but we know precisely where those gifts come from. Meanwhile, the very existence of life has an unknown origin and all of creation recognizes that it came from God (even if some deny it).

- People under the illusion of the myth don't really want to know the truth

First, Christianity is not a myth. Second, we Christians know the truth -- you skeptics simply can't hanlde the truth. But notice, there is no comparison of Santa Claus and Jesus or God here.

- People perpetuating the myth justify it by deeming the myth beneficial for the deceived

And exactly who does this about Santa Claus?

(continued in the next comment)

(comment continued)
Seriously, I have seen better comparisons between Lincoln and Kennedy in my e-mail than this. You know the type:

Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846 while Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

Lincoln was elected President in 1860 while Kennedy was elected President in 1960.

Lincoln's wife lost a child while living in the White House while Kennedy's wife lost a child while living in the White House

Lincoln was directly concerned with Civil Rights while Kennedy was also directly concerned with Civil Rights

Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theater while Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln who told him not to go to Dallas

Both were shot in the back of the head in the presence of their wives.

Lincoln shot in the Ford Theatre and Kennedy shot in a Lincoln, made by Ford.

Both Lincoln and Kennedy were shot on a Friday

Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was known by three names, comprised of fifteen letters while Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was known by three names, comprised of fifteen letters

This is a much better comparison than the weak comparison between Jesus and St. Nicholas made by Anonymous. Yet, I think most people would find me a looney if I claimed that these comparisons prove that Lincoln and Kennedy are both based on myth.

Anything can be compared if the comparisons are vague enough. In the case of Jesus and St. Nicholas, this is a stetch of monumental proportions as anyone who has studied the two can attest.

Is that a good enough answer?

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