God and Santa Claus: the Old Standby Objection

Your show opens with your discovery at age 7 that there is no Santa Claus, and closes with a decision that God doesn't exist. Do you see both as part of growing up?

Yes. Santa Claus being God for kids didn't dawn on me until the last few years. The way we think of Santa Claus is, he comes and gives you these presents and you have to be good to get this reward. Somebody noticing what we're doing. It's really just setting you up for this other big Santa Claus.
From "True Unbeliever," an interview with Comedian Julie Sweeney.

In the many years that I have personally been discussing the existence of God with various skeptics on the internet, the second most common claim I have encountered (next to the Invisible Pink Unicorn objection) is that God is simply a cosmic Santa Claus, i.e., a fairy tale designed to portray positive attributes for children. But when we grow up we should reject a belief in Santa Clause because the great weight of the evidence is that Santa Claus does not really exist. Likewise, the argument continues, God is like Santa Claus in that he is there as a crutch for the simple minded who need a cosmic Santa Claus and so will continue to believe despite the fact that the great weight of evidence is against His existence. As laid out by Prof. Theodore Drange in his on-line essay entitled "Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism":

No one has ever proven the nonexistence of Santa Claus, or elves, or unicorns, or anything else, simply because the very logic of an unrestricted existential proposition prohibits its disproof. It is impossible to go all over the universe and show that, for example, there are no elves anywhere. For this reason, rational methodology calls for us to deny the existence of all those things which have never been shown to exist. That is why we all regard it rational to deny the existence of Santa Claus, elves, unicorns, etc. And since God is in that same category, having never been shown to exist, it follows that rational methodology calls for us to deny the existence of God.

This is a reasonable objection, but the idea fails for several reasons.

First, as pointed out by Philosopher Peter Kreeft in his on-line lecture "Mere Christianity", Christians are devoted to truth, and we would not continue to believe in Santa Claus if we knew it to be a lie for the sake of the comfort we receive from believing in the lie. In other words, a question that must be asked is "how many Christians, knowing that Santa Claus does not really exist, continue to believe in his existence?" The answer, I am certain, as that the number of Christian believers in Santa Claus beyond the age of 14 is so small as to be statistically zero. Why? Because Christians do not continue to believe is something just because it makes them feel good. If it isn't true, then Christians -- who are instructed to worship God in "spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) would be violating their own religious beliefs if they were to continue to worship a non-existent God knowing that the truth is that God does not exist.

Second, the idea that there is insufficient evidence to warrant a belief in God is simply ridiculous. There are many reasons to believe that God exists, and the idea that there is no evidence smacks of ignorance. In fact, much of the evidence for the existence of God is compelling to the truly objective observer. Let me give you just a few:

I find the Kalam Cosmological argument to be compelling. This argument uses a string of three dilemmas to argue for God's existence which are: (1) the universe had a beginning or it didn't have a beginning. (2) If it had a beginning, then the beginning was caused. (3) If the beginning was caused, the cause had to be personal. Dr. William Lane Craig has written extensively on this topic, and I encourage anyone to read his writings on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (many of which can be found here and others of which are found in his various books including Reasonable Faith and his contribution to The Case for a Creator. (I do not find convincing the argument that quantum physics suggests that minute sub-atomic particles appear to spring into existence out of nothing and therefore the universe appeared out of nothing.)

I find compelling the showing that the original disciples were willing to be executed over their claim that Jesus was resurrected. I accept the view that the writers of the New Testament were the people who have been identified by tradition as the authors. I find compelling the evidence found in the Bible and confirmed by the existence of the early church that the apostles saw the resurrected Jesus and, at risk to limb, life and eternal soul, were willing to die for that belief very shortly after Jesus was, in fact, crucified himself.

I find compelling the transformed lives that I see when someone comes to know the risen Jesus. I certainly acknowledge the existence of backsliders, but the working of the Holy Spirit is difficult to deny.

I find compelling the fact that we all understand that evil exists, and that such understanding assumes the existence of a moral lawgiver.

I find compelling the fact that life appears to have sprung into existence on Earth from no discernible cause.

I find compelling the fact that people have a dual nature--one nature of high virtue, and one nature of horrible depravity (sometimes in the same person)--as evidence of the fact that we were created good, but something has caused us to fall.

I find compelling the basic doctrine of Christianity that we cannot make our own way to heaven, but rather if it had to come it had to come as a gift from God.

These are all reasons, in my view, that compel belief. I have responded to many criticisms of these views, but the criticisms have only sharpened my beliefs in God's existence.

Third, the Maverick Philosopher has recently published a more philosophical look at the question of the comparison between Santa Claus and God in an essay entitled (appropriately enough) "God and Santa Claus." He makes two philosophical distinctions between Santa Claus and God which he asserts make the analogy fail. First, he notes that God is a necessary being while Santa Claus is not. He notes:

God either exists necessarily, or is impossible. God cannot be a contingent being. He cannot just happen to exist, or happen not to exist. If God were a contingent being, he would not be "that than which no greater can be conceived" and would not be worthy of worship. Santa Claus, however, must be a contingent being, a fact derivable from his being a physical being. God is necessarily noncontingent; Santa Claus is necessarily contingent.

Second, he notes that Santa Claus, if he actually existed, must be at least in part a physical being while God is not. Near the close of his essay, he makes a very compelling statement:

In sum, the concept of God is the concept of a purely spiritual necessary being, whereas the concept of Santa Claus includes neither of these marks. The two concepts are separated by a deep ontological chasm. Nothing I have said is evidence of the actual existence of God. But what I have shown is that atheists who compare God with Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, etc) are not seriously engaging theistic ideas. They think of God as some sort of ‘feel-good posit,’ some sort of anthropological projection (Feuerbach) or wish-fulfillment (Freud).

One final note: as Gregory Koukl of Stand to Reason has pointed out on more than one occasion, the only time that the motive for a wrong belief becomes important is after the questioned belief has been established as wrong. To illustrate: if I believe that the Statute of Liberty stands on an island near New York City, it does no good to ask what motivates me in terms of either an anthropological projection or wish-fulfillment to believe that it stands where I believe it stands until it has been shown that the Statute of Liberty does not, in fact, stand where I believe it to. Once it has been shown that I am wrong, then psychological motivations come into play. But until that time, it is inappropriate to psychoanalyze the reasons for my belief because my beliefs may well be held for a very simple reason -- my beliefs correspond with the reality.



Since you brought it up, did you practice the Santa Claus tradition with your young'uns?
BK said…
Yes, I am still talking to my youngest about Santa Claus just as I was spoken to about Santa Claus. When I eventually figured out that there is no Santa Claus, only the spirit of the season as described so eloquently in the letter to Virginia, it did not lead me to believe that God was unreal, too. The evidence for God and for Santa Claus are of entirely two different realms.
Macht said…
Glenn Miller at the Christian Thinktank wrote an excellent piece on Santa Claus and a smart little boy who almost loses all hope when he finds out Santa doesn't exist. I quoted the story on my blog a while back.
BK said…

Tremendous. I really enjoyed the tale that you posted. It is true that when a child finds out about Santa Claus it does not mean that there isn't an intelligent being responding to his Christmas list and purposing that the gifts appear under the tree. Likewise, the real "Santa Claus" (hopefully) loves the child very much. Miller added a good twist to the story.
Anonymous said…
' But until that time, it is inappropriate to psychoanalyze the reasons for my belief because my beliefs may well be held for a very simple reason -- my beliefs correspond with the reality.'

We should see if our beliefs are rational by seeing if they are true, rather than by looking at the mechanism which produced them.

I think this is one of the most important lessons Victor was trying to teach in his book about Lewis Dangerous Idea.
BK said…
Anonymous (*sigh*),

You said "We should see if our beliefs are rational by seeing if they are true, rather than by looking at the mechanism which produced them." I agree, but I wonder if there isn't a circularity to this argument. After all, how can I know whether my thoughts are true unless they are rational? Likewise, how can I know that my thoughts are rational unless they are true? How do we break the circle?
Anonymous said…
'After all, how can I know whether my thoughts are true unless they are rational?'

Just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are not out to get you!

And even hypochondriacs are sometimes correct when they think that they are ill.

As Victor spent a whole book trying to explain, the truth of a belief can be quite independent of the mechanism used to produce it.
BK said…
I have Reppert's book on order and will look forward to reading it.


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