Saturday, 24 July 2010

Believing In Santa

When I was really little, I remember believing in Santa Claus. I have a distinct memory of sitting outside one Christmas eve watching lights in the sky of what would be Santa with his glowing-nosed reindeer. This Christmas I don't expect to get any gifts of some magic fat guy, just from family. Somewhere between being 5 and 25 I lost the belief in the magic fat guy.

It is often asked what atheism has to offer, with the implication that theism has many rewards that would be lost with the absence of theistic belief. The afterlife being an obvious example, it's the promise of something that is otherwise lost with the rejection of a theistic belief. There are other examples, such as purpose in life or a moral foundation just to name two, that are examples of what an atheist loses in rejecting theism.

Now whether or not those are valid rewards (I would contend otherwise), I've got to wonder just why it matters to whether you believe or not.

Consider the belief in Santa Claus, that every year a magic fat guy who gets carted around by reindeer giving presents to children who have been good. If you get presents, it validates that Santa is real, if you don't get presents, it also validates that Santa is real because you must have done something. So presents or no presents, surely it is better to believe in Santa than not because of the reward on offer?

It would be great if this Christmas that a $300(AUD) device like a Nintendo Wii could just appear under my Christmas Tree without needing to be purchased. No factory in Asia full of workers and machines, just a set of magical elves working around the clock. And to think of the justice, good kids from poor families would get great gifts while brats growing up in rich families find their stockings full of coal.

Of course all this can't be disproved, we can talk of the implausibility of it all and appeal to Occam's Razor, even make self-justifying rationalisations when the evidence doesn't quite appear right[1][2][3]. Yet despite all the positives of this belief with very few negatives, I don't see many adult takers. Most people work out that Santa doesn't exist despite the positives that a belief holds psychologically and without being able to properly falsify the concept.

Perhaps believing in some form of theism provides comfort or gives a sense of understanding. Perhaps the rewards on offer that come with belief are desirable. No death and eternal bliss do sound good after all, just as free cool stuff every Christmas sounds good. But what does that matter to the belief itself?

It doesn't and that people choose to focus on that shows the issue isn't about the strength of the belief but the desire to keep believing. Imagine someone had said that evolution isn't real, what response would come? Would it be pertinent to focus on the majesty of the tale and the comfort that comes from understanding why you are the way you are? Probably not. Instead I'm going to bet that most people would focus on making an evidential case.

This is a reflection of the poverty of belief. It's not about defending the belief itself but why one chooses to believe. And if that's the case you should send me $10,000 right now because I have this friend in Nigeria...

But back to Santa. I don't believe in Santa even though I very much like to receive gifts. I can't disprove Santa's existence, but the whole story is so implausible and at odds with how the world works that it makes no sense to believe. I can't remember how I lost my belief in Santa but I did go from believer to unbeliever even though believing in Santa came with rewards that not-believing did not have.

So what did I gain from losing my belief? I don't know. I lost a supposed incentive to be good, yet I still try to be helpful and treat others well. I lost the reward itself, yet I don't have to justify why I'll be Wii-less again this Christmas. I lost the magic of the story, yet I can still partake in the festivities without.

These arguments surrounding the desire of belief itself are concessions that the beliefs are otherwise untenable to hold. They are nothing more than appeals to emotion, preying on the desires and being no better than a snake-oil merchant offering a glimmer of hope to a terminal cancer patient. The only difference between the belief in Santa and a belief in God is that as children we are meant to realise that Santa is a myth. The focus on the belief aspect of God shows that perhaps we should be doing the same with God!

[1] - Poor kids wouldn't get bad gifts if they were good and rich kids must be good
[2] - That they were in my parent's closet a month before Christmas IS Santa's way of distribution
[3] - Those receipts are just forgeries to throw me off track

1 comment:

F said...

Yep, yep, yep. Very well stated.