When our kids were little, my wife and I faced the usual young parents’ dilemma: do we lie to our kids about Santa, or do we take away all the fun by telling them the truth? We decided not to do either one: we told them from the very beginning that we were playing “The Santa Game,” and then we told them all the fun stuff about Santa in the context of explaining the rules of the game.
You know kids: they loved it and got every bit as much fun out of it as the deceived kids. Literally. Years later, I was talking with my daughter about how disappointed some kids were when they found out their parents weren’t telling them the truth. “Hey, that’s right!” she said. “You guys lied to us.” “No we didn’t,” I said. “We told you from the very beginning it was a game.” Her righteous anger deflated in mid-flare, and she said, “Oh, yeaaahhhh…” And that’s when I knew that, even as a game, the experience was just as real to them as if we had duped them into thinking it was actually true.
Since then I’ve left the Christian faith, and have noticed something even more interesting: what works for Santa works for Jesus just as well. Or any other god, or spirit, or chakra or what have you. All the fun is in the believing, whether it’s actually true or not. The magic of faith happens in the worldview, not the real world, so the question of truth is actually irrelevant. After decades of experience as a believer, I can still “cast off my burdens” by praying, and be thankful for “answers” to my prayers, even when I know that God, in the traditional sense, isn’t really there.
Obviously, my case is an extreme case, but you can see “The Santa Game” being played out by believers all around us. And it literally makes no difference what you believe in. You can be a Pat Robertson evangelical, or a Fred Phelps Baptist, or a Bill Donohue Catholic. You can be a cerebral believer like C. S. Lewis and William Lane Craig, or a holy roller charismatic, or anywhere in between. You can be a Mormon, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Christian Scientist. Or you can go to psychic fairs, and go to hypnotists to discover what happened in your past lives, and get reiki treatments and special crystals, and renovate your house for better feng shui. You can believe anything.
It doesn’t matter what it is or how little it has to with reality, The Santa Game works, even on grown-ups, and that’s why people keep on believing. They like the game. But notice: it does not work any better for one belief than it does for all the others. Christianity works as a Santa Game, but no better. Jesus does not actually show up in the real world any more than Santa does (the *ahem* real Santa anyway). You still get the presents under the tree, but it’s because some real person felt obligated to fill in for the missing Santa—just like Christians fill in for their absentee God. And The Santa Game makes it all just as real to them as if it were true, because they’re living in their worldview instead of in the real world.
That should tell us something. Science is not a Santa Game, because science actually works. Things like computers and brain surgery and graphene aren’t just pleasant fantasies in somebody’s geeky atheistic worldview. They’re real. Right science works better than wrong science, because it’s reality based. That’s why diesel engines work and perpetual motion machines don’t. The success of science depends on how closely it matches real-world truth.
But the Santa Game world of religious beliefs does not, and so all religions work equally well for those that believe them. That’s how you can tell that they’re all just a game, Christianity included.