I’m currently re-reading the Terry Pratchett Discworld series, and have made it as far as Hogfather, Pratchett’s decidedly warped perspective on old Father Christmas (or as we Americans would call him, Santa). For some reason this reminded me of a famous quote: “If you understand why you do not believe in everyone else’s gods, then you’ll understand why I do not believe in yours.” It’s pithy, but imperfect, because so many believers have really warped reasons for rejecting other gods. (Justin Martyr, for instance, once explained to Caesar that Jupiter and the other Roman deities were really demons pretending to be gods, in order to lead people to hell.)
With that in mind, I’d like to propose an updated version of the original quote: once you understand why you do not believe in Santa, you’ll understand why I do not believe in Jesus. I know, it’s flawed too (don’t try it on Jews or Muslims, for example). But I think it might be a bit more effective with Christians than the original.
Why do people believe in Santa? Partly it’s because, in most cases, they’re very young at the time, and don’t know any better. As the Uncredible Hallq discusses in an excellent post, ignorance is a big part of the reason why believers believe, whether they’re believing in Santa or in God. Secondly, they believe in Santa because they trust the people who tell them they ought to believe, just like people in the church trust the men and women who tell them they ought to believe in God. Thirdly, they believe because it’s fun to believe. All the rituals with stockings and early bedtimes and carrots for the reindeer, is pretty exciting and magical stuff for young Santa believers. And there’s a certain moral satisfaction in believing that there’s somebody making a list of who’s good and who’s bad, with a view towards rewarding the good (i.e. me, yay!) and punishing the bad (i.e. them, boo!). And that works whether the list-keeper is Santa or God.
What Santa believers learn eventually is that all these things aren’t really enough. You can trust in your friends and in your own ignorance and superstition, you can cling to those enchanting, magical feelings, you can protest the injustice of a world without candy canes for the good kids and lumps of coal for the bad ones, but if you use all that to convince yourself that Santa Claus actually exists, you’re only fooling yourself. A real Santa, like a real God, would have to be something more than just a character in a story told by people you love. If he really existed outside those stories and superstitions and customs, you’d be able to find him there.
Neither Santa nor God shows up in real life. People who study God, like people who study Santa, are people who study stories told by men. You cannot learn about them by studying the real world. You can make up superstitions about the things you don’t understand in the real world, but that’s not really studying God (or Santa), that’s just you making up more stories about him. And then—once again—you’re just studying the stories.
That’s why I stopped believing in both Jesus and Santa. I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve even believed them for a while. I think there’s even a good possibility that a historical Jesus and a historical Nicholas once existed, before all the stories got started. But the stories themselves are still myths, and God’s existence, like Santa’s, is limited to those stories. Neither character shows up outside of those stories, and neither influences the real world in any tangible way, other than what people do in their behalf (like filling stockings late at night, and putting presents under the tree). And yes, I know there are those who claim you can’t prove God’s non-existence, but you can’t prove that there’s no real Santa either, and yet that doesn’t prevent you from realizing he’s just a myth.
It’s time we all grew up and cast aside these childish, ignorant, and superstitious fantasies. Whatever good they do can be done just as well without them, and whatever harm they do (by inciting people to persecute minorities and curtail liberty) is a price we’re better off not paying.