Gospel Disproof #19: Lying for Santa

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.


  1. says

    Sadly there is a huge difference between the Santa game and Christianity. Christianity is damaging, and the end goal is not to necessarily teach people to be better, but to teach people to follow the doctrine espoused by the person at the pulpit. If Christianity were played off as a simple game and people took the faith with the realization that “oh yeah, this is all not real” then it would be just as harmless as belief in Santa.

    I mean, we don’t see Santaists actively engaged in an attempt to deny people their Constitutional Rights because they think the Jolly Fatman in the Sky is a myth.

  2. sailor1031 says

    And you only start to get better when you realize that no religion works better than luck and random chance. I believe it was George Carlin who said he used to pray to Joe Pesci and the results were about the same as praying to ‘god’.

  3. Randomfactor says

    In successive paragraphs you state that the Santa Game works and does not work.

    The difference (as Phil Dick once famously quipped about reality) is that the Science Game works whether you believe in it or not. Or maybe better: the Science Game works whether you WANT it to or not.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      Well, it depends on what you’re looking at. If you’re looking at having the same kind of inside-my-worldview experience that little kids have when they believe in Santa, the Santa Game works just as well no matter what you believe and even if you don’t really believe at all. But if you’re looking at actual real-world substance, then no, of course the subjective Game does not work as well as reality-based science. Or, in a nutshell, the Santa Game works at fooling you, and science works at telling you the truth.

  4. Rhinanthus says

    Interesting, but incomplete. When a kid asks Santa to give him a gameBoy, there really will be one under the Christmas tree. When he leaves cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve, the cookies really do disappear on Christmas morning. I suspect that even kids would catch on quickly if all these claims never happen.
    The Religion Game (R) requires more rules to work. If you pray and it comes true then this shows that the worldview is true. If it doesn’t come true then “God is testing you”, or “God works in mysterious ways”, or “you will be rewarded after death”.

  5. Lauren Ipsum says

    When did you start talking about The Santa Game, and how did the conversation go? My little one is only just becoming verbal, but she’s old enough to recognize cartoon characters, so I don’t think it’s too soon to inoculate her against worship.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      It was around the time we started putting up the Christmas tree and wrapping the presents. We just said, “Ok, we’re going to play the Santa game now. Do you know the story about Santa?” Then just explain the story and say, “We’re going to pretend that Santa is really going to come and bring us a bunch of presents.” We also said that some kids don’t know that Santa is just a game, and that you shouldn’t argue with them, in order to be polite. That might or might not be good advice, but it was how we felt at the time.

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