An Atheist's Plea on Christmas: 'Go Enjoy Real Life'
For those who aren't familiar with the story, in 1897 a young girl wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun.
"Dear Editor: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.' Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?" -- Virginia O'Hanlon
Virginia, your little friends are right. There is no Santa Claus. It's a story made up by your parents.
Your friends have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except when they see. And good for them. Skepticism is healthy. It keeps us from being duped by liars and scam artists and people who want to control and manipulate us. More importantly: Skepticism helps us understand reality. And reality is amazing. Reality is far more important, and far more interesting, than anything we could make up about it.
Your friends understand that there is plenty about the world which is not comprehensible by their little minds. They understand that all minds, whether they be adults' or children's, are little. They see that in this great universe of ours, humanity is a mere insect, an ant, in our intellect, as compared with the boundless world about us. But your friends also see that the only way we can gain a better understanding of this great universe is to question, and investigate, and not believe in myths simply because they're told to us by our parents and teachers and newspaper editorial writers.
Or maybe they don't. Maybe they simply understand that Santa Claus does not freaking exist.
No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.
And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you're a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there's no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that "childlike faith" -- i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true -- is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.
Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That's okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there's no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you -- about Santa Claus, or anything else -- when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That's a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don't believe in this lie they're telling you... you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! And that would be excellent. That would be exactly correct. Fairies don't exist, either. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, and if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? A fair amount, actually. The Santa hypothesis claims that Santa comes down chimneys on Christmas Eve and gives presents to children: if every chimney is carefully watched on Christmas Eve, and nobody sees anybody coming down any of them, that's very strong evidence that the Santa hypothesis is incorrect. Nobody sees Santa Claus -- and that's a good sign that there is no Santa Claus. There are certainly some things in the world that we can't see directly -- atoms, black holes, radio waves -- but we can see or hear or otherwise detect the effect they have on the world. The most real things in the world are those that children and adults can see, or hear, or otherwise detect. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not. Nobody has. Nobody has seen any fairy tracks, or fairy nests, or any signs of fairies whatsoever. And that's pretty good evidence that they are not there.
Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. But we can try. In fact, trying is one of the finest human aspirations there is. We may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside -- and if we do, we might get a better understanding of how the rattle works. And in doing so, in understanding how this one small rattle-shaped part of the universe works, we might gain a better understanding of the universe as a whole. But there is no magical veil covering an unseen world. And not the smartest person, nor even the united intellect of all the smartest people that ever lived, has ever given us any good reason to think that there is.
Fancy, poetry, love, romance... all of these are delightful, incredible, hugely important parts of human life. But they are part of the physical world. They are processes of the human brain, developed through millions of years of our evolution as a creative, exploring, social species. That doesn't make them any less magnificent or wondrous. In fact, many people think it makes them even more magnificent and wondrous. Many people look at the fact that, out of nothing but rocks and water and sunlight, living beings have developed with the capacity for fancy and poetry and love and romance... and we're knocked out of our seats by how marvelous that is. But there is no supernal beauty and glory beyond the natural world. There is only the natural world. Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
And it is completely messed-up to say that faith -- i.e., believing in things we have no good reason to think are true -- is in the same category as fancy, poetry, love, romance. Fancy and poetry and love and romance connect us with reality. Faith tells us to ignore it. Faith cuts us off from it.
No Santa Claus! That's right. He doesn't live, and he never did. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will still not exist -- and no amount of fatuous, manipulative bloviating will make him real. And the heart of childhood is still made glad: by fancy, by poetry, by romance, by beauty and joy, by truth and knowledge, by love and generosity and devotion, and by the boundless magnificence of the universe.
(Oh, and while we're at it: Your Papa is high. If you see it in the Sun, it is not necessarily so. Do not believe everything you read in the newspaper. Including this one.)