My son, Felix, is not yet a year old, so Kerry and I have got a lot of parenting choices ahead of us. For example, should we conspire to make Felix believe in Santa. I think we should, for pretty much the same reasons Pascal-Emanuel Gobry won’t:
If you are a Christian, as I am, you are really shooting yourself in the foot. “No, the thing about the magic flying fat man, that was just a made-up story, but the thing about the magic bearded Jesus, that part, that’s totally true!” That sounds silly, doesn’t it? Mainstream popular culture works hard enough telling people Christianity is unbelievable; we should not join the chorus ourselves.
Well, we’re atheists. I don’t intend to proselytize atheism to my kid, because I’m not interested in getting him to believe anything in particular. What I’m interested in is teaching him how to reason in a way that maximizes his chances of hitting on the truth. Now, one of the most interesting truths about the empirical world is that there are all these powerful systems of myth that are kept afloat by a sort of mass conspiracy, and humans seem disposed to pick one from the ambient culture and take it very seriously. But it can be hard to get your head around the way it all works unless you participate in it. Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures. Gobry would rather his children not learn to side-eye well-loved myths in this way, and, given his faith, that seems reasonable.
Rich Cohen puts it really well:
[A]t some point—maybe you’re 7, maybe 10—you discover the truth: There is no Santa. It’s just a story, a polite word for a lie. Worse still: Everyone knew, even your mom. The adults have been involved in a vast, “Matrix”-like conspiracy. You awake in a pod, bald, swimming in goop. You have a keen sense of being laughed at; you picture them all yukking it up. You’re beset by doubt: If Santa is just a story, does that mean everything is just a story? For some, it’s a moment as painful as the more profound moment that might come later, when your inner Nietzsche emerges from the hills to announce, God is dead.
Except Cohen, despite his own youthful experience – (“When I learned the truth—from Todd Johnston, from my sister—I was crushed, changed”) – has become convinced that believing in Santa is actually great practice for believing in a divine Jesus.
According to Fred Edie, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, children are drawn to Santa because he represents certain aspects of Jesus. “I suspect the story evolved in part along the same lines of other stories of Christian saints and exemplars,” Dr. Edie wrote to me. “In this genre, characters are cast as ‘types’ of Jesus because of the ways their lives reflect dimensions of Jesus’ life. Santa may have been good to children, as was Jesus, which would have constituted a radical, even subversive gesture back in the day when children were considered little more than property.” […]
Fred Edie changed my mind. He convinced me that I had it backward. Santa doesn’t prepare you for disillusionment—he prepares you for belief. He’s a kind of training-wheel Jesus, presenting aspects of faith in a manner that kids can handle.
I don’t buy it, and reading Cohen, I don’t believe he believes it either. In fact, I found Cohen’s otherwise winsome piece awfully puzzling. Cohen is a Jewish guy who believed in Santa as a kid, and then became skeptical of his own religion when he found out there’s no such thing. “For years, I refused to believe anything until I saw proof,” he writes. “It could be from the Gospels, it could be from the Torah—I wasn’t interested unless I could touch it. I came to see Santa as a historic mistake with one function: to hurry kids toward disbelief.” And then Fred Edie changed his mind? Why? As far as I can tell, believing in Santa didn’t bring Rich Cohen around to a late-in-life Christian conversion, unless he’s trying to tell us that in a very coded way, so I’m not sure what’s going on. He became a more steadfast Jew, thanks to Santa? Weird piece.
Anyway, I think it’s pretty clear Gobry and I, and Rich Cohen before the unmotivated reversal, are right. Santa is an exercise in losing your religion. So get ready, Felix. Santa’s coming to town!