Merry Mythmas: Believing, Thinking, and Santa Claus

Presented at The North Texas Church of Freethought December 1, 1996

Yesterday I got the Christmas tree out of the garage at the insistence of my daughter. She and her brother and sister have had their list for Santa posted now for a week or so. Meanwhile, just two hours from now, in the city of Los Angeles, my fellow Freethinker Tom Flynn, one of the editors of the Council for Secular Humanism's Free Inquiry magazine and author of The Trouble With Santa, will be speaking to members of Atheists United on why both Christmas and Santa Claus are myths and frauds with which supporters of reason ought to have nothing to do. I nevertheless have more in common with Tom than with almost anyone else who will be observing the usual holiday rituals this season. For, you see, he and I — and certainly you and I as well — are bound to disagree on a great many things. And, yet, there is something far more fundamental, in the most important sense of the word, that we Freethinkers strive to keep our thoughts and actions in compliance with.

That principle, of course, is the rule of reason. The practical effect of this is that, whether it is mathematics, physics, chemistry, personal and social ethics, art, politics, or which flavors of ice cream we prefer, and no matter how strongly certain of our opinions may differ, we yet agree that the element of thought is far more important than any feelings or professions of belief. It is a fact that remains true even when we forget it.

When this church was set up, we knew that some people would object to the very idea of its being called a church. We knew that many unbelievers would be suspicious of something that seemed even remotely similar to faith-based religions. And we knew that we would have to depend on people coming together to form a community supportive of rational efforts to come to grips with the human condition even though those people would often hold wildly divergent, antagonistic, and even mutually exclusive and irreconcilable points of view on many of what are considered the most important issues of the day.

Did you vote for Mr. Clinton last month? Did the person sitting next to you vote for Mr. Dole or someone else? Are you horrified to think that people are permitted to possess guns in this country? Or do you consider the Second Amendment to be a bulwark of American liberties? Whatever conclusions you may have reached about something, at least for the time being, I can almost guarantee you that someone else who has also seen through the social delusion of the supernatural — a fellow Freethinker — holds a diametrically opposite point of view. So how can we possibly respect one another as anything other than fellow members of our species? How can we possibly gather peaceably — even enjoyably — in the same room together? How can each of us possibly feel as though we belong to this Church of Freethought which promulgates no unquestionable dogmas and demands no creedal recitations of doctrine or belief?

We are proof that it is possible to resist — and, perhaps, to overcome — a far more ancient and insidious error, a far more socially ingrained habit of mind, and a far more destructive idea than that of savior-gods born of virgins, magical incantations as a means of controlling supernatural powers, and flying reindeer. It's an idea that is so pervasive, and so much taken for granted, that people are people are virtually blind to how corrupting it is. Instead, they readily accept the idea that human beings should be classified and considered according to their beliefs.

In fact, it is thinking that is far more important than believing. Moreover, when you're believing, you're not thinking. And when you're really thinking, you're not believing. It will be an enormous step forward in human progress when this value becomes a part of the bedrock of society.

To be sure, beliefs change. And those who prize conformity of opinion have often tried to bring it about by such change by coercion, the result of which, as Thomas Jefferson observed, is that "millions of innocent men, women, and children ... have been burnt, tortured, fined, [and] imprisoned" so that "one half the world [has been made] fools, and the other half hypocrites." Jefferson knew, as we do, that authentic belief is only arrived at through a process of careful thought that often requires a great deal more honesty and courage than is commonly supposed. That is to say, real beliefs are possible only when people have the opportunity — and feel the freedom — to continually replace those they have with better ones.

The complicating consideration in all of this is that so many of our beliefs, opinions, and attitudes are not so straightforwardly connected to facts and reason. If it were otherwise, we'd be discussing science and not religion, ethics, philosophy, "eupraxophy," or whatever you want to call it. In my personal opinion — speaking for myself — superstition and unreason ought to be separable from the subjective aspects of the human condition that religion has historically tried to address. I think this can be done without this important dimension of the human experience being entirely reduced to clinical psychology or neurochemistry. To me, the result is a kind of functional religion. Nor do I see any reason, in trying to accomplish this task, to stand outside of the protections of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom just because faith-based efforts to make some sense of the human condition as a whole have been so ridiculous in theory and so disastrous in practice.

When we part today, many of us will bid each other "Good Bye" — a shortened form of "God Be With You." In a few more months, even Christians will be celebrating a holiday that goes by the name of a pagan goddess — Easter. And, of course, everyone will also go on using the ordinary words for the days of the week -which refer to Germanic deities — as well as countless other words and expressions that are part of our heritage from a not-so-distant past in which fear and ignorance of the unknown loomed much larger than they do today and were eased and "explained" by appeals to the supernatural.

There are aspects of Christmas which also represent something like fossil relics of a time when superstitions were the best science available. At least the winter solstice, the real reason for the season regardless of whether people call it Christmas or Hanukkah — functional synonyms no matter what the preachers and rabbis say — does mark an astronomical event that it took some observation and intelligence on the part of human beings to recognize. We owe no debt to any god(s) for this bit of knowledge — or any other. There is also something cheering in that people for so long, all over the world, have always preferred to celebrate the return of the sun — to the Northern Hemisphere; and Easter the sun's crossing over to the higher latitudes — rather than the Sun's retreat later in the season. It's reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin's remarks at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 near the conclusion of the proceedings. Concerning a painted sun on the back of the President's chair, Franklin commented that "I have often ... looked at that ... without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

If Homo sapiens were a nocturnal animal, perhaps we would associate hope and optimism with nightfall and the summer solstice. Such are the inexplicable wonders of the world of reality that this not the case.

As for Santa, and again speaking only for myself, I'm not particularly worried about my children not ultimately figuring things out for themselves, as I did. In fact, with all due respect for the arguments of Tom Flynn, I think I can make a good case in favor of the Santa Claus tradition. For one thing, it affords the maturing intellects of children the opportunity of an object lesson in distinguishing fact from fiction that strikes very close to what they most cherish. For many of them — I know it was true in my case — their eventual success in solving the puzzle may even embolden them to consider the very similar problems of theology, a tissue of nonsense that has much in common with Santa Claus, elves and reindeer, and being rewarded with gifts or punished with coal in one's stocking.

The Santa Claus tradition offers adults some useful food for thought as well. Isn't it astounding, for example, how easily such a massive conspiracy is accomplished, year after year, in plain sight, simply for the amusement value of a sort of monumental practical joke on the very young? And isn't the real value of children's reaching a mature understanding of it all precisely one of their accomplishing it by the power of their own intellects, rather than of simply being told the answer? Life offers very few answers, after all. The most precious ones are those that our own experiences — rationally considered — afford us. I truly pity anyone who has never had the pleasure of realizing that they had not quite got something right but thatnow they had a better understanding of it.

Finally, I think that along with the very important traditions of renewing our recognition of the value of peace and goodwill, of thinking of others with cards, gifts, and social gatherings and events, and of planning to make the next year better than the last, the Santa Claus tradition should remind us that the difference between true beliefs and false beliefs lies in our knowing and appreciating the significance of all of the relevant facts, and our having the time and ability to make intelligible sense of them. In the real world, almost without exception, we are forced to make judgments — and even important decisions — without having had the luxury of such thorough contemplation. For this reason, as we go through life, there ought to be a certain amount of tolerance and charity that we extend to others who, though we may not agree with them, appear to be making some sort of effort to reach their conclusions through a reliance on facts and reason, however imperfectly. Conversely, and for the same reasons, we ought to harbor a certain amount of caution and humility where our own beliefs are concerned, in addition to remaining open to the rewarding opportunity of improving them whenever possible.

I think those are among the important ingredients in goodwill. It is possible to agree to disagree, if it can only be agreed to leave aside — without failing to acknowledge — our subjective preferences and prejudices in favor of the objective facts, and to rely on thinking, rather than believing, as the basis for human interaction. It is, without a doubt, an easy thing to say and a most difficult thing to do. But it can be done. Out of honest goodwill can come real peace. There is not one person on this planet who cannot, in principle, change their mind by choosing the better over the worse.

© 1995 by Tim Gorski