Saying Goodbye to Santa

By Julianne Dalcanton | December 27, 2007 3:19 am

Back when my oldest kid was 2.5 and planning her Halloween costume (a guaranteed-to-terrify “pink monster princess”), she pointed out that “last year, I was the one who was scared, but this year, I’m going to scare both those guys!”. I knew that one of the guys had to be our neighbors’ friend Pete, who’d unknowingly traumatized her with a rather horrific mask the previous year, but I was stumped about the other. I asked who the “two guys” were, and she replied, “Pete…and SANTA”.

Her relationship with Santa has thus always been, well, complicated. She’s fascinated, and troubled, and yet remains devoted to the idea of Santa. As she nears 7, she oscillates between a deep suspicion that her parents are somehow complicit and a joyful hope that Santa is as real and bountiful as he’s always been (with the latter state taking the lead as Christmas morning approaches). Over the last year, I watched her pragmatic, rationalist core battling the idea of a magical figure who somehow figures out the ultimate just-in-time logistics delivery problem, and I thus was not sure that her belief in Santa was going to survive till December. It did, but with an increasing number of tests and conditions, as she remembered what Santa’s handwriting looks like, and is sharp enough to notice if Santa uses any familiar wrapping paper.

The reason that she couldn’t quite give up Santa yet is simple. At this point, Santa makes her happy. Deeply, contentedly happy. On some level she knows that the mechanics of Santa go against everything else she understands about how the world operates. And yet, the idea that there is still a little bit of magic that might operate in her very own life makes her giddy.

As adults, even the most rational of us sometimes make small concessions to that joy in letting ourselves believe in something wonderful, but not sensible. When I bowl, I firmly believe that absurd amounts of body english after the ball has left my hand are key to keeping the ball out of the gutter. I obviously “know” that this can’t possibly help, but it makes me really happy to indulge my belief that it does. I have friends who have chants that will make parking spaces open up, who carry umbrellas to prevent it from raining, or who have magical articles of clothing that are critical to the success of their favored sports team. All of these beliefs are obviously absurd, but satisfying nonetheless.

Which in the end, is why I typically stay out of the God vs the Atheists discussions in the blogosphere. I am soft enough of heart to take no pleasure in trying to argue people out of something that makes them deeply happy. I find no evidence for what they believe, and I profoundly disapprove of any attempt to institutionalize those beliefs beyond an individual church/synagog/mosque, but I just cannot build up a big head of steam to fight against individuals’ believing in something that helps them cope with life’s frustrations, tediums, and cruelties. I am not blind to the evils that have been visited upon us in the name of organized religion. Yet, individually, there are many people whom I value and love who also take comfort from believing in God. Individually, their belief causes no harm to anyone. They still support teaching of evolution in schools, and don’t abandon free will in favor of waiting for God’s Will to be manifest. They will still be friends with a godless heathen like myself. While this “mostly harmless” manifestation is not true for all religious individuals, it dominates in those that I know personally, making me loathe to engage in sweeping criticisms of theists, even while I struggle with concerns about the impact of invasive institutionalized religion.

I won’t defend my tolerance with well-reasoned arguments, since I have none. Other writers and readers of this blog have given this topic far more rigorous thought than I. Instead, the tolerance grows out of the same inkling that it would feel a bit small for me to take away my daughter’s belief in Santa before she was ready to stand without it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Religion
  • Supernova

    Well said, Julianne. Thanks.

  • Dr Who

    My policy: No First Strikes. I won’t discuss religion unless a religious person brings it up. Any attempt to convert, however, results in a war of total annihilation.

  • N ‘Man O’ Rage’ R

    Very well put! But no atheist (not even Dawkins) is saying that we should take these ‘happy’ feelings away from people. I personally wont do that either, however I am unlikely to participate in perpetuating the idea.

    My view – I wont reason in your church if you stop preaching in my school.

    Keep up the good work and wishing you a Happy new year!

  • ollie

    The only thing I will add is that many people’s religion makes them deeply unhappy! One person can’t accept the fact that she is gay. Another feels that he has been condemned to hell by some deity that predetermines who is “saved”. Another shuns a loved family member because they believe in a different superstition.

    Anyway, I’d like to give these folks something better if I can.

    But yeah, I liked your post, and fortunately MOST of my theistic friends are as you describe.

  • Pingback: bleah!!! « blueollie()

  • B

    While reading I thought it sounds a bit like children have to grow up to doubt, to question, and to loose happiness. I busted the Santa story when I was five or so. The previous year my mother made the strategic mistake to insist Santa took the back door, not knowing I had been watching it which made me very suspicious. Another thing she didn’t know was I could watch the living room through a double reflection in glass-framed pictures. Either way. It’s kind of funny if I think about it that by the time I was three and my younger brother was born, I knew pretty much all the details about how that came to happen, but she still insisted on Santa (the `Weihnachtsmann’).

  • theo

    Great post! — Being a religious person I adore and respect your views here. It has always disturbed me how many people can not simply accept the beliefs, or non-beliefs of the people around them. While many may argue that it is not rational, I often subscribe to the simple maxim “If it works, it is true.” If your life is full and rich without a belief in God, or Goddess, or Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that’s wonderful. Similarly, if your life is full and rich with a belief in any of the above, or any alternate philosophy, that’s wonderful too.

    ollie adds a good point. If your religious beliefs (or lack of them) make you unhappy then it would be a wise choice to change them. Being a mystic, I think it’s important (for me) to operate in the contextual worlds of the people I interact with. If speaking with religious people, I adopt their language so I make sense to them. I reference God. If speaking with atheists I focus on the rational, on science. It’s a way of showing respect to the people with whom you are working/sharing this planet, and a way of helping to make yourself understood.

  • Christina

    I also appreciate this post.

    There’s some guilt that is healthy. If your religion teaches you to forgive your enemies, be tolerant, take care of the less fortunate, etc., and you don’t, then a little guilt is a good thing. If your conscience nags at you because you did something wrong, then you should be unhappy until you can make it right or at least beg forgiveness of the people you hurt.

    I think it’s unreasonable to think that people should be happy regardless of what they’re doing. If they’re doing something that they believe is wrong (whether that belief comes from philosophy, mom’s teachings, or the church’s teaching), then they should be unhappy.

    You can be rational and have beliefs, too. IMHO.

  • John R Ramsden

    In a way Santa serves another useful purpose, because when a young kid is disabused of their belief in him it may subconsiously or otherwise plant in their mind a seed of healthy scepticism of other “facts” which adults tell them.

    I suppose similar reasoning applies, with adults themselves as the dupes, to April Fool’s day articles in the press and even scientific journals.

  • Åka

    This gives me the opportunity to ask: why do parents tell the kids that Santa is real? I cannot remember that I ever thought that Santa existed any more than the other fairy tale figures and comic book characters. The presents always had tags on them saying who they were from anyway.

    Of course, I’m not american so our Christmas traditions are different. But I still don’t understand how it comes that kids think that Santa Claus really comes with the gifts.

  • Åka

    Thinking a bit more.

    I have friends who have chants that will make parking spaces open up, who carry umbrellas to prevent it from raining, or who have magical articles of clothing that are critical to the success of their favored sports team. All of these beliefs are obviously absurd, but satisfying nonetheless.

    What do you mean by “belief” here? I agree that these rituals are doing something for the people you mention, but do you think that they “believe” that these things magically (and in the end physically) change the world, if they think about it? Usually, these things are not “beliefs”, they are just little rituals that people have to connect with and focus on what they are doing.

    So the question is if your theist friends are more like the rational people who keep rituals and patterns (also thought patterns and figures of speech), probably well adapted for helping them connect with and carry out things they do, or more like a kid who struggles not to give up the belief in Santa. I think religious people can be of both kinds, or a mix of the two. (And I think the word “religious” is usually as vaguely defined as “belief”. There is a problem with words and how they are used, which makes this topic very difficult to discuss.)

  • Sean

    I tend (you’ll be unsurprised to hear) not to buy the “let them be happy” argument, at least when it comes to public discourse. (In social situations, it would be just as rude to force your atheism on someone as it would be to force your religion or politics or whatever.)

    The problem is that, by the terms of the analogy, the people you are talking to are cast in the role of six-year-olds. I think it’s more fair to ask how you would want people to treat you. If right now you didn’t know that Santa was fiction, and that body English didn’t help your bowling ball reach its target, would you want someone to point out the truth? Or would you want them to judge that you are happier left to your illusions?

    Some people do prefer their illusions, of course, but others sincerely want to know the best arguments for and against. Those are the target audience for me.

  • Ian B Gibson

    Individually, their belief causes no harm to anyone. They still support teaching of evolution in schools, and don’t abandon free will in favor of waiting for God’s Will to be manifest. They will still be friends with a godless heathen like myself.

    Spoken like a privileged academic. There are many people in many parts of the United States who would lose their jobs and be ostracised by their families for failing to conform to the dominant religious views of those around them. You need to realise that, whilst your situation is nice for you in that you have reasonable religious friends, it is very unusual in the US as a whole; there’s a lot of bullying and intimidation and pressure to conform, and yet it’s the atheists who are accused of arrogance and intolerance when some of them have the nerve to push back a little!

    And this is in the most advanced country in the world.

    Outside of the developed world, of course, the situation is even more extreme.

  • Russ Abbott

    I would guess that someone who is deeply religious would either (a) find that this post fails to understand the basis of their religion or (b) see it as patronizing. As it happens, I agree with you about most of what people call religion. But I know people who take their religion much more seriously than any child takes Santa Clause and would find the comparison either uninformed or offensive.

  • JustAnotherGradStudent

    If right now you didn’t know that Santa was fiction, and that body English didn’t help your bowling ball reach its target, would you want someone to point out the truth? Or would you want them to judge that you are happier left to your illusions?

    Ahhh, but the evangelists will use the same argument when they are doing their preaching to you, Dr. Carroll. They KNOW that they are saved, and they think it is a sin to let you be damned :)

    And so the argument continues…

  • John R Ramsden

    I’d have no qualms poking fun at an acquaintance’s harmless ritual. They’d probably be used to a bit of light-hearted ribbing, and in any case know deep down that the “spell” was futile.

    But it’s not hard to think of circumstances where it would be cruel and pointless to peremptorily shatter someone’s illusion. For example, if someone grieving the recent loss of a loved one or, worse still, on their deathbed themselves, asked my opinion of whether there’s an afterlife, in the hope I’d agree there is (which I don’t believe), I’d emphase that many believe so and no one can prove otherwise. I’d admit my own doubts if pressed; but in a situation like that, it would be crass and achieve nothing to play the doctrinaire atheist.

  • Neil B.

    Julianne, all:

    You might take comfort and entertainment in celebrating Allmess. It is the new holiday I invented AFAIK that is a mixture of all holidays and whatever holiday/s you want to make up too. Hence (by definition) it can be celebrated any time in any way you want! Because it can be celebrated in any manner, you can even pretend to celebrate other holidays etc., but mutter under your breath “But really, I’m celebrating Allmess.”

    Note, the relevant issue about “God” isn’t “evidence” (which needs interpreting anyway at such an abstract level) or even “faith”, but rather “argument”, such as pertaining to necessary versus contingent worlds/beings, etc. I don’t expect you to get real deep into that, but at least to not be a naive simple empiricist. Really, there isn’t even evidence per se for the wording of what you said yesterday if not recorded, etc. but you trust your memories, right? No, not the same situation, just to show you can’t realistically be a raw positivist.

    BTW, one of the most beautiful humanist essays I ever read was, “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” by Leo Buscaglia. Agree or disagree with the premise, it is a marvelous and inspiring fable and sentiment.

    Try this link:

    Finally, what a sad day that Benazir Bhutto was murdered by those bastards earlier today. My sister met her at Radcliffe ca. 1970. She was truly a mighty and beautiful leaf, flawed as she may have been.

  • Neil B.

    PS: I happen to think those arguments for the universe being contingent, for there being an ultimate necessary being, etc, are rather good arguments (not “proof” of course, we are all just making unprovable efforts one way or the other) and that is based on my studied *rational* assessment (you can look for my discussions here and elsewhere.) For example, it violates a principle of existential sufficient reason for one possible world (like ours) to be blessed with the utterly abstract, non-predicate “existence”, but for other possible worlds not to be. Well, maybe “everything possible exists”, but then what a can of worms that opens up: if all “worlds” then why not all “beings” as well, including some ultimate boundary example (in effect, justifying Anselm’s ontological argument.) Sorry Sean, but saying for example “Maybe that’s [our universe’s particular and peculiar laws and properties] just the way things are” is an utter failure as a serious philosophical point. You might as well try to tell me that the number 23 should be out in brass numerals somewhere, but no other number, why? Hence it is quite arrogant to be dismissive of the concept of this world not just “being here,” as if questioning it’s self-sufficiency was like believing in Santa Claus.

  • Julianne

    Russ — I did worry about the analogy coming off as patronizing, but consciously avoided making a strict “believing in God is like believing in Santa” comparison. The analogy is in the happiness and joy that can result when you let yourself believe in something that feels a bit like magic. Kids give up on Santa at some point when the evidence against it becomes too overwhelming, but I don’t think that capacity for enjoying belief in crazy things goes away. For many of us, we give up on God when the evidence against becomes too overwhelming. For others, though, there is enough societal and ritualistic reinforcement of God, and enough pleasure in the act of faith, that the belief can persist for a lifetime.

    Sean — as to whether I’d want to know, it depends strongly on where I was in questioning the underlying belief. I’m a firm believer in the fact that there is rarely benefit in telling someone something that they’re yet not ready to hear. (If you tell someone that their boyfriend is a jerk too soon, they cut you out of their lives; if you hold that thought until they start questioning why no one seems to like Spike, you might get through to them.) Thus, if someone is already questioning why the body english is somehow failing to keep balls out of the gutter, I’d detour into a discussion of the laws of physics, but I wouldn’t point it out to them out of the blue. However, I do see the value of public intellectuals like yourself putting the rationalist argument out there, so that people can find and ponder it when they come to that point on their journey (i.e. your “target audience”). For me, personally, I’m less comfortable in that role, and thus wanted to explain why I tend to stay out of such matters until directly asked.

  • Carl Brannen

    Since parents know better than children, why is it that children cannot expect their parents to tell them the truth? There seems to be some uncontrollable urge to tell children what is good for them rather than what is true.

    The same argument applies to the Lord’s word. If God had told the Israelites the truth about the world, would He have been doing them any favors? Perhaps He should have written down the instructions for making nuclear weapons instead of giving them principles intended to make their society more successful in controling itself. They didn’t need to know about the Big Bang any more than our children need to know about where babies really come from. Maybe it’s a good thing that children’s books don’t include instructions on how to make Molotov cocktails.

  • Alex F

    I have friends who… carry umbrellas to prevent it from raining.

    An umbrella to prevent rain? That’s absurd, nobody could seriously believe that.

    What happens is, if you *don’t* bring an umbrella, then it will rain. This is a genuine and distinct phenomenon. Common-place, even.

  • B

    It just occurred to me that we had a post some while ago about the question how knowledge can make unhappy, and whether one should accept people’s decision not to know. See The Right not to Know. In case you don’t read it, the bottomline is that I find it’s okay if you don’t want to know. As long as you know that you don’t know. What is dangerous however is the ‘Illusion of Knowledge’ that esp. the internet seems to support.

  • B

    Hi Aka:

    This gives me the opportunity to ask: why do parents tell the kids that Santa is real?

    Indeed, I too find this interesting to begin with. I’ve always wondered why my mother told me that story, given that I’ve grown up without any religion whatsoever (until I went to school I didn’t know of something like a ‘god’).

    What I remember most prominently upon finding out that there’s no Santa was disorientation and disappointment. Not because there’s no Santa and the world is a bit less magical that it is. In fact, I was kind of relieved because I couldn’t make much sense out of the story to begin with. No, I recall being very disoriented because it turned out that my mother had deliberately, knowingly lied to me. The basic trust that what adult family members told me is true got lost there. Best,


  • Bad

    I’m with you Julianne. I’m certainly not willing to let crappy arguments fly by without a response, but at the same time, the idea of trying to convert people out of their chosen (or unchosen) beliefs seems silly and even sort of vindictive to me.

    The thing is, I have no idea what role beliefs play in any given individual’s life. I mean really, really play. For all I know, the Christianity of a very very arrogant Christian could be the one thing keeping them from being REALLY arrogant. Or vice-versa. So I can’t say for sure whether someone believing in this or that is really the right choice for them.

    All I can do is speak my own mind, and respond to arguments, claims, and agendas. Beliefs just aren’t my bailiwick.

  • chemicalscum

    I never believed in Santa as my:

    rationalist core battling the idea of a magical figure who somehow figures out the ultimate just-in-time logistics delivery problem,

    always came out clearly on top. I hadn’t come across special relativity then, but I was sure it contravened the laws of physics. I think parents should be honest to their children about Santa and early on explain to them the concept of a myth. Otherwise they merely teach their children that their parents will lie to them. Indeed that their parents are somewhat silly and inept liars even though they have the best of intentions.

    But then my wife and I don’t have children.

    With regard to organized religion and peoples beliefs in general, the following thoughts came to me some years ago while listening to the obnoxious Dr. Laura on radio while driving home. A phone in caller said she didn’t “really approve of organized religion but she wanted to teach her children some spiritual values”. Laura Schlessinger exploded “What’s wrong with organized religion – what do you want disorganized religion !”

    Since Dr L. had spent much time in tirades against child abuse, the answer came to mind immediately. What is wrong with organized religion is that it gives rise to organized child abuse. At least disorganized religion with luck should be relatively harmless.

    In Canada we had the genocidal Residential Schools program for indigenous children which were administered by Canada’s three main Christian denominations, Catholic, Anglican (Episcopalian) and United (Methodist). In these institutions the children were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse and sometimes murder by their religious teachers. We also had the orphanages on our west coast run by the Catholic Brothers where physical and sexual abuse was rampant. There are I imagine many similar examples in the US and recent disclosures about about the Hare Krishna’s and the Children of God show that less mainstream organized religion is equally bad.

    As a mother Julianne you obviously see the danger of this. We don’t have to persuade people to give up their faith in god but we most certainly do have to persuade them to give up their faith in their churches.

  • jon

    Thanks for this post Julianne. I am one of those rationalist types who has never been pleased with the use/abuse of religion by those who manage our public lives. Politicians (that means you Huckabee), public school teachers and all. Just another agnostic/atheist physicist here.

    Nevertheless I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the anti-religion tirades I keep seeing from time to time on this blog and the presumption by my colleagues that all sensible people in my workplace are agnostics/atheists (with politically liberal leanings too but that’s a story for another time) and that anyone who does have religious beliefs is an idiot and a kook.

    Obviously it’s not the rationalist atheist position I object to. I am a rationalist and pretty much an atheist. I take a lot of pleasure in carefully reasoned argument and in well written explanations of the atheist position. It’s the Lubosesque posturing and sneering that I despise. Also what seems like a desperate lack of compassion.

    I’ve only skimmed most of Carl Sagan’s books but I read The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark thoroughly from cover to cover. Something that struck me: no vitriol and really nothing even approaching it. He seemed to really understand where the religious mind comes from.

    I cringe every time I see who my representatives are supposed to be these days. Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. Smart men both and yet they are obnoxious pompous fools when it comes to understanding their fellow humans. I wish we had Sagan back.

    My mother and father are religious people from religious regions of our country. Get Dawkins in their face and they get angry and close their ears. He spits on what they hold dear. But they adored Sagan.

  • Bo

    Interesting subject with which I and my wife struggle at the moment. We just had a baby daughter and my opinion is that I should tell her there is no Santa. My wife thinks otherwise. My reason is that I prefer my daughter to believe that it is her parents that care and love her. It is us, not some stranger, that makes special days for her. My wife, while she understands this, is worried that our daughter is going to be an outcast among children.

    Personally I find the concept of Santa a bit disturbing. I know a lot of people will snort dismissively, but even lyrics of “Santa Claus is coming to town” sound to me like an Orwellian nightmare:

    He sees you when you’re sleeping
    He knows when you’re awake
    He knows if you’ve been bad or good
    So be good for goodness sake

    Again, I would rather teach a child to be good because this benefits all of us rather than because an invisible “soul accountant” is keeping track of her deeds.

    A friend remarked to me that a concept of Santa allows children to build their imagination. Again, my inclination is to let child marvel about the universe. From strangeness of micro space to amazing works of DNA machinery to vastness of space. Of course all this needs to be cast in terms understood by children. Yet, it makes me wonder, if a child’s imagination is stirred by “Mr Hungry Black Hole” rather than Santa, will she grow with a better grasp of these amazing phenomena than most of us?

  • John R Ramsden

    It seems the Russian authorities don’t agree with my point #9 above:

    From today’s BBC news [ ]

    “Russia prohibits denial of Santa” …

  • Carl_Spackler

    “I am not blind to the evils that have been visited upon us in the name of organized religion.”

    Nor should we be blind to the wonders of good and charitable contribution that have been visited upon us in the name of religion. Which by my estimation far outreach the evils, but that’s just me.

  • Thoughtless Barbarian

    I used to take the “live and let live” approach in regard to religion, but I’m concerned that if people choose to believe in God (which is rationally indefensible) then they inadvertently give permission to everyone else to believe in whatever God they happen to choose/prefer. Then you end up with differing indefensible belief systems that, historically, turn out badly when those beliefs are at odds with those of someone else. Basically, if you choose to abandon rationality by believing in God, then you give permission for everyone else to abandon rationality as well.

    “Believe” is important here, as opposed to “going through the motions because it’s part of my heritage” while secretly not believing in your core. As long as everyone can admit to these cultural conveniences as merely that, then we should be able to tolerate each other, which is probably as close as we’ll get to true “Peace On Earth”.

  • Loki

    Re 28:
    John, there are several versions here in Moscow of why they did it. In order of popularity:
    1. FAS (=”Federal Anti-Monopoly Service”) is just trying to show that they deserve funding, as any other bureacratic body here. Or elsewhere in the world, I guess Parkinson’s laws are universal :-)
    2. The particular person inside FAS who initiated the idea is a parent himself, was pissed off by the ad and banned it. Just like this, Russian style.
    3. Some competitors of unlucky advertiser arranged it – very unlikely in my point of view, who would really care?

    Also, i feel it’s worth to clarify that Ded Moroz (=Grandfather Frost) is not quite analogous to your Santa. He is an ancient character of pagan origin (and of an obviously evil and dangerous nature back than). In a typicla fairytale, which, i guess, trace back to some very old mythology, the DM guy (aka “Morozko”) blesses and gives loads of presents to a good girl, orphaned, working as a slave for a cruel mother-in-law and her ugly daughters. He does so only after the girl passes some deadly trials, winning his respect. Than the ugly lazy sister-in-law, envious, wants to get presents as well. But she doesn’t have the mojo to pass the test and DM freezes her to death, to the delight of kids, reading the story ))
    I am not kidding, i had the illustrated book when i couldn’t read myseld, i.e. was very young. And there was a movie, and animated movie as well.
    So, you see, DM is kind of playing Bad Santa if you are not a good kid .. )

  • Neil B.

    Thoughtless Barbarian, I’d like to think your handle is snark but you indulge its literalism thus:

    “I’m concerned that if people choose to believe in God (which is rationally indefensible) …”
    So, are you prepared to carefully explain that in full light of concepts such as the existential selection problem (why some possible worlds exist and others do not), the challenge posed by the modal realist critique against the very idea of “exist” as a rational concept above and beyond the mathematical sense of existing solutions to equations, etc.? (I have news for you: there really, really, is not strictly logical way to define “existence” in the material world sense we love and think we know. But that doesn’t mean MR is true, since our universe isn’t really a mathematical structure anyway, pace Tegmark et al, because a deterministic logical structure can’t produce events which “just happen” like the unpredictable in-principle decay of one muon after 10 microseconds and another “identical” muon after 23 microseconds, etc?) The way I look at it: either “everything exists” and that then includes an ultimate being as part of the mess, similar to the Omega of infinite set theory, or else we have to justify some universes existing (like the one or ones that are life-friendly by nature – do you have an explanation for that?) and therefore need “God” to “sort it all out.”

    Or, are you just another one of those ironically applying the “sniff test” of whether the idea just feels rational to the intuition? I mean really, why does this world “exist”, did that “make sense” in some a priori way? Can you tell me why without using idiotic playground expressions like “why not”?, or empty and easily defeated (see above) boasts like “maybe that’s just the way things are?” It’s all up for grabs – an ultimate necessary being that our universe (and maybe others) is dependent on for existence is likely not provable, but likely not disprovable either: hence neither position is rationally indefensible. The latter term implies that you can’t even have a good argument for something.
    BTW the yes and no positions are the same sort of metaphysics. This whole idea that one can “cleanse” himself of the taint of the metaphysical by either making empty boasts, or because they take the negative position, is what is indefensible.

    “then they inadvertently give permission to everyone else to believe in whatever God they happen to choose/prefer.”

    No, wrong again. An abstract argument really does not specify any particular nature, and does not *justify* anything more from failing to address those details – it neither justifies nor denies them. Yes, there can of course be unprocessed further consequences of a given argument, but those are to be shown by actual study and not assumed by sloppy intuition.

    You can likely tell by now I am not a traditional “religious believer.” A Unitarian Universalist in the practicing sense, I have my conclusions because of philosophical (yes, “rational” which is not to be confuse with empiricism by the way) reasoning, no in spite of them or due to “faith” or sentimentality or whatever lazy preconception you might employ. I, like libertarians, Ron Paul supporters, etc., get tired of the same tired retreaded debates involving the usual stereotypes of both the actors and the ideas. Agree with me or not about the issues, let’s have a more intelligent framing of them, OK?

  • Loki

    Re 13:

    US is really the most advanced place on the planet in many aspects. Technology, economy etc. But not all.
    Maybe i’m wrong, but in religious matters old Western Europe is much more relaxed and generally more liberal place nowadays.
    I think a lot of people around the world consider US, among other things, as a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism. Why so? for example:
    In France – they are trying to prohibit openly wearing religios symbols in public schools. Muslim head-scarves and open-sited crossses alike. Their president just have divorsed and is travelling around with top-model Karla Bruni, which only serves good to his rating.
    In US – they are trying to teach creationism in schools. And one of the leading presidential candidates is a scaring creationist himself.
    Look at gay rights in, say, Sweden or Holland. Abortion, cannabis (much much less bad than alcohol), death penalty -take any measure …

    Am i right?

    Is it a right perception?

  • Jon Voisey (aka. The angry astronomer)

    While that’s all good and nice, it’s a bit of an idealization to think that irrational beliefs are nothing but harmless fuzzy warm feelings. While there certainly is a great deal of that, we also cannot forget that we are currently fighting in a war where nearly 4,000 American soldiers and many more thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed because we had a nation that believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in blatant disregard of what our own intelligence agencies often told us. Why would we do such a thing? Because we were too blinded by rage at another group that believed we were such godless heathens that they decided to fly some planes into buildings.

    So while I think it’s cute to pretend irrational belief and faith are harmless, it’s not only dishonest to do so, it’s dangerous.

  • Snoop


    A topical anecdote from a friend of my girlfriend’s family who are atheists and are raising their kids as such. When one of their unsuspecting friends asked the little girl what she wanted from Santa, she responded quite forcefully, “Santa isn’t real, and neither is Jesus!”

    For her sake, I hope the parents teach her a little thing called “tact” before she says something like that to the wrong schoolmate…

    BTW, I’ve been reading CV for a few months now, but this is my first comment. As a mere theoretical chemist I don’t find many chances to contribute, but I’m appreciative of the insider angle on cutting edge research I don’t have time to keep up to date on myself. Keep it up in the new year!

  • Loki

    Re 34:
    Jon, moreover, Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11. Your strategic ally in the Gulf region provided people, money etc.
    I think that we should differentiate between Really Irrational and Systemic Irrational beliefs.
    RI = Santa, “there is some higher power ..”, “there is some sense in life ..”. Almost everyone I know, except those with physics-math education, has some ideas like that and they never really argue stubbornly about their vague conceptions. They care much more about their salary or football or whatever.
    SI = religions, ideologies. Those people are usually not ok if you touch their system. they become agressive very quickly.

  • Neil B.

    Jon Voisey, it is more likely (as Ron Paul states honestly) that al_Qaeda hated our meddling in Saudi Arabia, Iran, pro-Israel policies, etc., than the sheer mysticism of hating our not being Muslims (and note that a motivation is not a justification, nor is point one out a defense of the action – many of Paul’s critics were too dumb or politically cynical to appreciate that.)

    About the rationality/modal realism business (see my #32): I think it is hilarious and hypocritical that so many sport being “rational materialists” when, as explained by modal realists and summarized above, there is no strictly logical way to define or defend the idea of “material” existence – not in any way clear or distinct from the sort of “existence” of platonic descriptions, roots of equations, etc. IOW, the idea of “matter” is actually a “mystical” concept from a strictly rational point of view. Modal realists BTW are the strictest of hard-assed thinkers, and certainly not supporting religion etc. in any way.

    Oh sure, “we know we’re here” and use computers and all that, but that is ultimately derived from our experiences and still does not give the strict rational definition of what such outside existence (as opposed to conceptual, model worlds of the “mindscape”) could really mean or how it could be rigorously defined.

    You folks here could at least pause to respect and think of such issues, maybe picking up some humbleness about it all, agree or disagree in the end as you will.

  • Allyson

    My reason is that I prefer my daughter to believe that it is her parents that care and love her.

    You know that she’ll have that part down long before she even has any inkling of what holidays are, right? I mean, seriously. Your kid is going to get sick, get hungry, have poopy diapers, feel chilly, have tantrums…millions of times before Santa is a known variable.

    So the people who rub a sore tummy, feed, change poopy diapers, warm, and comfort her have no worries.

    Don’t be ridic. You’re all good.

    Also? Kids aren’t really short grownups. They like make-believe and pretending to be Harry Potter and that the carpet is a scary pond filled with angry crocodiles. It’s how they learn and experience the world and have, you know, fun.

    No one’s kid is gonna get shoved in a locker for not believing in Santa. Millions of Jews have perfectly awesome childhoods without believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny.

    We don’t have cute shit like that. No Morty the Magical Mohel leaving candy under your pillow. But I swear I could totally market that.

  • Julianne

    Morty the Magical Mohel


    But I’m not sure it’s candy he’d be leaving…

  • Allyson

    It’s what he takes in exchange for the candy that should worry you.

  • Soitnly

    Overall good discussion. I’d like to expand on a few of the threads.

    Re: 32
    I have to say that Neil B.’s argument strikes me, in the end, as an elaborate reframing of an argument from complexity. If “God” is necessary to “sort it out” (ie our commonly-agreed upon “fact” of our existence) who or what “sorts out” the existence of the necessary “God”? By that argument there are an infiinite number of “Gods”, each “sorting out” the next-lesser deity in the hieararchy.

    In other words, it’s turtles all the way down.

    It’s not a “sniff test” or “an idiotic playground expression” to recognize a recursive, non-resolvable argument and to say that there’s a point beyond which additional speculation becomes intuitively non-supportable. I can accept the observation and inexplicability of random muonic decay without then postulating a non-observable and equally inexplicable “God”.

    Re: Confronting believers about their beliefs
    Play a little thought experiment — imagine your child still fervently believing in Santa at ten, twelve, or twenty. At what point do you take them aside and, for their obvious benefit, try to convince them that Santa does not exist? Why would you even feel compelled to change their beliefs? Because it’s a numbers game. A majority of people would find it extremely odd for an older child or adult to believe in Santa.

    But a majority of people also think it’s normal to believe in other supernatural beings. This means I don’t make a habit of confronting believers because I have strong interest in getting along. But I find it astonishing that ongoing, vehement arguments about who is or who isn’t going to burn in hell are considered socially acceptable but claiming that, in effect, no one is going to burn in hell is considered rude and insensitive. Which is why I am glad people like Dawkins and Hitchens are out there finally confronting religious adherents with a level of aggression commensurate with what many adherents have wielded against non-believers as well as one another for centuries.

  • Neil B.

    Soitnly, the problem with your argument is the assumption that absolutely all entities must share the same most fundamental logical properties (such as needing something to make or support them, etc.) IOW, it doesn’t have to be turtles all the way down. (Just consider the difference between specific numbers and finite sets, versus “infinity” and infinite sets, especially the unreachable Omega of cardinal set theory.) The idea is, once you realize that modal realism means logic can make no distinction between different possible worlds or even “flesh them out”, we wonder what breathes fire into the equations as it were. Hence, some thinkers think there has to be *something* which is necessary and uncontingent. If so, the simplest perspective is that there’d be one of It, however you imagine it. Also, you didn’t really get my decay argument – it wasn’t a crude notion that one weird thing deserves another, but an intermediate link in a larger argument about modal realism. (Curiosity: do you agree with MR? Why or why not?)

    BTW the argument from complexity was the idea that certain structures could not have appeared naturally, but must have been made by some entity. Well, whether a structure needs to be constructed depends on the capabilities of a given universe, it is not an intrinsic logical property. Some structures, like a Boeing 757, likely could *not* appear naturally in this universe, although toying with fundamental laws and substrates might make it happen naturally in some possible world. If those making that argument failed in the case of bacteria or flagellum motors or whatever, it was for that reason. That is very unlike the very abstract issues of the very distinction between mathematical and other kinds of existence, necessary and contingent being, etc.

  • Neil B.

    PS: Are you a Bugs Bunny fan? Me too. I look a lot like Chuck Jones at around 50ish, and would love to play him in a movie.

  • Soitnly

    First things first — Bugs Bunny is second only to my parents for having had a positive impact on my personality, world view, and approach to life. And you should be proud of your visual relationship to Chuck Jones. I met the man once and was in absolute trembling awe of him. He turned out to be gracious and kind, patient with a flabbergasted fan’s babbling of thanks. He also got away with turning to my wife and, upon taking her hand, proceeding to Pepe Le Pew kiss his way up her arm.

    Second — Allmess (Allmas?) is a wonderful concept. I’m a proponent of mid-winter celebrations and while acknowledging the solstice is a good start it’s always struck me as a bit cold-sounding. Didn’t quite capture the preceeding fear and subsequent joy societies must have felt as the days got shorter and they eventually received confirmation that the sun was, in fact, coming back.

    Now to the issues at hand. You are correct about the argument from complexity; I was engaged in some hand-waving when I wrote, “strikes me” in my original comment. I apologize if some of my arguments were and will be a bit truncated and over-simplified. A consequence of attempting to engage in a sophisticated discussion while seemingly doing work.

    I don’t agree with MR. I’m, at heart, an Occam’s razor kind of guy. I do find it absolutely fascinating that human language and models of “reality” can allow us to ponder concepts such as MR. But MR strikes me (those words again) as an elaborate analog to writing something like, “Everything I say is true. Everything I say is a lie.” The ability to frame a non-solvable statement or non-refutable mental model is not the equivalent of the thing’s existence or validity.

    I will readily acknowledge my non-belief in “God” leaves certain questions unanswered. Right now, I’m willing to admit to huge amounts of ignorance about the detailed workings of the universe. But I like to think answers to those questions, like the answer to why days get shorter in winter, will come in time. In other words, my *something* which is necessary and uncontingent is the universe itself as it is currently being described by modern science in its many cosmological, physical, chemical, geological, and even mathematical ways.

    In the meantime, resorting to a belief in God to explain existence is like saying that a dragon is devouring the sun just to have an explaination for the dark days of winter.

    Of course, that’s IMIO (in my ignorant opinion).

  • spyder

    Maybe, purely for the sake of fun, i will toss this little semantic bomb in this thread.

    There exists considerable research (and more coming forth all the time) that this Santa character is an amalgamation of various semioticities from cultures around the globe living above the 50ºN Parallel. One of the most singular of common elements in these historical and contemporary cultures is the use of Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric fungus. Collected prior to the great snows and freezes of winter, the frozen mushroom makes its way into midwinter (actually winter solstice) ritual meals, particularly those of shamen (et al), to provide a variety of wonderful visual splendors and intuitive gifts. As most of these rituals (and cultures) predate that one Mesopotamian/Eastern Mediterranean/Pallas religion, one could safely infer that our winter Santas are more about shrooms, than xMas is about some god or another being born. Amanita muscaria is also a known favorite of Lapland reindeer, Inuit caribou, and Siberian tribal muskox. Gotta love that red & white and hints of gold.

  • Soitnly

    Now THAT’S something I can believe in!

    PS – Just remembered — the dragon eats the sun during an eclipse. Days get shorter in the winter because the sun is shy about the all weight it’s put on during the ‘shroom festivals …

  • Neil B.

    Yeah, OK you guys and anyone should see
    It fleshes out (Santa has lots of flesh) spyder’s astute intuitions about the relation of Santa and shrooms

    The psychedelic secrets of Santa Claus
    Posted by john coulthart
    [taken from]
    The psychedelic secrets of Santa Claus
    by Dana Larsen, Cannabis Culture Magazine (18 Dec, 2003)

    Modern Christmas traditions are based on ancient mushroom-using shamans.

    Although most people see Christmas as a Christian holiday, most of the symbols and icons we associate with Christmas celebrations are actually derived from the shamanistic traditions of the tribal peoples of pre-Christian Northern Europe.

    The sacred mushroom of these people was the red and white amanita muscaria mushroom, also known as “fly agaric.” These mushrooms are now commonly seen in books of fairy tales, and are usually associated with magic and fairies. This is because they contain potent hallucinogenic compounds, and were used by ancient peoples for insight and transcendental experiences.

    Most of the major elements of the modern Christmas celebration, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, magical reindeer and the giving of gifts, are originally based upon the traditions surrounding the harvest and consumption of these most sacred mushrooms.

    Yes, take enough of those mushrooms and you will have no trouble appreciating concepts like “modal realism” or infinite stacks of turtles! BTW, since the active ingredient is excreted as is in urine, imbibing the emanations as it were of an Enlightened One will take you right to Mr. Super Turtle him/herself. (Maybe that’s “trickle down ecstanomics.”)

    What’s really funny to me is, despite misgivings that arguments such as given by MRers are sophistry, it really isn’t logically possible to define material existence – it is a mystical concept. And, we really do know how eclipses occur, and it’s simple to model, but the foundation of the universe is a complete mystery and mess, as anyone arguing or watching same about string theory knows.

  • Carl Brannen

    Re the atheist child who doesn’t believe in Santa or Jesus.

    Not having any kids, I didn’t realize until just now why it is that parents don’t tell their children where babies come from. Now I understand completely.

  • Ahmed

    I agree with Sean, but the sad reality of the human experience in modern times is that you either are an educated, intelligent individual with enough imagination to come to rational conclusions about this whole “deities in the sky” ordeal, or you’re not. If you are, you will not need much debate to be brought to your senses. If you are not, no amount of scientific rationalization will lead the religious to abandon the little microverse they encase themselves in. There is no motivation do make such a bold move – from endless paradise and absolute justice and divine “purpose”, to a grim, meaningless, probabilistic universe where every tiny part of your existence is the accumulated result of cosmic accident. It is not a “pleasant” transition.

    Religious feelings – the need for the deity – evolved to help us deal with reality. One cannot address those feelings and resulting belief systems without addressing that harsh reality, and the role of the sentient being in it. You would be fighting against human emotion, and like Julianne implied, it’s not a battle worth fighting. What’s the point?

    I personally found the fact that I can “do science”, to be enough of a motivation in life. As self-aware beings we should be very gratified by the idea that we are able to abstract knowledge..mathematical(logical) truths, and create models of the universe around us that are detailed enough (in modern theory) to border on philosophical debates while making verifiable predictions. That is a wonderful thing, an amazing thing, because we are aware of the entire process. No other known entity can do this. Those of us who are lucky enough to understand can live to celebrate it. And those who are not should be gently smiled at, and left to their deities.

  • chemicalscum

    What happens is, if you *don’t* bring an umbrella, then it will rain. This is a genuine and distinct phenomenon. Common-place, even.

    Yes too many theoretical physicists here. This is a well understood phenomena seen by experimentalists in all fields of science. It’s a corollary of Murphy’s Law sometimes also known as Sod’s Law :)

  • Neil B.

    Ahmed wrote,

    “As self-aware beings we should be very gratified by the idea that we are able to abstract knowledge..mathematical(logical) truths, and create models of the universe around us that are detailed enough (in modern theory) to border on philosophical debates while making verifiable predictions.”

    Almost good enough. We are able to abstract knowledge and logical truths and assumptions, and go beyond simply creating models of the universe “around us.” We can think in even more abstract terms (see my posts upthread) about other possible universes, about concepts of existence and what it even might mean (see regarding “modal realism”) and think about things like necessary and contingent existence. Such thoughts are philosophical debates in the best sense, they don’t just border on them. Most of you here have posited a level of intelligent thought, called “science” and then put “religion” (as sentiment/tradition etc.) below it, but there is “philosophy” above them both. Whether one comes to a yes or a no answer is not how to define where one is operating with that. BTW, anyone who talks about what science and religion are, what can be done or not with science and philosophy, is doing philosophy (e.g. “of science”) and so can’t beg off that he or she isn’t really playing too, but just critiquing those who do. You can only fight metaphysics with other metaphysics, sorry (but don’t take it hard, instead just roll with the punches and maybe you’ll expand your horizons about all this without having to believe in any hand-me-down sacred text or ancient tradition.)

  • ts

    I share the same feelings with Julianne toward ones’ beliefs. You just cannot take away what individuals value so much in their lives, no matter how baseless their beliefs seem. Can you tell/educate someone else’s little kids that their caring moms are really *not* the sweetest and the most beautiful woman in the world? I don’t think so. To deny someone’s belief has the same effect of denying that person’s sense of existence. At least that’s how people feel. In the end, what drives people is not rational thinking, but what makes them happy. I think Julianne’s Santa example is a nice one to illustrate what that means.

    I’m a Ph.D. in physics but (wanted to) believe in Santa Claus till I was eleven. My sister and I made a “mistake” of wishing a kitten for Christmas (who of course was constantly meowing in my parents’ room the day before…).

    In society it is just very hard to make everyone happy, because of the conflicts of interests. I think the most depressing human nature is that nobody is really free from someone else’s will imposed within particular cultures during nurturing process. Looking around, you really cannot deny that the science types tend to come from intellectually-oriented environment, whereas religious types come from theirs. People don’t become human beings as we know, unless nurtured by specific environments.

    Having had to deal with people from very different backgrounds (jeez Americans are too religious and materialistic for my taste!!), I learned to tolerate people for who they are; otherwise, you keep feeling your belief is challenged. As long as others do not violate my sense of security, I should not invade theirs. A mature society has the mechanism to keep that process in check (such as the separation of state and religion).

    We scientists, however, have an obligation to “share” the knowledge that we discover, and need to make sure that the knowledge is easily accessible to those who desire. If science really makes the vast majority of people on Earth happy in the end, people will naturally have confidence in it, as many already are. I at least hope that is the case.

  • Kapakapa

    Has anyone ever wondered as a kid how the jolly Santa could neglect the children of the entire third world? They can’t be all that bad behaving! Or you had graduated from Santa fable by the time you had such a thought?

  • Neil B.

    “In the end, what drives people is not rational thinking, but what makes them happy.”

    Maybe you are right, about yourselves (scientists etc.) as well. I get the impression, from the simplistic and often fallacious (or at least inadequate) attempts at philosophical treatment here by skeptics of “conditional” concepts of the universe’s existence, that scientists literally aren’t happy thinking about questions of ultimate meaning and purpose (for the universe itself.) It certainly isn’t because “rational thought” actually supports such a loose-end universe that just happens to be here (all of the “physical theories” which purport to do so just take the laws of physics or some equivalent as background to effect that outcome, without giving ultimate explanation to them.) I have brought up many arguments about this, but right or wrong or unknowable as they may be, few here even bother to engage.

    Sure, maybe or maybe not there’s some uncaused being behind all this, I don’t call any of the pro arguments “proof” any more than the anti arguments. However, no honest rational person would at just “blow off” the peculiarly fine-tuned nature of our physical laws as something easy to dismiss. They certainly wouldn’t go around blithely tossing off concepts of “other worlds” that we can’t (in opposition to their own old tradition of scientific empiricism) even observe, yet at least, in attempt to avoid facing up to that. (And why must they try so hard to evade such notions?) There is a difference between just passing on something that seems unprovable, which is OK by me, and a directly anti-transcendent orientation. There is really no excuse for the latter.

  • JimV

    Nice thread. I can’t fault anyone for sticking up for their beliefs, but that includes their lack of beliefs too. I just wish everyone would do it as nicely and rationally as is usually the case at Cosmic Variance. As to what seems to be a metaphysical argument upthread that I can’t disprove the existence of some god, true, but then I can’t disprove the existence of Santa Claus either. He just never came to my house. My own hypothesis is that this universe is a part of a control group for an experiment run by a meta-god, to see what happens when various types of gods run pocket universes.

  • Neil B.

    JimV, I certainly hope we can continue to debate fundamental issues in a respectful way (and I haven’t always been perfect about that.) I do remind you that I am not dumping the old canard on anyone of thinking you have to disprove anything to impress me. To the contrary I have various arguments about why this world isn’t self-existent, or at least what a mess it causes if we think it is (because then, why can’t all the other “possible worlds” and even possible beings play being real too?) etc. I am however complaining about people blithely taking the non-existence of an ultimate cause for granted (not at all to be confused with doubting the status of any particular non-fundamental postulated entity, that being a common and careless philosophical blunder.) I do not think any the less of a person for not believing in whatever we can’t prove, and all I ask is reciprocal respect if I do believe in what can’t be disproven.

    Hey, I do have a sense of humor about all this. Your theory is clever, and when I think of how f***ed up this joint can get, I find much sympathy for the old Gnostic heresy of the evil or incompetent demiurge.

    In any case, Happy New Year to everyone, and have a terrific Allmess too!
    (That is the new holiday I made up that is every other holiday, including whatever you want to make up, all mixed together! By definition, you can celebrate it any time, anywhere, in any manner you want!)

  • Peter Mexbacher

    The problem with belief in God is that it is a “memetic milieu” which easily leads to dangerous ideas.

    Letting people believe in what makes them happy sounds harmless enough – but when their “Holy Book” has chapters like the Christian New Testament “Apocalypse” which talks about the end of the world, things get more problematic. Especially if you know that the Reagon administration did not fear a nuclear war because the (christian) advisors were of the opinion that then this would be the biblical Armageddon. And at this moment US Congressmen hold similar ideas (luckily only a minority).

    Religion was acceptable in a world of swords and lances – but it is _not_ acceptable in a world of nuclear bombs, where irrationalist thought can extinguish civilization.

    One more distinction may be of important: personal religions can be tolerated if they are simply spiritual/mystical beliefs. East Asian religions like buddhism or taoism are well suited for these purposes.

    But every rational person has the duty to oppose monotheistic religions with books of revelation. They are so inherently intolerant that their potential for harm is simply too great a risk in modern society.


  • Neil B.

    Books of revelation are indeed dangerous, and all philosophy operates on a totally different paradigm (and it really isn’t mystical/spiritual “belief” as such either.) BTW Buddhism and Taoism have scriptures (I spent lots of time reading them) but aren’t treated by followers as the sort of thing you can oppress people with.

  • spayced

    There is a BIG difference between your daughter and the people who run this country. One are adults who have the power to kill millions, one is a child who will one day lose her fantasies. Just thought I’d point out that difference.

    If you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to ignore how religion seems harmless. But it isn’t.

    Crusades. Endless battles over ‘holy land’ that find peaces measured in days. Jihad. Kosovo. Hate crimes. Bigotry (the bible is still sexist and racist because it hasn’t changed), Hitler shaking hands with the Pope. And more.

    Hope you consider my post.

  • Garth Barber

    blockquote>If you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to ignore how religion seems harmless. But it isn’t.
    Of course it isn’t harmless, it’s a very powerful force in ou world that can be used for good or evil.

    However, the alternative is not necessarily harmless either.

    In the guise of communism, atheistic ideology killed some 35 million in Soviet Russia, ~ 1 million in Cambodia, and tens of millions in Mao Zedong’s China.

    These were peacetime deaths.

    Religion is often blamed for wars that were primarily economic or political in nature.

    On the other hand there are terrible cases of religious ideological murder, as with atheistic communist ideology.

    Both atheistic and religious ideology are not harmless, it would be dangerously naive to be ignorant about the dangers of either.


  • Lab Lemming

    “There is a BIG difference between your daughter and the people who run this country. ”

    I wanna see Dick Cheney wearing a dolphin costume.

    And I love this post. Well written, Julianne.

  • No.9

    Moderation in all things.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar