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.