We watched Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus over the Christmas break. I’d never seen much of it and Karen’s interest in watching it again after a long hiatus encouraged me to sit down and watch it with her. Thanks Karen, it was well worth watching.
The true story and the TV adaptation we saw are both positive, moving tales. Eight year old Virginia’s friends tell her there is no Santa Claus so she writes a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking for advice, since as her father tells her: “if you see it in the The Sun, it’s so”.
The author of the editorial: Francis Church, an atheist and cynic, having seen his share of suffering, writes an enduring letter that has inspired many since the editorial was first published in 1897. Here’s an excerpt (italics are mine):
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
There is something beautiful in encouraging kids to imagine.
I admit to some internal conflict when our kids were young regarding what to tell them about Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on. In the end we encouraged such beliefs for as long as the kids were willing to imagine playfully with us.
Interestingly, Virginia’s 1930 PhD thesis was entitled The Importance of Play.
Although as an atheist I generally prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, the kind of belief in Santa that was the subject of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the The Sun editorial, is, I think, perfectly okay.
Even in recent times I’ve heard the same sort of “there is no Santa” comment that prompted Virginia’s letter to The Sun, expressed between young children, encouraged by adults, who at the same time profess belief in God.
That brings me to the question in this post’s title: what counts as good belief?
What’s the difference between these two statements?
- I believe in Santa Claus
- I believe in God
Other than that the first refers to a particular individual while the second to any one of a number of possible gods, their form is identical. We can remedy this remaining difference by reframing the second statement as:
- I believe in Jesus (or Yaweh or Jeohvah or …)
Too often, the second form is accompanied by exclusive statements, such as:
- You shall have no other god before me
- You can’t be good without god
- Jesus is the reason for the season
Hmm…and here I was thinking that the reason for the season was axial tilt. Not to mention Saturnalia.
The worst that can happen, in the child’s mind, for not believing in Santa or for being on the naughty list, is that they will receive no presents. True, there have been other harsher myths associated with Christmas, but I’m thinking broadly about the contemporary situation in the western world.
The worst that can happen, in the believer’s mind, for non-belief in God or being wicked (i.e. not accepting either salvation by faith or works) is eternal separation from God and loved ones or eternal torment in Hell.
So, again, what counts as good belief?
In my view, it’s the kind that doesn’t hold you ransom, that encourages you to imagine things not yet imagined while not making threats or requiring you to be dogmatic or to abandon critical thinking. In short, one that allows you to be creative but still allows you to think for yourself.
Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. Christopher Hitchens
A key difference between encouraging a child to believe in a powerful being who can deliver presents to every house in a single night and childhood indoctrination into belief in a personal god, and the associated demands, is the exclusivity of the second. That and the lack of fun.
Here’s another excerpt (again, my italics):
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
I have some sympathy with Church’s view that:
They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.
In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him.
We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of course. As George Santayana says:
Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.
There is so much we don’t yet understand and we should approach the gulf between what we do and don’t know with humility. The universe as revealed through evidence by Science so far is stranger than anything we could have imagined:
- We live in a universe in which everything we can see and touch makes up only a few percent of everything that is, the rest apparently being dark matter or dark energy.
- On the smallest scales there exists a seething ocean of particle-antiparticle pairs coming into and out of existence. The universe may have almost literally been created from nothing.
- If we travel fast enough or find ourselves in the presence of a strong gravitational field, local time will appreciably slow down and mass will increase; yet even GPS satellites, that allow us to determine our position on Earth must take this into account since the gravitational force at orbital height is smaller than at the surface.
Alice’s world seems almost normal by comparison.
Science doesn’t claim to have the answer to all questions, yet the Scientific Method is the most successful and powerful form of knowledge acquisition we know. If new evidence comes to light to change our model of the world, then it will change after the dust has settled. That’s an important departure from dogmatic thinking, and skepticism is an important part of the Scientific Method.
There’s room for a child-like view of the world that encourages imagination and optimism, as well as an honest view of the world that requires careful thought and evidence regarding important questions, especially those with life-changing potential.
Kids will ask questions about early beliefs when they’re ready and that’s okay. Adults should encourage the fun aspects of early belief with a twinkle in their eye while accepting that questions will come.
It’s often been said that children are natural born scientists until society discourages them from asking honest, simple questions. I’d like to think that Francis Church the cynic and Virginia the child seeker-of-answers and adult teacher might have agreed.
In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Russell