The article below is an unedited version of an article published by the Presbyterian Herald, December 2014.
Christmas past saw my 7 year old son questioning his belief in Santa Claus. He used to be totally convinced that Santa exists. After all, all the evidence pointed in that direction: his letters to Santa got replies, he got phone calls from Santa, his parents told him about Santa, he saw Santa in the shopping centre, the cookie, coke and carrot left on Christmas Eve had gone by Christmas morning, and of course how do you explain the presents? But doubt has set in. How could Santa be in so many shops at the same time? Why did he always look different? Why does Santa never phone when daddy is in the room? His childish belief is about to go, never to return.
This is but one of the beliefs we lose as we grow up. We find out more about the world. We learn the truth. We would think there is something wrong with someone who maintained belief in Santa into adulthood, or even adolescence. Losing belief in Santa is part of growing up.
For a certain contingent of popular atheism, the same goes for belief in God. Believing in a benevolent creator of the cosmos might be nice for little kids but really should be abandoned with intellectual maturity. It therefore remains surprisingly common in certain atheist circles for belief in God to be compared with belief in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. Atheist philosopher AC Grayling once refused to debate Christian philosopher William Lane Craig on the existence of God because, he says, he might as well debate the existence of water nymphs. Such beliefs, it is often claimed, are ridiculous; and surely we should have grown out of them by now. Believers themselves are often written off as infantile, unthinking and naïve – like children who maintain belief in something they should have grown out of.
But, is such a comparison fair and rational? And does it have any place in the God debate? It seems to me that belief in God is not remotely comparable to belief in Santa Claus at all.
Some atheists argue that the beliefs are on a par because neither God nor Santa Claus actually exists; and therefore believing in either is the same irrational act. For the sake of argument let’s grant that God does not exist. Does it really follow that belief in God is therefore no different from belief in Santa? Surely not. Our atheist objector is here overlooking the fact that one can rationally believe in the existence of something that does not in fact exist. Let’s say two physicists sit down to debate the existence of some physical particle. Let’s say the particle does not in fact exist (as will be proven in, say, 20 years time). Knewton doesn’t believe in the particle; Einstain does. Would it be fair and rational for Knewton to compare Einstain’s belief in this particle to belief in the Easter Bunny? Hardly. In fact, it could be the case that Einstain has impressive evidence for his belief. It might even be the case that the evidence is so impressive that Knewton should be convinced but is just too stubborn to change his mind. So, although this particle doesn’t exist, not only might Einstain be rational to believe it does, Knewton might be irrational in withholding his belief. There is it seems a world of difference between believing in this particle and believing in Santa.
It is my contention that such is the case with belief in God. Belief in God should not be compared to belief in Santa. The reason is that there appears to be some very relevant differences between the beliefs and between the people who hold the beliefs.
So, what are these relevant differences?
Firstly, and most importantly, Santa Claus is known not to exist. More accurately, we know the existence of Santa is a fabrication, a fictional story told to children at Christmas time to make it all the more exciting for them (as if little kids need such encouragement!). All sane and rational adults and older children are well aware of this. Those who wish to be overly skeptical might claim that for all we know there may well be a Santa. Perhaps he sprinkles fairy dust to delude us all into thinking that we are buying the presents for our children. This is a fairly radical line, and in an article as short as this such skepticism must be left to one side. At the very least, however, it seems reasonable to say that if we can claim to know anything at all we can at least claim to know that Santa is a fabrication, a made up story, and our experience of buying presents for our kids is real. I thus leave the recalcitrant skeptic under the Christmas tree for someone else to open.
By contrast God is not known to not exist. Atheists tend to be split on this one. Some – the minority – will claim that we do in fact know God does not exist because the very concept of God is incoherent – like the concept of a square circle. For example, one argument claims that the concept of a timeless person makes as much sense as the concept of a non-spatial mountain. Of course, there are theistic counter-arguments to such objections. For instance, some claim that the central notion of personhood is self-consciousness and there appears to be little reason why a self-conscious being cannot also be a timeless one. Alternatively, others might defend a concept of God that doesn’t involve timelessness. In any event it is far from philosophical orthodoxy that the concept of God is incoherent, and the work of Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne has gone a long way to putting such objections to rest.
These days it seems far more common for atheists to refuse the burden of proving that God does not exist or that the idea is incoherent, and instead content themselves with informing us that they are unconvinced by theistic arguments and therefore have no good reason to believe God does exist.
Fair enough. But then we appear to have some agreement on this first point: we know that Santa does not exist, but we don’t know that God does not exist. And this is a highly relevant difference between the two beliefs.
Secondly, God’s existence is a matter for serious intellectual inquiry, debate, evidence and argument; and those who hold belief in God – some of whom are incredibly intelligent thinkers – usually give arguments and evidence for that belief. There is no moral argument for the existence of Santa. No cosmological argument for the Tooth Fairy. No design argument for the existence of the Easter Bunny. No Ontological argument for pixies. In short, no sane and rational human beings will even attempt to defend belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny with reasons and evidence. The proposition “God exists” is therefore in a very different intellectual category. There are serious arguments by serious thinkers for belief in God and the rationality of theism. Of course atheists are not persuaded by such arguments, but that does not warrant the equating of belief in God with belief in Santa Claus.
Thirdly, millions of people past and present have claimed to have had experiences of God or an inner awareness of God (a “sensus divinitatus” as the reformer John Calvin put it). As far as I’m aware the same cannot be said for Santa Claus. No “sensus Santa Clausitatis” has ever been reported, except perhaps by those with a penchant for LSD. Claims to have experienced God or the divine are not at all incontrovertible evidence to an atheist (or even to a theist for that matter), but they do provide some further grounds on which to question the equating of belief in God with belief in known fictitious creations of the human mind.
Lastly, beliefs in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy are all infantile beliefs, held solely by children. Rational adults all over the world believe in God. Moreover, many of them come to believe in God after childhood, and thus the beliefs cannot be written off as some kind of childhood hang-up. CS Lewis, Alister McGrath and Antony Flew are a few examples of highly intelligent adult converts to theism.
Of course we should note, however, that even if it is the case that most theists believe in God because they were taught to as children, (and there are good reasons for denying it), it would not show that there is something wrong with the belief or with those who hold it. That would be a classic instance of what philosophers call “the genetic fallacy:” claiming a belief is false because of how a person arrived at it. After all, we are taught many things in childhood that are true, such as that 1 + 1 = 2.
In any event, belief in God is not a throwback to childhood, nor a delusion that should have died out when we gave up belief in the Easter Bunny. It is a much more serious proposition, one entertained by millions, and with plenty of sane, rational and highly intelligent defenders. None of this makes the belief true, but it should surely make the atheist pause for thought before placing it and those who believe it in the same category as belief in Santa and those who believe in that proposition.
Believing in God is not infantile. It seems that in the final analysis the argument that theism is comparable to belief in something like the Easter Bunny could be likened to an Easter egg: looks tempting, smells sweet, but break it open and you soon discover that it’s empty.
Stephen J. Graham