God and Santa Claus

The emotions of “belief”.

In December 2007 the Times Education Supplement had a story about the disress or outrage of parents when children aged 10 found out in school that Father Christmas does not exist. A teacher commented that if asked by a six-year-old whether God exists she answers "Well, some people think so, but others ..."; on the other hand if the same six-year-old asks whether Father Christmas exists, she answers "Oh, yes!"

What am I getting at? Didn't this begin as an investigation of belief and atheism? Yes, and the point is that children do indeed get very emotionally attached to certain ideas like the benevolent figures of Father Christmas — or Santa Claus in some places of course — and the Tooth Fairy.

Parents are clearly not concerned here about preserving the belief for its own sake. They are not like fundamentalist parents complaining their child has been told their (the parents’) religion is baseless. No; a parent who complains that a tot is upset after being told the tooth truth does so purely because of the child's emotional distress. There is this idea that belief in Father Christmas is part of childhood innocence and that if they find out the truth too young the magic of the age is gone. They never factor in dealing with the loss of trust in their parents who appear to have been lying to them all those years.

At that age, children (unlike the minority of pious parents) are not so upset about discussions concerning God; but adults who still have strong religious beliefs, or those who have newly discovered religion (sometimes even more so) are just as strongly attached emotionally to the core ideas of their world-view. This is the only explanation I find necessary to explain the very strong emotional reaction among devout religious believers to any suggestion that their religion is a foolish waste of time, based on myths and lies. If any of these people were ever convinced, they would still react with strong emotion but it would be anger against those who taught them and those (such as priests) who ruled their lives in the name of the religion. However they almost never are, it seems. And their anger at any non-believers who cross them has been shown by the christian churches by religious wars, inquisitions, burnings, and many other dreadful wickednesses and by the muslim fundamentalists of modern times in their own violent ways.

One fact is obvious: the fact that people believe fiercely in something, and show great anger when it appears threatened, does not say anything about the validity of their beliefs; it only says something about the strength of their emotional attachments to whichever belief system gives them confort.

Can we disillusion them?