Welcome to my Atheist Parables series. In the tradition of Plato, Jesus, and Aesop, I will use stories and allegory to examine issues of faith, reality and reason.
This is probably my favorite of all my parables. It's a trip to a fictional boarding school that delves into the nature of faith.
I thought I was doing the kids a favor when I taught them to believe in Santa Claus.
They didn’t have much, here at the boarding school, and it seemed like a story of magic and wonder would cheer them up.
Santa is about hope—hope for the future and hope that things will get better. Hope that those who are good will get what they deserve somehow. He’s also a convenient introduction to ethics; you better be good if you want Santa to bring presents!
I knew the kids would get a lift from their belief in Santa. It would be harmless, and they would grow out of it naturally as they got older.
And it worked, too; the kids were happier, and they seemed to clean up their behavior. Some of them became really passionate about the whole Santa Claus thing, studying all the songs, poems, and movies they could find about Santa Claus.
Later on, as I was teaching geography, I was surprised to find just how strong their ideas about Santa had become.
We were talking, of course, about the North Polar regions. The North Pole is very cold, and covered with snow and ice. There is no land at all; it is all just frozen ice.
One of the kids, Max, raised his hand. He was one of the kids who made me decide to tell them the story in the first place; he’d been irritable and obstinate before he knew about Santa, but now he was one of the biggest Santa fans.
“That can’t be right,” Max said. “Santa and his reindeer live up at pole, with all the elves. Where would the reindeer find food if the whole thing is ice? There’s no place they could grow plants?”
I didn’t know what to say to this. I suggested the reindeer don’t need to eat because they’re magic, or that they ship food in from the mainland.
“There’s nothing in the stories about reindeer not eating,” Max insisted. “We know Santa feeds the reindeer, actually. And of course Santa and the elves have to eat too!”
I wanted to get the kids off this subject; mixing real-world science with magical dreams seemed like it would crush the dreams much quicker than I liked. The kids, however, began to speculate.
“Santa can’t ship in food,” said Andrew. “That would make him too dependent on the other countries. Santa is his own boss.”
“And there must be more than just ice there,” said Audrey. “Why would Santa build a workshop anywhere but on solid ground? It doesn’t sound stable.”
“If Santa’s climate is different than the rest of the arctic…does the book explain anything about that?” Max asked me.
I was a bit dumbfounded at this point.
“I wonder why nobody has ever looked into this,” Max said. “We should start brainstorming and come up with some theories as to how this works.”
Coming up with theories is good, I thought. That’s a good connection to the scientific process.
I didn’t hear about the details of their theories, though, until a later class when we began to discuss global climate and how it is warming up.
I told them scientists were measuring warmer and warmer temperatures every year in the Arctic. More ice is melting all the time.
Max raised his hand again.
“That can’t be right,” he said. “There’s already all that excess heat up there in the Clausan extremity. Why doesn’t the regular shielding effect keep working throughout the year?”
I was completely confused, so the kids explained it to me. They had worked out that since Santa needs to grow food for himself, his elves, and his livestock, there must be a warm season up there. Some unknown effect keeps the pole warm, while the rest of the Arctic remains cold.
I didn’t know how to answer that. I still hated to stomp on their imaginations, but this seemed to be going a bit far.
“Listen, all of you, I think you are taking this the wrong way,” I said. “The important thing about Santa Claus isn’t how he changes the climate in the arctic; it’s how he brings presents to everyone in the world. It’s about joy and goodwill and doing good things.”
“Yes, those are great things about Santa, but we can’t just stop there,” said Max. “In order to bring presents to everyone, Santa has to have a huge operation going on up there, and if we ignore the effects of that, we’ll have a very incomplete picture of the world.”
This was troubling. It seemed that belief in magic was damaging their belief in science, but at least they were all happier. And they were doing more good things. At least, that’s what I thought until our school had the opportunity to go serve meals at the homeless shelter.
It wasn’t required, but I thought the children would jump at the opportunity to go and do some service for others, and it would be another good teaching opportunity. But when I tried to recruit the kids, they all kind of mumbled and shuffled their feet. Finally they came right out and told me they didn’t want to go.
“We’re working on our Santa lists,” Audrey said. “We’re trying to figure out what exactly to ask Santa for that will bring us the most benefit in the coming year.”
“And how to ensure we get it,” Timmy said. “We’re looking at statistics to try to come up with a system so we know we’ll never be on the naughty list.”
“But you can do that later!” I said. “Don’t you want to help these people? Wouldn’t that get you on Santa’s ‘good’ list?”
The kids gave me more vague mumbling.
“Actually,” said Max, “we’re not really sure that would be a good use of our time.”
“Well, Santa brings good people presents, and bad people coal,” said Max. “But coal isn’t a punishment! Coal used to be the fuel that kept people’s homes warm! Coal is a metaphor that tells us if you aren’t good, Santa won’t bring you what you wanted, but he’ll still bring what you really need.
“And, well…why would these people be poor and homeless if Santa brings them what they need? It seems like they must be wasting it, or squandering it, or just being so bad that he won’t bring them enough. If they’d just clean up their acts, they wouldn’t need our help at all.”
“There’s not much we can do to help with that,” Audrey said.
This was more than enough. I just couldn’t see any way around it anymore; Santa was doing more harm than good.
“You guys, I need you to understand. Santa’s not real,” I said. “There’s not really a man in a suit who brings you presents every year. It’s just a story that makes people happy. A metaphor for the season, if you want to look at it that way.”
I knew they’d take it hard. But I hadn’t expected the rage and hostility on their faces.
“How can you say that?” said Max. “All the stories, all the songs, the entire holiday, you want me to believe that it’s all for nothing?”
“It’s not nothing,” I said, “but yes, there isn’t a real Santa. There’s no one up there to make sure everyone gets what they need. Parents bring kids the presents at Christmas.”
“Parents,” said Timmy, spitting out the word like it was a raw fish. “You expect us to believe this whole thing is about parents.”
“Not everybody has parents!” said Audrey.
“Well it’s not always parents,” I said. “Grandparents, friends, neighbors… Some kids don’t even get presents.”
“That’s impossible,” said Max.
“I know it seems that way, but that’s just how it is,” I said. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you need to start thinking about…”
“You’re the third list!” Max exclaimed.
The kids all gasped at each other. I was confused; again, they must have worked out these theories beforehand.
“Santa makes a naughty and a nice list,” said Audrey, “and everybody gets something, even if it’s just the ‘coal’ necessities. So why does it look like some people get nothing? We thought maybe it was because people just squander what they get, but there is an alternative theory.”
“Santa makes a naughty list, a nice list, and some third list,” said Max. “Some list of people who are so messed up somehow, they don’t even get coal. The theory didn’t make sense, though, because we couldn’t figure out why Santa would put people on it.
“But now we know. You don’t believe in Santa Claus! That has to be the third list; Santa won’t bring presents to people who won’t believe in him!”
“Where did you come up with this ‘parents’ theory?” said Timmy.
“I didn’t ‘come up with’ it,” I growled. “I’ve seen it in action. I’ve bought presents for my kids before, or even for some of my students. I’ve bought presents for my friends. I remember when I was little and my parents bought presents for me.”
Max shook his head. “So you not only deny Santa, but you’ve been actively working to suppress any evidence of him. I wouldn’t have believed it.”
“Maybe some of those poor homeless people are doing that too!” said Audrey. “We should try to help them! Maybe we could make signs or put on plays to teach them how if they’d just believe in Santa, they’d be all right.”
“That’s a great idea!” said Max. “We can do some good after all.”
“I’ll go around collecting money,” said Timmy. “Maybe we can buy ourselves some big professional-looking signs. When they see good signs like that, they’ll know we’re serious.”
From this point on, it became more and more impossible to teach the kids anything.
Mrs. Clark was trying to teach economics. She was explaining supply and demand, and how those forces drove prices for just about everything and shaped vast market trends.
Max raised his hand. “How does this ‘theory’ of supply and demand account for the annual Clausan spike?”
“I beg your pardon?” said Mrs. Clark.
“Does this theory of yours account for and describe the increase in possessions that all people can have every year at Christmas when Santa brings presents?”
“This is economics; this doesn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus theories,” said Mrs. Clark.
All the kids groaned.
“Great,” said Timmy, “another Patripresentist.”
“Patri-present-ist,” said Max with exasperation. “This odd theory some of you teachers hold that parents bring the presents, not Santa. Really, I’m surprised you would be so willing to ignore the facts of life just to prop up what you want to believe.”
“We all know what you’re trying to do,” said Audrey. “You’re so committed to your decision not to believe in Santa Claus that you won’t let anyone else believe either. You start from an assumption of Patripresentism and interpret all the facts to conform with your anti-Claus worldview.”
“I don’t bring any assumptions about Santa or presents into this!” said Mrs. Clark. “I’m just trying to get you to look at the data!”
But by then the kids weren’t listening.
It was the same in physics class—heat always transfers from a warmer object to a cooler object. But the physics teacher couldn’t explain whether this principle held true in Santa’s North Pole anomaly or not, so the kids figured he must just be making things up.
Finally, I found the kids burning all their school books. I tried to stop them, but it was no use.
“These books are grounded in the assumption of Patripresentism!” Max said. “They contain many lies and errors designed to prop up that unworkable and depressing theory.”
“We can’t learn about the world unless we start with the truth of Santa,” said Audrey. “Anything else is a lie to make us unhappy.”
“But why are you burning the history books?” I said.
“They don’t ever mention Santa Claus,” said Timmy. “Over such a long period of time, surely some of the presidents or famous people have had their lives touched by Santa. These books whitewash over all that. They even try to make it sound like some of our founding fathers were Patripresentists too, and you can’t expect us to believe that!”
“But the literature!” I said.
“It’s all written from the Patripresentist viewpoint,” said Audrey. “We know literature can be used to shape our minds and assumptions about the world, and we’re not going to let you poison us.”
“The math books! Why the math books?” I yelled.
“All the books are from the same company,” Max said. “Even if we couldn’t find specific examples in each one, we know the dark cloud of Patripresentism is over them all. Not only would they be dangerous for our minds, but they would teach us to ignore the truth.
“By the way, all you teachers are fired,” he went on.
“Fired?” I said. “You can’t fire us.”
“We won’t go to your classes any more,” said Timmy. “To any of you teachers. If you won’t leave, we’ll just ignore you and have our own classes.”
“We’ll find teachers who teach the truth,” said Audrey.
“No adults believe in Santa Claus,” I said.
“That’s a lie,” Max said. “And if it were true, we would just teach ourselves. We don’t need adults. I always used to think growing up and going to college made you smart and filled you with facts, but now I see that it just makes you more stubborn and more full of your own ideas. We’d be better off learning from other kids, anyway, who haven’t let their minds become so old and twisted.”