“God is Santa Clause for grown ups.” You’ve probably heard this before, it’s a fairly common quip used by atheists to illustrate their view on both the existence and purpose of a personal deity. It’s also a surefire way to get under the skin of most any theist. Is it fair though? Are we oversimplifying the punishment and reward aspects of the typical religious dogma we encounter? Are we just trying to make their beliefs out to be childish? After giving the subject a bit of thought recently, I have come to the conclusion that no, in fact, it isn’t a fair analogy. Not because it is an oversimplification and not because it is a mean spirited thing to say but because children, in fact, have considerably better reasons to believe in Santa Clause than adults do God. Now I understand that some reading this will immediately write this statement off as me simply being flippant or condescending but I assure you that I am serious; this is not a cheap shot but an honest assessment of the facts.
It would be simple enough to say something along the lines of, “well, they’re children so of course their belief is more understandable,” and leave it at that. Indeed there is something to be said for that line of reasoning. Children are often encouraged to believe in magic and given their limited experience and understanding of the world, it isn’t hard to understand why they do. Many sincerely believe they have witnessed acts of magic with their own eyes such as a penny being pulled from their ear or Uncle Jerry removing and then reattaching his thumb. These are trusted sources of information both telling them and demonstrating to them that magic is real, why shouldn’t they believe? Furthermore, if one is convinced of the reality of magic then there is absolutely nothing to preclude one from believing in Santa Clause. As I said, writing this belief off as more understandable is easy because we’re dealing with children but, as I also said, I don’t think this is fair to children. This isn’t just a matter of saying that adults should know better.
The fact of the matter is that, God is the more extraordinary of the two claims. While both beings are quite fantastic, creating and controlling the universe from start to finish requires a great deal more magic than flying around the Christian world in one night to deliver presents. It is because of this that God claims require a great deal more evidence than the Santa claims do before they can be considered equally reasonable conclusions. So how do the claims stack up in this department?
No evidence has ever been found in the natural world that definitively points to the existence of a god despite some spurious claims to the contrary. In the absence of this physical evidence, most theists fall back on the word of whatever specific holy book they fallow along with their personal experiences which, like it or not, cannot be distinguished from imagination. Some theists look to the realm of philosophy for signs of the divine and while I myself see their reasoning in this realm as specious, for the sake of argument, I will admit these claims onto the list of evidence. Merry Christmas theists! That leaves us with holy books, personal experience, and philosophy to provide a level of evidence which is contentious at best.
How does Santa stack up? Talk to most children in America of a certain age and they will not only tell you that they believe in Santa Clause, they will tell you that they have met him too (or at the very least met somebody in direct contact with him), many have the pictures of themselves sitting on his lap at the local shopping mall to prove it. This is not a voice in their head or some disembodied presence, this is a person whom their parents or some other trusted adult have identified as Santa. The evidence goes well beyond that however. Unlike God’s supposedly random nature, Santa’s nature is actually quite predictable. Every year children by the millions write down a list of gifts and mail it off to Santa then, on the 25th of December, they wake up to find some of the items from that list have been wrapped and placed under the tree. The snacks left out the previous night for Santa and his reindeer have mysteriously vanished and, in my case at least, were replaced by a thank you note from the man himself. Not only does this happen to them, all of their friends who celebrate Christmas can attest to the same story as well. To any child assessing the situation according to the available information and experience, accepting the existence of Santa Clause is the most logical conclusion.
Of course one of the great strengths of the Santa claim, which the God claim lacks, is also its fatal flaw. Santa is falsifiable. This fact inevitably undermines a belief in Santa as children grow older and begin to notice that Santa’s supposed abilities do not match up with what is possible in the world. Also, it is very much possible to test Santa. Kids can (and do) stay up all night to find out that it is their parents, not a magical old man, that is putting presents under the tree and eating up all the cookies and milk. To me, however, the ultimate proof that children are being reasonable when it comes to their belief in Santa Clause is that they are very quick to give it up when presented with evidence that he doesn’t exist. They integrate whatever new information they are given and inevitably come to the logical conclusion. This happens much less often among theists.
Can you imagine if there was a god who was as predictable in nature as Santa Clause? Could you possibly remain an atheist if believers had photos of themselves sitting with their god and he/she/it was willing to take one with you as well? Could you deny the existence of a god if prayers were answered in a clear and tangible fashion? Given the disparity in quality information and experience available to children as compared to adults, the evidence necessary to backup each claim, and the evidence provided to the theist versus the evidence provided to the child who believes in Santa, it is abundantly clear that the child’s beliefs in Santa are more justified than theist’s belief in God. This is not about being mean. It’s about being honest. A child’s belief in Santa Clause is more reasonable than an adult’s belief in God.