John Zande wrote a fantastic post about why atheists care about religion. In it, he addressed the idea that a comfortable lie should take precedence over potentially uncomfortable truths.  I've written a little bit about why I think religious lies aren't worth the comfort they bring. John put an interesting twist on the issue which made me think about popular culture. The stories that populate the mainstream, especially movies, constantly reward blind faith and vilify rationally thinking characters. It's a trend that agitates me endlessly.

Due to the two little heathens in my home, I watch an awful lot of children's television. Let me tell you, the storylines that honor faith and decry skepticism start young. Two that immediately come to mind deal with Santa and fairies.

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The Polar Express tells the story of a young boy that is growing out of the impressionable age where the existence of Santa is a given. After falling asleep while researching the topic, he wakes to discover a magical train outside his house. Along with a handful of other children, he travels to the North Pole. He sees elves and gets a behind the scenes look at Santa's operation. Even so, he doesn't truly believe until he sees the man himself among all the holiday splendor. Only then can he hear the thunderous bells ringing on Santa's sleigh, one of which is given to him as a present.

While his parents, the unbelievers, cannot hear the tinkling of the silver bell, he and his sister can. The last line of the movie drives the point home, "At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah [his sister] found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe."

Polar encourages blind faith in two ways. First, when the boy was skeptical, he was called a liar by his own father and scared by a Scrooge puppet. The audience is led to pity him. Social pressure is one of the quickest ways to silence dissenting thought. The parting line implies that the unbelievers are less for having lost their faith. The main character was given ample proof, but the others were not. Should they trust his personal experience without any further evidence? Of course not. But who wants to be stodgy cynic when you can be the special one?

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Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue is more open in its condemnation of science and disbelief. Lizzie is the daughter of a preoccupied scientist. She has an obsession with fairies, which her father tells her are not real. It isn't long before Lizzy meets Tinker Bell, a flesh and blood flying fairy. She wants to share her discovery with her father, but is afraid that he would treat Tink like the insects he displays in glass cases.

Instead, she does something very scientific. (Yay for silver linings!) Lizzie works with Tink to create a research journal, recording all of the information about fairy life that she possibly can. The grumpy, unlikable father is too busy to even look at her research. Later, he throws away her drawings and journal in a fit of anger. Tink reveals herself to show him the truth, leading to another fairy being captured. Eventually, Lizzie is able to convince her father to free the fairy and their relationship is better than ever before.

Lizzy's belief goes against the status quo and her story takes the martyr path. She believes despite the odds and ends up being validated, but only after being terrorized by her own father. Only when the father/scientist is transformed by belief does he do anything kind. The message is clear: fight for your beliefs, the doubters are vile and wrong. But again, this child was given special knowledge.

While (most) adults know that neither Santa or fairies exist, most children are actively encouraged to believe. These movies, and others like them, tell them to have faith in what they cannot see. Sure, you may never meet Santa or capture a fairy, but someone has. It isn't hard to see how these stories hard-wire the children that watch them for a lifetime of religious belief. The same trope is present in a lot of media - believe in what you cannot see and perhaps one day you will. Hello land of false hope and shattered dreams.

I have a hard time lying to my children. I do my best to avoid even the small ones (Sorry honey, the park is closed today). I grew up without Santa (or any holiday for that matter). The idea of actively lying to them feels deceitful and abhorrent. But I know a lot of people, religious and otherwise, that have fond memories of growing up with these traditions. The non-religious tend to use them as a learning moment - the whole world can be wrong about something. How children don't immediately start questioning God (along with everything else they're told) is beyond me. Then again, I think they all do eventually. The trick is whether or not they are brave enough to follow their own logic.

My oldest, Boots, tends to go for Pascal's Wager when holidays approach. Other than that, she's pretty skeptical. Sometimes she gets distressed trying to work it out. I encourage her to think and reason for herself. So far, so good. My three year only has a vague concept of all of it though he has no problem telling us what he'd like to find under the tree.

I could be wrong. Fairies might populate the few areas of untouched nature in the world. We haven't discovered much of the ocean, perhaps mermaids are down there somewhere. If not here, maybe in an alternate universe. In the end, my goal is the same as it always was: teach my children how to think, not what to think. With indoctrination being the norm, I have to wonder if that goal is realistic.

Originally published on Wary Wonderlust

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