Friday, December 29, 2017

Santa apostates

Mock dialogue:

Apostate: I don't believe in God because my Christian parents lied to me about Santa. How can I trust them about Jesus when I can't trust them about Santa?

Christian: If your parents taught you that the Empire State Building is located in NYC, would you say you don't believe it even exists because your parents lied to you about Santa? I mean, how can you trust them about the Empire State Building when you can't trust them about Santa?

Apostate: I believe in the Empire State Building, not because I trust my parents, but because I have evidence that it exists. 

Christian: So you admit that whether or not your parents lied is irrelevant. Trusting your parents is beside the point. You believe in the Empire State Building because you have evidence that's independent of what your parents taught you.

Apostate: Right!

Christian: By the same token, there's evidence for Jesus that's independent of what your parents taught you.


  1. That's fine if you're dealing with a mature, intelligent person.

    Doesn't work so well rhetorically if you're talking to an 11-year-old apostate getting verbally bullied by his atheist or even pop-level-mythicist fellow middle schoolers or even by an ignorant teacher.

    The propaganda the Communists showered on children and teens in the Soviet Union sounds ridiculous to any minimally knowledgeable person, and indeed is ridiculous, but it often worked. No reason to play into the hands of our modern-day propagandists who prey on immature minds.

    1. Nothing parents do is going to change the social dynamic of schoolyard taunts, since parents don't supervise that transaction. Even if they homeschool or send their kids to private Christians schools, the same dynamic will resurface with neighborhood kids.

    2. I don't see how this is relevant to Santa. 11-year-olds don't believe in Santa.

    3. It's that the 11-year-old knows that he found out that his parents were telling him something false about Santa (maybe they were continuing to try to encourage it in a pretty credible-to-him-at-the-time way, and he had to gradually figure out it was wrong), and now he's being told that what his parents told him about God was *also* a lot of baloney. To an immature mind, that kind of slide seems natural: Oh, God and Jesus are just more of the things you believed when you were a credulous *little* kid because your parents taught them to you, but now you're a *bigger* kid and you think for yourself and are finding out that there isn't any God, either. It's a kind of propaganda. Atheists use it on adults as well, where it is surprisingly successful, but I think the example of a middle-school kid or teenager makes it vivid. They're going through a time when they believe they are thinking for themselves but are really adopting the ideas of their peers or of some admired teacher or something and view themselves as outgrowing credulity about what their parents taught them, and a memory of having figured out several years ago that what their parents told them about Santa was false plays into that whole psychological shift all too well. It's a poor argument but unfortunately pretty predictable psychology, especially for a kid in a public school.

  2. I should say 11-year-old apostate who *was* getting bullied, etc., when he was a Christian.

  3. I spent some time the other day with a 9yo child in a divorce situation. Parent A is a Christian. Parent B (and significant other of Parent B) are not. The child gets told all kinds of things. I was struck by how important it was that the child be able to believe me and that I be very scrupulous as a representative of Christianity with this vulnerable kid who hardly knows whom to believe. Parent A cannot take the slightest chance with being non-credible.

    1. That begs the question of whether the Santa mythos should be a litmus test of parental credibility. I don't recommend that Christian parents instill belief in Santa, but some critics lose all sense of perspective.

    2. Steve, I'm just speaking psychologically. I'm not saying it's *reasonable* for a person to dismiss parental credibility altogether if his parents either instilled or continued to encourage belief in Santa and also in God. I'm saying that psychologically, it's the kind of thing that people end up actually feeling, because people aren't wholly rational. "When I was a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things." They don't go and investigate other evidence for the existence of God but just dismiss it as another one of the silly things their parents taught them. The street epistemologist guys are out there *explicitly* pushing this line, and people fall for it.

    3. And I also think that for a child in a vulnerable situation, as with divorce, it's very important that they know that the Christian parent will never look them in the eye and tell them something that is false. The Christian parent has to keep a squeaky clean record in that regard for really understandable psychological reasons. That isn't begging any questions. It's talking about what normal kids are like. They test things out, and if they find you've been wrong about something, they tend to dismiss you. They even take it to extremes. If you tell a little kid not to do x because y might happen, and he does x and y doesn't happen, he may wrongly conclude that Mom doesn't know what she's talking about. They are in this constant shift between sometimes accepting what you say without question and other times dismissing your credibility far too readily. And all the more so in a divorce situation where the parents disagree. The unbeliever parent will certainly seize upon any excuse for pushing the line that "Mom/Dad wasn't telling you the truth, so you shouldn't listen to what that person says."

  4. There are several issues here:

    i) I consider the Santa tradition to be eminently dispensable. It would be no loss to the Christian season to dispose of Santa. There are lots of other wonderful Christmas customs that contribute to happy childhood memories of the Christmas season.

    ii) Apropos (i), if I was making a case for parental "lies", I wouldn't stake my argument on that example.

    iii) Psychologically speaking, I seriously doubt we can generalize about children. I think many children appreciate the difference between lying for good reasons and lying for bad reasons. Even if you yourself think lying is intrinsically wrong, or parental lying is uniquely pernicious, this doesn't mean kids in general share that outlook. I daresay many kids have the sophistication to distinguish between different kinds of "lies". Take practical jokes that rely on temporary deception. Surely many kids are discerning enough to understand the difference between that kind of "lie", a parent who lies to save their child's life, and a parent who's dishonest for dishonest motives.

    iv) I don't think it's a bad thing for nominal Christians to lose their perfunctory faith. They deceive themselves if they imagine that trusting their parents is a substitute for personal conviction regarding the Christian faith.

    The warrant for Christian faith isn't based on the credibility of your parents. And that's a good thing inasmuch as many parents aren't Christian. Take Muslim parents or atheists.

    Kids ought to have a capacity to question the wisdom of their parents. Mind you, sometimes parents are right. But that's the point: there is no universally consistent principle we can apply to this issue. We can't recommend "Always trust your parents" or "Always doubt your parents". It isn't that simple.

    v) There are situations in which it would be appropriate for a parent to look their kid in the eye and tell them something false.

    Suppose your teenage boy is high on hallucinogens, and about to unwittingly kill himself. The only way to save his life is to make him a promise you have no intention of keeping.

    Or say it's a suicidal child, and that's the only way to convince her to hand over the lethal weapon she's about to use on herself.

    Now, you might object that having blown one's credit on that occasion, she won't believe her parent the next time. But sometimes we must deal with one crisis at a time. If they kill themselves, they're won't be for a next time.

    Those are extreme hypothetical scenarios, but unfortunately they have real-world analogues.

    Yet my immediate point is that you're using a pragmatic argument, and that cuts both ways. There's no reliable universal principle we can apply to this issue. It depends on the specific situation.

    vi) Finally, this perennial debate reflects a stereotypical difference between mothers and fathers, where men tend to be risk-takers while women tend to be risk-averse. These are complementary virtues which turn into vices when taken to extremes.

    A masculine example is teenage boys who indulge in dangerous stunts to impress each other. A feminine example is overprotective mothers.

    One reason kids benefit from having both male and female role models is the need for stereotypical masculine and feminine traits to balance out one another.

    The whole cottage industry of speech codes, trigger warnings, participation awards, safe spaces, &c., reflects the Mother Hen philosophy on steroids.

    Without masculine influence, feminine impulses degenerate into sentimentality. Without feminine influence, masculine impulses degenerate into brutality. Each needs to modify the other.

  5. I discuss some of these issues in more detail in another recent post:

  6. I realized you have a considered position on this issue:

  7. "Finally, this perennial debate reflects a stereotypical difference between mothers and fathers, where men tend to be risk-takers while women tend to be risk-averse. These are complementary virtues which turn into vices when taken to extremes."

    FWIW, my husband completely agrees with me on this one, as do quite a number of other males.

    1. Husbands have been known to "agree" in many things for marital tranquility.

    2. And quite a number of mothers have no problem with Santa Claus. That's why my statement was qualified by "stereotypical" rather than a universal claim.

    3. One father/husband outnumbered by wife and three daughters. No wonder! :-)