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    The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

    Santa Claus — the ultimate dry run

    The annual reposting of my take on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. This year is our first fully Santa-less Krismas, as Delaney declared her akringlism in February (described here).

    santa32076IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

    Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

    Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

    I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

    But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

    My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

    This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

    The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

    “Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

    I for one chose door number three.

    “Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

    I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

    “What do you think?” I said.

    “Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

    I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

    “So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

    He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

    That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

    And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

    By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
    _______________________
    A related post from Krismas 2007
    For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

    Where thanks are due

    [Re-running a post from long ago -- a Thanksgiving story by Marilyn LaCourt. Since first reading this in 2007, our family has adopted this as our own tradition. It's a wonderful, emotional experience and has become one of my favorite holiday traditions. Happy Thanksgiving everybody.]

    Thanksgiving Ritual
    by Marilyn LaCourt

    leavesLast year I had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house. I arrived just as we were being invited to take our places at the table and I felt a little awkward because I didn’t know a number of the other guests. I looked toward the kitchen expecting someone to bring on the food. It sure smelled good, and I was hungry.

    Imagine my confusion when my host looked around the table at each of his guests and asked, “Who wants to start?”

    I knew there was supposed to be food, but I still didn’t see any, not even a relish dish or a breadbasket to pass. What were we supposed to do? Pass imaginary bowls filled with imaginary mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey and cranberry sauce? No one spoke.

    Finally my host’s eyes settled on his seven-year-old niece.

    Cindy stood up, cleared her throat and smiled at her brother. “Thank you, Jimmy, for teaching me to play games on your computer.”

    Jimmy blushed and said, “You’re welcome.”

    Eric, a nice looking young man with bright blue eyes was next. He thanked his parents for giving him his first telescope when he was ten, and for the many hours they spent encouraging his appreciation for the wonders of the universe. I learned later that Eric had been accepted into a post graduate program to study Astronomy.

    My friend, Ron, the host, said thank you to his wife. “I really appreciate the way you put up with my complaining, your understanding and patience with my cause fighting. I love the wonderful meals you prepare for me everyday, your companionship and your sense of humor. Thank you for being my wife.”

    Liz smiled and answered, “You’re welcome.”

    I was beginning to get the picture. I had some thank-yous of my own and was getting heady with the whole idea, but I decided to watch and listen a bit longer.

    “Thank you for taking care of me when I had such a bad case of flu last winter, Rose. I know how terribly unpleasant that must have been for you, and you were so kind to put your own life aside for a few days to stay with me.” Gina’s eyes were damp when she looked at her daughter. “You were such a comfort.” Then she turned to her son- in-law. “Thank you too, Karl, for fending for yourself and the kids while she was taking care of me.”

    “You’re welcome.” “You’re welcome.”

    Then Rose stood up and walked over to where her husband was sitting. She bent down and gave him a kiss. “Thank you, honey, for working so hard and supporting us and giving me the opportunity to be the stay at home mom I’d always hoped I could be.”

    Chuck thanked his friend Bob for all the wonderful tomatoes and other produce Bob gave him during harvest time. He also thanked Jerry and Judy for teaching him how to make the world’s greatest apple sauce.

    Jean thanked Patty for listening when she needed a sympathetic ear.

    Juan thanked his grandmother for the loan and told her he had put the money to good use. Sonja thanked her neighbor, Dorene, for the wonderful homemade mayonnaise and other goodies. And on it went.

    I was thinking about all the wonderful people I wanted to thank. I guess I was drifting off in some sort of a trance when I heard the next person mention my name.

    “Thank you, Marilyn,” she said. “You helped my daughter and son-in-law through some rough spots in their marriage.”

    I waved my hand in a never mind gesture. “I was just doing my job.”

    Ron nearly knocked over his water glass as he stood to interrupt me.

    “No, no, no. That’s not allowed.” He shook his pointer at me. “These are the rules. You only get to say ‘you’re welcome’. If you explain it away you discredit the message and invalidate the sincerity of the person saying thanks. You just got a sincere ‘thank you’, Marilyn. Now, say ‘you’re welcome’.” He sat down and fiddled with his napkin.

    “Oops. I’m sorry. I mean…” I looked at the woman who’d thanked me and said, “You’re welcome.” Then I smiled at my host and hostess.

    “And thank you, Ron and Liz, for inviting me to share in such a beautiful tradition.”

    Ron grinned. “You’re welcome.” Liz nodded, “You’re welcome.”

    It took a full thirty minutes to get around the table and all the thanks-givings. When we finished Liz excused herself to put the finishing touches on the food and Ron poured the wine.

    Ho ho ho no mo

    And so, as predicted, Santa has darkened the McGowan fireplace for the last time.

    linkyDelaney (8) followed the same classic curve as the other two. She started last year with the ancillary technical questions of a child who’s begun to smell something funky but doesn’t reeeally want to dig to the back of the fridge just yet.

    “Regular reindeer don’t fly. How do Santa’s reindeer fly?”

    “Well…some people say they eat magic corn.”

    Magic corn. The rapidity with which this sharp, science-minded, reality-loving inquirer would happily swallow lame answers of that kind and skip tra-la away demonstrated as clearly as anything could that she was more interested at that point in perpetuating this particular belief than in figuring things out—a fact further underlined by her disinclination to ask the obvious, direct question that we would willingly have answered at any point, namely “Is Santa real?”

    (Sorry about that sentence, I’m reading Infinite Jest again.)

    Same with many kinds of belief. It’s not that true believers of various kinds don’t ask questions — it’s that they so eagerly accept poor answers to those questions in order to preserve belief. It’s something we all do at various times and places in our lives. Yes you do, and have, and will. Me too.

    At some point (with Santa, anyway) the weight of inconsistency eventually becomes too great, and the direct question is asked. And when it’s asked, you ANSWER, and congratulate the child for figuring it out.

    Just before Christmas, Laney’s questions intensified, but remained oblique. At one point she looked Becca in the eye and asked the most convoluted almost-direct indirect question I’ve ever heard:

    “When I’m just about to have kids of my own, are you all of a sudden going to tell me something that I need to know about something?”

    “Uh…not that I know of,” Becca replied. Which was true.

    “Good, because I love Santa.”

    “Who said anything about Santa?”

    “Never mind.”

    Two weeks after Christmas, Erin (12) came downstairs at bedtime with a look of panic. “She’s figuring it out, and I don’t know what to do!!”

    “Figuring what out?” I asked.

    “Santa! Laney’s asking all these questions and I don’t know what to do!! I did your thing about ‘Some people believe…’ but then she keeps going and going!”

    “That’s awesome! That means she’s finally ready to figure it out. Just answer every question honestly. Do you want me to come up?”

    “Yes. No. Well, in a little while.”

    I waited ten minutes, then went upstairs. The girls were sitting on their beds facing each other and looked up with little smiles as I entered.

    “What’s up in here?”

    Laney nodded sagely. “Well…I figured something out.”

    “What did you figure out.”

    “I figured out…the thing about Santa.”

    “What thing is that?” Say it, girl!

    “That…well, he isn’t real.”

    “Oh, that.” I smiled and sat next to her. “How does that make you feel?”

    “A little upset. I really loved Santa!”

    Now with Laney being the youngest, I knew there was a risk of her feeling embarrassed at being the last to know. But we’d always played with a very light touch, allowing her to believe until knowing became more interesting — which it now apparently had. Time to let her walk proudly through that door.

    The key is to underline the proud. I asked how she had figured it out, and she proceeded to describe a fascinating trail of clues that I hadn’t even known she was following.

    She sleeps in my T-shirts, and one night found a half empty box of candy canes nestled in the drawer. “Who buys candy canes in a box?” she said, further noting that this year there were no canes on the tree, only in…the stockings.

    “And all of the Santa presents were in Santa paper except the ones for you and Mom. And there was still a price tag on one of my presents.” And on and on she went. She had noticed these things because she wanted to, because she had reached a tipping point between the desire to believe and the desire to know.

    So I turned on the praise. “Look what you did!” I said. “You used your brain to figure out all of those clues…and you did it yourself!”

    She beamed.

    “Was it fun to figure out?”

    “Yes,” she admittedly, it actually was.

    “And the best thing is that all of the good stuff about Christmas,” I said, “all the fun, all the family stuff, the presents, the yummy food, the lights and music and doing nice things for other people — we still get to have ALL of that. But now you know where it all really comes from.”

    She has shared her findings with every significant adult in her life, proof that pride quickly eclipsed disappointment. “Guess what I figured out all by myself,” she says. Only one adult went into a “Yes, Virginia” genie re-bottling attempt.

    “Grandma,” Laney said patiently. “You don’t have to do that. I looked at all the clues and figured it out. It’s fine.”

    So I remain convinced that our family’s Santa period was jolly well-spent. As I wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief,

    By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists -– and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

    And I wouldn’t have mythed it for the world.

    Wishing everyone a peaceful, happy holiday

    The Passion of the Frost

    frosty5409

    Move while you still see me
    You’ll be lost, you’ll be so sorry, when I’m gone.

    Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ Superstar

    So he said, “Let’s run and we’ll have some fun
    now before I melt away.”

    Frosty the Snowman

    Last time I drew a parallel between God and Santa. This time we unveil an even more shocking truth: that Frosty the Snowman and Jesus the Christ are one and the same.

    Oh you heard me.

    Jesus was born improbably (via virgin), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved humanity by sacrificing himself on the cross as Mary wept. He was resurrected and joined God in Heaven.

    Frosty was born improbably (via magic hat), loved everyone unconditionally, then saved a little girl by sacrificing himself in a greenhouse. Karen wept over the puddle he had become, then he was resurrected and flew to the “North Pole” with (ahem) “Santa.”

    The corker? They both promise a Second Coming:

    Do not let your hearts be troubled…I will come back.
    Jesus (John 14:1-3)

    Don’t you cry, I’ll be back again someday.
    Frosty

    Why, it’s practically Narnia in top hat and carrot.

    Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run

    Time once again for the annual reposting of my take on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. A lovely symmetry this year: My youngest is now eight, the age my oldest was when his Kringledoubt finally overflowed (see below). And sure enough, Delaney is currently on that same fascinating cusp between wanting to preserve belief and wanting to know.

    santa32076IT’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

    Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

    Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

    I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

    But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

    My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

    This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

    The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

    “Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

    I for one chose door number three.

    “Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

    I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

    “What do you think?” I said.

    “Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

    I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

    “So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

    He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

    That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

    And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

    By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
    _______________________
    A related post from Krismas 2007
    For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

    A Krismas potpourri

    darwinclaus2391Austin
    The Austin trip was simply perfect. Got to visit with regular Memling and CFI Austin Exec Dir Clare Wuellner once again, met her husband Roger, reveled in the shuttling services and company of Shane and Mark McCain and their fabulous kidlings, and chatted in person with Memling Thranil! The seminar itself was the largest yet at 62 participants, with no less than 31 kids in the daycare down the hall. Easy flights, warm weather, and home in time for a Sunday nap.

    Nativity
    My meager attempt at reaching across the aisle after the vandalism at Mt. Carmel Christian Church largely fizzled, at least in the short term. I do hope it planted some seeds for later efforts. I sent words of support to the minister, and I know several of you did as well. Only one of the freethought organizations I contacted responded to my message, but that reply was very encouraging:

    Dear Dale,

    This was a most interesting idea you proposed. Unfortunately, I was out of the office on a speaking trip when you proposed it and your message wasn’t copied to anyone else here. Also, I didn’t read it until just now (7:45 PM Monday) when cleaning up my e-mail backlog upon my return….

    So, by a copy of this e-mail to our executive director and my PR assistant, I’m asking that this idea of yours be looked into in order to see if it’s still possible to act and if we are in a position to do so.

    Fred Edwords
    Director of Communications
    American Humanist Association

    Through no fault of the AHA, it was indeed too late. As the local media noted over the weekend,

    Motivated by devotion to their church, the very same people who donated their time and money for supplies came together again to heal this holiday hurt.

    “It’s very disappointing,” said Carlos Guerra, who organized the live nativity scene. “At the same time, it’s good to see that situations like this bring the church together.”

    Not just one church. Volunteers from other parts of metro-Atlanta arrived to help.

    So what could have been the coming together of people of goodwill across lines of religious difference instead became yet another heartwarming confirmation of the singular power of faith.

    Hemant Mehta picked up the story as well and agreed with my suggestion, as did most of his commenters. A good sign. Now let’s get a rapid response mechanism in place for the future.

    Distortion
    One of the most difficult things about articulating a public position of any kind — especially one outside the mainstream — is that all the careful thought and word choice and message refinement and clarification in the world won’t prevent some yahoo from willfully distorting your position. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris get this all the time, especially in the form of “Dawkins/Harris fails to distinguish between religious extremists and religious moderates,” when in fact they do make those distinctions, with great care and in great detail.

    Now an article in The Harvard Salient, a conservative political journal, has done the same with my recent Harvard talk, claiming that (among other things) I equated religious upbringing with indoctrination. As I pointed out in a probably ill-advised comment on the site,

    I repeatedly noted that I distinguish between dogmatic and non-dogmatic religion and that many moderate religious parents work hard to reconcile the religious and scientific approaches to knowledge. “I don’t need a world free of religion,” I said at one point. “I’ll gladly settle for a world free of indoctrination.” Does that sound like someone who makes a blanket equation of religious upbringing and religious indoctrination?

    The word “religion” almost never appears in the text of my speech without a modifier. I refer to “orthodox religion,” “traditional religion,” “moderate religious believers,” “liberal Christians,” and so on, precisely to avoid the dullard charge that I paint with a broad brush. Dawkins and Harris have also repeatedly made these distinctions yet are repeatedly accused of making no distinctions. It is tiresome.

    I am open to all reasonable critique, but it seems sensible to ask that you limit your critique to what was actually said.

    I say ill-advised only because I hate to get drawn into gleeful fencing with people who have already demonstrated an inability to set their biases aside and listen carefully.

    The PBB.com solstice drive
    Four days remaining in the drive to retire the site operation debt that has been accumulating on my tender white shoulders this year — and as you can see in the sidebar, to my grateful astonishment, we are halfway there! I really cannot begin to express my appreciation to each and every one of you who has chipped in. Even if we don’t make it to the full amount, it has been a tremendous relief to have your help digging out of that hole.

    Cheers!

    Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run

    By Dale McGowan
    Excerpted from Parenting Beyond Belief

    One of the questions that came up in the Austin Q&A was the Santa thing — and it’s so clearly in the air, from Friendly Atheist to Rational Moms, that I can’t even wait ’til Wednesday to chime in, because oh do I have an opinion. I threw in my two bits on pp. 87-90 of Parenting Beyond Belief, which I now offer virtually in the space below.


    santa32076I4339T’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

    Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

    Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

    I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

    But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

    My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

    This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

    The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

    “Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

    I for one chose door number three.

    “Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

    I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

    “What do you think?” I said.

    “Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

    I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

    “So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

    He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

    That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

    And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

    By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
    _______________________
    A related post from Krismas 2007
    For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

    Santa’s liddle helpurz

    lane321“Dad?”

    “Lane, when it’s just you and me in the room, you don’t have to say ‘Dad?’ You can just start talking.”

    “Okay.”

    “…”

    “Dad?”

    “Yes, Laney.”

    “I need a box.”

    “What do you need a box for?”

    “It’s kind of a secret.”

    “Oh. Okay, how big does it need to be?”

    “Big enough for an elf.”

    ****

    Not all elves are created equal. I managed to get the elfish proportions nailed down with a few more questions. Whatever she was up to did not involve elves on the scale of Will Ferrell, nor Elrond, nor Dobby, nor even Hermey the Dentist. Holding her hands out in front of her, Delaney (7) indicated an elf closer to pixie size—maybe four inches tall.

    “He’ll come to our house if we build a place for him to sleep!” she said, barely able to contain herself.

    “Huh. What kind of elf are we talking about?”

    “A Santa elf, hello.”

    “I didn’t know they came into people’s houses.”

    “Well did you ever build a little place for him?”

    I admitted I had not.

    “Well then of course he never came.”

    It was all making perfect sense. I helped her find a box and she spent the evening decorating it, right down to a bed of fabric swatches.

    “They like snacks, I have to leave him snacks!”

    “How do you know all this stuff?”

    “Sheri told me. He visited her house, and he left notes!”

    “They can write?”

    “Dad! Of course they can write, jeez.” Sometimes my ignorance overwhelms us both. She put a tiny pretzel in the house along with a pen and a pad of Post-Its, then went to bed shivering with excitement.

    ****

    elf76991“Laney Laney! He came! He came!” It was her sister Erin (10), leaning a little too excitedly over the elf house early the next morning.

    “He bit the pretzel! He left a note!”

    The evidence was irrefutable. The pretzel had indeed been gnawed, and a Post-It on the wall of the box said TANKS SO MUTCH.

    Laney was beside herself with glee. She wolfed breakfast and bolted out the door to compare notes with an equally-excited Sheri at the bus stop.

    The Southeast is awash in elf legends this time of year. I wrote about a slightly different tradition last year, one in which stuffed elves come to life in the night and move about doing mischief before ending up in some unlikely spot, as if caught in the act of living.

    Erin’s complicity this year is pretty interesting; just last year she went all Mythbusters on Laney’s elfish fantasies:

    ERIN: They do not.

    DELANEY: They do so.

    ERIN: Laney, there’s no way they come alive.

    DELANEY: I know they come alive, Erin!

    I walked in.

    DAD: Morning, burlies!

    GIRLS: Hi Daddy.

    DAD: What’s the topic?

    ERIN: Laney thinks the elves really come alive.

    DELANEY, pleadingly: They do! I know it!

    ERIN: How do you “know” it, Laney?

    DELANEY: Because. I just do.

    ERIN: What’s your evidence?

    DELANEY: Because it moves!

    ERIN: Couldn’t somebody have moved it? Like the Mom or Dad?

    DELANEY: But [cousin] Melanie’s elf was up in the chandelier! Moms and Dads can’t reach that high.

    ERIN: Oh, but the elf can climb that high?

    (Pause.)

    DELANEY: They fly.

    ERIN: Oh jeez, Laney.

    DELANEY: Plus all the kids on the bus believe they come alive! And all the kids in my class! (Looks at me, eyebrows raised.) That’s a lot of kids.

    This year Erin’s taking genuine delight in Laney’s delight, setting up elaborate proofs of each night’s visitation — proofs further confirmed by Sheri’s daily testimonies.

    One morning last week, after the bus pulled away, another good friend and neighbor, mother of a kindergartner, waved me over.

    “I have a kind of…unusual question for you,” she said. Given my speciality, it turned out to be an entirely usual question.

    “I wondered what you guys think about the whole Santa thing,” she said. “And…well, also these elves. I mean, I know you don’t have religious faith, but I was interested to know what your take is on all that stuff. I sometimes worry that it distracts from the real reason for Christmas. But I don’t know if I’m making too big a deal of it.”

    How very lovely to be asked for such an opinion by a Christian friend. I told her that “the whole Santa thing” is a point of contention among many secular humanists as well — a nice symmetrical irony if you ask me — but that I come down firmly on the side of relaxing and letting kids enjoy these things for the limited time they will choose to, in part because it gives them a chance to think their way out.

    “We know for a fact that three or four years from now, they won’t still believe in elves, probably not even in Santa Claus,” I said. “They’ll stop believing it as soon as the desire to figure it out is stronger than the desire to believe in it. That’s when they sort the things they no longer believe in from the things they continue to believe. That’s a good thinking exercise. I wouldn’t want to deprive them of that or of the fun they’re having now.”

    Some secular folks are especially horrified by the image of the little neighbor girls, each deceived by her own family, running to the bus stop to reinforce each other’s delusions. I can’t roll my eyes fast or high enough at such handwringing. Far worse, I think, are the parents who insist on shielding their kids from all nonsense. Isn’t it better for them to run into a little harmless nonsense right here and now than to grow up in a hermetically-sealed clean room of Truth? Just when and how do we expect them to learn to think their way around the messy real world if we raise them in a nonsense-free zone of their parents’ careful construction?

    More on that Wednesday, when I’ll also say a bit about the great time I just had in Austin and update you on my sad little attempt at bridgebuilding.

    Support Mt Carmel Christian Church

    nativity43309You heard me.

    One hundred twenty volunteers from Mt. Carmel Christian in Atlanta constructed a drive-through nativity. Wednesday night the scene was severely vandalized. Over $2000 will be required to repair the scene before it reopens tonight at 6pm.

    I hope and trust I am not alone in the freethought community in feeling outrage at this news. Whether or not you support the message of the display, vandalism and violence are completely out of bounds. I’ve sent messages to the Atlanta Freethought Society, Secular Coalition for America, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation urging them to take a quick public stand on this. I’ll shortly be contacting the other national organizations as well.

    One of our most fundamental shared values — free expression — has been attacked. Secular humanist organizations and individuals should take an immediate and public stand condemning these actions. If nothing else, such statements would make an eloquent counterpoint to the stolen atheist poster in Seattle.

    Article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution
    Send a note of support to Rev. Seth Wortman