Tuesday, December 25, 2012

No, Virginia, there isn't a Santa Claus

I like this better than the original reply to Virginia O'Hanlon, though I guess that taught her not to believe everything she read in the newspaper, huh? After all, once you start asking questions, you're not going to believe for long.

But the thing is, most Americans want to believe in Santa Claus. When they get a little older, they can't, because Santa is supposed to do real things, specific things, in the real world. Well, I suppose they could believe that they're just no longer good enough to get Christmas presents from Santa, but who wants to believe that? :)

But they can believe in a god, if they don't ask questions, because God doesn't give you your gift until after you die. Therefore, no one is ever disappointed, and no one can ever point out that it doesn't actually happen.

You can pray for something in this life, of course, but if you don't get it, "God works in mysterious ways." Well, these are defense mechanisms for people who really, really want to believe what there's no good reason to believe.

The original editorial was popular because Americans wanted to believe in their own Santa Claus. All minds are "little minds," therefore why use them? And even if Santa Claus doesn't exist, life would be "dreary" without him (i.e. he has to exist, just because we so very much want him to exist). Besides, just because you don't see Santa Claus, that's not proof he doesn't exist, right?

Well, our minds may be "little," but they're the only minds we've got. We use our minds, as best we can, for most things, so why not for this? After all, we might be wrong if we use our minds, but we're almost guaranteed to be wrong if we don't.

And my little mind tells me that wanting something to be true isn't a good reason for thinking that it is true. In fact, it's a good reason to look skeptically - especially skeptically - at the question, because it's all too easy for us human beings to believe what we really, really want to believe, even when we have no good reason to believe it.

And finally, no one has to prove that Santa Claus doesn't exist, because the burden of proof is always on the person making a claim. Do you believe in leprechauns, just because no one has shown you proof that they don't exist? Do you believe in werewolves, unicorns, fairies, gremlins, fire-breathing dragons, or talking snakes? Have you actually seen proof that they don't exist?

I don't like to talk about "proof" anyway, since what can you really prove, beyond any possibility that you could be wrong? Maybe nothing really exists except you, and you're just hallucinating all this. No, I like to talk about evidence. And it's the person making a claim who needs to demonstrate that his claim is true.

Now, if you tell me that it's snowing outside on Christmas Day - here in Nebraska, at least - I probably won't require especially good evidence before I'll believe you. After all, there was a good chance of snow in the forecast. But if you tell me there's a man who delivers toys to every child in the world in one night - using flying reindeer, no less - I'm going to need pretty good evidence before I'll believe that.

Of course, I did believe that when I was a child. There did seem to be evidence for Santa Claus. Someone, after all, brought me presents with his name on them. And there was a lot of eyewitness testimony, there really was. As it turned out, that wasn't good evidence. Furthermore, I hadn't learned that a lot of poor evidence doesn't add up to even one speck of good evidence. That's not how it works.

Virginia O'Hanlon was starting to ask questions, and they lied to her. They lied, not because they believed in Santa Claus themselves and not because she wasn't going to discover the truth soon enough anyway, but because the truth would demonstrate that their own beliefs had no more validity than her belief in flying reindeer. That's why the editorial became so popular, I suspect.

Well, I have no problem will telling children stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and I have no problem with parents who tell them the truth, either. Either way is fine with me. Personally, I don't see any problem with children enjoying fantasy, and I certainly have no problem with children enjoying Christmas.

Indeed, I hope they always enjoy Christmas (or whatever holiday your family celebrates). I do. But when we grow up, we put childish beliefs behind us. We still enjoy our holidays, but we don't have to believe in magic to do that.

It's not so bad growing up, it really isn't. And while childish beliefs might be appropriate for children, they're not appropriate for adults. Faith-based thinking causes a lot of problems in our world. So, Virginia, when you get old enough to start asking questions, you should be told the truth.

And the truth is that people often lie, even to themselves - maybe even especially to themselves. The truth is that you can't always believe what you're told, that you often must overcome your own wishful-thinking to discover uncomfortable truths, and that you can never stop asking questions.

The truth is that Christmas can be good, that life can be good, even when you know that magic isn't real. Merry Christmas, Virginia!
PS. Here's where I got the picture of me in holiday garb. :)

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