… in Santa.
It is almost inevitable during the holiday season that someone will draw a parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus, oftentimes with the barb that both figures are “myths” or that “only children believe in Santa” etc. Ho, ho, ho. Good times.
That is, of course, unless you happen to take your faith in Jesus a bit more seriously than you do a jolly, rotund and red-suited chap who allegedly storms your castle on Christmas Eve to deliver toys and goodies. What do we say about this type of comparison? The initial reaction is often the easiest. For me this usually involves a deadpan stare at whoever happens to be with me, or perhaps a forehead smack if I am feeling particularly dramatic. Anyone familiar with why Christians find Jesus’ story compelling already knows that serious comparisons between him and Santa fall apart pretty quickly. Nevertheless, calling Jesus nothing more than a benevolent “myth” can be hurtful and even destructive in the marketplace of our culture’s ideas.
Having witnessed a few of these comparisons over the years, I noticed that if a Christian engages with it, a truncated debate will almost always develop. At some point the Christian will interject that his or her conversation partner cannot prove that God doesn’t exist and then act as if this is some sort of leverage that closes the case. Of course this almost invariably provokes the antagonist to reply that neither can it be proven that things like unicorns, leprechauns and Santa Claus do not exist. Some people love these kinds of comparisons because they force a ridiculous correlation between Jesus Christ and fairy tales to be formed in the minds of the audience. Not being satisfied with a panoply of already-existing fairytale creatures, famous atheist popularizer, Richard Dawkins, even invented his own mock deity, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster,” (FSM) as a new way to further try and mock Christians. Since we are drawing close to Christmas, however, I think it is only appropriate to stick with the association between Jesus and Santa Claus. ‘Tis the season.
There are two things that must be said about an atheist’s intended parallel between Jesus and Santa Claus, the first of which is that the argument makes a good point when it comes to reasons why we should believe in something. Simply put, lacking proof that something does not exist is insufficient reason to believe that it does. The testimony which starts out, “I believe… ,” is valid and appropriate in many contexts, but we must also acknowledge that “belief” on its own does not make something either true or false. After all, there are many people who believe some pretty wacky things that have zero correspondence with reality. Just because a child (or adult) believes in Santa, this does not make Santa’s existence an objective reality, and we might say the same thing about leprechauns, unicorns and any other person, idea, religion or philosophical system, even Jesus.
If we want to make a case for something and/or convince someone else, it requires more than lack of proof against it and more than belief itself. This is appropriate, and an atheist’s comparison between Santa and Jesus offers a helpful criticism on this front. The bottom line is that Christians have more work to do “to give a reason for the hope that they have” rather than merely pointing out that skeptics can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. I can’t prove that a lot of things don’t exist, but this doesn’t mean I should believe in them.
Nevertheless, any comparison between Santa and Jesus highlights something else that atheists do not often intend, namely, the faith they must incorporate to make their own claims about both Santa and Christ. Atheists are welcome to believe that Jesus and Santa are not real, but unless they can muster some proof to make their case, they do so in faith. I don’t know any way around this. To their credit, I have come to the same conclusion as atheists when it comes to Santa Claus. I also believe he is a made-up character for children at Christmas time. I have no proof, but I have plenty of faith in conclusions about Santa. I have faith that he is not real, and I am not troubled by such faith at all.
Where Christians part ways with atheists is not usually on the Santa character, but on the person of Christ. Atheists are free to have faith that Jesus is not who the Bible and Christians claim he is, but short of proof, this is faith indeed. Alternatively, Christians have come to place faith in a very different conclusion about Jesus. Yet because Christians believe in a universe open to the supernatural, they must at least consider the legitimacy of Santa. I have little doubt this will inspire even more contempt among atheists. It sounds ridiculous, but I must admit that there is very little qualitative difference between an eternal jolly man who allegedly lives in a secret, magic kingdom at the North Pole to make and deliver toys to all the world’s children in one night and a remarkable 1st century pacifist and moral man who allegedly performed miracles and rose from the dead after being brutally executed. Both stories require exceptions to the rules that govern the everyday experiences of most people today. Put another way, both men’s lives incorporate a fair degree of the magical and miraculous. In that regard, comparisons between Santa and Jesus might seem fair.
Nevertheless, the point that atheists are trying to make with parallels between Santa and Jesus is their (faith) claim that miracles and magic do not happen and/or that the physical, material universe is all we have. A “closed” system if you will. In that sense, the atheist’s Santa/ Jesus argument goes like this: “Because we believe that magic and miracles are not real, Santa is not real and therefore neither is Jesus.” Or to pull back the veil a bit more: “We believe that miracles are impossible, therefore miracles are impossible.” Despite the intended shock value of comparing Santa to Jesus, the argument ends where it starts (faith that miracles are impossible) and therefore doesn’t go anywhere. Even more embarrassing is that this type of “logic” is not one iota different from the naive Christian who says, “I believe miracles are possible, therefore miracles are possible.” Both positions rest on faith alone. 1
So how about Santa and Jesus? Why do Christians believe one is a bedtime story while the other is true even in the absence of proof for or against either of them? First off, I don’t know of any Christian who believes in every other magical or miracle story just because she or he believes in Jesus Christ and the written testimony about him. They are not required to believe every miracle story that comes in off the street any more than anyone else. This is not just a matter of where people place their faith, but why. The particular details of Santa’s story and Jesus’ story are somewhat secondary to the issue of why people believe what they do about them. This has to come down to the quality of the evidence for each respective figure.
So let’s talk about Santa Claus. I do not deny Santa on the basis that his story incorporates the magical. If I accept the possibility of an open universe (and I do), then as odd as it might sound, I must also accept the possibility that Santa is real and actually does what the fables say. But before I start believing in him, I will need to do some homework on this odd character. So how might we go about coming to a reasonable position on this fellow?
As with any other position of faith, knowledge or even opinion, it is vital to look at the evidence. What can we know about Santa Claus? Are there any reliable sources who have witnessed him and his magic in action? With all of the technological gadgetry that we have at our disposal, does anyone have audio or video of the same Santa performing miraculous feats around the world? He is contemporary with us, is he not? But even if we don’t demand that kind of proof for Santa’s existence, there are other valid ways to come to knowledge and truth. The experience and testimony of others certainly qualifies. So I would want to know if there were any witnesses of Santa, and if these people were reliable in their other perceptive and mental faculties and truth claims. I would want to know if they had something to gain for their tales of flying reindeer and bearded, toy-making residents of the North Pole. I would want to talk to those who knew them best to see what they would say about these “witnesses.” I would want to know if they had started a new drug (legal or illegal), and I would want to know if any other reliable sources could verify their testimony. Had different people seen the same things at the same time? Did they interact with Santa or just observe him from afar? If all of these line up, even at great risk to the witnesses and those they care about, and they did so in the absence of counter evidence (like finding a “witness” who admitted lying about it or a Hollywood sound stage that had clearly been used to fabricate a flying sleigh etc.), then yes, I might actually consider the possibility that they had indeed witnessed something uncanny and worthy of further investigation, and perhaps faith. Even if I were ultimately to reject the tale of Santa, without proof this would still require faith in some other claim, namely, that such witnesses were delusional, deceived or liars etc.
This is just a sampling of poignant questions I would want answered before I might actually consider believing in St. Nick. So I believe Santa is not real because not only are there no good answers to any of these questions, but also because no one even bothers to take up the case. Even people who are advocates of Santa-stories for children do not seem to believe in his present existence, flying ungulates or the elves’ workshop etc. Although as an allegory the story may have some power to advocate bestowing gifts on humans who treat their fellow creatures well, the story is not intended to be taken as fact. While no one should rule Santa out just because they’ve not personally seen him in action, the absence of evidence to support belief in Santa is enough for me to draw some conclusions about him. An atheist might say the same thing about Christ, but then it becomes an issue of faith about the evidence, for there is quality evidence for Jesus indeed (and plenty of it).
Consider the quest for information on Santa above. What happens when we ask these same sorts of questions about Christ? Were there witnesses? Did they intend their reporting to be understood as fact? Were these people reliable; were they known for being of sound mind and truth-telling in other areas of their life and times? What did they have to gain from sticking to their stories? What did other people say about them? Were these witnesses’ stories corroborated by other accounts and did other people attest to similar things at the same time? Did they interact with Jesus up close and personally? Has any superior evidence ever been produced that overturns their testimony? If we answer these questions in accordance with accepted historical research practices, a very clear contrast emerges between the legends of Santa and the life of Jesus. When all the evidence is considered, the case for some very strange events surrounding the life (and resurrection) of a man named Jesus of Nazareth are quite compelling. Could these witnesses have seen some uncanny things? Did they have the perceptive and cognitive faculties to understand and relate what they experienced to others? Was their path one that led to contempt and abuse rather than power, fame and riches? Were they willing to put themselves in harm’s way, not for stories that someone else told them about, but for what they themselves had seen and heard? Does their testimony remain unchallenged by their contemporaries? When it comes to Jesus, the answer to all these questions is: “Yes.” What else can we say besides that these women and men may have actually seen and heard what the New Testament relates to us?
The same cannot be said of Santa and his non-existent witnesses. Where is the credibility for the tale of Santa Claus? If someone wants to make a case for Santa, then by all means I hope they feel free to do so. I will certainly listen, but at the moment, comparing him to Jesus of Nazareth is like comparing apples to envelopes: it’s an ill-conceived argument that might have the appearance of wisdom but is completely lacking in substance. Nevertheless, the Santa/Christ criticism works well because it pairs one character widely accepted as farcical (Santa) with a person who many otherwise intelligent and educated people believe is real (Jesus Christ). The correlation between the two is intended to make Christians feel foolish, even ridiculous. Sadly, sometimes it works, but the fact is that any serious comparison between the two fails to connect with reality. It just doesn’t work.
Our culture may well continue to lose track of the differences between Santa and Jesus Christ. The bastardized hybrid of combining Winter Solstice celebrations with the insanity of unsustainable consumer chaos and Jesus’ birthday doesn’t help. There is little wonder that Christmas inspires contempt from so many corners, and some of it well deserved. Be that as it may, reflective Christ-followers need not be taken in by the deceit, and they can be confident that Jesus Christ IS who he claimed to be. The riches of his gift are beyond measure, certainly surpassing what the mythical Santa might have in his non-existent bag of goodies.
1 “Faith Alone” This should not be confused with Martin Luther’s dictum during the Reformation whereby the idea of “salvation” was understood as being given to Christ followers through “faith alone,” rather than works or earning their salvation. “Faith alone” was never meant to imply “faith without evidence,” or blind faith. Stated another way, Martin Luther would say that people are saved by “faith alone” but not that they have faith by “faith alone.” This is an important distinction.