God and Father Christmas
Posted by Andy Bannister on January 19, 2016
In recent years, atheism has enjoyed something of a resurgence, especially with the rise of the so called “New Atheism”. That term was first coined back in 2006 to describe the group of media-savvy atheists—men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens—whose books attacking religion in general and Christianity in particular have sold by the truckload. Yet despite its popularity, much of contemporary atheism thrives on poor arguments and cheap soundbites, making claims that simply don’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Like a cheaply made cardigan, they’re full of loose threads that quickly unravel if you tug them.
Let me illustrate with an example from New Atheism’s founding father, Richard Dawkins, whose books have sold millions of copies. Dawkins thinks religion isn’t merely wrong, but insane, that those who believe in God are quite literally deluded. Faith in God is as crazy as belief in—well, let’s allow Dawkins to speak for himself:
A beautiful child close to me, six and the apple of her father’s eye, believes that Thomas the Tank Engine really exists. She believes in Father Christmas, and when she grows up her ambition is to be a tooth fairy. She and her schoolfriends believe the solemn word of respected adults that tooth fairies and Father Christmas really exist. This little girl is of an age to believe whatever you tell her. If you tell her about witches changing princes into frogs, she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast forever in hell, she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father’s consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun.
As the father of a three-year old, I can partly understand the concern about Thomas the Tank Engine, as I have heard enough stories of the loveable locomotive to last me from here to eternity and back again. Still, I digress. It’s particularly the comparison that Dawkins makes between God, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy that I find the most intriguing. It’s a theme he returns to time and time again:
Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are part of the charm of childhood. So is God. Some of us grow out of all three.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard variations of this argument and perhaps you’ve faced it too: well-meaning friends or colleagues politely suggesting that your basic problem is that you just need to grow up. Should Christians be worried? Not really, because whilst “God Is Like Santa Claus” may make a great bumper sticker it’s a disastrously bad argument. Let me show you three reasons why.
First, it’s a classic example of something called an ad hominem fallacy—that’s when rather than critique an argument, you attack the person. For example, I might say that Dawkins’s arguments are wrong because he’s a funny-looking fellow, smells strangely of fish, and only writes books on atheism because he’s not taken seriously as a scientist anymore. See what I did there? I used ridicule and insult to dismiss the person, not address what he wassaying. The main problem with this is it’s terribly lazy: much easier to insult somebody’s looks, or accuse them of being childish or deluded, than to engage with their arguments. Sneering “believing in God is like belief in Santa” doesn’t address the question, it just resorts to insult.
Second, there’s the problem for Dawkins that God is taken very seriously as a question among academic philosophers. You can walk into any major university library anywhere in the world, head for the philosophy section, and find shelf upon shelf of books addressing “The God Question”. I haven’t yet found the Santa Claus section at any of the university libraries I’ve visited. Now this doesn’t, of course, prove that God exists, but it does suggest that there’s a serious discussion to be had. As the more sensible atheist philosopher, Michael Ruse, once remarked in a radio debate with me: “Christianity is a very serious answer to a very serious question”. Atheists need to grapple with The God Question, not hide behind lazy soundbites.
Third, I’ve long been fascinated how many Christians came to faith in Jesus Christ as adults, not because they were brain-washed into it by their parents. I often ask Christian audiences “Who here became a Christian after the age of 15?” and frequently over half the hands shoot up. I then follow up with “How many people here came to believe in Santa Claus as adults?” The point is obvious: belief in God is not like belief in Santa Claus, on any conceivable level.
So if that’s the case, why do Richard Dawkins and other atheists insist in making the comparison? I suspect it may be because when you believe something deeply, passionately, energetically, there’s often a tendency to grab hold of any arguments that appear to support you, no matter how desperate. After all, there’s a chance, isn’t there, that your opponents might be right—and even entertaining that possibility is something that some atheists aren’t willing to permit. Better to do what fundamentalists always do: put your fingers in your ears and sing loudly. Maybe something cheerful: “Santa Claus is coming to town …”