This being December, the Christian world has been duly saturated with references to, and reverence for, a certain omniscient, mystical father figure. An immortal, bearded bloke who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, and who has the power to reward the good among us and punish the bad.
It’s also the season of Santa Claus.
Some years back, the great conservative wit P.J. O’Rourke penned a short essay, “Why God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.” It pitted the Almighty’s strict, no-nonsense wrath against St. Nick’s jolly, gregarious do-goodness, and concluded with the punch line, “Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus.”
The bit is amusing as far as it goes—at least for the politically-inclined—yet it doesn’t quite work for an atheist such as myself, for reasons I probably don’t need to explain.
In point of fact, I have long wondered what, fundamentally, the difference between the two aforementioned magical entities is supposed to be. Why is it preposterous to believe Santa is real but perfectly acceptable to believe the same about God? Were you to describe both to someone with no previous knowledge of either, would he or she have any particular reason to affirm the existence of one over the other?
If we have decided, as a society, that it is reasonable to think a singular intelligent force is capable of simultaneously peering into the homes and the minds of every last person on Earth, what stops us from saying the same about a guy who does it one house at a time and with the aid of a flying sled? If anything, isn’t the latter more plausible than the former?
In short: If there is no Santa Claus, there is probably also no God. The end.
These are my views on the subject. My question is this: Is Christmas the wrong time of year to express them?
Never mind the First Amendment, which will always fall on the side of he who won’t shut up.
Purely as a matter of courtesy and taste—of keeping with the holiday spirit, as it were—should non-believers scale back their public antipathy toward religion and God on what is perhaps the only day that most of America’s Christians take their church’s foundational story seriously? Or is Jesus’s birthday the perfect occasion for a sincere questioning of his divinity?
Should we heretics remain always on the attack, or is the dawning of the winter solstice and the hanging of the mistletoe an indicator for us to lighten up for a change?
In the public square, the United States’ atheist community is rarely known for either discretion or tact. During the holiday season, non-believers (and secular believers) are dismissed by much of the faithful as humorless party-poopers who spend each December storming the countryside, stomping on nativity scenes and kicking over Christmas trees everywhere they go—some literally, the rest figuratively.
Like all stereotypes, this one contains at least a few grains of truth. Indeed, it is perhaps inevitable that those who cannot bring themselves to believe in miracles will cast an equally critical eye at the spectacle of a Macy’s Santa stand-in assuring wide-eyed children that come Christmas morning, all their dreams will come true.
I don’t particularly want to be the Grinch who brings misery unto all in Whoville by suggesting their beliefs and traditions are a sham. I really don’t.
I want people to enjoy themselves during the holiday season, as I generally do myself. I would feel dreadful if my antitheist nitpicking (or anyone else’s) somehow got in their way.
Atheists are not “all alike” any more than are Christians or Muslims or members of the NRA. However, they are oftentimes taken as such, and so I want to make extra certain not to reinforce my clique’s most unattractive perceived characteristics by embodying them myself.
Besides, if I spend day and night complaining about all things Christmas, when will I ever find the time to sip eggnog and bake cookies?