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Monday, January 19, 2015
Religion ... Society ...

In my last entry, I discussed some questions regarding belief in God versus atheism; in it, I mentioned a young philosopher named David K. Johnson, who in his various works has concerned himself with similar questions. Interestingly, Dr. Johnson also weighed in not long ago on another cultural mythology, one perhaps a bit less momentous but still rather interesting. Johnson has addressed the question as to whether parents today should continue telling very young children about a semi-magical figure who delivers presents during the wee hours of Christmas morning, while they sleep. Yes, we’re talking here about Santa Claus.

If you read my impressions of Johnson (I am currently listening to a Teaching Company audio course on philosophical metaphysics taught by Professor Johnson) or otherwise know of him, you would not be surprised to learn that he is quite anti-Santa Claus. In a nutshell, he advises modern parents not to continue the practice of telling post-toddlers about Santa Claus and convincing them to believe in him.

In sum, Johnson feels that continuing the Santa Claus myth is harmful and even immoral because (1) it risks damaging parental trustworthiness (2) it encourages credulity and discourages the development of critical thinking skills, and (3) it promotes unjustifiable and even socially harmful beliefs in adulthood. Some examples of such beliefs include the impression that President Obama is a Muslim, is not a US citizen, and that the 9-11 attacks were “an inside job”.

OK, Dr. Johnson has a point; such beliefs are too common. But he also objects to a variety of other common beliefs that, in my humble opinion, aren’t terribly pernicious and perhaps make people and society more interesting. These beliefs were the subject of a Gallop poll, and the following results were a matter of concern to Dr. Johnson: communication with the dead (21 percent belief); astrology (25 percent); clairvoyance (26 percent); telepathy (31 percent); ghosts (32 percent); and ESP (41 percent). Hmmm, I’m surprised that Professor Johnson didn’t throw in the whole “who killed JFK” thing. But yes, it’s time to do Santa Claus in, so that future generations won’t continue these silly old superstitions!

Johnson says that there are many instances where children suffer when they finally realize that Santa Claus just ain’t real. He cites a story of Jay, who “defended Santa’s existence in front of his whole class on the mere basis that his mother wouldn’t lie to him, only to read the encyclopedia entry on Santa in front of the whole class and simultaneously discover that she indeed would”. Another girl decided to give up on “the Big Guy in the Sky” once she found out that the Big Guy in Red was a myth; she equated the mystery of why her prayers often went unanswered with the reality that she never got everything on her Christmas present list.

Most interesting. My own Santa Claus experience was a bit more benign. Yes, my parents told me and my brother about the Man in Red once we learned to talk (and to appreciate receiving presents on Christmas morning). I usually did pretty well on Christmas; my lists weren’t unreasonable, and I usually got most of what I wanted (I knew enough not to push it by asking for a horse or a boat or tickets to Disneyland).

So I was pretty satisfied with the Santa Claus thing. I remember seeing signs early on that my parents were pretty heavily involved in the whole affair; e.g. coming across strange boxes in the back of closets or in a remote corner of the house attic, or going to department stores and toy stores more often in early December. But hey, the whole process worked, so why question it? Remember the line from the Budweiser commercial regarding football fan superstitions: it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

During the early grades of grammar school, I would sometimes ask my mother about the whole Santa Claus thing. She would smile and gave me a fuzzy answer, something like this: “all sorts of magic things happen at Christmas”. Well, that was good enough for me! Just so long as that magic meant a good haul under the tree come Christmas morning.

Eventually, I came to grips with the fact that there was no night visitor with reindeer, and that the gifts were solely from my parents (with a few kicked in from my grandparents, rest all their souls). This wasn’t particularly traumatic for me. I don’t remember ever really talking about it. Life just went on. I do remember one classroom instance in an early grade, perhaps third, when the teacher asked “how many of you believe in Santa Claus”. I was one of the few who raised their hand. I might have been the only one. But I didn’t find that to be terribly traumatic; I always considered myself different than the rest. I was almost proud of being a contrarian, at a young age!

I was also a bit more receptive at an early age to an abstract interpretation of Santa Claus, which my mother hinted at in her “Christmas magic” explanations. I kind of liked the idea that Santa Claus may be more of a spiritual, ghost-like entity, an intangible helper who made sure that my family delivered a reasonably decent stash of presents every year. Once again, so long as it worked! I’d like to think that this early “acceptance of the abstract” on my part helped me later on in studying mathematics, science, and now philosophy. And yes, all of this certainly is a part of my spiritual journey — as I have said, I do hold out hope for the existence of a benevolent God. Perhaps this reflects the genetic and environmental predispositions that have shaped my life. (Actually, those factors by definition shape my current thinking and behaviors, at least to some degree — as they do for everyone).

Well, that was my Santa Claus experience. I agree with Dr. Johnson that for other children in different circumstances, the standard Santa Claus thing could sometimes be harmful (although I doubt if you would find many criminals or terrorists or paranoid conspiracy fans who would say “it all started out with that Santa Claus thing”). But I am surprised somewhat that teaching kids about Santa Claus is even an issue any more! I thought that it went out of style long ago. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, about 20% of parental households have minor children who believe in Santa Claus.

That sounds low at first, but then again — if you define minors as those between ages 3 and 17, let’s say; and let’s also stipulate that you wouldn’t expect kids older than 10 to be Santa Claus fans . . . then at most you’d see 50% (and you should tweek that down a bit further for the 5% or so who are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc). So, the 20% number really means that approximately 40% of US households with children between 3 and 10 still promote the whole Big Red Man thing. The survey data indicates that Hispanic families are about twice as likely as white or black families to have a Santa-friendly child. Hispanics are only about 17% of the population, though, so obviously someone else out there is keeping the old tradition alive.

The survey data doesn’t break the results down regionally; but I can’t help wonder if Santa Claus is another one of those things that exists along the modern American social divide; i.e., in the “enlightened” blue states, only the more traditional, recently immigrant Hispanic families go the Santa route. But in that red-state heartland, where the old-time folk-religion ideas still get a lot of play, Santa remains alive and well. If so, then Dr. Johnson is probably preaching to the choir, in that his audience most likely comes from the more educated blue-leaning populace. Despite the good Professor and the many other modern parents who wish to protect their progeny from such ancient superstition, the jolly red man with the reindeer is still alive and well in the imagination of millions of youngsters every December. Long may he ride!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:08 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m beginning to reconsider my opinion of Prof. Johnson. All I can say regarding his whole Santa Claus thing is “give me a break!” *And* he can come up with three! reasons why the Santa Claus myth is “harmful and even immoral! Even more, “give me a break”! (I take it that his morality is not connected to God in any way.)

    I did plenty of thinking about Santa Claus when I was about four years old. I figured out that Santa Claus’ voice sounded just like my Dad’s voice. So I told my mother who then told me that indeed Dad *was* Santa Claus, but I shouldn’t spoil it for the other younger kids in the family. My sister tells me that she figured it out a little later than four years old, but she figured that Dad was always gone when Santa was around. Seems the “myth” got both of us thinking at a pretty young age instead of encouraging credulity and discouraging critical thinking.

    I say, Prof. Johnson has gone too far. Not only does he want to spoil one’s belief in God but now he wants to spoil all the fun little kids may have at Christmas.

    As to people’s belief in such things as communing with the dead, astrology, clairvoyance, telepathy, ghosts, and ESP, I wonder why he can’t just let people have *something* in life that may offer them some consolation when times get difficult. What harm does it do believing in these things? Seems to me it does very little harm and may offer some help to get through the hard times in life – even a belief in God.

    In fact, now Prof. Johnson is beginning to make me wonder why he just won’t let people who want to believe in God do so. Why argue against it when it comes to other people? If one is searching and questioning a belief in God for oneself, that’s a valid question for that person; but if one *wants* to believe in God, who is he to say that is not a valid thing for any one individual to believe?

    It’s one thing to offer some possible tho’t for someone who may be seeking some truth in life; it’s another to start ruling for others who already have their beliefs established – including kids’ belief in Santa Claus. Now he’s gone too far. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 20, 2015 @ 3:16 pm

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