There’s Probably No Santa, So Stop Worrying and Forget About The Beard


Next week we have the lovely Ariane Sherine coming up to Liverpool Skeptics In The Pub, when she will be talking about how she created the Atheist Bus Campaign, and about her new book The Atheist’s Guide To Christmas. The book is a great read, featuring essays by 42 famous atheists from different walks of life. Contributors include Richard Dawkins, Charlie Brooker, Simon Singh, Josie Long and many, many more. I thoroughly recommend it.

Anyway, in tribute to the book and Ariane’s upcoming talk (which will be fab, so please come along!), I thought I’d stick my oar in and have a bit of a blog about atheism myself. As far back as I can remember, I’ve never believed in a God. Lately, I’ve heard and read a lot of stories by people of their conversions to athiesm, or from atheism to theism, or of their struggle to ‘come out’ as an atheist, particularly in religious households; but I have no such story to tell. No-one in my family is religious or cares much either way about whether a God exists or not, and the friends I grew up with seem to have been in the same boat, so far as I know. It’s simply never been an issue for me, to the extent that I’ve never even really thought of myself as an atheist. It would be like giving myself a label based around the fact I have arms, or have never owned a chicken.

Yet, the more people I meet in the Skeptical community, the more I realise that I may have been lucky. Maybe the town in which I grew up is simply a godless island in a sea of Church of England style passive-aggressiveness. Maybe stories of atheistic struggle are playing out all over the country and I just never noticed.

That said, the Skeptical community is only small, comparitively speaking (though growing considerably all the time), and is probably not a fair representation of atheistic and religous tribulations nationwide. Still, I do wonder.

Back in my primary school days (cue the sound of sweeping harps amid a slow dissolve back to the eighties) I remember one Christmas when Santa Claus himself arrived at out school to deliver presents to all the children. I can’t remember how old I was, though I was still young enough to have some residual belief in Father Christmas, albeit tempered by suspicion and doubt. I believed Father Christmas might exist, but that all those people who looked like him in shopping centre grottos were just his servants, and the nubile girls in skimpy costumes clearly weren’t elves either, but just there to grab the dads’ attention. See how sophisticated my beliefs were? Ahead of my years, I was!

But… this particular Father Christmas? Well, according to our teachers he was the real deal. He lived at the North Pole (or Lapland, or wherever the hell it was. It was cold anyway), was married to Mrs Christmas, owned reindeer and had a fondness for mince pies and brandy (such a terrible role model, drinking and driving over the festive period like the office knobhead after a Christmas party; no wonder he legs it to the North Pole afterwards, he’s dodging the police. Do we have an extradition treaty with the North Pole? Maybe we could get the penguins to arrest him? Do penguins even live at the North Pole? Have I ever read a book? When will this pointless tangent end?).

Where was I? Oh yes, the real Father Christmas. The REAL Father Christmas had come to our school. Apparently, he was on a special visit just to our class before he had to go and get ready for his Christmas seasonal work of breaking into people’s houses and leaving stuff on the living room floor. I, like all my fellow credulous pupils, believed every word the teachers told us about this magnificent man in his stupid red dressing-gown. I bought it hook-line-and-sinker, like the good, ignorant child I was.

Then I saw the elastic on his beard.

It wasn’t even that well hidden, looking back. There it was, a clearly visible white line of elastic, stretching from his ridiculously white cotton wool beard, up and over his cheek, and disappearing under his frankly disappointing attempt at a Christmas hat. I glanced at my classmates. They were in a world of their own, dazzled by the great bearded one’s handing out of brightly coloured presents. I stepped over for a closer look. It was clearly, undeniably elastic. The beard was fake. ‘He’ was a fake.

He wasn’t the real Father Christmas!

At that moment, I had one of those small but incredibly important epiphanies that litter childhood, like a small bulb (probably an LED) going on inside my head. The teachers had lied to us! Obviously, I knew Father Christmas couldn’t be everywhere at once, and often sent out servants in his place; but the teachers had informed us plainly that this man in front of us right here was definitely, definitely, definitely the real Father Crimbo. I was crushed under the terrifying weight (about two ounces) of the knowledge that those in a position of authority over us had abused our trust. This man – this badly clothed man saying “Ho-ho-ho!” over and over again like some kind of deranged alien pirate – was an imposter!

Feeling like a moral crusader (if I’d known the song back then, Saturday Night Fever would have been playing inside my head, just like it is now for absolutely no reason at all), I pulled aside a couple of my classmates and told them the shocking truth about the filthy, lying ‘beard’. I was expecting outrage at this affront to our persons, solidarity for my moral cause. Nothing but the real Father Christmas will do for us! You can’t pull the wool over our eyes! We’ve been conned! It was clear that the great man himself had been too busy to come to our school, and the head had roped in somebody else at the last minute to pretend to be him, probably a supply teacher. He wasn’t even fat and jolly!

Unfortunately, there was one problem. The other kids didn’t believe me. Or rather, they refused to believe me. They looked at me like I was mad. I pointed to the elastic, but their eyes just glazed over, then they called me silly and went back to playing with their new toys. They simply didn’t want to know! It wasn’t even like I was saying that Father Christmas didn’t exist, just that this wasn’t him. The evidence was right there in front of us for us all to see, in all its elasticy fakeness! However, for them the evidence didn’t wash, and from that point on for the rest of the day I was cast out to the fringes of our little mini Santa-church, a metaphorical atheist at the last supper (“Ignore him Jesus, he doesn’t believe in you – can I have some more wine?”). Maybe I should have attacked Faker Christmas, pulled his beard off and waved it above my head, howling in primal victory. Sadly, that is not my style. Or so people tell me.

At this blanket refusal of my discovery, even more lightbulbs (or LEDs) came on in my mind. I realised that not everyone around me was happy to accept the facts of the world around them, like I was. In fact, they were quite happy to just blatantly ignore them and believe whatever the hell they liked. To top it off, they seemed to be having a much better time of it than I was. Bastards. Ignorance really is bliss.

Looking back, I can see the similarities between the thinking of my fellow pupils and people who believe wholeheartedly in God. I don’t know whether my classmates believed in God or not, but this kind of thinking is everywhere. Truth be told, an awful lot of people simply don’t care what the facts are, they are going to believe what they want to regardless. This is fine for them, for the most part, but it’s not so fine for those of us who don’t think that way, who interact with the world more self-consciously. We’re not killjoys, it just takes a bit more to get us to believe something (hell, if the guy who visited our class had actually had his own beard, I might have been convinced). Both kinds of thinking can usually exist alongside each other quite happily. I personally don’t care who believes in God, as long as we all respect and get on with each other. The problem is those occasions when the two kinds of thinking do clash. On the small scale, it may be an annoying, whiny child called Colin complaining about a false beard. On the large scale, however, it could be the stress of somebody telling their parents they’re an atheist, and being treated differently because of it. Those parents might not be particularly religious (those kids in my class weren’t that bothered about the reality – or lack thereof – of Father Christmas either, until the situation was there on a plate in front of them), but when their child suddenly seems to have a view fundamentally at odds with their own, then quite unexpectedly their reason runs and hides, and they can often have genuine difficulty accepting what, to my mind at least, should not be a big deal at all. Being an atheist is a perfectly reasonable and logical position to come to, and it does worry me that it can cause so much consternation to some people. It is this strange strain of magical, wishful thinking that causes it. If something upsets the status quo, cognitive dissonance sets in and the person confronted refuses to see the metaphorical elastic on the metaphorical beard. Suddenly we seem to be on a different gameboard, and the rules don’t make that much sense anymore.

Where does this thinking come from? Part of me thinks that it’s a necessary function of the human brain, one that simply helps us all get along with life and with each other. Certainly, it seemed to benefit my classmates a lot more than it did me. Maybe my brain’s just wired wrong. Most of the time, this thinking is harmless. It could be that I am just a killjoy after all, incapable of shrugging my Skeptical shoulders and diving into the deep end of the pool with all the other humans. Maybe I think about things too much and have crossed the line from Skepticism to Cynicism, as has been suggested to me a couple of times.

Personally, I don’t see myself as cynical at all. I would love to live and let live. Let us all believe what we want and leave it at that. However, I still hear stories of people struggling to have their atheism accepted, of having their rationalism questioned because it’s led them to a conclusion at odds with what other people ‘want’ them to believe. Having a problem with this isn’t cynical. It astounds me that this happens in the twenty-first century. I don’t know whether it’s a sign of a rise in Skepticism, or in magical thinking, or both. Maybe the two feed off each other in a strange way. Maybe I’m just noticing these things more now because I’ve drifted into the Skeptical world. I really don’t know. I really don’t.

But can’t you see it?

It’s right there.

There!

The beard! It’s fake – can’t you see the elastic?

Oh, forget it, just pass me a mince pie.

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  1. #1 by Praedico on October 8, 2009 - 19:23

    “I’ve never even really thought of myself as an atheist. It would be like giving myself a label based around the fact I have arms, or have never owned a chicken.” – I thought I was the only one! Nonduckists unite!
    Seriously though, this is pretty much the way I’ve felt (or haven’t felt, if you know what I mean) all my life. Religion has always seemed to me like something other people do, that I just don’t get.
    I look at Christianity and the Ancient Egyptian religion (for example) in exactly the same way: they are curious mythologies that intrigue me, but nothing more. They certainly shouldn’t be taken literally.

  2. #2 by Red Celt on October 9, 2009 - 18:40

    It bugs the bejesus out of me when people tell me that I “think too much”. Given that there are far too many in the world who don’t think *enough*… I think I’m just doing my bit in redressing the balance. Which involves thinking. Which is good.

  3. #3 by Mr Eldridge on October 11, 2009 - 16:41

    WHAT HE DOESN’T EXIST!! Damn it Colin you’ve destroyed my world 😉 I remember the day, though a little hazy. A certain person we know (of a military disposition I might add) was buying none of what you were saying. That said seem to remember siding with him over you, not one of my better choices but hey there’s always going to be someone smarter than the rest in a large crowd 😉

    I would not describe myself as an Atheist, although I don’t subscribe to religion, or any other celestial none entity for that matter now that Colin has put paid to my belief in Santa.

    Do I think the world would be a better place without it, no not really, people should be able to think what they like if it gets you through the days.

    If I was offered the choice of removing all the religious stories and morals that have been preached to me over the earlier years, primary school in-particular, secondary school religion consisted a single hymn practice on the first day, along with a small red copy of the New Testament, I would opt to have things left as they are. I believe that most of the stories and ethics that were bestowed upon me have helped to shape the person I am today, and that can only be a good thing as anyone who knows me well will testify. Plus without that small red bible I would have nowhere to stash my spare car keys ;-).

    To sum up my point, I think that the exposure I have had to religion has been harmless, and in many ways beneficial. Its the self proclaimed dictators that start banging on about prayer heals death and cancer, and that washing your eyeballs in root of potato and wine will stop you going blind, that are causing the most damage and the sooner these voices are silenced from the public face of society the better.

    Thats my 2 pence worth, not that it makes any sense. Enjoy and keep up the good work –Mr H–

  4. #4 by AexMagd on October 13, 2009 - 16:20

    I do think the world would be better without it. It wouldn’t be perfect, obviously, but think how much of a difference it would have made – Islamic terrorism, the troubles in Northern Ireland, religious genocides in Eastern Europe etc etc etc. And that’s not even including the people suffering from HIV in Africa because of the Pope’s stance on contraception, or the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic states. That’s a far cry from religion as a method of getting you through the way.

    My world would barely be affected – I have the fortune to be raised in a fairly non-religious democracy in the Western world – but I think it’s terribly naive to assume that religion as we see it in the UK is religion as it is in practice across the world. Religion as we experience it doesn’t have people stoned to death, or shot for wearing trousers – others aren’t that fortunate. If the only way to get rid of religious oppression of that kind were to do away with all religion – including the fuzzy, helping-hand kind we have in the UK – then I would do it without hesitation.

  5. #5 by Andy on October 15, 2009 - 09:19

    @Red Celt

    I wish i had said that

  6. #6 by Andy on October 15, 2009 - 09:35

    I agree with Mr Eldridge to a point here. Much of what mainstream religion does in the UK is benign. That’s not the same when you look backwards of course. I must also agree that in the UK the spectre of extremism raises grave concerns.

    However there is a more subtle point here too. That being the wholesale encouragement of belief in the supernatural in an institutional way.

    Acceptance of miracles, life after death, wishes being granted, pray and you might get it … and so on, I believe is damaging because of its ready, non critical acceptance and the fact it gets to the young so easily and quickly.

    I applaud all the good works that we can ascribe to religious organisations and I think that contribution is sometimes lost among the Skeptical community when we discuss these matters.

    If you ever watch “secret millionaire”, a horribly contrived but fundamentally uplifting programme, you see some indication of the quiet and hidden works being carried out by religious groups. I’m not saying that programme is entirely representative, only that religion is part of the fabric of our society. At least the mainstream ones are.

    Therefore, it’s all very well to argue for its displacement, but babies and bathwater are one of the risks.

    Education, a statutory approach to the encouragement of critical thinking, and some regulation appertaining to the introduction of religion to youngsters and how it is intially framed for them by the authorities are areas of interest for me in this topic.

  7. #7 by Andy on October 15, 2009 - 13:34

    BTW, nice piece Colin. I like these personal ones.

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