I didn’t have an “aha moment” on Santa Claus as a child – I gradually pieced together the evidence, and one Christmas I didn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. But, the fact that my parents went to great measures (my dad even managed to leave behind stray hairs from a white beard) to lie to me about something did a number on how credible I viewed my parents’ information. In the long run this was probably a good thing, but it didn’t please my parents that I no longer took what they said at face value. Since then I’ve had a fascination with the cultural phenomenon of Santa Claus – it’s not like Halloween where we dress up and pretend – it’s expected that you perpetuate a factual falsity for the “sake of the children.” So, it was no surprise that I was fascinated by an article from last year in Psychology Today about Santa Claus and his offspring “Elf on the Shelf”:
[…] it promotes credulity – a gullibility and propensity to believe things that are false. Just like with Santa Claus, to get your children to believe The Elf on the Shelf is alive, you have to encourage them to turn off their critical thinking skills – don’t question, don’t doubt, just believe.
This post isn’t really about Santa Claus – I don’t care if you choose to perpetuate the narrative to your children or not, that’s your business. But, I think the Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf practices are similar to narratives within American Christian culture. When I play with my children and we use our imaginations to pretend to be pirates or astronauts or whatever, it’s understood by all parties involved that it’s not real. Also, the fact that it’s not real allows the imagination to have no boundaries. Santa Claus is not the same – adults convince children that Santa is real, and because he’s real, how they imagine Santa is bound by the supposed “facts” about him – he watches what you do to determine if you’re good or bad, he rides magic reindeer one night a year to bring all good children presents, etc. These “facts” about Santa (or Elf on the Shelf) are used to control the behavior of children. And, the attitude described in the Psychology Today article, “don’t question, don’t doubt, just believe,” is also used in controlling the thought and behavior of children – “If you don’t believe in Santa [read: if you don’t believe me], he won’t bring you presents.”
We see this same attitude in conservative Christianity. We’re expected to follow “don’t question, don’t doubt, just believe.” When actual facts contradict purity culture and homophobia, when actual facts contradict that Christian persecution is happening in America, we’re told to deny the “wisdom of the world” and “just believe.” Like with Santa Claus, we’re expected to “turn off [our] critical thinking skills” because critical thinking will get in the way of the “magic” of Christianity, or as they put it, “God’s mysterious ways.” If you bring up various facts that contradict the orthodox Christian narrative, you are met with the accusation of not submitting yourself to truth through faith. And, our imaginations of how we think of “God” or the “Incarnation” or the “Trinity” are limited by what we’re told those factually are.
There is a doubt phobia in conservative Christianity. It’s not surprising given that expressing one’s doubt can cause others to think, and thinking can lead one away from their faith. It’s kind of like how other parents get angry if your kid tells their kid that they don’t think Santa is real based on the fact that mommy and daddy put presents under the tree – if your kid gives their kids facts, they might lose a believer and their control over that believer. I wish there was more of a dialogue between the church and doubters – maybe some common ground could be found.
Unlike my gradual exit from Evangelicalism, my experience confidentially telling my Catholic friends about my doubts and questions was initially positive – they told me that it was good I was asking questions and seeking truth. But, once I started to be more outspoken about some issues I had with Catholicism, the tone changed – to voice skepticism of aspects of Catholicism was to incite scandal, which is defined by the Catechism as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.” This makes sense in that entertaining my questions or criticism could lead some to question or critically think about their faith, which could eventually lead them away from it – which is perhaps the greatest sin.
God’s wisdom is supposed to greatly exceed that of human wisdom. If this is true, God should be able to withstand my criticism and questioning, and shouldn’t be threatened by it. And, at the end of the day, if my questions and criticisms so easily shake your faith, maybe it’s not the questions that are the problem.