Miscellany: “Bah, humbug!” edition

For your perusal this holiday season:

My very first post on this blog — indeed, the existence of this blog in the first place — was inspired by my objections to the deceitful practice of perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus (and general religious belief by extension), a subject I occasionally return to (see here for instance). I’m glad to see others agree.

1) The folks at 3quarksdaily elaborate on our shared distaste for the Santa lie:

To start, the Christmas mythology has it that Santa is a being who is morally omniscient – he knows whether we are bad or good, and in fact keeps a record of our acts.  Additionally he is somnically omniscient – he sees us when we’re sleeping, he knows when we’re awake.  Santa has unacceptable capacities for monitoring our actions, and he exercises them!  In a similar vein, Santa takes himself to be entitled to enter our homes, in the night and while we’re not looking, despite the fact that we have locked the doors.  In other words, Santa does not respect our privacy.  He watches us, constantly.

This is important because the moral value of our actions is largely determined by our motives for performing them.  Performing the action that morality requires is surely good; however, when the morally required act is performed for the wrong reasons, the morality of the act is diminished.  Acting for the right reasons is a condition for being worthy of moral praise; and, correlatively, the blame that follows a morally wrong action is properly mitigated when the agent can show the purity of her motives.

The trouble with Santa’s surveillance is that it affects our motives.  When we know that we are being watched by an omniscient judge looking to mete out rewards and punishments, we find ourselves with strong reasons to act for the sake of getting the reward and avoiding the punishment.  But in order for our actions to have moral worth, they must be motivated by moral reasons, rather than narrowly self-interested ones.   In short, under Santa’s watchful eye, our motivations become clouded, and so does the morality of our actions.

2) Dale McGowan lays into that despicable newspaper editorial that just won’t die, “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus”:

Let’s look at this. A little girl says, “Please tell me the truth.” In response to her direct request, the adult not only lies, but tells the girl that the world would be intolerable and devoid of poetry if this thing he knows to be false were false. And the world coos with delight. […]

“Yes, Virginia” is an unbeatable example of Daniel Dennett’s hypothesis that any given magical belief is less about a given god or text or myth than simply “belief in belief” — the untethered but deep compulsion that belief itself (in gods, faeries, Santa, karma, good luck charms, The Secret) is a good to be treasured and its loss a thing to be grieved. It’s one of the greatest insights into the religious impulse I’ve ever heard.

In a follow-up post, McGowan adds:

THE KEY to doing the Santa legend right [is that] [w]hen asked directly, you answer honestly. What’s fascinating and instructive is that kids won’t ask the direct question until they’re ready to hear the answer. Virginia proved herself ready, and the editor at the Sun shat merrily on her readiness.

3) Even better, McGowan points to Greta Christina, who writes her own response to Virginia mirroring the structure of the original:

No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. But Santa Claus does not exist. He is a story made up by your parents. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you otherwise.

And far more importantly: You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I highly, highly recommend reading the whole thing.

4) And for good measure, two bracingly savage commentaries by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, here and here. A taste:

[W]hat I have always hated about the month of December [is] the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public places, from train stations to department stores, an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy. Time wasted on foolishness at one’s children’s schools. Vapid ecumenical messages from the president, who has more pressing things to do and who is constitutionally required to avoid any religious endorsements.

And yet none of this party-line unanimity is enough for the party’s true hard-liners. The slogans must be exactly right. No “Happy Holidays” or even “Cool Yule” or a cheery Dickensian “Compliments of the season.” No, all banners and chants must be specifically designated in honor of the birth of the Dear Leader and the authority of the Great Leader. By chance, the New York Times on Dec. 19 ran a story about the difficulties encountered by Christian missionaries working among North Korean defectors, including a certain Mr. Park. One missionary was quoted as saying ruefully that “he knew he had not won over Mr. Park. He knew that Christianity reminded Mr. Park, as well as other defectors, of ‘North Korean ideology.’ ” An interesting admission, if a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that the birth of the Dear Leader is indeed celebrated as a miraculous one — accompanied, among other things, by heavenly portents and by birds singing in Korean — and that compulsory worship and compulsory adoration can indeed become a touch wearying to the spirit.

One of my many reasons for not being a Christian is my objection to compulsory love. How much less appealing is the notion of obligatory generosity. To feel pressed to give a present is also to feel oneself passively exerting the equivalent unwelcome pressure upon other people. […]

[T]he Christmas cycle imposes a deadening routine and predictability. This is why the accidental genius of Charles Dickens is to have made, of Ebenezer Scrooge, the only character in the story who has any personality to him — and the one whose stoic attempt at a futile resistance is invoked under the breath more than most people care to admit.

That’s all. And now, back to my family, to enjoy — without compulsion — their company and love on this day. And every day.

(h/t The Dish, Pharyngula, Daily Hitchens, and The Meming of Life; image via BlogHer)


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