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photos by Lara Shipley

How Santa Made Me an Atheist

December 27th, 2003 · No Comments

Raised in a thoroughly secular household, the odds of my becoming a believer were probably slim from the start. But it was, oddly enough, Christmas that ensured it’d never happen.

I don’t remember clearly when my parents first told me about Santa Claus, but I do remember being skeptical. Flying reindeer? How was that possible? Bringing presents to every child on the planet? Surely that couldn’t be done in a single night. Even if it could, how could you possibly fit enough presents on a sleigh without constantly running back to the North Pole for reloads? If someone had this kind of technology, why weren’t we trying like crazy to replicate it?

I don’t think my parents had expected these sorts of questions. They just looked at each other, seeming a bit surprised, and let it drop. Come Christmas day, they gave it one final attempt: “Look, Santa ate the cookies we left out.” I considered that for a moment. I don’t think I’d encountered Occam’s Razor yet, but the first thing to occur to me was: “I bet Dad just ate them! That’s more likely than flying reindeer.” At which point they gave up.

I was slightly resentful at first—why were they trying to deceive me? I thought perhaps they’d hoped that the idea of a magical old man watching my every action, and doling out (or withholding) presents accordingly was some kind of threat to make me behave well. In the end, I concluded that probably that was what some parents were hoping to do—I knew the story was told to lots of kids—but that mine had just thought that it would be fun for me, a game of make-believe. That’s why they’d just given up when I didn’t seem inclined to play along.

Sometime soon after, when I started kindergarten, I first encountered the notion of “God” via another child. Again, I don’t remember the specifics. But I remember thinking: “Oh, I know this game.” I decided not to spoil the make-believe for the other kid. When he was older, surely his parents would explain that they hadn’t been serious.

It was sometime in first grade that I first realized that the adults—some of them anyway—were serious. This troubled me vaguely. On the five minute walk from the Norwood Public School to my house, I seriously considered the possibility that there might be a God for the first and last time. If there were such a being, why would he hide himself, instead of showing up to prove his existence to everyone, especially if he cared so much whether people believed in him? And it didn’t seem to explain “where we came from,” because there was no explanation of where he’d come from. Why just trade one mystery for another, weirder one? No, it seemed pretty cut and dried: This was like Santa. Someone had made up a story about a magical man rewarding and punishing, just to get folks to behave. Except this one seemed to have stuck better for some reason. I also remembered some picture-books about Norse myths that I’d enjoyed reading earlier, stories explaining thunder and lightning as battles in Asgard. Some of it was probably like that, too, I figured. But we knew that those were just stories.

Strange, I thought as I walked up the driveway, that some grownups apparently still believed this variation on the Santa-story. Oh well, I concluded as I shrugged off my jacket, surely there couldn’t be very many of them.

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