The Scrooge Charade
By David Ottlinger
“Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.” 
Ladies and gentleman, I have lately been informed of a “grand deception” and “lie”, enthralling millions across the country. This epidemic is the cause of widespread un-critical thinking and is a major contributor to every national malady from climate science denialism to Illuminati conspiracies. Who is at the center of this sweeping conspiracy, you may ask? Santa Claus. Or so argues our first guest poster, Prof. David Kyle Johnson, in his recent piece which is well summed up in its title: “Let’s Cease the Santa Charade.”  I want to say something on behalf of the jolly, old elf, partly because I see real value in the myth itself and what it can do to enrich the lives of children, but more because I worry that Prof. Johnson’s critiques participate in certain broader cultural trends which, I believe, value too little great cultural properties such as Santa Claus. America’s problems with critical thinking and science education are pressing. But so too is America’s relative neglect of art, culture and the humanities. There is less and less appreciation for myths and stories like St. Nick, and it is well worth pausing to remember what makes these things so valuable.
Before turning to the main arguments there are a few rhetorical ploys on Prof. Johnson’s part I wish to address. He starts with an anecdote about a parent suing another parent over a child proclaiming to his schoolfellows that Santa isn’t real.  From this he invites his reader to draw some pretty broad conclusions about our culture. But a single silly lawsuit proves nothing and even suggests very little. In a society of 320 million people, a lot of strange things will happen. One of my favorites is a woman who called the police because a Subway employee used the wrong sauce.  This kind of anecdote mongering is not unlike the tactics Fox News uses to convince people that there is a war on Christianity in a country that is 85% Christian. Further, in support of his narrative in which Santa “enjoys a kind of sacred protection that modern religious beliefs can only dream of in the Western world”, Prof. Johnson makes some pretty dubious claims about the American Atheist’s billboard controversy. For those not familiar, the American Atheist organization routinely puts up billboards every Christmas mocking religions as fairy tales and superstition. Prof. Johnson comments that “Sure, people were annoyed and the Catholic League erected billboards in response. But no one questioned the American Atheists’ legal or moral right to do so.” But this is flatly false. The billboards caused considerable controversy, as of course they were designed to do. Bill O’Reilly made comments typical of Bill O’Reilly.  One New York State Senator implied that it may contribute to another holocaust.  Even many atheist friendly, liberal commentators criticized the organization in moral terms.  Readers who joined us from Scientia Salon will remember that Massimo Pigliucci was among them. Imagining a parallel case in which someone put up billboards proclaiming the non-existence of Santa Claus, Prof Johnson writes “Would anyone even sell you the space? Would laws not immediately be passed to take it down? Would you not be forced to publicly apologize? If found out, might you even lose your job? Quite likely!” I don’t share Prof. Johnson’s certainty. I would have to answer that I don’t know because, as far as I know, no one has tried.
More importantly, Prof. Johnson makes two central points. The first is that lying to children about Santa Claus is wrong as lying is prima facie wrong. The second is that belief is Santa harms children because it reinforces credulity and undermines critical thinking. We can call these the moral and epistemological arguments. In pursuing these arguments, Prof. Johnson sets a rather low bar for himself and a rather high bar for his detractors. On the moral side he argues that his case is “straightforward: it’s an unjustifiable lie.” On the epistemological argument he writes, “Do I need a scientific study to justifiably believe that demonstrating and encouraging poor linguistic skills to my son Johnny can hinder his linguistic development? Of course not. In the same way, I don’t need a scientific study to justifiably believe that modeling and encouraging poor critical thinking skills can hinder his rational development.” With such permissive standards of evidence, Prof. Johnson feels licensed to make poor Santa at least partially responsible for everything from anti-vaxers to supply side economics.
But for my own part, I doubt very much that belief in Santa is any kind of serious indicator of children’s future moral character or capacity for critical thinking. For instance I believed in Santa and I turned out all wrong, but for completely different reasons. Prof. Johnson states that belief in Santa is prima facie harmful because it could very plausibly reinforce credulity and emotional reasoning. Very well, that is plausible. Prof. Johnson states that getting kids to believe in Santa is wrong because lies are prima facie wrong. Very well, lies are prima facie wrong. But how wrong and how much damage are we talking about? It seems to me that it is likely very little.
On the moral side, yes it is prima facie wrong to lie but there are all kinds of defeaters that we use all the time in daily life and especially with children. “Yes you were wonderful in the school play.” “No, honey I’m not angry.” “We can’t go in there because…” Kids are constantly surrounded by a protective barrier of white lies and I don’t see how it could be (or ought to be) otherwise. I was struck by a statement the developmental psychologist Jacquline Woolley, in a Huffington Post piece on this subject (I discovered the piece though another which Prof. Johnson provided). She writes, “In the end, children are empowered by feeling that they have figured it out by themselves. Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world; they are ‘in on the secret’ and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given a role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.”  This speaks to different phases of development which require different kinds of reactions from the adult world. We have reason to treat kids differently than we treat adults. This rings true. Though I am neither parent nor psychologist, the way Prof. Johnson describes children and the way we should treat them rings somewhat false. For instance, do children really ask “Why does Santa always give the spoiled rich kid so many presents?” Are children worried about distributive justice? Could we give Santa-age children an education in critical thinking and skepticism? (In my experience it is hard enough with college students who at least know their shapes and colors.) Before a certain age all education is inculcation. If my mother debated ethics every time my sister hit me, I would have been eaten alive before I was twelve. Likewise, fantasy is part of the world of childhood. We ought to let children play with childish things before they grow up and put them away.
On the epistemological side, it must be said that it is striking that by his own admission Prof. Johnson is on the opposite side of the actual empirical scientists on what is essentially an empirical point. Some developmental psychologists evidently argue that imaginative play including belief in Santa can improve counter-factual reasoning and help children to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.  Prof. Johnson is unimpressed with this point because he says we merely “feed” beliefs to Santa-believing children, they do not imagine them themselves. I can assure him this was not true in my case. I used to wonder how Santa got to so many places. I worked out how time-zones worked but knew that would not be adequate in itself. So I imagined that Santa would break the landscape into zones and deploy troops of elves to cover entire areas at once. My mother recently informed me that I believed at one point that Santa, the Tooth Fairy and other holiday super-heroes pooled resources in a kind of holiday committee. Apparently this kind of thinking is quite common. Children pose questions to themselves about “What will happen if the elves don’t finish by Christmas Eve? What would Christmas be like if Santa didn’t exist?”  Woolley notes, perhaps a bit optimistically, that “The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease.” The process of becoming unconvinced can also help children to develop creative, skeptical tools as well. 
But what is most striking about Prof. Johnson’s argument is not what he does weigh, but what he doesn’t. Reading his piece I kept thinking about Horace Miner’s classic study of the Nacirema.  Miner described the odd habits of this strange people:
“The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose. The more powerful individuals in the society have several shrines in their houses and, in fact, the opulence of a house is often referred to in terms of the number of such ritual centers it possesses. Most houses are of wattle and daub construction, but the shrine rooms of the more wealthy are walled with stone. Poorer families imitate the rich by applying pottery plaques to their shrine walls. While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret.”
But this is a very odd way to describe bathrooms. Yes people often refer to the value of a home by its number of bathrooms (three bed, four bath etc) and yes people put thought and effort into how they decorate them (marble for those who can afford it, tile for the rest of us) but it will be hard or impossible to capture what bathrooms are or how they are used described in these odd, clinical terms. (For those not familiar with the joke, Nacirema is American spelled backwards). If you want to understand the American preoccupation with health, beauty and cleanliness, you must talk about the culture and values of the country and what these practices mean to the people who practice them. (And if you want to describe distant cultures you will have to do something similar, which was of course Miner’s point.)’
It strikes me that Prof. Johnson’s` description of Santa Claus as “lie” and “grand deception” is on a level with Miner’s account of the Nacirema. Santa Claus is a myth and bedtime story. He is a way to inspire excitement in children and for families to bond over important holidays. He embodies certain values of charity, communal good will and rewarded virtue. Collapsing all that into a “lie” strikes me as unhelpfully reductive. Writing in Slate, Melinda Wenner Moyer takes the obvious next step and describes “nine flying reindeer [which] pull an immortal fat man and his sleigh through the sky so that he can deliver gifts to millions of kids around the world one night a year.”  But who could understand what Santa is by means of such descriptions? If we want to talk about why Santa Clause is valuable we have to talk about what he means to the people who perpetuate his myth and how this myth is encountered. I value my young belief in Santa Claus very much. I think of family members like my uncle who made up elaborate stories. I think of all the imagining I already spoke of. I think of coming down the stairs and the added wonder at being met with presents brought from the North Pole. There are many warm and friendly times I can remember. Prof. Johnson says that we can give wonder to children in other ways, presumably in the form of literature and stories and learning. Very well, but I had all that and Santa Claus. It seems almost disingenuous to say that in not telling our children about Santa, we take nothing away from them. We may weigh what negative impact Santa Claus has on critical thinking and moral character (though until I see stronger evidence I am inclined to think these weigh rather light), but we must also weigh the rich value of these experiences and stories against these prima facie worries. I think scale tips strongly in Santa’s favor. To this Prof. Johnson replies, “But we need all the help we can get!” But I don’t find this to be true. Too much of childhood has been scrubbed out of childhood for America’s educated classes already. Many serious problems face the world, but I am not about to start throwing out many deeply valuable things, like Santa, because they don’t help to solve global warming.
Something about this piece’s rhetoric about critical thinking and the virtues of incredulity has me thinking about the New Atheist and Skeptic movement and its monomania for “reason”, “science” and “rational inquiry” as the solution to all of life’s problems. Certainly they describe Jesus and Christianity in the same register as Miner. Jesus becomes an “iron-age preacher” and God a “great, bearded man in the sky”. So many of the leaders and followers of that movement evince appallingly little interest in art and literature and when they do say something on art its often so bad that you wish they hadn’t. They are missing what we might call the literary dimension of life. They and the young people who idolize them often remind me of Bitzer in Dickens’ Hard Times.  Dickens describes a scene in which Bitzer is asked by his no-nonsense school teacher to define a horse. He responds memorably: “‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.” Bitzer does not include that horses are graceful and beautiful. For him they are a collection of observable facts. Dickens calls him Bitzer, because he only has a bit of the picture. The One Thing That is Needful, argues the book, is something like a literary imagination. Presumably the teacher did not think it worth imparting because rhapsodisng about horses assisted with the problems of early industrial Britain about as much as Santa helps with global warming. But this leads to a barren and philistine society. Hard times indeed. Of course Dickens had to imagine a generation of children with an essentially technocratic and scientific education. We have to live through it. They are horrible and they all have Youtube channels.
Now it must be said that Prof. Johnson is by no means responsible for the excesses of New Atheism. No more than Santa is guilty of supply side economics. As someone who is a professional philosopher, an educator in the humanities and a person who does much public outreach he is three times on the side of the angels. And I am sure he believes in and tries to impart the great value that art has for us. But I take him to task on this occasion for using the kind arguments that motivate other writers to run rough-shod over culture and the humanities. In taking the value of critical thinking to be entirely over-riding and passing over other values that have nothing to do with such thinking, he misses the mark in a very similar way. Santa is not useful for making us better critical thinkers or more competent scientific reasoners it is true. But then he was never meant to. There are other, largely aesthetic reasons for valuing such myths and these may not be passed over in silence. And there is another lesson here, or another instance of the same lesson, as we had a chance to reflect on in an earlier post about the ethics of meat eating. When philosophers show up with abstract principles totally removed from the texture and experiences of ordinary life and proclaim some familiar activity to be a serious moral defect, something has probably gone wrong. I aimed to elucidate what makes these stories valuable and I hope I have. In the end I think Virginia should be allowed and even encouraged to believe in Santa Claus. The essential reason is that without such myths and stories childhood would not quite be the same childhood. And, as the editors of the New York Sun seemed to realize, Virginia would not be quite the same Virginia.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH7Byr6PbVI (Sorry for Young Turks)