The three questions lighting up our house in the days leading up to Christmas were:
1) Is Santa Clause real?
2) Was Jesus a man or a god? and
3) Is God real?
Although my wife and I have long since told our four-year-old daughter that Santa Clause was a real character, but not real, she nonetheless persuaded us to suspend our collective disbelief for the duration of Christmas 2005 and was delighted to find that Santa had, indeed, eaten the cookie we left out for him.
Our daughter herself asserts, in sober moments, that Santa is not real, but she love stories, and all the better if they can be imagined as real, even if just for a few days.
As far as Christ goes, both the image of baby Jesus and Christ crucified on the cross fascinate her to no end. “Does baby Jesus get killed on the cross, Dad?” “Why? He’s so cute.” Yes, Virginia, baby Jesus grows up and is executed for saying that people should love each other, but no, Virginia, he does not come back from the dead.
But the question that really gets our Virginia and her dad exercised is whether God is real. Her mother, who takes her to a Methodist church, has defined God for her variously as nature and love, and somewhere, among Christian relatives or at church, she has been told that “he” (her pronoun) is invisible and “all around us.”
When I challenge my daughter’s budding faith directly by claiming that God, like Santa, is a real character but not real, her rebuttal is fierce. “God isn’t fake, Dad! He’s real and he’s all around us!” Well, I say, where? Well, she says, he’s invisible. Well, I say, how do you know he exists, then? Well, she says, I just know. “He’s real! Da-aad!! God made us!”
At a church service not long ago, she declared to the congregation, over a mic, “My dad is an atheist.” Unfortunately, she concluded by assuring everyone, “But I believe in God.” Later that day, after her mother reported on this public declaration of faith, my little politician daughter told me privately and in a low voice, “Dad, if you want me to be an atheist, I will.”
Of course, in such moments, I tell her she has to decide for herself, confident in the future course of the many philosophical discussions to come, but in the context of living in a “Christian nation” led by mostly Christian people who continuously lie, smear, steal, torture and kill in the name of god-proclaiming pridefully all the while that ours is the “greatest nation on earth”–it is exquisitely painful to see my daughter’s reason systematically undermined by the story of god, told her by people both near and far.
As she grows up, I will teach her ways to think about (or explain) emotion and intuition-about complex feelings and desires–in ways that defy mystical religious belief without holding up reason itself as a god. We should all be able to agree that the origins of the universe and the meaning of life are profound mysteries, I will argue, and therefore we should all be very suspicious of anyone who claims to transcend the limits of our human understanding and to know (or to feel) the True Story.
Such Christian willingness to believe a story, literally or figuratively, and to follow on faith, must certainly be viewed as a major reason so many people in this country believed and blindly followed Bush and company into war. Religious belief softens citizens up for all manner of communal delusion, including allowing people to see themselves as good, on “God’s side,” when rather they are acting in gross self-interest, as people are wont to do. Better we admit it and work from that small-t truth (oil not “Democracy,” hegemony not “Freedom”).
Celebrating the birth of Christ as the appearance of God on earth can be quite depressing to an atheist who views “God” as a big lie engendering false and, because false, dangerous cultural values and practices of all kinds, beginning with such social folly as abstinence only education and ending with such catastrophic tragedy as pre-emptive war. We don’t need to cultivate God’s love; we need to cultivate human reason and empathy, for christsake.
Yes, Virginia, God is real. God is a real ideology that will wreak havoc on earth as long as people erroneously identify their human feelings and desires as transcendent and attribute their all-too-human motives to divine origins.
When you stop requiring us to believe in Santa, let me know if you still think an invisible God surround us, and we’ll talk some more.
TOM KERR teaches writing and rhetoric at Ithaca College. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.