Merry Christmas, and some reflections on belief

I remember being touched by the Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus editorial as a kid. I’m not sure why. Certainly I believed in Santa Claus at the time, and it’s always nice to have one’s beliefs validated. But I think there’s more to it than that.

I read the editorial again about a year ago – it was my first time reading it for many years, as well as my first time reading it since becoming an atheist. I inwardly cringed at the part about the lawn fairies – how many bad arguments for the supernatural begin with “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there”? But still, I found myself emotionally drawn to the message. The editorial as a whole gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling that, no doubt, is the reason for its popularity.

There is a value we attach to the ability to “just believe” in something. Recall the story, The Polar Express, in which a boy visits the North Pole and receives a bell from Santa Claus’ sleigh. When he returns home, he finds that he and his sister can hear the bell’s ring, but their parents cannot. The story ends with these now-famous lines:

Sleigh bellAt one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

Do you feel the emotional pull of that closing sentence? I feel it pulling me, and yet I don’t even know what it is about. What are we supposed to believe¬†in?

Similarly, I recall an argument with a Christian friend of mine in which she remonstrated me, as an atheist, for “not believing in anything.” This is silly, because I believe in a great many things, but I think she meant it in more of a “you can no longer hear the bells ringing” sense. The message is that I am supposed to “just believe” in something – something magical, something improbable, something that requires faith rather than reason. Many people have a “belief in belief,”* and there is alleged to be something wrong with those of us who don’t.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus is about belief in belief. I read it again this year, and the coziness of the idea was gone for me. “The bell has gone silent,” as my Christian friend might say.

But it was an imaginary bell to begin with. The wonder and marvel of the actual universe we live in is represented by a million bells, each one ringing just as sweetly as any fiction.I don’t know why we are attached to the idea of believing in things we have no reason to think are true, but we need not be. We do not lose anything.

Greta Christina has done a lovely rewrite¬†of the Yes, Virginia editorial this year which illustrates this point. It’s a message that both my heart and my head can get behind. Do give it a look.

And have a Merry Christmas.

 

*Credit goes to Daniel Dennett for this phrase.

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3 Comments

Filed under Humanism, Reason

3 responses to “Merry Christmas, and some reflections on belief

  1. Interesting post.

    I always wonder about the romance that comes with a ‘belief in belief’ as you put it. It is the romance of the situation that sucks us in, the idea that so much more is possible than makes sense in the ‘real world’. As a child, I recall pondering the strange fat man who would sneak into my home via keyhole (we had no chimney) and sometimes bring me what I asked for.

    As an adult I don’t think that’s healthy for a child to believe. Aside from the dangers of letting strangers enter your home, surely the beauty of Christmas should be focused on the interactions with friends and family and on the fact that people try to create that wonderful vibe for each other. I appreciate the idea that my parents bought me gifts and taught me traditions that they grew up with. I like being able to do something nice for my family and friends. What benefit is there to giving some eternally-living man (who spies on us) all the credit for making it a great event?

    Personally, I think the warmth and enthusiasm of the people who go out of their way to make it a fabulous heart-warming event is more romantic and wonderful than any thing Santa ever did. Not only does it mean that people care that much, but it gives us back the sense of control. We, ourselves, can make the unbelievable happen and help the people around us. And it doesn’t just have to happen at Christmas. It may not be a belief in a belief in the way you’re using the term, but I think it has just as much power and alluring romance behind it.

    At the very least, it’s something I’d like to believe in. :)

  2. Well said. Many religious folks insist that one cannot see beauty without religion. It is so untrue. Yet it’s funny because I just spent several weeks in (polite) debates with atheists who *insist* I am an atheist just because I do not believe in God, and that atheism comprises nothing more than that strict defenition. I told them I shall be happy to define myself, thank you, and why can’t someone simply not have a religion without having to subscribe to a belief system?

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