So I’ve written before about being an atheist who loves Christmas, even the religious aspects of it, and tonight I want to take another crack at explaining why, inspired in parts by a conversation I had today with my mom, a post by Wil Wilkinson on The Dish and the old classic response to Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897. First let me revisit some of what I wrote in that first post, since I think it will ground the rest of the discussion:
Actually, one of the things I love about the Christmas season is the story of the nativity, because it is a story of hope. I don’t know if this will sound hypocritical given that I’m an atheist, but I still find a lot of power in the story of Jesus’ birth. Of course, I don’t believe it literally happened as described in Luke, I don’t believe in angels or in the virgin birth or even that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem as part of a Roman census. But to me, it remains a moving story of hope.
While I’m pretty sure that there’s enough evidence to suggest that Jesus existed as a historical figure, an itinerant preacher in Roman Judea, again, I find no evidence for the miracles and resurrection. But this isn’t about the historical Jesus- it’s about the Jesus of the Nativity story, the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the Jesus that continues to inspire people to good work and causes of social justice.
Now, let me pivot back to the Wilkinson post. It’s part of an ongoing conversation taking place in our broader culture about whether or not parents should tell there children there is a Santa Claus. Some are pretty blunt, calling it lying to your children, and that when they find out it can be fairly unnerving. The argument goes that if they find out their parents have been lying to them about Santa, what else are they lying to their children about? If it sows the seeds of doubt it could undermine their faith in their religion. If one bearded do-gooder isn’t real, why not the other one? Depending on your perspective, this could be a good thing or a bad thing. For some, they’d prefer to not have their children question the existence of Jesus or other parts of their faith. Others, like Wilkinson, think this kind of doubt is healthy:
Santa is a perfect and relatively harmless way to introduce your child the socio-psychology of a collective delusion about the supernatural. The disillusionment that comes from the exposure to the truth about Santa breeds a general skepticism about similarly ill-founded popular beliefs in physics-defying creatures… Santa is an exercise in losing your religion.
I’m a little less cynical than Wilkinson, but generally in agreement. I think Santa is a good way to indulge children in fantasy and eventually reveal to them that though the fantasy isn’t real, the presents, the spirit in which they are given and the love of Mom and Dad are very real. I think that extends to how we think about Jesus and God- while they are not real, there is a very real and valuable core to much of what they represent.
Which brings me to the “Yes, Virginia” letter. Just as there is no physical Santa, no literal jolly elf, there is no miraculous Jesus. He was a man who lived and died. But there is the idea of a Jesus- the Jesus who comforts those who are suffering. The Jesus who moves people to give of themselves for the benefit of others. The Jesus who inspires the mind and hands of a Michelangelo. The Jesus who gave strength and courage to Martin Luther King, Jr. The Jesus of the enduring myth of Luke’s Gospel, who offers hope to the world.
This morning my parents got up and went to church. When they came home my mother reiterated her request that I join them on Christmas Eve at the evening services (you know the one, the more somber service past the bedtime of little kids with the candles during “Silent Night.”) I agreed, partly out of filial obligation, but mostly because I like the tradition, the story and songs. The baby Jesus who represents hope.
On the one hand, we know that Santa isn’t real. But love and generosity are real. So it is with Jesus.