Santa Claus and the Origin of Belief
Religious persons will also engage in unscientific thinking in defense of their belief. Consider a child confronting the evidence presented by their older sibling about the non-existence of Santa Claus: the fact that Santa can’t do it all in one night, the fact that there is no workshop at the North Pole, etc. The child is not convinced; why would his parents’ tell an untrue story? The older sibling explains exactly why by retelling the story of how the myth of Santa Claus originated from a pagan god and a (supposedly) historical Christian bishop named Nicholas , and then morphed into a story that became popular for parents to trick their children into believing in the early 1800’s . By showing that the origin of the story, and the reason his parents tell it, does not trace back to an actual being named Santa Claus, the older sibling would seemed to have put the final nail in the coffin. But the younger child has taken a logic class, and argues that explaining the origin of the Santa story does not demonstrate that it is false. To think that it does is to commit “the genetic fallacy.”
The younger child is smart, but not quite smart enough; he misunderstands the genetic fallacy, which is commonly thought to entail that the origins of an idea can’t count as evidence for or against the idea. Such an understanding of this fallacy, however, is too simplistic. The genetic fallacy is only committed when we ignore or dismiss the evidence regarding a belief by simply pointing to its origins. For example, to dismiss the ring structure of benzene because the idea came to Friedrich Kekulé in a dream commits the genetic fallacy because his suspicion has been confirmed numerous times since he proposed it; if there were no evidence for it, the fact that the idea finds its origins in a dream would be reason to doubt it. Specifically, establishing that the origins of a belief in the existence of an entity does not actually trace back to the existence of that entity is good evidence against believing in the existence of that entity. Only if subsequent evidence can be presented can belief in that thing be rational. This is why explaining the origins of the Santa Claus story gives one good reason to believe that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Of course, it doesn’t prove that Santa doesn’t exist. But nothing can. And, as we have seen, the fact that something can’t be proven false is no reason to think it is true. Such an origin story does, however, give one good reason to doubt. And to think that one can dismiss the origin story of Santa as evidence against the existence of Santa because it “commits the genetic fallacy” is unscientific, it fundamentally misunderstands a basic logical fallacy.
Yet the theist employs the very same reasoning in defense of the objections raised against religious belief atheists such as Nietzsche, Freud and Daniel Dennett, who argue that theist belief does not originate from God, but from natural effects and forces. Against the claim that natural explanations give reason to doubt the truth of religious belief in God, religious persons will claim that such an argument commits the genetic fallacy . But, just like the young child defending belief in Santa, the theist doesn’t understand the genetic fallacy. The origins of belief in God (and why our parents might tell us untrue stories) are not reason to dismiss evidence for God per se; but the fact that belief in God (and the story our parents tell us) does not originate in God himself, but instead in natural phenomena, is good reason to doubt that God exists. Of course, it doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But nothing can. But, as we have seen, the fact that something can’t be proven false is not reason to think it is true. Such an origin story does, however, give one good reason to doubt. To think that one can dismiss the origin story of God as evidence against the existence of God is wholly unscientific; it fundamentally misunderstands a basic logical fallacy.
Responding to Objections
It was not the goal of this paper to suggest all of religion is unscientific in all its applications. For example, I did not mean to suggest that all religious people endorse all the arguments or believe all the doctrines that I have criticized. Obviously, many individual religious people already reject one or more of them; as a group, religious people are diverse. But this doesn’t mean that my argument is wrong, futile or inappropriate. The fact that my argument doesn’t apply to you (or even anyone you know) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply to others or even the vast majority of religious believers. It does. As Pew researchers discovered in 2008, the beliefs I have criticized here are held by the vast majority of religious people today.
One goal of this essay was to show false a claim widely endorsed by atheists and the religious alike: that there is no conflict between science and religion. Many maintain that the important claims common among the religious are outside of the purview of science and one can believe them without being unscientific. By analogy, I have shown that this is false. Some of the most important and widely held religious beliefs (belief in miracles, the soul, God and god-men) are undeniably unscientific — as unscientific as quack medicine, belief in magic, phlogiston and lizard aliens. Such a conclusion may already be obvious to those who have rejected those religious beliefs, but the conclusion itself is not trivial. Most religious people have not rejected those religious beliefs or realized their unscientific nature.
If you realize that my arguments do not apply to you because you believe none of the things I have criticized (and nothing similar to them), then the paper has accomplished another of its goals: it has clarified where the conflict between religion and science lies. It does not lie with people like you. As I mentioned in Part I, religion is not unscientific in all that it does. For example, religions make statements about ethics and meaning, and such statements are merely non-scientific. If my criticisms don’t apply to you, that’s likely because it is only those aspects of religion that you embrace. In fact, you likely reject the beliefs I have criticized as unscientific because you agree with me that they are unscientific. Unfortunately, your take on religion is not the dominant one, so the argument of this paper is necessary to make.
With that in mind, and in conclusion, let me quickly respond to a few common objections.
Objection 1: Religious Experience
One might suggest that somehow one’s personal experience can render acceptance of a religious hypotheses scientific. It can provide a kind of evidence that renders belief rational. Such arguments would most likely come from reformed epistemologists, like Alvin Plantinga, who would claim that something like the “sensus divinitatis” can provide non-propositional evidence for religious beliefs that makes them rational .
The problem with such a response is that the idea that personal experience can trump evidence and adequacy is, itself, an unscientific suggestion. What drives and motivates science is the realization that our personal experience is not always reliable, and is more often than we realize easily led astray. It is readily molded by our expectations and biases. As mentioned earlier, the criteria of scientific reasoning are designed to counteract such things, and have proven to be significantly more reliable than personal experience, when they are in conflict. To refuse to accept what clearly is the most adequate and reasonable hypothesis because of one’s personal experience is unscientific. It is akin to someone continuing to believe in ghosts because “they saw one,” despite the fact that their experience (and all others) has been accounted for completely in terms of natural phenomena. In short, not even our own eyes can be trusted in the face of contrary scientific reasoning. How much more then should we doubt the “sensus divinitatis”?
Objection 2: Selective Reasoning
Some might say that, although they think scientifically in the other areas of their life, they choose to be unscientific when it comes to religious belief and that doing so is “acceptable” — even rational. This, it might be thought, is akin to methodological naturalism, where one assumes nothing supernatural in the lab, but allows for such possibilities in church.
This of course, grants me my thesis: that religious belief is unscientific. Such a person admits that they can’t be religious while they are being scientific, and so they leave their scientific thinking in the lab. Still, this reply needs response. Presumably, such a person doesn’t just assume naturalism in the lab, but everywhere else in everyday life. They wouldn’t think that money can “just disappear” from their wallet, they wouldn’t believe someone who claims to walk through walls, and they don’t believe magicians are really magic. They only suspend scientific reason when it comes to religious matters. But it seems obvious that there is no justification for such compartmentalism. It is not noble, it is not justifiable, it is not rational. It is merely the only way they have of protecting cherished beliefs, or maintaining their social or familial connections.
Maybe they still want to claim that doing so is acceptable and rational, but if they do this, they lose their ability to criticize anyone who ignores scientific reasoning and the scientific method for any reason. They can no longer claim that those who believe in ghosts, UFOs, ESP, dowsing rods, astrology, creationism, intelligent design, the vaccine/autism link, parapsychology, conspiracy theories, Lizard aliens, Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster are doing anything wrong or irrational. For, if religious people can ignore scientific reasoning to protect their beliefs of choice, so too can anyone else. In a nutshell, if the religious person ever points the “irrationality” finger at any person for believing something contrary to scientific evidence, they must acknowledge that there are three fingers pointing back at them.
Objection 3: Strawman
Lastly, some may claim that I have been attacking a strawman. “Of course,” one might object, “the common person’s religious beliefs are unscientific, but you have ignored the well thought out religious views of academic theologians and philosophers. You will have shown that religion and science are in conflict only when you have shown their religious beliefs to be unscientific. After all, you wouldn’t criticize science based on the common person’s understanding of science.” There are numerous responses to this.
First of all, the analogy is weak. Yes, I would not criticize science based on the common person’s understanding, but the common person does not practice science — they are not a part of the scientific community and do not determine scientific consensus. The common religious person, on the other hand, is religious, practices religion and is a part of the religious community, and the above doctrines are what the common religious person believes. In fact, the views I am criticizing are confessed in the creeds, are explicitly stated doctrines, embraced by the Pope, and preached by every pastor I know. I may not have shown that the most academically sophisticated religious believers are unscientific, but I cannot be attacking a straw man if I am attacking the views held by the vast majority of practicing and leading members of the religious community.
Second, I believe one would be hard pressed to find a theologian that rejects all the views I have shown are unscientific. A theologian that thinks petionary prayer does nothing, that souls do not exist, that God does not interact with, intervene in, or control the world in any meaningful or important way, and that believes that Jesus performed no miracles and did not rise from the dead — how is such a theologian different from a deist, or even an atheist? I know theologians that reject one or more of these doctrines, but none that reject them all.
Of course, if a theologian could be found that did reject them all — perhaps they think that all religious language is non-literal or non-propositional and thus think that all such doctrines are not literally true but instead are (as Bart Ehrman termed it in Jesus, Interrupted) “mythically true” — then my argument could not be used to show that their particular brand of religious belief is unscientific. But I admitted that at the beginning of the essay. A religion that is only about ethics and meaning is merely non-scientific, not unscientific. But I dare say if a theologian admitted this — admitted to rejecting such doctrines, in plain English, as literal truths — from any pulpit in the world, they would be run out on a rail. How can I be strawmanning by not addressing a view that the vast majority of religious practitioners and leaders would openly reject and label as heresy? Individual academics who reject the doctrines I have criticized can save themselves from criticism, but they cannot save all of religion vicariously.
Given my arguments, it is undeniable that the beliefs I have criticized are unscientific. And since they, or beliefs like them, are embraced by the vast majority of religious practitioners (including those outside of Christianity), it is undeniable that — contrary to the suggestions of Gould, Ratzsch, Plantinga, and a host of others — religion is, in very important and significant ways, unscientific. Again, not in every way — but it was only the goal of this essay to identify the conflict between religion and science. I believe we can now see exactly where the conflict lies.
David Kyle Johnson is an Associate Professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. He has done extensive work using popular culture to explain and illustrate philosophical ideas and arguments. He has written articles on everything from South Park to The Hobbit, Doctor Who to The Onion, and Quentin Tarantino to Christmas. He edited a book on Heroes and on Inception. He also co-edited Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House with William Irwin.
 For a researched history of Santa this draft of a chapter from a book I am working on entited The Myths that Stole Christmas.
 See: Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. Vintage Books, 1997.
 Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Penguin, 2007.
 For a famous example of William Lane Craig accusing Richard Dawkins of this fallacy, see this YouTube video.
 See, for example, Alvin Platninga’s Warrented Christian Belief. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, Ch 6.