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Santa is Irrelevant

Sue Johnson replies to Les Reid’s attack on religion.

The existence or non-existence of Santa is irrelevant to the question of God’s existence.

I would like to thank Les Reid for his entertaining, though theologically dubious, article, ‘Santa Lives? The Challenge for Philosophy’ (Philosophy Now, Issue 7) as it provided an excellent discussion paper for my ‘A’ level pupils. All the quotations here are from that article unless otherwise stated.

No-one would deny that humanity is damaging the natural environment as never before, but anyone versed in the moral teachings arising from the majority of creation myths knows that stewardship is enjoined as humanity’s first duty. It is, arguably, no coincidence that the most terrible pollution and environmental damage have occurred since people began to dismiss religious –and the associated moral – teaching as irrelevant.

The statement (often made before) that “Religious beliefs support aggressive territorial claims and underpin many of the most bitter and long drawn-out conflicts in the world is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse: war is caused by the desire for more territory than one currently has, and any excuse will do as a (specious) rationalisation – if religion happens to be handy, it will be used as an excuse, just like anything else. (Incidentally, is Reid claiming religious motivations for World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Vietnam, et al., or do they not count as “bitter and long drawn-out conflicts”?)

Reid describes how children lose their belief in Santa Claus as they grow older because, with their broader experience of the world, Santa now seems “fantastical and improbable.” The Tooth Fairy and Unicorns are other good examples. However, the analogy does not work as an argument against belief in God. To say that “…our picture of the worlddoes not easily accommodate an invisible, omnipotent, kind and caring ghost…” surely does not follow. Les Reid’s picture of the world may not be so accommodating, but that of the vast majority of humankind, as evidenced in one opinion poll after another, reportedly is. Assertion does not equal proof.

The question about why humans alone should have immortality (“The extra helping”) is answered fully and in far better style than I can achieve in the very next article in the same issue of Philosophy Now. Bernard Baboulène1 defines spirituality and suggests just when it was acquired by the human race. If we have spirituality, then it is at least conceivable that we have spirit. Of course, if Les Reid denies that we have such characteristics as love, justice and an appreciation of beauty then we are simply arguing from different premises and there is no possibility of any common ground. Presumably, though, he will grant that at some stage humanity acquired consciousness and abstract thought, and, if so, why could not immortality also have developed somewhere along the line? Or is he anthropomorphising DNA to a point which even Dr. Dawkins is not willing to go?2

The statement that “The religious world-view is essentially anthropocentric” is a contradiction in terms. A religious world view is, by definition, theocentric, or, in the case of Hinduism and Buddhism, centred upon Ultimate Reality (as opposed to a personal God). In any case, it is amusing to see the term anthropocentric used as a criticism by a self-confessed teacher of Humanism!

Les Reid is obviously unsympathetic to a dualistic interpretation of the mind-body problem, and in this he is fashionable. His assertion that the mind is “an empty abstraction” does not, however, constitute proof, and, to quote Baboulène once more, the ‘traditional metaphor’ of the self as a sort of committee, chaired by the will, which is subject to the pushes and pulls of different fears and desires, is as tenable a picture as any other in the absence of certainty.

The picture which Reid conjures up of our immortal souls enjoying the pleasures of life forever displays a fundamental ignorance or misunderstanding of religious views of immortality. Although these do vary from religion to religion, there is generally an emphasis upon oneness with, or concentration upon, God or Ultimate Reality, rather than the soul remaining a distinct entity with the same sort of lifestyle it had before.

Les Reid is right to say that “We inhabit a small, shrunken planet facing great problems.” Arguably, these are due to a lack of true religious values such as stewardship, social concern, and, perhaps, most of all, proper humility in the face of all that there is. Not everything done in the name of religion is rooted in religion – and not all avowedly religious people practise truly religious behaviour.

There are three possible accounts of our world: two are religious, and closely related (certainly, not, in the end, at odds); one is nonreligious.

1. There is a Creator. (The Judaeo/Christian/ Islamic viewpoint). In this case, right behaviour consists of coming to terms with the Creator – inevitably, this means meeting the Creator on the Creator’s terms, insofar as we can.

2. There is an Ultimate Reality which transcends the universe, and of which everything and everyone is a part. (The Hindu/Buddhist viewpoint). In this case, right behaviour consists of striving for Oneness with Ultimate Reality, insofar as we can.

3. The physical universe is all that there is. There is no transcendent Reality or Ultimate Truth. (The atheistic viewpoint).

In this case, life, while having meaning from individual viewpoints, (your life is meaningful to you, mine to me, the lives of those in Bosnia to all of us, even Hitler’s life to Eva Braun, etc.), has no transcendent value. Without an Ultimate or Transcendent Reality, it is difficult to see how there can be any reward for ‘right’ behaviour, (however defined), or punishment for wrongdoing, other than that administered in this world – and it would be difficult to find anyone who was entirely satisfied with either natural or legal justice as encountered here.

If there is no Absolute Morality, and all one has to reckon with are the consequences of one’s actions in the physical world, there is no necessity to define one course of action as better than another – the position of many or most existentialists. Some existentialists responded to this fundamental absurdity with another absurdity – the leap of faith into religion and claimed to find themselves justified. Others opted out of life altogether and committed suicide, unable to choose how to live since all choices were equally worthless. A third group, including, notably, Camus, chose to define their own meaning and faced the essential absurdity of their position and of life’s lack of ultimate or transcendent meaning – with nausea, certainly, but also with a degree of courage which I cannot help but admire.

It is theoretically possible that there is some objective meaning to life – even, perhaps, some absolute moral code – without a God or Ultimate Reality, but those who adopt this view usually replace God with some other object of veneration – be it Humanity, Nature or whatever. Effectively, therefore, they have a quasi-religious viewpoint, in that they feel the need for something greater than themselves, and define right and wrong behaviour with reference to that ‘something’.

None of these positions is capable of proof or disproof. I sympathise with Les Reid’s comments about theologians and their obsession with proofs, although in fairness it should be said that this is a quirk peculiar, in the main, to Christianity and to some Muslims. In the absence of proof therefore, ultimately – and I mean, Ultimately – one pays, not one’s money, but one’s Self, and makes one’s choice.

1.Baboulène, B., ‘On Panic’, Philosophy Now, Issue 7
2. Dawkins, Dr. R., The Selfish Gene

© S.J. Johnson 1993

Sue Johnson is Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy at The Grammar School for Girls, Wilmington, Kent. Philosophy

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