Santa’s Alter Ego by H.V. Grey (Jan/Feb 1998)

What would happen, I asked myself, if people carried a belief in Santa Claus into adulthood? They would think that there was this entity who knew whether they had been good or bad, and would reward or punish everybody accordingly. Oh, my God. . .
Oh, my God is right. That’s God, the Christian god, we’re talking about. All-knowing, all-powerful, administering an ultimate justice that compensates for the vagaries of chance (if not on earth, then at least in heaven). The adult might not be so naive as to believe in the infallibility of our criminal justice system, but Santa/God is reliable. “What goes around comes around,” the adult believer says, confident that both virtue and vice will eventually receive their just deserts.

I had been stymied by the question of “Where is the great harm to most people from their faulty religious beliefs?” What could I point to in the religious believer’s life and say, “Look it, that bad event is a direct consequence of your erroneous belief in religion?”

Then I realized the examples were all around me, as close as my immediate family. It’s just that we don’t usually blame them on religion. I have been doing some taped interviews with my 71-year-old stepmother to get down on paper her recollection of her early life growing up on a farm. (I didn’t make my father do it before he up and sneaky died on me; so I’m definitely going to make my mother and stepmother do it!)

It has become painfully obvious that completely unrealistic expectations set up by faulty religious beliefs were directly responsible for my stepmother’s producing five children in quick succession with a Catholic who subsequently abandoned her. She was left destitute to try to raise and support five small children, and, until she finally married my father, lived in devastating penury, unable to afford even a car. Sure enough, she said she had had an abiding belief in Santa Claus until she was seven or eight years old! (At which point the trust was simply transferred to “God”. . . ?) Even the turbulence of my mother’s 33-year-marriage to my father, which ended in divorce, was largely, I see now, due to preposterous notions of being under the wing of a protective god who would take special care of her if she was “good” and played by his rules.

My bewildered and embittered ex-sister-in-law, more than twelve years after her divorce, still does not realize that she was betrayed by her church. After all, she did everything she was “supposed” to do. She was a “good wife and mother.” She was “good.” So why were there stones and coal–and petitions for dissolution of marriage–in her stocking? How could God punish her by letting another woman chase after (and successfully land) her husband? (Of course, it should go without saying that she saw nothing wrong in teaching my niece to believe in Santa–and God, for that matter.)

I have a friend who was recently fired from her cushy, lucrative teaching position. She was terribly hurt by it, and ten months later, is still reeling from a crushing blow to her self-esteem. But she still bravely has confidence that there is a grand end purpose to it. The people who were mean to her will “get theirs” without her having to lift a finger, and because she was a “good little girl,” God will see to it that something good will come of it for her. She insists that the firing must be on the path to her reward: she just

hasn’t been able to figure out how yet. (Well, there was a “grand end purpose” to it all right: the School Board’s purpose–of eliminating the deadweight.)

As adults, we scoff (even those of us of the Christian persuasion) at the idea of a . . . kindly old man with a white beard (my childhood image of God) . . . who lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to all the good little children in the world singlehandedly in the space of one night. But apparently many of us do not scoff at the idea of a kindly old man with a white beard who omnisciently and singlehandedly rewards us for our good behavior and punishes us for our bad on a regular basis, day in and day out.

I read somewhere (probably in the pages of Freethought Today) that the Japanese, in their enthusiasm for adopting Western Christmas symbolism, committed a mixed metaphor: Santa nailed to a cross. I see now that it’s not as much of a faux pas as I had originally thought.

Valerie Grey is a Foundation member from Florida.

Freedom From Religion Foundation