Father Christmas: the Opium of the Children?

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Recently, a vicar at a Wiltshire church – Canon Simon Tatton-Brown, accidentally revealed to a group of schoolchildren that Father Christmas does not actually exist.[1] As you might expect, several of the children went home in tears and a couple of angry parents sent letters to the vicar in protest. One such furious parent remarked “We wouldn’t just walk into the church during one of his services and tell everyone there that Jesus isn’t real.”

What if they had done just that? (If you are not an atheist, pretend you are for the duration of this article).  Would it be all that bad? If we take the view, as many have, that religion is a dread evil in the world, then the smashing of such untrue beliefs (or the attempted smashing thereof) would be a good thing – as it would lead to a reduction in suffering.

And what if those beliefs are harmless? Is there any justification in destroying innocuous beliefs? In other words – is it any of my business if person X is away with the fairies? Arguably, the answer to the last two questions is “no”. In this instance, two commonly cherished principles – the preservation of liberty and the reduction of suffering do not come into contradiction. It seems as if, by attacking harmless delusions, we are restricting intellectual freedom, for nothing.

But surely truth must play some role in this debate. Education for its own sake would plummet into ancient history if it did not. For instance, if somebody told you that they believed the Earth was only 6,000 year old, and that they told this to their children, there would be nothing you could do to stop them –it is false, but ultimately harmless. Perhaps this is where we can draw the line – one may believe whatever they choose to believe, but one is not free to tell unjustified, untrue beliefs to those who are not yet equipped with the tools to distinguish fact from fiction; freedom of thought does not extend to indoctrination.

Returning back to old Saint Nick, it seems that we are simply not permitted to tell children that Father Christmas visits them every year. In fact, such a fable seems even worse than the young earth creationist example. In that example, at least the parents also believe the untrue belief; in the Father Christmas case, the parents are deliberately lying to their children about the nature of the world. Many parents go to great lengths to indulge in such fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated elaborate stories to his children (and later grand-children) every year. These featured various characters, including a talking polar-bear and goblins. These charming stories enriched the lives of Tolkien’s children, so it seems a little odd that we should want to rule such things impermissible.

There are examples in which deliberate untruths have even greater value to their recipient – comfort and consolation. Imagine a mother whose child died in the blitz. In order to continue her life with minimal woe, she consults a so called “psychic”, who translates ghostly messages from the deceased, satisfying the mother’s need for the child who died young. This is not merely a nice thing to do for one’s child, this fabrication potentially keeps a mother from living a life of melancholy (it does not matter in this example whether or not the “psychic” is a deliberate swindler or genuinely believes that they have mystical abilities, as some people do). I find that in these cases, while I would want to obliterate the illusion, I would be restrained by pity. This suggests, worryingly, that there may be things more important than the truth. What is even more disturbing is that this is not a small lie – my refusal to demolish the untrue belief would not result in the preservation of a negligible falsity (like whether a particular actor is 74 or 75 years old, or something equally unimportant).  I would be allowing a colossal worldview to persist – that there is an afterlife and one can communicate with those in it by paying “psychics” cold, hard cash.

I cannot give an adequate answer about what the right thing to do is in those situations – I can understand why one would take the hard-line route and simply tell the truth, but I can understand the urge to resist on the grounds of compassion. I do think, however, that I can give a reason for why it is morally acceptable to spread the myth of Father Christmas. It is because of the limited duration of the belief. Parents do not tell children about Father Christmas with the intent that they hold this belief for anything more than a small fraction of their lives. When we couple that with the relative happiness and cheer it can add to a childhood Christmas, then it does not seem quite the cry of the oppressed creature that one might argue. Canon Simon Tatton-Brown should be ashamed of what he said to those children, but perhaps he should be contemplating what he says to his own flock of church-goers this Christmas.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/dec/12/pupils-father-christmas-ruined-by-vicar-santa-claus-origins?CMP=fb_gu

Written by Gregory Pichorowycz.