It’s full-on Christmas season at our house, which means, in the honor of the “spirit of Christmas,” we let our kids watch holiday movies before bedtime instead of family board games or devotionals or reading time or any of the productive things good parents actually do.
Now, try finding a Christmas movie for toddlers that isn’t completely over their head (“Elf,” “A Christmas Story”), trippy and psychedelic (“Rudolph”), inappropriate (“Bad Santa”), or completely terrifying (“Nightmare before Christmas”), and you end up with “The Grinch” and Charlie Brown. The kids are a bit bored by them at this point.
But the other day we ended up with Mickey Mouse’s “Once Upon a Christmas,” which was everything one could want in a toddler Christmas movie. One of the three shorts in the film centered on Goofy’s son, Max, and his growing disbelief in Santa Claus. Apparently Goofy believes in Santa but begins to doubt, which doesn’t make much sense to me because if he wasn’t giving Max gifts, and Santa wasn’t, then who was? The tooth fairy? Anyway, as you can guess, Santa Claus is legitimately real and everything is copacetic by the end.
Santa Is More of an Assistant than Centerpiece
The story didn’t make much of a ripple in our kids’ consciousness. We do Santa at our house, but we “do Santa” the same way we do Disney princesses or Mickey or what have you: We play along with the fiction, but don’t insist it is absolutely real.
We do jingle bells on Christmas Eve to coax the children to bed, we leave out milk and cookies, and we’ve already visited Santa’s house this year. But we also already have all our gifts wrapped under the tree, my kids know relatives and parents are considering things on the children’s wish lists, and the only gifts that come from Santa are nativity sets and religious books (because Santa is Jesus’s elf, dontcha know?).
By three years old, most children can tell fictional play from reality, and our daughter in most cases is no exception. It’s not that I have a problem with the magic of Christmas or that I fear a focus on Santa will take away from the meaning of the season (unlike these freaks) but more that I am waaay too lazy to get all hyped up about elves on the shelves and getting that perfect something under the tree just because Santa promised.
But I am continually surprised that for children who do believe in Santa that the Goofy Christmas movie and “Miracle on 34th Street” don’t give the game away. At a certain age, kids do start questioning the existence of Santa, but some children begin watching these movies before they even considered that Santa might not be real. Reaffirmation or not, isn’t even the introduction of doubt dangerous?
Confirmation Bias Reinforces Kids’ Beliefs in Santa
Much has been written about the phenomenon of confirmation bias, a form of cognitive bias in which one filters information based on one’s preconceptions. Therefore, you will actively not only seek out but remember and place greater importance on information that confirms a hypothesis or a belief of yours. (See: Duke lacrosse, UVA.)
We see confirmation bias the most with political polarization, although it is evidenced in anything controversial and debatable (such as parenting choices). With social media, this fuels an echo chamber with persuasive articles and visual memes.
Two years ago, I wrote about the balkanization of the Internet and how the data overwhelmingly show that users generally gravitate to like-minded communities. Those communities then have a radicalizing effect on the population. The first time I encountered this concept was during the mid-2000s, when there still was a self-selecting group of individuals who sought out politically polarized sites. But with the growth of Facebook among at the American population, I posit we’re seeing more radicalization as people defriend anyone who comes close to annoying or offending them based on their political views.
As I discussed on my blog, parenting-wise, you likely see less balkanization because one is more likely to encounter various parenting styles across social groups (unless you live in Berkeley and exclusively visit Mothering.com). Still, with any topic, what you see on Facebook are the various “facts” floating around as visual memes—charts, for instance, that educate you on correct parenting choices. I call them the “Did You Know?” charts, and they drive me crazy, even if they are advocating something with which I agree. Scientific evidence isn’t evidence when the readers doesn’t understand statistics, correlation, and confounding factors.
Of course, we see this in politics. Not only is evidence misrepresented—especially in explainer journalism—many times it is outright false. Politically, I am lucky my friend group on Facebook runs the gamut. There’s almost never a “fact” I see without it being countermanded by another “fact.” I have to keep an open mind, because I’m assaulted by out-of-mainstream views on both sides.
But in the same sense, I’m a bit unlucky, because I have an uncomfortable awareness of how no one is ever getting the full story. ‘Tis the paradox of choice. For all my kvetching about how we need to expand our Facebook friend horizons a bit more, particular subsets of confirmation bias indicate that when one’s mind is set, all the Vox articles in the world are not going to have you look at the universe in a different way. Belief perseverance, for example, highlights how misconceptions about public figures can persist even when discredited.
It’s Actually Stronger than Confirmation Bias
The backfire effect is even more fun, in which beliefs not only persist, but actually grow stronger in the face of contradictory evidence. This is most evident with strongly held beliefs. There is a fun irony in seeing all those who use this concept to reaffirm to themselves that “those others” (usually “Tea Partiers” and “right wing fundies”) are crazy. See: Paul Krugman. Or Donald Trump supporters.
So confirmation bias refers to how one cherry picks through information, and the backfire effect and belief perseverance refer to how ignoring contradictory information can make beliefs stronger. Using the Goofy and Santa analogy, confirmation bias is Goofy’s son Max believing Santa is real despite evidence to the contrary; the backfire effect would be a specific subset in which Max’s evil neighbor Pete says Santa isn’t real, but the fact that Pete is a dastardly devil makes it even more likely Santa is real and Pete is just stirring up trouble.
None of this, of course, is an exact science. For example, researchers have noticed a punishment effect that is inconsistent with belief perseverance if someone hears positive information about a public figure that is then discredited.
“In this case,” they write, “when trying to account for the effects of discredited positive information about a politician, people overestimate how much correction is needed and thus end up with a more negative opinion.” Also, neither quite explains this: Now that Max has been exposed to the idea that Santa may not be real, does he or does he not have any lingering doubts he never would have had without Pete’s interference?
The Power of Tested Faith
This sequence of events doesn’t eliminate doubt. One of the issues I’ve found in the research regarding confirmation bias and the backfire effect is how the concept of faith (as opposed to political statistics or scientific fact) doesn’t quite line up neatly with the dichotomy of “Here is what is true, believe this; here is what is false, and if you believe it you are a fool.”
We should not ask why there are no lingering doubts after the initial introduction of challenging information. Instead, we should ask why tests of faith often make faith stronger.
There is no room for faith in science. There is the unknown, but that is just what has not yet been proven or disproved. It is okay to be a scientist and doubt a theory, but the goal is to eliminate that doubt. However, doubt necessarily is a function of faith. With doubt, faith is just known as certainty. Faith—and this is important—faith is not the absence of doubt.
There are a lot of misconceptions about religion. Using Christianity as an easy example, nowhere in the Bible does it say what does not kill us makes us stronger. In fact, I believe that is Nietzsche. Nor does it say the Lord helps those who help themselves (Thank you, Aesop and Ben Franklin). And no, bad things are not part of God’s plan, and nowhere does it say God only gives us what we can handle.
Bad things happen, Christians believe, because the world is broken. God’s plan is allowing us the free will to make our choices. God’s plan is to make good out of the suffering.
So how do tests of faith make our faith stronger? They don’t, not directly. There are a few other ways to look at this. A strong faith, when it is tested, endures. Endurance creates maturity, so a faith may become more mature the more it is exercised. In another example, faith, which previously may have had the flavor of certainty, encounters doubt when tested. An exposure to trials or contradictory information allows the believer to learn to believe in the face of doubt, and to become comfortable with doubt—another form, perhaps, of mature faith.
Doubt Doesn’t Mean the Absence of Faith
This does not necessarily hold for everyone. Also, faith does not necessarily extend to all aspects of a religion. Someone—like myself, for example—may hold to faith in a higher power, but may not as passionately believe or defend the tenets of the actual confession of faith. One of the beautiful things about C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” is the shoulder shrug he performs regarding the thorny questions of salvation, evolution, and sexual morality.
The Bible gives many examples of doubt. This has bothered me in the past, the same way I assumed the Santa example would have bothered young children. If even the Bible, and even pastors, acknowledge doubt, does that mean there is a reason to doubt the existence of God?
The verse, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), however, highlights how professions of doubt in the Bible most often do not refer to an existential belief in God. Instead the doubt refers to truly believing God loves us, can save us, can heal the brokenness of this world.
One can even look at the physical and historical evidence supporting one’s faith of choice and intellectually believe without believing with one’s heart. In this way, truth about the spiritual world differs greatly from truth with regards to the physical world. Thus the crux of Christian faith can be summed up as: “Get out of the boat.”
It’s Good to Believe
Children’s faith in Santa Claus is analogous in some ways to Christian faith, but faith is not necessarily the same thing as existential belief. So why do they believe in the existence of Santa in the first place?
Children can actually be rather discerning regarding belief in fantastical, magical, fictional, and mythological characters. They look for physical evidence regarding claims, and therefore are less likely to believe in the existence of Harry Potter, who has no effect on their lives, versus the Tooth Fairy, who leaves money for them under their pillows. They weigh the credibility of authority figures in their lives by noting past truthfulness, familiarity to the child, and perceived expertise. In short, children are not as gullible as they may appear; they make judgments based on the limited information they have available to them.
It is, therefore, easy to understand why children believe in Santa Claus but not Harry Potter. But why do they believe in God, who has as little physically discernible effect on their lives as their favorite Disney princesses?
As Harvard Professor Paul Harris writes in “Trusting What We’re Told: How Children Learn from Others,” the very fact physical, confirm-able information is limited to children means they are less scientists, more anthropologists, and they rely on “testimony” from trusted adults.
In many cases, such as the existence of germs, they do have to defer to authority, but they still do not do so blindly. They “monitor the messenger,” says Harris, and they question the content of the information—not only with the ubiquitous toddler “Why” but also with detailed follow-up questions. But, most importantly, children defer to the dominant culture. If the dominant culture around them believes in God, then so do the children.
It is likely okay for a parent to give in to the dominant culture and allow a child to believe in Santa. There are legitimate reasons parents have for fearing the Santa Claus myth, chief among them the fear children will then judge God to be a myth as well. Apart from the sheer laziness I described earlier, I do also shy away from expending much energy on convincing my children of what is, in effect, a lie.
But child psychologists indicate there are few, if any, harmful effects to children who believe in Santa. In addition, there are good effects to a belief in Santa, especially if done right—from inculcating a culture of giving to emphasizing unconditional love.
Santa Claus Can Reinforce Love for Jesus
For those who are Christian, the Santa Claus myth does not have to detract from the story of Jesus but instead can emphasize it. In many cultures and religions, parables are a venerable part of teaching faith and values. A writer for Christianity Today highlights C.S. Lewis’s dedication of the Chronicles of Narnia to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield: “girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales …. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
C.S. Lewis later responded to a mother who was concerned her son loved the character of Aslan more than he did Jesus: “The things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before…”
Religion is blamed for all manner of social ills, injustices, and strife, but it also, as the American Psychological Association points out, “spar[es] us from existential angst while also supporting social organization.” This perhaps explains why some parents may not truly believe in God themselves, or may not believe all the aspects of their chosen religion, but choose regardless to instruct their children in a faith tradition.
Not believing, often, is much harder than believing. We often say people have a need to believe there is something larger than ourselves. Many, including myself, interpret that to mean we need the supernatural or spiritual, or that we need meaning in our lives.
So what do nonbelievers do? Many say they acknowledge their thirst. Whether it is a thirst for knowledge, a thirst for showing love, or a thirst for self-improvement, the key seems to be an acknowledgement that it is never done, that humans will never understand it all, or know it all, or be able to do it all.
Believing in Santa is awesome because he brings presents, but our fascination with him persists because we still can’t figure out how he visits millions of children in one night. The explorers on Star Trek may have made it out to the Milky Way’s Delta Quadrant, but there are other galaxies and inter-dimensional realities they cannot even yet imagine, and that fuels their continued passion.
The writer of Wait But Why?, an avowed atheist, talks about continued self-improvement as a “religion for the nonreligious,” but maintains that the step-four “Whoa” level of enlightenment will always be somewhat out of reach. In fact, realizing there is so much we will never understand is the key to his nonreligious religion—and perhaps the key to all aspects of human belief.