The Santa Delusion: Why "Religion Is Useful" Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

“But religion is useful. It makes people happy. It comforts people in hard times. It makes people better-behaved. And losing religious faith can be traumatic. So what difference does it make if it isn’t true? Shouldn’t we be perpetuating it anyway — or at least leaving it alone? Why do you want to persuade people out of it?”

Atheists hear this a lot. The argument from utility — the defense of religion, not because it’s true, but because it’s psychologically or socially useful — is freakishly common. If you spend any time reading debates in atheist blogs or forums, you’re bound to see it come up.

Now, when atheists hear this “But religion is so useful!” argument, our most common response is to say, “Is not!” We eagerly point out that countries with high rates of atheism are also countries with high rates of happiness, ethics, and social functioning. (This doesn’t prove that atheism causes high social functioning, of course — in fact, it’s probably the other way around — but it does show that high social functioning doesn’t need religion.) We’ll point out the many, many examples of religious believers who cheat, steal, murder, and generally behave very badly indeed… entirely undercutting the notion that religion provides an unshakable foundation for good moral behavior. And we’ll point to ourselves, and to other atheists we know — people who clearly don’t need religion, who are living happy, ethical lives without religion, who in some cases are even happier and better without religion — as the most obvious counter-arguments we can think of to this argument.

These are all fair points. I’ve made them myself, many times, and I will no doubt make them again. But there’s a basic problem with all these wonderful fair points.

They make the argument from utility seem valid.

And I don’t want to do that. I think the argument from utility is absurd on the face of it. I think the entire idea of deciding what we think is true based on what we want to be true is laughable. Or it would be, if it weren’t so appalling. I’ve seen this argument advanced many, many times… and it still shocks me to see otherwise intelligent, thoughtful adults making it. It is preposterous.

So today, I want to dismantle the entire premise of the argument from utility. I want to dismantle the entire premise that it’s reasonable, and even a positive good, to believe in something you have no good reason to think is true… simply because it makes you happy.

The Santa Delusion

Let’s draw an analogy. Let’s look at another dearly treasured, deeply held belief about how the world works.

Santa claus
Let’s look at Santa Claus.

Millions of children are made very happy by their belief in Santa. They have fun imagining the presents he’s going to bring them. They like visiting him in the department store. They enjoy hearing stories about him, singing songs about him, drawing pictures of him. They get a thrill from putting cookies and cocoa out for him by the fireplace (or the gas heater, or whatever), and seeing them gone the next day. They get more and more excited as Christmas gets closer and the day of his visitation approaches.

What’s more, millions of children probably behave better because they believe in Santa. The desire for really great presents, the fear of getting coal in their stockings instead of presents… this has almost certainly made many children behave better. It’s probably resulted in thousands of cleaned rooms, thousands of finished homework assignments, thousands of un-punched siblings. At least during the month of December.

And millions of children get upset when they discover that Santa isn’t real. Letting go of Santa can be a distressing experience, one that people remember well into adulthood. (This isn’t universally true — I was actually excited to discover that Santa wasn’t real, since I figured it out on my own and it made me feel clever and grown-up to have outwitted the grown-ups — but it’s certainly not uncommon.)

Would you therefore argue that we ought to believe in Santa?

Giant santa claus in lights
Would you argue that, because belief in Santa makes children happy and better-behaved, we therefore ought to perpetuate it? Would you argue that, because relinquishing that belief can be upsetting, we ought to go to great lengths to protect children from discovering that Santa isn’t real… not only during their childhood, but throughout their adult lives? Would you attend Churches and Temples of Santa, and leave cookies and cocoa on their red-and-white-plush altars? Would you pity people who don’t believe in Santa as being joyless and imprisoned in rationality… and would you chastise these a-Santa-ists as intolerant, bigoted proselytizers when they tried to persuade others that Santa isn’t real?

Or would you, instead, think that people ought to grow up? Would you think that letting go of the belief in Santa (for those who grew up believing) is an essential part of becoming an adult? Would you think that we need to understand reality, so we know how to behave in it? Would you think that, in order to make good decisions and function effectively in the world, we need to have the most truthful understanding of it that we can muster… and that if the best evidence suggests that Santa isn’t real, we ought to accept that conclusion? Would you look at this idea that it’s okay to decide what’s true about the world based on what we want to be true, and call it preposterous, laughable, appalling, absurd on the face of it?

And if you wouldn’t argue that belief in Santa is valid simply because it’s useful… why would you argue it about God?

Merry Old Santa Thomas Nast
Now. You might say that belief in God makes more sense than belief in Santa. You might say that, while we know Santa is a fictional character, the existence of God is, at the very least, an open question… and that therefore, belief in God is more defensible than belief in Santa.

But then you’re back to arguing that God is real. Or at least plausible. You’ve abandoned the argument from utility (which you should, it’s a terrible argument), and you’ve circled back around to debating whether God really exists, and whether good evidence supports that hypothesis.

And the whole freaking point of the argument from utility is that it abandons the case for God being real. The whole point is that it doesn’t matter whether God is real… as long as belief in God makes people happy. So you don’t get to shore up that argument by saying that God might be real after all. Not unless you’re willing to make a pretty convincing case for God being real.

And if you had a convincing case for God being real… why on Earth would you be arguing that it doesn’t matter whether he’s real, as long as belief in him makes people happy? If you can make a better case for God than you can for Santa… then why aren’t you making it? Why are you falling back on this patently absurd notion that grown-ups should believe whatever makes them feel good, regardless of whether that belief has any connection with reality?

The Argument That Eats Itself

Whenever I hear the argument from utility, I pretty much consider it a victory for my side. It’s an entirely self-defeating argument, an argument that admits that it’s wrong in the very stating of it. When people start arguing for the utility of their beliefs regardless of whether they’re actually true, they’ve essentially conceded. They’re essentially saying, “You’re right. The things I believe almost certainly aren’t true. I certainly can’t make a good case for why they’re true. Now will you leave me alone and let me believe them anyway?”

Well, if you want to believe things that you know almost certainly aren’t true, you’re certainly free to do that. I’m not sure what definition of the word “believe” you’re using there… but sure. If for you, “believing” in God means “telling yourself over and over that God exists in hopes that you can make yourself really think it”… then knock yourself out.

But if that’s what you think, then why are you bothering to argue with atheists? If you really just believe things because you want them to be true, why do you care what anyone else thinks about it?

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here. I’m going to assume that you’re debating atheists because you want to test your beliefs against the people who will question them the hardest. I’m going to assume that you do, in fact, care whether the things you believe are true.

Cat hanging from tree
And I’m going to show the argument from utility for what it is: a last-ditch effort to hang onto a belief that you know isn’t supportable, but that you’re having a hard time letting go of. I know that religion is hard to let go of: I know that people have emotional attachments, psychological attachments, social attachments, to believing in God, and/or the soul, and/or the supernatural, and/or the afterlife. I’ve been there. I get it.

So I’m going to do you the respect of treating you like an adult. I’m going to do you the respect of assuming that you’re mature enough to face realities that, at first, are hard to face. And I’m going to do you the respect of being straight with you: If you’re making the argument from utility, if you’re arguing in favor of wishful thinking, you’re not living up to your maturity.

I will tell you here that life without religion can be really good. I’ll tell you that life without religion can be liberating, that it can give you an intense and profound sense of connection with humanity and the universe. I’ll tell you that atheists have meaning in our lives, and joy, and comfort in the face of hard times, and solace in the face of death, and a passion to do right. I’ll tell you that atheism can be a safe place to land, and that, as the atheist community grows bigger and stronger, it’s getting safer every day. I’ll tell you that most former believers I know are tickled pink to have let go of their beliefs.

I’m entirely sincere about all of that. But it’s not the most important thing. The most important thing about atheism is that it’s almost certainly true.

And if you’re defending religion because it’s useful, regardless of whether it’s true… then on some level, you know that.

Come on in. The water’s fine.

(Note: The core analogy here about Santa was swiped from Red Neck, Blue Collar, Atheist by Hank Fox. I’m an ethical atheist, and believe in giving credit where credit is due.)

The Santa Delusion: Why "Religion Is Useful" Is a Terrible Argument For Religion
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15 thoughts on “The Santa Delusion: Why "Religion Is Useful" Is a Terrible Argument For Religion

  1. 1

    In all movies involving Santa Claus, it’s the a-Santa-ists that are seen as the bad guys. Many times, these people are pressured into a belief in Santa through many of the same arguments that religion uses, especially this one.

  2. 2

    You’re slightly misaiming your criticism here. Most of those making this argument are non-believers who generally consider it a non-issue whether religion is true. This does indeed point to another problem: religion is made into an instrument for controlling the masses, and something the elite can do without. Indeed these same people usually accept that atheists are those to whom it is no longer useful; which makes the whole argument one of status quo (“people should believe, except for the ones who don’t”).
    (Theists don’t make this argument, they do a slightly different one: The fact that religion is useful shows it is true. Which works fine up until someone gets some evidence.)
    But nonetheless, it is true that just as Europeans started to leave religion many embraced the new dogmas of Communism and Nazism, which were just as much about putting ideas above lives, while embracing new technology and not anchored by tradition. Hopefully other areas of the world will not go through this phase.

  3. 3

    I vividly remember the day my mother sat me down and told me that Santa Clause didn’t exist. It may seem silly, but I think it completely changed the way I viewed my mother.
    I was 10 years old when my mother finally told me he didn’t exist. From what I gather from friends and family,this is a pretty late age to believe in Santa Clause. I had very very strong suspicions for years that he didn’t exist, but why would my mother lie? My mother whom I thought was infallible and would always tell me the truth and show me what is right. Now she is telling me she had lied right to my face for many years. It was the first step in growing up and the first time I ever thought my parents may not be perfect. I was very upset, I cried, I was made fun of by my siblings and cousins for “not knowing”. They were mistaking my tears for the loss of Santa, what I was actually upset about is the person I trusted the most making me look like a fool.
    Lying to your children should never be viewed as a good thing and I don’t intend on lying to my children about any fictitious characters.

  4. 4

    It’s funny. My family did the santa-thing when I grew up, as I now see my brother do with his kids (I have no kids of my own), but myself I have no memories whatsoever of believing in Santa, or of finding out it wasn’t true.
    Either I must have stopped believing extremely early, or, which is more likely, I didn’t care and the whole thing must have made such little impression on me that I simply forgot it rather soon.
    Besides, it was always pretty clear it was my aunt’s good for nothing husband who was “Santa”, we kids could see that from the way he always passed out drunk on the couch after passing out the presents, the beard slipping off 🙂
    Thinking more about it… It could be that differences in culture plays a role here?? As I understand it, in countries like the USA kids never really see Santa leaving the presents? He is said to come down the chimney during the night, and you leave cookies and milk for him, and such things?
    In Sweden it is much more common that a member of the family (usually the father) or another relative, or close friend of the family dress out like Santa and comes into the home with a big sack to deliver the presents directly to the kids. The cheap Santa suits often used, bought at the closest supermarkets, are atrociously bad 🙂 and it’s often pretty easy to guess for the kids who’s behind the false beard, even if he tries to speak in an old man’s voice, and things like that.
    Maybe it simply makes it easier to figure it out earlier that way?

  5. 5

    Another funny thing, which might be a bit about cultural differences as well, is that in Sweden Santa is really a mix of the classic Coca Cola Santa and an older Scandinavian folklore leprechaun-like being. Which means that if you ask enough adult Swedes if they believe in ‘Tomten’ (the Swedish word for Santa) you will find a few who will, in all seriousness, answer ‘yes’ to that question!

  6. 6

    I see this same attitude sometimes in discussions about alt-med practices like Reiki, homeopathy or acupuncture (indeed alt-med and religious superstition meld in the form of faith-healing). People sometimes argue that it doesn’t matter whether the treatment actually does anything. If the patient thinks it does and feels better (or at least thinks they feel better) then why pop their bubble?
    I have to admit that for years I was one of those people who thought I don’t believe or need religion but I’m glad it’s there for the folks who do. I now realize what a condescending and dangerous attitude this is. Purveyors of snake-oil and god pushers both benefit from the millions-of-satisfied-customers ploy.

  7. 7

    Belief in Santa IS a religion, one designed for children. Sort of faith-with-training-wheels, that prepares kids for the magical thinking they will be expected to practice as adults. Rewards for being “good” (good presents at Christmas are replaced by promises of eternal rewards in the afterlife) and punishments for being “naughty” (lumps coal in one’s stocking are replaced by eternal damnation in Hell). When the children are deemed old enough, Christian parents are supposed to let their offspring in on the secret, and transition them to the mature version of the faith.
    When my daughter Erica was nine, I used the opportunity to initiate a discussion about atheism instead. She was an amazingly smart kid, and had pretty much figured out the whole Santa thing on her own, but was happy to have her suspicions confirmed, and agreed not to spoil it for her younger sister Jessica. She understood that it was OK to maintain the magic for another year or two for Jessica, since it would only make her unhappy to reveal the truth to her before she was ready. Besides, it gave Jessica a reason to try to be good, at least later in the year.
    Religions are kind of like that, I explained. Some people, in fact most people, like to believe in a grownup version of Santa, called God, for their whole lives, because it makes them feel better, and they think helps them to be better people.
    There’s nothing wrong with this by itself, I assured her, it’s just that I don’t believe in God myself, and I think you can be a good person without expecting to be rewarded, or being threatened with punishment. The problem comes when people use their beliefs to judge others, rather than just to give meaning and comfort in their own lives. That is why you must never tell someone that what they believe is wrong,even if you don’t agree with it. And if anyone ever tells you that what you believe (or disbelieve) is wrong, or “sinful” or “evil”, she should just ignore them, and make up her own mind.
    So sharp she was–really an amazing kid. She got it. She understood, and took it all in stride. She had a naturally inquisitive mind, and often asked insightful questions about religions and atheism. If I ever could have believed in a loving God (and I don’t think I could have–I’ve been an atheist since I was about that age myself), I would certainly have lost that capacity once and for all when Erica was killed in a car accident less than a year later.

  8. 8

    The religion of “Santa-ism” has all the features of a “grownup” religion, so its adherents will be well prepared upon graduation.
    Besides rewards and punishments, we have the deity, Santa Claus himself (who, with his long white beard, even resembles your standard, Charleton Heston image, though admittedly jollier); his saints or demigods with magical powers (the elves);and lesser, but still supernatural minions (reindeer). There are also ritual observations, (letters and visits, wherein the supplicant assures Santa he has been “good” and enumerates specific wishes for his reward) and sacrificial offerings (cookies and milk left by the tree, and carrots for the reindeer).
    Santa also has the supernatural ability to travel the world in a single night, carrying the equivalent of an aircraft carrier battle group in tonnage,and distributing it to all his faithful followers almost simultaneously.
    Santa has all the features of a deity except creation (his own origin myth is itself a bit sketchy): He is all-knowing (“He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake” I have to admit I found this aspect of the dogma pretty creepy, even as a kid), and his judgement is absolute and irrevocable. Only “nice” children are rewarded, and Santa knows which ones they are because, hey, he’s Santa.
    Every believer also knows that the one sure-fire way to be crossed off the Nice List–forever!–is to doubt his existence. Most kids know, or at least suspect, deep down, that the whole thing may be a fake, but they also know that if they dare to voice their doubts, there will be no more extra gifts under tree from Santa. So they keep up the pretense for as long as they can, to keep the XMas gravy train rolling. Sort of a Pascal’s wager, Junior.

  9. 9

    That is why you must never tell someone that what they believe is wrong,even if you don’t agree with it.

    Steerpike, I hope you’re planning to explain later that it actually is okay to tell someone that their beliefs are wrong, provided that you do so in a civil way, and only at times when it’s socially appropriate to get into arguments.

  10. 10

    I thought about that wording after posting, and if I could, I would edit my comment to read “…you must never tell someone that they are wrong to believe as they do.” I’m not sure which exact wording I used at the time (our conversation was about 4 years ago), but I think the distinction is important, and it was one she understood.
    I remember another talk we had about the subject sometime later. She asked me if I would be mad if she decided to join a church someday. I reassured her that I would love her no matter what, and wouldn’t mind if she decided to embrace religious faith, as long as she didn’t try to make me join too.
    “But always remember,” I told her. “If you decide to go to your friend Theresa’s Catholic church, for example, then you will have to believe that the things they teach Rebecca at her Mormon church are wrong. There are a lot of things that Catholics believe that are completely different than what Mormons believe; they might both be wrong, but they can’t both be true. If you decide to join one or the other, then you would have to believe that what other people believed is wrong. By being an atheist, you don’t have to believe that either of them are ‘wrong’; you simply decide that you don’t any reason to believe either one of them.”

  11. 11

    Whenever someone uses the utility argument for religion to me, I tell them I reject its validity. Serial murderers feel good about killing people, so the whole “it makes people feel good” is a non sequitur. Eating liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti can make people feel good.

  12. Jim

    I have been told by an atheist friend that it is actually cruel to argue the existence of god with others, because messing with their sense of security is mean and I won’t change their minds anyway. My friend’s second point was that I have no more evidence for the non-existence of God then a religious person has for God’s existence so I have no basis for being confrontational (never mind we never properly defined what “God” was…God to some religious people I know is so fuzzily defined it is totally useless). All and all an extremely maddening conversation.

  13. 14

    I got in HUUUUGE trouble as a kid for taking it upon myself (I was around 10 or so, I think) to let my younger sister in on the fact that Santa was a big, fat, lie, and that I had SEEN all the stuff that wound up in our stockings in a (poorly hidden) box in the basement.
    That didn’t go over so well.
    I wound up spreading “reindeer food” (read: oatmeal and glitter) over our front lawn on Christmas Eve for the next 5 years while my younger brother watched me from the front window, eyes rolling in his head with glee.
    What a waste of perfectly good oatmeal! And glitter!
    (Great post, btw.)

  14. 15

    During Christmas season, part of me wants to stand with the street preachers haranguing passers by about the Krampus and Schiachperta who will beat and disembowel sinners who don’t leave food out for Santa’s reindeer

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