So my 7 year old daughter admitted that she knows the Easter Bunny is truly just myself and my husband today. She has probably known for a while, and I’m sure she also knows about Santa as well. But I guess time will tell. Some atheists that I know are adamantly opposed to allowing their children to believe in fictional beings like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, comparing it to the myth of faith in a deity. If they aren’t going to perpetuate the belief and worship of a fictional being, why would they share any untruths with their kids as if they were part of reality?
I can understand that point of view, but I don’t think it’s quite as serious a crime as some atheist parents make it out to be. If you get right down to it, yes, it is a lie. All these fictional characters who bring surprises to children aren’t real, so should we ever pretend they are?
I remember as a child, when I was having particularly difficult times, I would talk to the moon. I even gave the moon a name. Did I literally believe the moon was a being that could hear what I was saying? Not necessarily. But I was so good at pretending (as most children are) that it didn’t matter whether or not I thought I was having a conversation with a real being. What mattered was that my feelings of comfort and peace from pretending that the moon would listen to me were real. Perhaps it was merely a defense mechanism I developed to escape pain and discomfort, but either way, I felt better after my talks with that celestial sphere. Even to this day, I look up fondly at the glow of the moon at night and those same feelings of peace come when I stop for a moment and ponder while I enjoy the night sky.
Mythical creatures of holidays and special events have that same connotation to me. They’re associated with surprise and delight. Once I figured out the truth of Santa Claus, the idea behind him still put a smile on my face. It was fun to help my parents as a little “elf” to surprise my younger siblings with gifts from Santa on Christmas morning, and I was able to whisper a hushed “thank you” to my parents for the gifts I knew were really from them. At school, I felt grown up once I was privy to the Santa myth, but I kept the secret close because I knew my friends, like my younger siblings, might still be enjoying their Christmas gifts in ignorant bliss of where they came from. I didn’t want to ruin that for them until they were ready to know too.
Everyone at school, and all my younger siblings, would eventually learn that Santa and the Easter Bunny were imaginary, though. I haven’t heard of anyone who has shunned their children for finding out the truth. It’s a bittersweet moment to find out your children are learning that some things are just for pretend. It’s a little sad to know my daughter is growing up so fast, but it was fun to see her moment of truth, telling me that she thought Easter baskets may have come from her parents and not a bunny. Because what kind of bunny could carry such heavy things anyway? And have you ever seen a bunny at a store buying candy? That’s how she explained it to me, and I replied by letting her know how smart she is. She was proud of herself for figuring it out, and I was happy she shared it with me.
Contrast that with the myths of religion. The concept isn’t something many people “grow out of”. Just like it doesn’t make sense for the Easter Bunny to be capable of such fantastic feats, the story of god doesn’t make much rational sense either as described in the gospels, or any other religion that claims to know of a creator/creators with supernatural abilities. Despite that, religious folk hold the concept of him/her/it above the rationality we use to figure out that Santa isn’t real. The concept of god and religion isn’t allowed logical scrutiny, and if we attempt logic on the subject, most often we’re shunned by other believers. It’s not something that everyone at school will eventually find out is a fallacy once their minds develop enough to not rely as heavily on make believe, or once a vocal classmate decides to spill the beans. To me, pretending there are mythical creatures bringing surprises to our children is akin to playing make believe in an intense battle with Lego figures, or pouring tea for Pooh Bear. It doesn’t matter that it isn’t real. Children’s minds need and crave imagination to foster their growth. People in religious organizations aren’t pretending. Or at least, you hope they’re not. That would be truly unfortunate.
Perhaps, just like make believe helps children cope with the harshness of reality, religion is a coping mechanism for many adults. In fact, I see it manifest just that way in many people who aren’t certain religion has many valid truth claims, but choose to remain anyway because it’s what they know. It’s what feels safe and comfortable. I’ve had to find other sources of peace and hope in hard times since leaving my former Mormon faith, and for me and many other atheists, I find that in science.
The issue is that religion is more than just a coping mechanism. It has been a vehicle for manipulation, greed, murder, and holding people emotionally hostage. It takes a lot of time and effort to be devout in a religion, which can account for hours and days each week, depending on how involved you are. As a Mormon, I was expected, as all Mormons are, to volunteer my time in some sort of capacity. Some of those responsibilities took me away from my job and my family much more often than was comfortable, but I did it anyway. Men who are called as bishops and stake presidents, and women who are called as relief society presidents often spend as much if not more time than a regular job in their positions in the Mormon church, all for no pay.
And what about the financial aspect of religion? Tithing and other monetary donations account for thousands of dollars each year from even the incomes of the lower middle class. Looking at how much money our family paid in tithing while we were struggling to pay bills just sickens me. Sure, some of that money is spent for legitimate charitable causes, but a good majority goes to perpetuating the religion itself.
Of all the time and money spent in a religion, what benefits do you really gain? Santa is trivial. The idea of Santa as reality eventually dies, and the effects are happy memories. The ideas that I was fed in my religion aren’t allowed to die, or even be examined. Sharing the truth that I’ve learned makes my family and friends weep for my damned soul. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, worked carefully to protect the intricate web of lies he fed, probably to the point of believing many of them himself.
Kids have been kicked out of their houses by their parents for saying they don’t believe. Spouses have lost their other half to divorce due to apostasy. Wounds that may never heal have developed over expressing disbelief in a being or beings that have just about as much evidence Santa Claus has for being part of reality. In some religions and locations in the world, people have been put to death for vocalizing doubt.
In my mind, you can’t even compare the Easter Bunny to the falsities inherent in religion. Playing make believe with children who need pretend play when they are young doesn’t equate to the damaging effects of religion, especially the cult-like ones that pull people so far out of reality that it effects every facet of their lives.