A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

The Santa Claus analogy – too complicated for Alister McGrath

I have not yet read Christian apologist Alister McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion so I will defer discussion on that front until I have. My grief today with Dawkins’ biggest critic is over his misunderstanding of a simple analogy that he has made on more than one occasion.

This article was published on the Daily Mail website on the 9th February this year. Allow me to draw your attention to two running paragraphs:

For instance, Dawkins often compares belief in God to an infantile belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, saying it is something we should all outgrow. But the analogy is flawed. How many people do you know who started to believe in Santa Claus in adulthood?

Many people discover God decades after they have ceased believing in the Tooth Fairy. Dawkins, of course, would just respond that people such as this are senile or mad, but that is not logical argument. Dawkins can no more ‘prove’ the non-existence of God than anyone else can prove He does exist.”

Straw Man argument alert! McGrath has missed the point of this analogy by a country mile. Dawkins isn’t saying people should just “grow out of it”. He’s pointing out that there is no more evidence to support the existence of God than there is to support the existence of Santa Claus (or the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny etc). The idea of an adult believing in Santa Claus is an absurd notion, but that’s exactly the point. It’s easy to say, subjectively that for an adult to believe in Santa Claus is ridiculous but for the same adult to believe in God is just fine and dandy. What we feel is irrelevant. There is no more objective evidence for one than the other. At what point a child stops believing in Santa Claus or an adult begins to believe in God have absolutely nothing to do with anything. McGrath should congratulate himself for skillfully refuting an argument that neither Dawkins, nor anyone else actually made.

I wouldn’t mind, but this is not the first time McGrath has done this. Consider this extract from a lecture McGrath gave:

“This is a schoolboy argument that has accidentally found its way into a grown-up discussion. It is as amateurish as it is unconvincing. There is no serious empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was about six years old. After being an atheist for some years, I discovered God when I was eighteen, and have never regarded this as some kind of infantile regression. As I noticed while researching The Twilight of Atheism, a large number of people come to believe in God in later life – when they are `grown up’.”

How people categorize their beliefs is irrelevant. All that matters is the evidence which supports them, and both have none.

It is my intention to (begrudgingly, but for the greater good) purchase a copy of The Dawkins Delusion and post an article on it. I sincerely hope he has something of a higher standard than this garbage to offer in response to Dawkins’ masterpiece.

6 Responses to “The Santa Claus analogy – too complicated for Alister McGrath”

  1. Wouldn’t it make more sense for you to steal, rather than purchase, a copy of his book? Now that you’re an atheist, that’s what you are supposed to do, not having any morals or ethics. 🙂

    I read his piece over on the Dawkin’s site when it was posted, and I really don’t think McGrath ‘s interpretation is a misunderstanding. He’s a smart guy, he understands it. It’s a simple analogy, even a third grader can see the logic.

    Like many Christian apologists, I think it’s intentional obfuscation were seeing here. Christians are trained to believe anything, no matter how irrational. McGrath knows this, so all he has to do is say something that SOUNDS plausible, and his readers will go away nodding their heads, feeling like he slew another dragon. He knows that. He doesn’t need reason to convince, he only needs a good sound bite.

  2. John,

    Lol at your suggestion. Not a bad idea! It’s not that I begrudge paying the money, it’s more that I’ll appear as a sale against his name and he’ll think I support him. I wish there some way I could buy the book but have it not show up on his sales figures.

    I think you’re probably right about McGrath deliberately obfuscating. Even if he didn’t understand it at first, I’m sure lots of third graders have explained it to him since – he really has no excuse.

  3. Late to this one, but I’ll comment anyway. I think McGrath is missing the point entirely. He admits that he grew out of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and also God (as he was an atheist when he was younger), but then rationalises to himself that rediscovering God is not infantile regression without further explanation. The reason he can assert this is entirely down to the respect that society gives to religion and the god character, because the peddlers of this fiction never actually admit that it is indeed fiction. Parents abandon the pretense of Santa Claus as soon as the child questions it, but cling to the idea of god because it is frequently “reaffirmed” directly by the clergy, in which the latter has considerable investment.

    If society did not respect belief in God as it does not respect belief in Santa Claus, then I strongly suspect that McGrath would indeed feel infantile about his belief.

  4. Why do children believe in Santa? Obviously because their parents convince them that he is real. The parents know that Santa isn’t real when they tell their children that he is. So I’m willing to bet that parents wouldn’t put up much of a fight if someone tried to “force” them to denounce Santa in front of their children.

    Here is my point. Many of the Apostles suffered horrible conditions (imprisonment) and horrible, often painful deaths for, not a belief, but a “thing” that they saw first hand. I’m talking about the Resurrection. The Apostles were willing to endure great suffering and hardship for one reason; Christ had risen from the dead.

    If someone said to you “deny science or else I’ll skin you alive and let you die a slow agonizing death” would you have the courage or even care enough about science to suffer and die for it?

  5. McGrath has captured the analogy perfectly. The point that Dawkins is making is that, as you state in the above article, Santa Claus and the tooth fairy etc have the same amount of empirical evidence as God does (i.e. none at all).
    However what McGrath is correctly pointing out is that millions of people turn to theism when they are old enough to make rational, evidence-based decisions, whereas in the case of Santa Claus, the moment one is old enough to make rational, evidence-based decisions, they inevitably stop believing in him. How can you compare God and Santa when this evidence demands that they be categorized separately? In Dawkins’ opinion they are one and the same, that is they both do not exist, and yet the empirical evidence suggests that there is a fundamental difference. A 30 year old rational man will conclude that Santa does not exist, yet may well believe in God precisely because he makes rational, evidence-based decisions. This is McGrath’s point, which does indeed undermine Dawkins’ analogy. As to whether there is actually any evidence foe God or whether Theists are all in fact deluded, see the book recommended below

    For a significantly better response to The God Delusion see John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

    • “A 30 year old rational man will conclude that Santa does not exist, yet may well believe in God precisely because he makes rational, evidence-based decisions.”

      Just because some 30-year-old believes in god doesn’t necessarily mean that he has made a rational, evidence based decision. He may well be deluded for all we know, unless he can provide some empirical evidence to support his belief. As long as he can provide no such evidence that can be objectively verified, his belief is no more rational than a belief in Santa Claus.

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