“Dying for Santa Claus” or “Intellectual Dishonesty” (I Dare You to Say it, Part 2)

(Please forgive the very long title.  Humorously it is balanced out by one of my shortest posts.)

I was reminded the other day of an incident that deeply affected our nation when I was in high school.  The incident was the Columbine shooting.  I was reminded of the incident when I heard a song that spoke of the incident.  The song is called “This is Your Time” by Michael W. Smith.  The song speaks about one of the victims in the shooting.  A young girl by the name of Rachel Joy Scott was the first victim of the Columbine shooting.  She was fatally shot after the shooter asked her if she believed in God and she answered, “You know I do.”

So this young girl, Rachel Joy Scott, was willing to die for her belief in God.  Now, I have heard many atheists compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

This is what I dare atheists to say to the parents of Rachel Joy Scott: “Because you let your little girl believe in God, you might as well have let your little girl die for believing in Santa Claus.”

I want you to seriously think about doing that.  Imagine yourself walking up to the parents of this girl who died for her faith and with a straight face say that to them.  Are you not already blushing at your indignity if you were to say that?  Do you not know that is in essence what you are doing when you make the unsophisticated claim that believing in God is the same as believing in Santa Claus?  Sure it is easy to say it through your computer screen, but it is a whole other thing when you are face-to-face with some one.

I am sure you can imagine blushing in embarrassment after telling the parents of Rachel Joy Scott that her daughter died because she refused to admit that Santa Claus was not real.  Preparing for the moment that you would actually walk up to them and say that, I am sure you would start thinking better about your words and realize that what you were planning on saying probably does not hold the intellectual weight you thought it did.

If you are realizing that telling Rachel Joy Scott’s parents that her daughter basically died for her belief in Santa Claus is not a very accurate thing to say, then please stop popularizing the unsophisticated claim that belief in God is akin to believing in Santa.  But go beyond just quitting that claim.  I challenge you to correct your fellow atheists (including Mr. Dawkins, Harris, and other popular writers) when they make the claim.

Unsophisticated claim and intellectual dishonesty

Many have written on why the claim that believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus is unsophisticated.  Since so many authors have written on that, I will not go into all those reasons here.  If you would like to read a short article about that, you can do so here.

However, I do want to explain another phrase: intellectual dishonesty or intellectual deceitfulness.  I have been using this phrase a lot lately when describing arguments or statements that are known to be unsubstantial but are still employed.  A second definition I would give to intellectual dishonesty would be arguments or statements that are clearly not critically investigated before they are used.  The Santa Claus argument against God fits these two definitions quite well.

Yet a third definition for intellectual dishonesty or deceitfulness is redefining terms to fit one’s preference instead of using the terms for their intended meaning.  An example of this third definition would be calling one’s self an atheist Christian.  Those terms are incompatible.  Since Christianity has as one of its foundations the belief in a Deity, it is intellectually deceiving to try to merge atheism and Christianity.  (I suggest a new title be given to someone who wants to claim the title of atheist Christian: post-Christian atheist.  If someone who never was a Christian likes the title atheist Christian because they like many of the teachings of Christianity but is an atheist, then they ought to just call themselves humanist, because that is basically what humanism is and humanism is a much more accurate description than atheist Christian).

All one has to do is just begin to critically investigate the claim that belief in God is equal to belief in Santa Claus, and one will quickly come to the realization that it is a very poor argument.  Yet multiple popular atheist authors and bloggers continue to use the argument.  I believe they are committing intellectual dishonesty or deceitfulness when doing so.  They know better, but still lay claim to the argument.

As long as there are intellectually dishonest or deceitful arguments being thrown around, we will never be able to understand each other.  For that reason I plead for all of us to realize when we are using intellectually dishonest or deceitful arguments or statements and to drop them.

Unfortunately I have seen Christians use intellectually dishonest or deceitful arguments as well.  I am calling for all Christians to critically investigate their truth claims before they stand behind them and to recognize when you are taking a “cheap shot” form of argumentation (using an unsubstantial claim) and to rid that from your debate style.

Conclusion

If you truly believe that belief in God is equal to believing in Santa Claus, then I dare you to tell the Scotts what you think of their daughter’s confession.  If you realize that they are not equal, then I challenge you to correct the mistaken claim.  It is intellectually dishonest or deceitful to use an argument or statement that is either known to be unsubstantial, not critically investigated, or a redefines terms to fit one’s preference.

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5 comments

  1. Hi, Curtis

    One of the many aspects I’m enjoying in the C.S. Lewis book I’m reading on your recommendation is Lewis’s use of metaphor. It’s an especially useful tool when discussing topics that are beyond normal human experience. The problem I’ve found with metaphor is that every metaphor eventually reaches a breakpoint because nothing can be exactly like anything else. If the metaphor is useful before it breaks, it can still be very effective in advancing our understanding. But once it breaks, it can seem to make no sense at all. Another problem is that different people might have innately different breakpoints with the same metaphor, based on their personal experience, especially if that metaphor compares something familiar and tangible with something unfamiliar or supernatural.

    The Santa Claus metaphor you’re writing about seems to be one of those tools that some people can use to advance their understanding while seeming nonsensical to others. I don’t think it has anything to do with folks on either side being intellectually dishonest or intellectually deceitful. If anything, it’s an intellectual disconnect between viewpoints that can’t be reconciled with each other.

    At the end of the day, maybe these failed metaphors can be the key to mutual understanding if we can objectively chart where and why they break for different people.

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    • Greg,

      Thank you for commenting. I completely agree with you that metaphor has its strengths and weaknesses. I agree that all metaphors eventually break down if taken beyond their intended purpose.

      However, the atheist writers such as Dawkins and Harris who popularize the Santa Claus imagery are not trying to draw metaphors, but comparisons. Comparisons and metaphors are not the same thing. Also, if a metaphor is shown to be so incredibly weak that it should not ever be used in the first place, then even if one wants to just call it a metaphor, it is still intellectually dishonest to still use a very weak metaphor as a point of argumentation.

      I agree with you that we need to try to understand each other’s metaphors and not extend them beyond what their intended purpose, but we should also be intellectually honest and admit a bad metaphor when we use one. Many atheists still bring up belief in Santa Claus even though it is known to be a very poor point of argumentation.

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  2. I think you’ve missed my point about the nature of metaphor, its utility as a tool for understanding, and the effect it has on discourse when a metaphor breaks down in different places for different people. Whether you consider it weak or strong will often (but not always) be a judgment call.

    Most people on both sides of an ideological divide will collect up the metaphors that speak to them as true, dismiss the ones that don’t as false, accuse the other side of being dishonest, and declare themselves to be on the winning side. But there can be no useful discussion or analysis between two self-declared “winning sides.”.

    For me, this is key to understanding the arguments of both Dawkins and Lewis, as well as everyone in between. I say this as someone who is neither an atheist nor a Christian, and also not out to convince anyone of a specific viewpoint, but just trying to find my own spiritual path.

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    • I believe I understood what you were saying, but I could be mistaken. My point was that I do not think even the atheists I am talking about would claim that they are using metaphor. I believe they would say they are giving more of an analogy rather than a metaphor. Instead of saying that these certain atheists “are not trying to draw metaphors, but comparisons.”, I should have said they “are not trying to draw metaphors (non-literal comparisons), but analogies (literal comparisons).

      I took the following two paragraphs from a website to help explain what I was saying:

      “When someone [uses the metaphor] ‘He’s become a shell of a man,’ we know not to take this literally, even though it’s stated directly as if this person had actually lost his internal substance.

      Rather than a figure of speech, an analogy is more of a logical argument. The presenter of an analogy will often demonstrate how two things are alike by pointing out shared characteristics, with the goal of showing that if two things are similar in some ways, they are similar in other ways as well.”

      When certain atheists say “Believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus”, they do not say this in a non-literal sense, but in a literal sense. They are literally saying that they are both imaginary. Hopefully this better explains my poorly explained thought above.

      I respect that you are willing to research multiple viewpoints.

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      • Thanks, Curtis. I tend to lump metaphor, simile, comparison, and analogy together as complementary tools that can all be used to make what is often the same point. You can say that life is like a box of chocolates, or talk about your chocolate-box of a life, or say that experiencing the random events of life can feel like picking one random item after another from a box of assorted chocolates. For me, the argument is more important than the format.

        Since I have no training in formal logic, I can only say whether a given argument resonates with me and why or why not, expecting that other people will feel differently.

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