Looking back, it is clear I was a fairly gullible person during my childhood years.
As I have told you in the past, it wasn’t until the age of seven when I first started to doubt my religious beliefs. Yet gullibility strode onwards.
One of the very first adult books I got to read was Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, a book which raises the speculation that our gods are in fact aliens from outer space. The author doesn’t only raise the speculation, he also provides “proof” in support of his claim. Thing is, at the time I fell for it; as in, I didn’t know how to discern good proof from baloney, and for a while I really did think that von Däniken’s suggestion might have something going for it other than him trying to make loads of money out of credulous people. As it turned out, the physical location of a single book at my school library, plus a sexy title, both serving to attract my attention, may have had a profound effect on my way of thinking.
A year or so later I got my uncle to buy me a book called UFO Report (freely translated from its Hebrew title). The book took it for granted that the occasionally reported UFOs are, in fact, aliens from outer space – a conjecture that is far from trivial when you think about it. Again, the book provided “proof” for its claims, and again I fell for it. For a while I took it for granted that we are being visited by aliens.
Now, you may argue that no harm befell on me due to my gullibility. You’d be right, if you dismiss the time I have been kept away from pursuing more meaningful ways to spend my time. Yet that would dismiss the danger of me falling for those silly speculations, which could have easily been the case if it wasn’t for me also reading the likes of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (Sagan’s Broca’s Brain was perhaps the single most influential book I have ever read). If it wasn’t for my scientifically oriented saviors I could have easily become a weirdo.
Taken to further extremes, gullibility can kill you. Take cigarettes, for example: if you’re gullible enough to fall for the tobacco industry’s advertising, you may as well form an opinion that real men smoke. I did, for a while, especially under the influence of all my motorcycle racing heroes (yet I was wise enough to accept that it’s better to be healthy than to be a damaged real man). However, people around us fall for this by the billion, and as a result millions of people are getting killed unnecessarily each year.
Gullibility is therefore an unwanted attribute.
This brings me to the case of Santa Claus (aka Father Christmas in the venues of the English side of family).
As an outspoken agnostic/atheist (it all depends on the way you define the terms), I am often asked for my opinion on Christmas. In particular I am asked whether I would want my child to celebrate Christmas. My answer is a definitive yes, but I do have my reservations.
It’s yes because it’s nice to celebrate. It’s yes because, let’s face it, the way Christmas is celebrated today has nothing to do with the religious aspects it’s supposed to portray; Christmas, for me, is a holiday where families gather and show signs of appreciation and love to one another. These are all very positive things which we don’t do enough of during the rest of the year. Besides, Christmas was never meant to be a religious holiday: Christianity hitchhiked on the holiday in order to promote its agendas, but as a non Christian I and most of the people around me that do call themselves Christians kick them freeloaders away pretty easily.
Yet as I have said, I do have my reservations about Christmas. One of them is to do with the way Christmas is promoted and the way it has become a consumerists’ fest, causing all the good stuff behind the holiday to be discarded. My other main argument is with Santa.
Santa, as even the most religious of people would admit, doesn’t exist. Santa is a figment of the imagination. Santa does not come to give anyone gifts, it’s the parents that usually do so. So what is the point of inventing this Santa character in the first place?
Obviously, the initial reason for inventing the character was to do with religion. I am under the assumption the unquestioned belief in Santa was used to later establish the unquestioned belief in god. However, the Santa we know seems to have too much to do with Coca Cola advertising; today, most of the people celebrating the Santa story do so purely because of Coke established tradition and because everyone else around them does so, with the original religious reason mostly forgotten.
There is, however, an obvious problem with this tradition that so many of us follow blindly. The problem is that children’s unquestioned, credulous, belief in Santa conditions them for further gullibility later. One that has been trained to accept bullshit, no matter how nicely articulated, will continue being susceptible to bullshit later on in life. Santa, in effect, becomes gullibility’s stronghold in kids’ brains. And as I have already explained, I don’t like gullibility; gullibility can kill you.
What I do like is critical thinking, which comes bundled with a healthy dose of skepticism. I would argue, and there’s a body of research to support my claims, that one of the best things you can do to your child is to develop their critical analysis skills. That is, endow them with the ability to weigh different options based on available evidence in order to make their minds up, as well as endow them with the passion to search for such evidence. As far as education is concerned, my view is that this endowment is by far the best gift you can give your child and will serve them throughout their lives. Due to the ease with which young minds can be molded and the brain’s nature to accept the first input it receives as the truth, critical thinking is best taught at the earlier stages of life, the very stages in which Santa tends to be introduced. Due to the way children learn, it is probably the best and the easiest to teach them critical thinking through example.
Historically, critical thinking has been severely repressed. During the 15th century, for example, people were pursued and killed by the church for wanting to publish an English version of the bible; the church didn’t want people to have access to the bible because then they would start asking questions about what they read, and who knows where that may lead to? This day and age, though, there is no reason for our attitudes to be shaped by such fears.
My point is simple. Kids should not be trained to be gullible, no mater how nice and warm the fictitious story we feed them feels; instead, kids should be trained to critically analyze the world around them. Doing so, they will find a world that is much more interesting and imaginative than the world offered by Santa, even if it does take a bit more of an effort to expose that world. For a start, they will find a world where their loving parents bought them some nice gifts for Christmas.