Angry at Santa Claus

At some point in every child’s life, he or she learns the jarring truth that, in fact, there really is no Santa Claus. However they come to that conclusion, children eventually accept that their earlier infatuation with the bearded fat man bearing gifts was nothing more than childish mythology.

That adjustment in worldview, however, is rarely traumatic. Children may be momentarily thrown off by the revelation, but soon they shrug it off and move on with their lives. One thing they do not do is harbor a perpetual, deep-seated anger at Santa. I have never encountered an adult who, years after learning that Santa is not real, continues to rail against this mythological character who so shattered the idyllic world of their childhood by, well, not existing in the first place.

Expressing it another way, it’s impossible for a normal, rational human to be angry at someone who does not exist.

Which raises an interesting question: Why are so many atheists angry at God? Not just angry, but blindingly, viscerally,  morbidly hostile toward him. If God really doesn’t exist, why the emotional outrage at the very idea?

Others have noted this phenomenon as well. Laura Keynes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin, recently converted from agnosticism to Catholicism. One of the factors that contributed to her change of heart was the irrational emotionalism of many atheists. She explained in a recent article by James Kelly in the National Catholic Register,

One of the things that made me wary of ‘new atheism’ was the strange mix of angry emotion I encountered there: anger at the thought of God; anger at any restrictions on behavior; anger at thwarted will; pride in the exertion of will; pride in feeling intellectually superior; contempt for anyone who reveals human vulnerability in asking for the grace of God. It’s important to remember that where there’s anger, there’s often pain. I see a lot of pain there. I think it stems from clinging to the idea that we’re in control, that we have autonomy.

Psychologist Julie Exline (Case Western Reserve University), in her extensive research on the subject of forgiveness, has found that atheists and agnostics tend to have a greater degree of anger against God than believers. She, too, finds this phenomenon puzzling: “How could people be angry with God if they did not believe in God?” (see more details in Joe Carter, “When Atheists Are Angry at God,” First Things, Jan. 12, 2011).

Job was angry at God, too. But his anger was directed at someone who he believed was “there” and was responsible for his suffering. That doesn’t apply here. So why are atheists so hostile to God, but not to Santa Claus?

The irrationality of this mindset has led some to suggest the concept of “emotional atheism.” That is, people reject belief in God not because the intellectual evidence is so overwhelming, but because they don’t want to believe in Him. It’s more a decision of the heart than the mind.

Laura Keynes, whose transition from agnosticism to faith was based on an extensive study of both sides of the God debate, concludes, “All we can do is be sensitive to the anger and note that it’s odd for people who value reason so highly to make such large concessions to emotion.”

Let’s face it: The decision to jettison belief in God has a far greater impact on our lives than the decision to reject belief in Santa Claus. It is no surprise that emotion would play a significant role in such a decision. 

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