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I Believe in Santa, the Father Almighty?

Atheists say believing in God is like believing in Santa Claus because there's no evidence for either. But guess what: there is evidence for Santa.

Pat Flynn

Once, I was conversing with someone who called herself a militant atheist. She mentioned that belief in God is no better than belief in Santa Claus, suggesting that I had fallen into a particularly childish belief and should be disabused of it. Perhaps by therapy.

How is it that belief in God is not like belief in Santa, since there is no evidence for either? Well, I told her she was incorrect about there being no evidence for Santa. In fact, there is evidence for Santa. There is just far more evidence against him. That is what makes belief in Santa—for most adults, anyway—unjustified. God is different, though. Because there is overwhelming evidence for God and little (to zero) evidence against God.

When talking about evidence, we must first ask what we should expect to see if some theory is true versus what we should expect to see if some theory is false. The Santa Theory (as I understand it) says this: “There exists a fat immortal man who lives in the North Pole with a legion of elves, who builds toys for children and delivers those toys to well behaved children on Christmas Eve. If children are not well behaved, he delivers them coal. He travels via sleigh propelled by flying reindeer.”

The Santa Theory makes predictions. For example, it leads us to expect presents (or coal) being found beneath Christmas trees or in stockings on Christmas morning. Thus, any present or piece of coal found beneath Christmas trees come Christmas morning counts as some evidence for Santa, since the Santa hypothesis anticipates such data. However, any present or piece of coal also counts as some evidence that parents are pretending to be Santa. The data to be explained (present, coal) is consistent with rival theories and by itself is not enough to adjudicate which hypothesis is true.

Thus, when comparing rival explanatory hypotheses (theories), we must consider various explanatory criteria, with the big ones being explanatory comprehensiveness (how well the theory explains the relevant data) and theoretical simplicity (how many basic components a theory has).

Having explanatory criteria is critical, since phenomena can point to an indefinite number of explanatory theories. For example, discovering presents beneath the tree Christmas morning is compatible with the following theories:

  • Santa put them there.
  • Parents put them there.
  • Barack Obama put them there.
  • The presents appeared from nothing.
  • Etc., etc.

Some of these theories may be compatible with each other. If your father is Barack Obama, then theories 2 and 3 are identical. But if you are like me—which is to say, Barack Obama is definitely not your father—then we need to consider the virtues of each theory.

Here, I think, is how we know Santa does not exist: if Santa existed, there are other things—many other things, in fact—we would expect to see that we fail to see. For example, we would expect to catch Santa flying through the air come Christmas Eve, especially with modern technology. (And the NORAD Santa Tracker raises more questions than it answers.) As well, we would expect to discover his workshop in the North Pole. As well, we would not expect so many parents to say Santa is make-believe. Each of these is a failed prediction of the Santa hypothesis and thereby disconfirms it (to various extents, if not completely). It thus seems that the Santa hypothesis explains less (or less well) the wider range of data than the rival hypothesis that Santa is make-believe—i.e., a silly little pastime put on by parents residing within an overly materialistic, secularized culture that has apparently forgotten the true meaning of Christmas (bah, humbug!).

Presumably, the Santa hypothesis is less simple as well—not just because it posits additional entities in the world (which is true but, in certain respects, trivial), but because it must work up various conspiracy theories to avoid falsification. That is, why would so many people lie about Santa not being real, and how do we account for parents revealing themselves in Santa costumes while setting out presents on Christmas Eve to prove the point? And so on. To avoid disconfirmation, the believer in Santa must tell increasing convoluted tales of how apparently disconfirmatory evidence is consistent with Santa’s existence after all, expanding the complexity of his theory to the point of it becoming too improbable to take seriously, if one took it seriously in the first place. That, in effect, is the problem with any grand scale conspiracy theory: not that it doesn’t cover the data, but that it can cover the data only when strapped with enormous (ad hoc) complexity.

Such complexity is a problem because the more components a theory has, the more ways that theory could go wrong—which is to say, turn out to be false. Just imagine the coordination involved in massive conspiracies and how unlikely it is that such large-scale deception could continue without detection, and you’ll understand the point about simplicity.

Turning now to the existence of God, we begin by asking what the God hypothesis says. Namely, God is a metaphysical explanation, not a physical explanation. Thus, God, unlike Santa, is not meant to explain some local phenomena like presents or coal; rather, God is meant to explain why there are any phenomena at all, full stop. God, then, has far greater explanatory range than Santa does. Even if Santa existed, Santa himself would be something that God would (ultimately) explain. Thus, these hypotheses are not on the same level of explanation, for one thing.

Also, because God is a simple, trans-physical being, we should not expect to see any direct physical evidence of him. Trans-physicality also makes God relevantly different from Santa. Nevertheless, we should expect to see certain phenomena (namely, effects) if God exists versus if God does not exist. What sort of phenomena does the God hypothesis predict? Well, lots, I think, including:

  • that anything exists at all,
  • that the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life,
  • that consciousness exists,
  • that moral principles exist,
  • that reasoning principles exist,
  • that free will exists,
  • that religious and mystical experiences occur,
  • that near-death experiences occur,
  • that well attested miracle claims occur,
  • and so on and so forth.

By prediction, we don’t mean we have to know “ahead of time” what will happen—only that some occurrence is more likely or expected if that theory is true. (Obviously, near-death experiences are something that make sense if God exists—and really cannot be explained at all, from a naturalistic perspective—even if we couldn’t know ahead of time whether God would grant near-death experiences to people.)

In short, God is a personal (rather than scientific) explanation, which leads us to expect pretty much everything we experience and almost nothing we do not experience. Because what we would expect to see if God exists is just what we definitely do see, all this counts as evidence in favor of God, especially since we would not expect to encounter these phenomena (at all, or far less probably) if God did not exist.

I say almost nothing. Meaning? Well, in fairness, we must ask if there is any disconfirmatory evidence for God, as there is for Santa. Presumably, the best candidate is the occurrence of evil and suffering, since some philosophers have suggested such occurrences are incompatible with classical theism. However, I suggest that analysis is superficial and can be reversed upon substantial inquiry. Either way, that problem of evil—for the theist, anyway—could be mild. That is, just as we can admit there is some evidence for Santa but overwhelming evidence against, it could also be the case there is some evidence against God but overwhelming evidence for.

Thus, one could be rational both disbelieving in Santa and believing in God. In fact, that seems exactly right.

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