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Old 08-06-2010, 06:14 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Official Debate #2: Should children believe in Santa Claus?

Willravel and I were both hankering for another round of debatory, and decided on something a little less life-and-death.

To mix it up, willravel is taking the pro side, and we are debating in a more formal manner, as if we were actually orating--no pasted bits of articles, no links, no line-by-line quotes, etc.

The official debate statement:

Belief in Santa Claus is a fun and harmless tradition that should be a part of every childhood

willravel, I await your opening statement.
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Old 08-06-2010, 01:20 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Pine scented candles from the night before still fill the air. Upon waking, you glance out the window; it's cloudy, cool, and everything is covered in snow. Instead of your normal coffee, you opt for spiced apple cider to start out your day. The warm cinnamon fills your nose and serves as a most pleasant reminder: Christmas is on its way.

Whether you're a devout Christian or not, there can be little doubt that the greatest and most cultural-centric festival Western civilization has falls around the winter solstice. It's the season of peace, home and hearth, giving, and family, a time to take stock in what you have and reaffirm the closest relationships you have. It's that one time of year you break your strict diet and indulge in the best food and drink. Even without any ancient stories, it's hard to imagine a more magical time. It's a celebration of all the good things in life.

Is it any wonder that a mythology has formed around this wonderful thing called Christmas? Even before Christians borrowed the holiday from the Romans as Christianity spread through the empire, there was Dies Natalis Solis Invicti or 'birthday of the unconquered sun", a similarly great festival celebrating life. Elah-Gabal, Sol, Mithras, and Jehovah were all powerful religious gods that centered around the celebrated day. Fast forward a few thousand years and a new mythology has developed around the celebration: Santa Claus.

While the origins of Santa Claus are varied, from St. Nicholas, a Catholic bishop, to Odin, the Norse god, the modern interpretation is of a magical, jolly old white guy in a red suit that delivers gifts to children. Could there be harm in allowing children to believe in such a character?

In theory it's possible. Teaching your kids there's a magical fat person that has an unhealthy interest in children breaking in to your house once a year sounds like it would be a nightmare on paper, but the reality is that the mythos isn't about Santa Claus, it's about the innocence of childhood and the importance of giving. Children are going to believe in fantastical things no matter what you do. They're going to believe in Ben 10 and Transformers and Toy Story because they're developing one of the most important parts of their minds: the imagination.

Children have imagination on tap because it's so important for them to learn and adapt to the world they life in, but as they grow older imagination takes on new aspects and becomes of vital importance. Do you have a career in which creativity is a benefit? I can certainly think of times in my adult life when having an active and capable imagination has meant the difference between failure and success. If you kill a child's imagination, you could seriously be hindering their abilities as an adult.

If children are going to believe in the fantastic and magical whether you like it or not, what can a parent do? In my opinion, it's an opportunity to steer the child toward ethics and principles they can use their whole lives. This is where Santa Claus comes in. The mythology of Santa Claus, at its core, is about giving and family, two things which I would imagine any parent want to instill in their child. By utilizing this festival's mythology, a parent could teach important lessons to their child while also sharing the fun of the story.

Finally, I want you to picture yourself on Christmas Eve with your children gathered all around. There's a fire in the fire place, bellies are full of delicious foods, and thoughts of presents are dancing through everyone's heads. With all eyes on you, looks of hope and joy all around, you begin reading...

"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there..."

Can you imagine a more perfect family gathering, a more wonderful way to share life with your children? I think you'd be hard pressed to find a more wonderful way to share the joys of living with your kids.
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Old 08-07-2010, 03:45 PM   #3 (permalink)
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I agree with Willravel on many of his points. The holiday season surrounding the winter solstice can be a special time to reconnect with family and friends, celebrate with good food and drink, and reflect on another year (hopefully) well lived.

However, there is enough to celebrate about this time of the year, when the short days finally start to get longer again, without indoctrinating the fertile minds of children with a batch of consumeristic 'cult' centered around Santa Claus, the patron saint of consumerism.

Engendering belief in Santa Claus has many flaws, both practically and philosophically. From a practical standpoint, the existence of a demigod whose only function is to reward 'niceness' with material goods has a lot of flaws, in terms of being useful as a pseudoreligion. It perpetuates a fallacy that lack of material goods is representative of naughtiness, and also that children should be good not for its own benefit, but because it will be rewarded--although this latter flaw is present in various forms in many of the NON-pseudo religions, and can therefor be excused.

As a minor deity, Santa Claus seemingly chooses to use his enormous powers of teleportation, time and space manipulation, self-cloning (mall Santas everywhere!), and matter replication for the greater good of ensuring that...Jimmy gets the new bike he wanted, and Tracey gets Betsey Wetsy. No mention is ever made to what he brings the starving children across the world, though someone capable of materializing train sets and X-Box games in living rooms all over America could surely conjure up a few tons of rice in various needy villages. Also, if little Billy is friends with someone outside their immediate social class (or even just with a child whose parents have very different ideas about reasonable credit card usage), important questions about bias and fairness immediately arise. Why did Santa get Ricky Rock Band 8: Almost Out of Ideas, complete with all nine inflatable groupies, AND a powerwheels Lamborghini Murcilagio, with real panty-dropping action, and only bring Billy Chutes and Ladders and a BMX? Is Ricky 'nicer' in some way? Should he emulate Ricky's behavior as close as possible in hopes of reaping a richer reward next year? Was there some element of naughtiness for which the meager rewards were a punishment? In the context of an omniscient ("he knows when you are sleeping...he knows when you're awake...he knows if you've been bad or good") demigod being the source of all of these various presents, none of these questions have an easy answer.

Outside of the practical questions about fairness, there are the philosophical concerns. I disagree with Willravel that Santa Claus has anything to do with imagination, and postulate instead that it has everything to do with belief in his specific supernatural powers. It takes no imagination to believe what you are told is true. Indeed, at this point the various "powers" and rules are well-documented by various books and movies, to the point where the Santa canon merely requires credulity, not creative thinking.

Furthermore, and more seriously, the supernatural claims are not compatible with any sort of rigorous belief system. Most mainstream religions claim a monopoly on the supernatural, and a large portion of the world is monotheistic, and to have a jolly fat godling capable of similar miracles as the most important prophets clearly cheapens the sacredness of their scriptural claims. Also, Christians specifically should (and do, in many cases) have problems with Santa Claus preempting the meaning of their penultimate holy day.

Religious conflicts aside, even atheists with no particular reason for indignation should seriously question what letting (or encouraging!) their children to believe in Santa Claus implies. It encourages accepting the supernatural as not just possible, but reasonable. It encourages accepting tradition over evidence, which is dangerously anti-scientific. Children can watch Discovery Channel shows explorations to the Santa-less North Pole, they can go to the zoo and observe reindeer (of the decidedly non-flying variety), and they can attempt an unsuccessful decent down their own chimney.

When children, curious and confused, bring these pieces of conflicting evidence to their ultimate authority on the truths of the world, their parents, what should those fonts of knowledge answer? It is my statement that a reply of "Ignore the evidence you have observed--It's magic!" is a betrayal of the trust a child has in a parent to help them learn about reality. Children's view of the world and how all of its components relate to each other is delicate and ever-changing, and I believe it a parent's job to help them filter all available information so that their reality is as accurate and pollution-free as possible. I feel it is more important that a child get an early start on develop problem-solving and evidence-evaluating skills than they get whatever small amount of forced good behavior and possibly levity they get from believing a magic elf brought them Madden 2012.
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Old 08-07-2010, 05:21 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Excellent points.

Still, I find myself asking a few questions:

- Are Santa Claus and consumerism intrinsically linked? I love the commercial when Santa is riding on a razor as much as the next person, in fact I downloaded it and watch it every year, but gift-giving doesn't necessarily mean obeying commercials and replacing real worth with material worth.

The best Christmas I ever had was back when I was very young and my family was quite poor. We couldn't afford lavish gifts even if we wanted, so instead of giving something of material worth, we gave something of immense personal worth. In fact, when I look back, it wasn't the 18-speed bicycle or PlayStation 2 I remember being the best Christmas presents. It was a surprise visit from an Uncle with hand-made toys or a hand-me-down Apple Color Classic. These things were divorced entirely from mindless, soulless consumerism and cut right to the core of what gift-giving really is, a personal connection between people. The perfect gift doesn't have to cost a ton of money or come from a mall.

- Does the story of Santa Claus teach children to expect material rewards for good behavior? In a vacuum, possibly, but the story of Santa Claus doesn't happen separately from overall parenting. Good behavior, or rather a balance of selfish and selflessness and the ability to understand and follow just rules, doesn't begin and end at Santa, but with an overall parenting strategy. Good behavior is born of consistency, explaining why behavior is good, and, yes, positive reinforcement.

If your child is good, don't you want to reward that behavior as one part of a larger set of responses in order to nurture positive growth? I certainly would. When I used to clean my room, do some chores around the house and not get into too much trouble, I would get an allowance. If I wasn't good or failed to follow the house rules, what right would I have to expect a reward? It's positive reinforcement as a part of a larger style of parenting, and based on my best understanding it helps to contribute to a healthy, happy, well-adjusted adult.

- How does Santa Claus inspire imagination? As adults, it can be difficult to remember that wonder for children is vastly different than wonder for adults. The vastness of space, the processes of evolution, and the art of Chopin's music all fill me with wonder, but it's wonder earned through years of study and based on extensive (relatively speaking) education. Children commonly lack the educational foundation and context necessary to understand the wonder of the universe around them. It's not a failing by any measure, but a part of intellectual and emotional development. No, when it comes to wonder in children you'd be more successful looking to Star Wars than to Carl Sagan. Over time, this will change with the right parenting, but when your 5-year-old needs to be wowed, a good bet is Santa Claus.

This is a true story. When I was 5, I set a trap. I took an old disposable camera with one picture left, and I put it on the mantle, hiding it carefully behind some pine garland with just enough open that the lens was exposed. Just to the side, I put a fulcrum and atop a lever with the far end of the lever attached to a stocking and the end of the lever closer to the fulcrum right on top of the button that took pictures. The theory was that when enough weight was put on the lever, by a full stocking, the camera would take a picture. The afternoon before, the neighborhood kids and I had all formulated a strategy to catch Santa Claus, so they were all setting up similar surveillance. It was like cctv for kids. Christmas came and went, and the photos were developed. I asked to see them first and anxiously found the last image. I saw a man in a red suit with a big white beard smiling. My dad had discovered my trap and outsmarted me. I've heard similar stories from all sorts of friends about their experiences with Santa Claus, how it was an adventure for them, not just some story they mindlessly believed.

- Can Santa Claus play nice with Moses or Jesus or Muhammad? I'm probably not the right person to ask, but I can try and offer my perspective. Every theistic religion I know of, even the ones claiming to be monotheistic, are secretly either polytheistic or psedo-polytheistic. Ask a Jewish person about Moses parting the Red Sea or a Christian about Paul curing a lame man or a Muslim about Muhammad breaking the moon in half, and suddenly you'll realize it's not just the one true god that violates the laws of physics. It's actually quite common for non-deities to perform supernatural acts in most religions.

So where does Santa Claus fit in? Nowhere, actually. While St. Nicholas was a Catholic bishop, Santa Claus is generally a secular supernatural character with no real ties to religion. And that's fine. Just like it's fine when some Christians believe in karma or some Jewish people have a feng shui house. While some people are rigid about religion, most people actually aren't. Religion is deeply personal and highly varied in interpretation. If one Christian believes in the power of positive thought and another doesn't, who am I or anyone else to correct one or both of them? It doesn't stop either of them from being Christian.

And really, if Christians have a problem with Santa Claus getting top billing over the birth of their savior, maybe they should look into celebrating the birth of Jesus when it likely actually happened some time between March and October. December 25th has nothing at all to do with the Birth of Christ.

- What about the godless heathens, the atheists/agnostics? As a heathen, I see the story of Santa Claus a lot differently than I see the theistic stories. The Abrahamic myths include barbarism, slaughter and genocide, rape, sacrifice, vengeance and a whole host of things that I would never want my children to be taught is unquestionably true. And it's that unquestioning part that's really the worst. I want my children to ask questions because that's how you get to truth.

Better still, though, as an atheist I would want my children to be ready for a world of theists. What better way than to give them a sort of vaccination, a weakened, smaller, easier to fight off religion that can help them build an immunity to more serious religions in the future. I know this point is a huge departure from the general feeling my my arguments above, but it's something worth considering. If you as a parent are concerned about your children getting sucked into a cult or religion when they get older, perhaps the best thing you can do for them is show them what it's like to believe in something false and find out about it. I know I didn't resent my parents when I found out Santa isn't real and I don't know of anyone who does.
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Old 08-09-2010, 09:10 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Willravel has led with a genuinely touching story about heartwarming gifts with personal meaning being superior to ad-based consumerism. I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. However, he seems to have forgotten to further his point, as nothing in that anecdote suggests Santa Claus was in any way involved! A heartfelt gift from a loving uncle is a wonderful thing--would those gifts have had the same meaning if poofed into existence by a magic elf, with no sacrifice or personal thought involved? Wasn't the Apple more special because it was your uncle's Apple? Part of the 'magic' of gift giving is the thought behind it...a gift from an entity you've never met has all the deep emotional significance of winning a door-prize raffle.

As a useful tool in creating a link between material rewards and good behavior, Santa is subpar at best. For starters, except in extreme circumstances, you are not going to 'gift on a curve'...you love your children and want the best for them, and a season of giving is not the time to be punitive. The lack of conversations following the pattern of "Well Jimmy, Santa told me to tell you he WOULD have gotten you a Playstation 3, but your room is still a mess, so here, have a sweater" should demonstrate this quite clearly. Now, I fully support chore-conditional allowances backed up with age-appropriate penalties--like a scaled-down version of adult life, my daughter will have to earn her allowance, and there will be consequences for missed responsibilities that affect the family. However, if this formula is rigidly applied to Santa in any sort of rigorous manner, is the reward left truly a gift, or just payment due for duties performed? Again, an important lesson, cheapened or distorted by the unnecessary addition of The Claus.

Setting clever traps for Santa exhibits is a great example of rational thinking--extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and trying to capture this evidence is the hallmark of a burgeoning junior scientist. This is creativity, problem solving, and an attempted application of the scientific method--all very important to proper child development. However, application of the scientific method should be rewarded with increased knowledge of the world around them. If their experiments are rigorous, and not tainted with false positives (like the a redcoated bearded father, in the story), the evidence should point to their NOT being a Santa. Therefore, there are only two possible outcomes to a Santa believer's Santa trap, assuming they are still a believer (based on their parent's say-so) at the end of the experiment: They may collect false planted evidence, and have their belief in the supernatural nature of Santa unquestionably affirmed. Or, worse, they collect no evidence, and adjust their world view to explain away the supernatural 'failing' the test. This belief in the face of counter-evidence sets dangerous precidence, and amplified versions of that present in adults is responsible for such horrors as the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and (worst of all) the recent spate of Ghost Hunter/UFO Detective shows on basic cable.

I would argue, however, that setting a camera trap is not an example of imagination, which is what it was presented as. The trap-setter clearly wasn't aware that the entity for which the trap was set was imaginary, or the trap would not have been set in a realistic manner. Imagination is very important, and has blenty of benefits to a growing child. Reality-based imagination games like playing House, and Cops and Robbers, and Grocery Store, and Pizza Parlor and School all give children an important opportunity to role play social interactions. Fantasy imagination games, which involve creating imaginary worlds populated with fairies or aliens or robots or flying carpets, give children a chance to flex their story-telling and world-building muscles, particularly if they're played with friends. Setting up a camera to catch Santa Claus involved no more imagination than setting up a camera to catch the mail man, falls into neither category and imparts none of the benefits of the above.

I did not see much strong evidence presented that Santa Claus was compatible with mainstream religions (other than "most adherents are too apethetic to think about the implications") so I will not readdress impact to the religious. However, to the atheists, and more specifically to the secular humanists, I feel like the Santa Claus story does more harm than good. Atheist children will not need innocluation against the experience of finding out the superstitious beliefs they were raised with were false, as they will be raised with none. By the time they are old enough to consciously make the connection that belief in Santa Claus is an example of misapplication of Occam's razor ("what's more likely, a well-publicized worldwide conspiracy that everyone I know, love, and trustis in on, or Santa?") similar to certain aspects of religion ("What's more likely, that this all just happened by chance, or an intelligent designer?"), they are well beyond the age where belief in Santa is sustainable. Belief in Santa to the Atheist also removes a very very powerful tool from the parenting arsenal--assurance of reality. There is no monster under your bed, because monsters do not exist. The basement is not haunted, because there are no ghosts. Noone can get you through the shower drain, because that violates the laws of matter. Putting forth and sustaining a belief in an omniscient creature as powerful as Santa gives a parent no ability to reassure their child that their reality is knowable, and opens the floodgates of of possibility to every bogey, spectre, and Krampus that a wild childhood nightmare can concoct.
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Last edited by telekinetic; 08-09-2010 at 09:14 AM..
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Old 08-09-2010, 12:41 PM   #6 (permalink)
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"The Claus" sounds like a Frank Miller graphic novel about Christopher Kringle, an aging cop that has one last case, to save a child from holiday blues. It's a bit melodramatic, though.

Santa Claus gave me non-consumerist gifts and consumerist gifts. I got GI Joes and sweaters from JC Penny along with the more personal gifts from the jolly man in the red suit. The point is that gifts from Santa Claus don't have to endorse consumerism. They can, but they don't have to. Just like any gift from anyone, some will be personal, some will be practical, and some will be superficial. As to sacrifice, I have to imagine flying around the world at nearly the speed of light breaking into people's homes is dangerous work. Ultimately it's rewarding because Santa Claus is devoted to children, understanding that they have value and deserve positive attention, but, if you accept the mythology, it's hard work. On top of the delivery, there's the consideration that goes into the gift giving. Tailoring a billion gifts to a billion children is a supernatural effort made just to make children happy and feel appreciated by someone in the world, someone magical and jolly. Milk and cookies aside, kids are getting a hell of a deal.

I don't know how many parents are rigid with the naughty or nice list, but even if we assume only some stick to it that alone would seem to verify my association between Santa Claus and positive reinforcement in parenting. Remember also, this debate is about Santa Claus being harmless. Even for those parents who are less strict in using Santa as a reward system, there's no actual harm being done. Still, for those parents who do give bigger for better, more moral or ethical behavior are utilizing an important tool in the development of their child. Even if you want to coldly regard the positive reinforcement as payment, positive reinforcement it remains. The fact that it supposedly comes from Santa Claus doesn't have to cheapen or distort it, either, in fact it can essentially create a phantom third authority figure, one that parents consistently along with the mother and father (or mother, or father, or mother and mother, or father and father, etc.). Consistent positive reinforcement makes for an even stronger case. Santa Claus doesn't have to be real in order to be a positive force in the life of a child, after all.

I wish I could say I was trying to capture evidence of Santa Claus' existence with my camera trap, but it was less about healthy skepticism and more about showing off a picture to my friends. After my last post, I brought up the incident in a discussion with my dad and he remembered it quite clearly. Apparently, I tried to do the same thing with Jesus and forgot about it. The point was that I was immersed in the mythology, in both cases, and born of that immersion was imagination.

To speak in broader terms, mythology is a challenge to the concept of reality. On some level, most children are able to recognize the difference between Santa Claus and grandma. You see grandma, you talk to grandma, you sit in your grandma's lap. Grandma never flies or has magical pets. Even at a young age, discerning that difference is intuitive. On one level they believe, like, for example, I used to believe in Jesus, but on a more basic level, even if not conscious, there's a recognition that things which violate the consistent systems of reality witnessed and experienced aren't the same as things that you intuitively suppose are real. And that's where imagination comes in. Imagination isn't just about thinking magically, it's about thinking outside of the box, in terms that might challenge preconceptions. All pretend play by children is a tool by which they expand their understanding. So why Santa Claus, specifically? He's not real, but many things in the child's environment say he is. Television, kids in their school class and neighborhood and church, the guy at the mall, parents, etc. all insist this character is real. That is where Santa Claus stands alone. What happens some day if your son or daughter is caught in a situation where they could be taken by groupthink? Will he or she have the tool to think outside of their preconceptions and go against what everyone around them is saying? That tool is, above all else, imagination. It's the key to individualism, to understanding, and to intellectual growth. Aside from religion, I can think of no better imaginative tool than Santa Claus.

I wasn't raised atheist, but a lot of people are. It is difficult for me personally to imagine circumstances in which an atheist would become religious, but I'm seeing this through the experience of having been raised Christian and then deconverting as a young adult. It does happen; there are atheists that convert to being theists. I won't quote it or link to it, but I've recently been made aware of an article entitled "Après une visite au Vatican" or "After a visit to the Vatican" (I think, my French is horrible) in which French writer and critic Ferdinand Brunetière argues that atheistic, scientific philosophies lack social morality. Whether I agree with him or not, and I don't, the result of this man's quest for truth lead him from being a life-long atheist to being a Roman Catholic. I'm not judging him, but I feel his story is a good example of how being raised atheist isn't necessarily a guarantee that one will remain so lifelong.

I think the most important point I can make is that skepticism must be free of absolute certainty. The assuredness of reality you describe, knowing there's no monster under the bed, seems to run contrary to the very nature of skepticism. Skepticism must be free of any and all bias in order for it to be most effective, and in order for your knowledge to continue to self-correct and advance, you must remain, at least to some degree, uncertain. Certainty, you see, breeds intellectual lethargy. If I am absolutely sure of something, why would I question it? I understand that once you've gone through the difficult task of establishing something to yourself, forming a hypothesis, gathering evidence, testing evidence and establishing a consistent answer, you've earned a certain level of assuredness, but there's a big difference between being almost certain and being certain. Almost certain leaves room for further correction in the future. Almost certain is the difference between Newtonian physics and Einsteinian physics, which I don't have to tell you is significant. Newtonian physics is intellectually beautiful, but after a time there were cracks, exceptions discovered that required a skeptical mind to question accepted laws of nature. Some day, perhaps, we will be saying the same thing of current quantum theories, as knowledge ever-evolves. Santa Claus is the poorly constructed theory just waiting to be attacked with rigorous skepticism. It's flaws are simple enough that a clever child can start to recognize them, deconstruct them, and understand them. What a wonderful thing it would be for a child to allow curiosity and skepticism to meet for the first time to teach them how to think critically.

btw, I'm having a blast. It's amazing how such a difficult debate can come from a topic so seemingly simple.
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