One of my all-time favorite movies is “Elf.” Our family probably watches it three or four times every Christmas season. The child-like naivety of “Buddy” the elf is more than enough to make anyone smile. He believes in Christmas. He most certainly believes in Santa. It takes us back to the time when we, who’s parents introduced us to the Jolly man, anticipated his coming every Christmas and defended his existence on the playground. There is one scene in Elf that I really love (okay, there are a hundred that I really love!). It was when Buddy was being told by Santa that many people did not believe he existed. An astonished Buddy does not know how to respond (as if it is the first time he ever considered that people might not believe in Santa). First he wonders who they think brings all the gifts. After Santa says that there is a rumor that it is the parents, Buddy says, “That’s crazy. What about Santa’s cookies? I suppose parents eat those too?” Don’t be too hard on Buddy. He is just trying too find a sufficient explanation for the presents and cookies.
Many times when I am talking to atheists about the Christian faith they bring up their graduation ceremony from believing in Santa. As they graduated from a belief in Santa, so they say, they have also graduated from a belief in God. While this has an emotional appeal and seeming parallel, it does not really work. In fact, it works in favor of theism more than atheism.
The reason why people believe in Santa is not simply because their parents tell them he is real, but because parents tell them that Santa is the explanation for a phenomenon that happens every Christmas morning. Santa is the one who brought the toys and ate the cookies. When the kids wake up Christmas morning and see all the new toys (at my house the ones from Santa were unwrapped) and ask, “Who got me this?”, they are asking a very reasonable question. They are seeking to find the cause behind the presence of their new toys. It’s the whole cause and effect thing. If the new toys were not there, there would be no reason to ask such a question. Therefore, the presence of Santa is invoked by a need to find causation for their Christmas morning joy associated with the toys.
Therefore, Santa is, by definition, the cause behind the effect of the toys and cookie crumbs. When people quit believing in Santa, they don’t quit believing in a cause, they just change the association behind the cause. It is not as if one day kids come of age and realize that the toys magically appear every Christmas morning with no explanation. It is not as if they believe that given enough time, chance will produce a situation where every year on December 24th you can place a plate of cookies by the fireplace and expect that they will be gone the next morning without explanation. You see, Santa just changes names. No one quits believing in the agent (whatever the name may be) responsible for the presents and the cookies. They just no longer believe that the agent’s name is “Santa.” Therefore, in a very real sense, no one quits believing in Santa (the cause of the toys and eaten cookies).
When it comes to God, the situation is the same. Existence itself demands a causal explanation. We are an effect, looking for the cause. God, by definition, is that cause. Just as we cannot say that there is no cause for the toys under the tree Christmas morning, you cannot say that there is no cause for all of existence. That is why R.C. Spoul has said that the best argument for the existence of God is this: “If something exists, God exists…Something does exist, so God does exist.”
“If toys are under the tree, somone must have put them there…Toys are under the tree, so someone put them there.”
Considering this, while we could not say that the parallel between God and Santa works for atheists (for it is simply a slight of hand illustration), it does work for theists because it illustrates that effects always need an explanation. Just changing the name of the explanation does not in any way do away with the need for a cause. Santa (the cause behind the toys) is still needed. God (the cause behind existence) is still needed. No one graduates from either, even if they change their names.
Even if his conclusion is misplaced, Buddy’s logic was sound: “That’s crazy. Who do you think is responsible for eating the cookies?” Who do you think is responsible for existence? Whatever your answer, that is your God.
In Which "Elf" Provokes Deep Theological Thought
This excellent post makes a great point about why the "Stopped believing in Santa/stopped believing in God" parallel doesn't work, logically, for atheists, though it does for believers in God. It's written by C. Michael Patton, from the Parchment and Pen blog of Credo House Ministries.