Sorry Virginia, Mr. Church lied
(Printed in the Towanda Daily Review on 1/11/96.)
Editor: Christmas has come and gone again and as usual I have been unable to find one shred of evidence for the existence of Santa Claus, flying reindeer, elves, or any of the other associated myths. I still search because I feel guilty. When my children were younger, I spewed the usual Santa rhetoric and perpetuated the myth, thinking myself a good and proper parent. Eventually -- I dont know exactly when -- they came to realize that the "fat guy" can't possibly exist. But it still bothers me that I never leveled with them, because at some point they must have realized that I told them something other than what I knew to be true -- a kind way to describe a lie.
I rationalized that this couldn't possibly do much harm; after all, it was for the celebration of the holiday. However, after further contemplation I have come to a different conclusion.
Myths and superstitions persist because of "communal reinforcement", where constant repetition, particularly by figures of authority, gives credibility and validity to concepts, no matter how ridiculous or incredible. With the Santa Claus myth, my parents told it to me, their parents to them, yours probably to you, and so on. And worse, because of communal reinforcement, most people are deluded to think that no real harm is done. But such beliefs cultivate a thought process that tends to rely on blind faith rather than rational skepticism and objective evaluation.
Rather than telling our children that mom and dad are the source of their gifts, we give them some fantastic story about an omniscient man in a red suit delivering, in one night to the entire world at no cost, individualized gifts to those who have been "nice". And if that isn't fantastic enough, his delivery vehicle is a sled powered by flying reindeer. This plants the seed, and omniscience and paranormality now become possibilities.
Some other consequences of communal reinforcement are: the Pentagon wastes $20 million of our taxes on psychics; astrology is actually taken seriously by many; and the results of natural phenomena are sometimes attributed to the actions of ghosts, spirits, or other mysterious supernatural forces. And to think that it may have started with Santa.
Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman said, "I'm always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I'm going to find -- maybe not every time, but every once in a while." Children are naturally curious. Instead of supernatural explanations, we should give them the information necessary to understand our world and teach them to look for rational explanations and scientifically valid causes.
I cant prove that flying reindeer, Santa Claus, psychic abilities, and spirits dont exist. But then the burden of proof isnt mine, its with the claimant. Just show me one flying reindeer.
As for Santa, if Virginia had written to me instead of Frank Church, she may not have gotten an answer quite as memorable, but it would have been the truth. Bah! Humbug!
John L. Ferri