In the Fourth Nocturn

The Father Christmas problem

Why should children continue to believe in God after they stop believing in Father Christmas?

Children’s worlds are full of supernatural gift-givers: Father Christmas (Santa Claus), the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy. These one-dimensional characters dispensing worldly pleasures are people whom children are expected to grow out of believing in.

At a certain age, children become natural skeptics, beginning to question for themselves what their parents have told them about the world: they begin to notice that Father Christmas’s handwriting and wrapping paper is suspiciously similar to their parents’; the tooth fairy doesn’t visit when they lose a tooth without telling anyone. When these figures disappear from their lives, why shouldn’t God go with them?

This is not a purely hypothetical question: children who discover for themselves that the magical gift-givers aren’t real really do become more skeptical about religion.1 Adults impose a certain amount of social pressure — having an adult in their life who is clearly actively a faithful Christian certainly implies that belief in God is for adults as well as children — but retention rates in the Church from childhood into adulthood suggest this is far too little, too late.

God, of course, is far more than these childhood characters ever claim to be: Father Christmas brings toys; God gives life and death, incarnation and resurrection, creation and apocalypse. Children’s church and Sunday school are good at teaching young children Bible stories. Young children will believe their literal truth; a deeper understanding of their actual spiritual meaning is presumed to follow at later ages.

But how? What do we actually offer for slightly older children, with their newly-developed pseudo-scientific view of the world, losing their childhood sense of magic? And the even older ones who are learning about geology, evolution, and the incredible vastness of the universe in their school classes, and need to understand how God fits into all of it? Are confirmation classes not too little, too late, even where they are offered?

  1. Apologies for linking a YouTube video and not the original study, but the paper itself is paywalled; further, Rebecca Watson is wonderful and deserves more attention, and, though I obviously entirely disagree with her about religion, her perspective and reaction as a non-Christian is telling.