Disclaimer, please read: This isn’t my usual travel-themed blogpost. It’s a 3am rant about the link between Santa Claus, the Sydney siege and critical thinking. It may lose me a few followers (even friends), but anyone averse to a bit of tough intellectual honesty probably isn’t worth fighting for anyway. I was nervous about writing this, but the alternative was writing it over and over again in my mind until the alarm went off at 6:30am and I became distracted by the routine of the day. So, in the end, this seemed like a better use of my time. Besides, as a wise person once said (sorry I can’t find the source so I’ll paraphrase) – the only thing worth writing is that which scares you. So here it is. Merry Christmas!
There’s a bit of click-bait circulating Facebook at the moment. It lures you in with classic click-bait style language, promising to offer: “Possibly The Best Parental Explanation Of Santa Claus We’ve Seen”. (Yes, In Title Case Because Internet.)
So, of course, I took the bait and was hooked, mainly because (presumably) like a lot future or present or non-parents, the idea of knowingly taking advantage of my (hypothetical) little child’s unconditional trust in me – that is, by lying to them – has never really sat well, and even left me feeling a little squeamish.
BUT never you mind parents of the world, the good news is that a website called Pyzam (okay I should have known better) has the answer, so I clicked away.
Oh world, why do you keep letting me down?
The crux of the letter to dear, clever little Ryan (as I’ve sneeringly paraphrased it – you can read the full thing here) is this: Alright, Ryan sonny, you got us! Santa isn’t technically real, as in, you know, the facts we told you about him – flying reindeer, Coca-Cola-inspired suit, chimneys and the like. But, our dear impressionable sweet child, you just let all that pesky innate scepticism and healthy curiosity stop right there! You don’t need to ask anymore difficult questions because we have A Life Affirming, Heart Warming Revelation For You. What we really tried to teach you with our stories about a man sneaking into our house at night while you sleep to give you material things you don’t need (along with the houses of all the other rich kids in the first world) was this: believing in things – even when they’re blatantly untrue – Just Feels Good, okay Ryan! #amirite Ryan? …Ryan?!
To quote the letter directly:
“What [Santa] does is teach children to believe in something they can’t see or touch. Throughout your life you will need this capacity to believe: in yourself, in your family, and in God. You’ll need to be able to believe in things you can’t measure or hold in your hands.”
But wait! Santa isn’t real, right, mum and dad? That is what you’re telling me here, underneath all this euphemistic, pseudo-philosophical BS? So there is no Santa, but… but it’s healthy to believe in him because he isn’t real? Because… Because love and Christmas?
Me neither Ryan. Me friggin neither.
You know who wasn’t very good at taking stuff on faith (or authority), but had a dangerous habit of “measuring” things (ew, science) and asking annoying questions? Well loads of awesome people, but for some reason Galileo in particular springs to mind – probably because 500-odd years later so many of us still seem stuck on the idea that we inhabit the centre of the universe.
Had this 16th century Italian had access to Ryan’s mum and dad’s theory on Santa, he might have ignored his beautiful, courageous human curiosity and scepticism in his humble attempt to understand the immense grandeur and complexity of the universe – and instead just, well, goddam believed the Catholic Church doctrine on heliocentrism and kept his doubting-Thomas mouth shut like a good boy. Then he might not have spent his twilight years under house arrest (and the western world would have remained in the Dark Ages a little longer).
While the worst part of this Santa click-bait is that it seems to have given several thousand internet users their warm and fuzzies this season with a celebration of the Crushing Of Reason as early as possible in life; the best part about it is definitely the fact that it equates a belief in Santa with a belief in God right there on page in black and white. You’ve got to take your Christmas miracles where you can get them.
So how does all this link to a criminal madman who held a bunch of innocent people hostage at gunpoint for 16 hours in a chocolate shop in my beloved home city of Sydney 10 days before Christmas? Okay, don’t panic, I’m going to ease you into it. Wait for it… it’s coming: Religion. There, I said it. Didn’t hurt that much, did it?
Because, while critical thinking and scepticism is why most of us no longer die at around 30 years of age from diarrhoea or our teeth, unchallenged, medieval desert-origin belief systems give us the Westboro Baptist Church, ISIS and the Taliban. And Al Shabaab and Boko Haram and the Boston Bombers and the London bombers. And creepy middle-aged virgins, and Fred Nile. And Man Haron Monis.
Now, let’s be clear: I’m the type of global-warming-concerned, social-welfare-loving, Christmas-ruining lefty that usually keeps the likes of Miranda Devine up at night. However, it was seemingly at odds with the dominant opinion within that cultural group that I was becoming frustrated with the desperate need (on my Twitter and Facebook feeds at least) to completely and without question separate Man Haron Monis’ actions in Sydney on 15-16 December 2014 with his explicitly stated religious beliefs. Crimes have motives, and sometimes we don’t need to do much detective work to find out what those motives are – sometimes they are stuck there on the wall or in the window for everyone to see.
Yes, it is important to be nuanced in our interpretation of an event, and yes of course it’s vitally important that innocent people are never harassed or physically intimidated in public places for the way they dress or what they look like. And of course I’ll bloody ride on the bus with you – provided you’re not A: a racist twat or B: wearing a bomb (because, people, the latter does happen and being nervous about that isn’t the delusion here).
My overarching gripe is this: Our healthy aversion to the inadequacy and injustice of stereotypes should not equate with a chilling effect on legitimate, civilised debate about the demonstrable link between belief and behaviour. (I would go further to say that I would want to have anyone who believes that their holy book or dogma is infallible and beyond criticism on my personal keep-a-close-eye-on-that-guy list).
Because while it’s relatively easy to cringe together about otherwise well-meaning parents and their impressive capacity for Doublethink at this time of year – it has somehow, on the other hand, become social suicide in certain groups (and they’re usually my favourites!) to suggest that a strong belief in core religious doctrines such as jihad might have a cause-and-effect relationship with violent crimes against, let’s say, apostates. Because let’s be clear: the one thing that Man Haron Monis, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and members of Boko Haram and the Taliban have in common is certainly not anything as irrelevant as their (differing) race or language or clothes.
We fought and (mostly) won the good fight against crusading Christians – right around the time when Islamic countries were leading the world in cultural and scientific progression – and now for a multitude of reasons the Islamic world has found itself on the wrong side of the sawtooth of human progress: because too many people believe in it too much. And if the best thing you can say about your belief system is that it works better when you don’t follow it all that closely (and that is the case for at least all of the monotheisms that dominate the culture I’m a part of), then you’re not off to the best start.
If we keep closing our eyes to the obvious inadequacies of religion as a moral compass, then every time war and famine and ruthless dictators toss our societies back into the dark ages, we’ll keep falling on those religions for comfort and we’ll keep repeating our mistakes.
Perhaps if the world was as small and connected 500 years ago as it is today, the crusading Christians would have clashed with the progressive muslims of the time, and this all would have come to a head back then and we’d be living in a very different world today. As it stands, this is the world we live in and I just want to play my part by defending one strongly held (and open to debate and criticism) belief: in free speech.
And on that note, even if you haven’t read a word of this diatribe because you can’t stop crying into your mulled wine and mince pies, then at least watch this – an old favourite that says so much of what I wish I could but far more eloquently, such as: “Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus”.