To imagine what it feels like to be an atheist in the modern world, you need to imagine that almost everyone around you, adult or child, believes in Santa Claus. Some feel strongly, some half-heartedly, but nearly everybody you meet is certain that there is some kind of Santa Claus. Maybe it’s a man, maybe it’s a woman, maybe there’s more than one, but there has to be a Santa Claus of some kind or life is meaningless.
(I can’t remember who I stole this analogy from, maybe Greta Christina? PZ Myers? If anybody out there remembers where it’s from, please tell me so I can attribute it properly. I just know it’s not original to me.) (Thank you to Bridget Donovan for reminding me that this idea comes from Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan, pp. 87-90.)
Yes, almost everyone believes in Santa Claus, even though they know they buy their own presents every Christmas and they put up their own decorations and neither they nor anyone they know has ever actually seen any kind of Santa Claus.
They believe in Santa Claus even though numerous fly-bys of the North Pole have seen that nobody lives there. They believe in Santa Claus even though nobody has ever found any evidence of an elf or flying reindeer.
They believe in Santa Claus so much that every Sunday they spend hours singing songs about Rudolph and spend their money to build buildings for him and travel around the world to tell people in other countries to stop believing in Saint Nick, because he’s the wrong kind of Santa Claus.
They believe in Santa Claus and insist that The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (which they will tell you was written by Dr. Seuss, but it was inspired by Santa Claus) says that people should love each other. Except the people who read the same book and say that people should love everybody except gay people or black people. Not to mention the people who read the exact same book and say everybody but them is going to hell.
They believe in Santa Claus and tell you that the lack of evidence is because you aren’t looking in the right place or you need to look with your heart and someday you’ll get presents if you just recite this special version of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” every night before bed. (But not the version from the folks down the street…they’re heathens.)
Almost everyone you know believes in Santa Claus…except you and one or two friends. And if you tell people you don’t think Santa Claus exists, people will tell you you’re crazy or your life is meaningless or they’ll wonder why you don’t just kill people. If you admit you don’t believe in Santa Claus, your family might kick you out, your classmates might bully you, or you might lose your job. In some parts of the world, you might even be murdered just for that admission.
And that’s what it’s like to be an atheist today. I look around and I wonder how everyone can believe in this thing for which there’s no positive evidence and loads of negative evidence, how everyone can spend so much time singing praises to this thing, and how everyone tells me I’m the crazy one!
Now you have an idea what it’s like to be me.