“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

santa science
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Why I want Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour

corbynMy Union has written to me asking me to join the Labour party and vote for Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure that I will do that, because the Labour party is the only mainstream party for which I have never voted, and I would expect that Harman’s thought police will be actively rooting out new members with a questional political commitment (I’d definitely qualify!) – so why am I interested in who is going to become their leader? Well, in simple terms, Corbyn is someone who might tempt me to change that pattern of voting, and I’d like to explain why.

The first point is simply that Corbyn is so obviously not part of the metropolitan bubble, despite living in Islington. I am guessing that his views have hitherto placed him beyond the pale in terms of internal Labour party politics, and that this has enabled him to have a clearer perspective on the inwardness of the party elite. Whatever the reason, he comes across as authentic, consistent and principled, and that is immediately a huge plus, whatever the specific policy details.

Yet it is the policy details that attract me. I think that he will broaden out our political conversation in some very healthy ways. To begin with, it is very unclear that replacing a state monopoly with a private monopoly in various industries – rail, energy, post and so on – has actually benefited the country, as opposed to the financial industry. It is long past time that we assessed the lived experience of these private monopolies against the promises made, to see whether the politicians involved were wise and prudent or simply distracted by the prospect of generating a quick cash windfall for the Treasury. I also think that emphasising corporate tax avoidance and exploring ways to ensure that, for example, the profits made by the Daily Mail aren’t sent through Bermuda in order to avoid their legal obligations, is a necessary part of a healthy political conversation.

His key pitch, though, is about resisting political measures around austerity, and here I think he has a strong point both politically and morally. The sums involved in trimming back benefits, such as the child credit tax, are truly trivial when compared to either the overall government budget or the sums involved in supporting the financial industry with bail outs. For a society to try and save money by giving less to the weak and vulnerable, whilst turning a blind eye to the vast sums going to those who already have much – this says a very great deal about the sort of society that we are living in, and it doesn’t say anything good.

I believe that for a society to be considered civilised, there must be a certain standard of living below which nobody is allowed to fall. This is not a question of merit, or reward for hard work, or any other form of assessment or ‘means testing’. It is simply to ensure that nobody is thrown overboard as dead weight. This cannot be divorced from a Christian perspective of course – it is rooted in a theology of grace, that ‘all fall short of the glory of God’ and we are all the undeserving beneficiaries of a free hand out in spiritual terms.

Yet it can be defended in purely secular terms as well. To begin with, the notion that hard work is the principal determinant of financial success has been quite thoroughly deconstructed academically. The roles played by accidents of birth, networking, opportunity and simple luck are far larger. Put simply, hard work is not enough – and who is to say that those cleaning toilets work ‘less hard’ than those operating computers in the City? No, the idea that we might ever live in a pure meritocracy is simply a nonsense.

Secondly, the consequence of destroying demand at the lowest end of the income scale, which is what happens when the poor are made poorer, is that the total aggregate demand in an economy shrinks. The conspicous consumption of Louis Vuitton handbags and other luxury items by the super rich cannot compensate for the absence of consistent purchasing on necessities by the poor. To remove the poor from the economic cycle is to shrink the economic cycle itself, and then we are all diminished, both financially and spiritually.

It is because of this that I’m a supporter of a ‘basic income’, which to my mind is the simplest way to ensure that nobody is financially abandoned by the wider society. There are different ways to achieve that, and I’m not sure which method is best, but I believe that this is the sort of conversation that we need to have. The capitulation to the austerity narrative by the Labour party leadership, best exemplified by Harriet Harman’s decision to abstain on the recent package of welfare cuts passed by the government, shows that we need a very different opposition if we are to remain civilised.

I disagree with Corbyn on several things – the top rate of income tax is one of them, as I think it is self-defeating to increase it, it needs to be lowered significantly – but I really want him to lead the Labour party. To my mind the key political question is about how social inclusion is accomplished, not whether, and that leaves lots of room for political disagreements, not least between those who believe that such an aim can only be accomplished by an overmighty centralised state over against those who believe that it can be accomplished by small scale and local cooperative movements. Yet I would emphasise that this is the conversation that we must have. I think that if Corbyn were to be elected leader of the Labour party the quality of our political conversation would significantly improve, and we would all be better for it. So if you are eligible to vote – please vote for Mr Corbyn.