conversations with a born-again atheist: the Santa comparison

faith and reasonIf you’re new to the party, HERE are the previous posts in this series. If you want to skip the history and prefer the twitter version, I’m having an ongoing conversation with a born-again atheist. When I say “born-again atheist” I mean he was a born again Christian, but is now an atheist.

Note: Santa tangent ahead. Before I could reply to the “Shotgun” email, AtypicalAtheist asked me for my thoughts on his “Santa Comparison.” [snip] “Also, do you have a suggestion of better language or terms that I could use, knowing how I feel about the topic, and how you feel about having your beliefs seemingly trivialized?”

or CLICK HERE to read what he said about Santa in the last post, entitled “comparing belief in God to belief in Santa. and faires. and WibbleFoo.”

JSM: AtypicalAtheist,

We have ourselves some apples and oranges here. When you used the Santa comparison with me, your premise was:

“I don’t believe in Santa, but I respect your right to believe in Santa.”

When you used the Santa comparison with your wife, you said:

“just because millions of people believe that something is real, doesn’t in any way mean that it is real.”

You were using Santa to make a completely different point with me than the point you were trying to make with your wife.

Santa did not serve you well in either situation.

You asked:

“do you have a suggestion of better language or terms that I could use, knowing how I feel about the topic, and how you feel about having your beliefs seemingly trivialized?”

Now you’re tapping into my formal education and training. I was a communication major and later taught a business and professional communication course at UCF for 7 years before I started training and coaching back in 2001. Learning about interpersonal communication and conflict resolution is something I do for fun.

So, I have two answers to this question, based on (1) how I reacted to the comparison and (2) how “normal” people might be offended by it.

How I Reacted to Your Comparison of a Belief in God to a Belief in Santa, Fairies, etc.:
I promise you, I wasn’t “touched (irritated / annoyed / pissed)” at your language. Seriously. Not trying to smooth anything over. Not even a little. You are such a phenomenally nice guy, I know you probably don’t believe that’s possible, but if we’re going be authentic in these conversations, we have to get you to a place where you believe that what you say will not hurt my feelings or make me mad, or whatever.

I’ve alluded to my “issues” before, but here’s a peek into my “normal.” It’s very, very rare that I react emotionally. I won’t say never. In the last year, I can remember only two occasions:

January 2012 – dealing with people after my mother passed away.

April 2012 – an intentional communication experiment that only lasted a few weeks before I abandoned it for my normal.

Both situations were exponentially bigger than an inference that I have the reasoning capacity of a small child. So, again, I promise, the Santa/UFO/Fairy/God comparison didn’t hurt my feelings or insult me.

However, because of both my background and my issues, it’s possible my actual response may irritate, annoy or tick you off: When you used inflammatory language (good description, btw) with me, your credibility took a hit. Your argument was weakened. You told me in our initial conversation that you were a logical person and that was one of the reasons you didn’t believe in God. I asked you to explain why you don’t believe faith is logical (or reasonable or rational) and then you compare belief in God to things most grown-ups don’t believe in. My honest reaction when I read that?


Why Might Other People Take Offense to the Santa Comparison?
With your wife, your point was not “I don’t believe in Santa, but I support your right to believe in him.” Your wife said “Look at the sheer number of people that believe in God – they clearly can’t all be wrong…”

and you compared all those people to children.

young children.

Here’s the thing. She had a point. A LOGICAL point. And the logic of it has absolutely nothing to do with whether God (or Santa) exists.


A gallup poll published on January 9th states “Only 5 or 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in God”

With that very recent poll in mind, let me restate her point:

All these people who believe in God? They are not ALL stupider than you.

When you compare God to Santa, it’s NOT that the other person’s beliefs are “seemingly trivialized” by your comparison.

You’re calling them ignorant.
You’re telling them they have the reasoning capacity of a small child, while assuring them at the same time that you support their right to continue thinking like a child. The only way it could be more condescending and arrogant would be if you were to pat them on the head at the same time.

Everyone who believes in God is ignorant and has the reasoning capacity of a small child? It’s not plausible. Can you see it? When you (albeit unintentionally) set up a statistically improbable premise like that, you become the unreasonable one.

and now you’ve added elves, leprechauns and “WibbleFoo”

So the Christian communication coach is going to give the atheist some advice on how to strengthen his argument. (who’da thunk it?)

Don’t compare faith in God to any of those things. Too many people don’t believe in any of the things/entities in your list. Too many people think they are fiction.

For those times when you might use “The Santa Comparison” to make the “just because lots of people believe something, doesn’t make it true” argument, just don’t. The negative connotations far overshadow the point you are trying to make. Some might call it sibling rivalry. You’ve got two points in your statement and one of them (the unintentional one) is clobbering the other (intentional one).

For those times when you might use it to tell someone that you respect their right to believe, use politics instead:

“We don’t agree. I don’t respect your candidate, but I respect your right to support your candidate.”

Can you see how much more respectful and logical you would appear by saying something like this instead? With politics, people have strong opinions about both sides, but because everyone agrees the issues actually exist, the foundation of the disagreement – first and foremost – is about a difference of opinion. Sure, underlying, spoken or unspoken is the assumption by each person they are right and the other person is wrong. But, by comparing political views, you are using an example that most reasonable and intelligent people would view as a difference of opinion instead of a verbalized inference that they had the reasoning capacity of a small child.

I understand you think you’re making a good point, but it does more damage than it does good – both in a discussion and a relationship.

In writing, there’s a saying. “kill your darlings.” Here’s how one writer explains it:

“I should be taking a good, long look at my “darlings” and analyzing whether their presence . . . was the result of necessity or just my smug enjoyment of my own supposed brilliance.

If this is arguably the most painful lesson an author has to learn, it’s also arguably the most valuable. Self-editing is the keenest blade in a writer’s armory. Too often, we fall so much in love with . . . [our darlings] . . . that we miss the bigger picture. We fail to see that our darlings are actually stumbling blocks, both to our writing of the story and certainly to the reading of it.

K.M. Weiland at

My advice to you as a communication trainer and coach? Kill your darling. Ditch the Santa/God allegory (along with all the multiple choice gods and fairytale creatures on your list). It doesn’t strengthen your point, it just makes you come off condescending and arrogant. And that shuts down communication. Because interacting with someone who is condescending and arrogant is unpleasant.


Click HERE to see all “conversations with a born-again atheist” posts.

NOTE: All comments will be held for approval. This blog is a no-hate zone.

3 thoughts on “conversations with a born-again atheist: the Santa comparison

  1. Many people believed in Thor, too. Or Zeus. So what? Since when has reality become a democracy, to be elected by the majority? The main reason why many western people are Christians is, that their parents were – and their parents before them, etc. It says nothing about the truth of Christianity, just about the course of history. Were you born in Pakistan, you would now probably be a Muslim. Were you born in India, you would now probably believe in the Hindu gods.
    Let’s face it, most of these people never think about their religion. They are religious because they have been indoctrinated as children and it’s hard to escape that. Most of them are probably pretty decent people and not stupid, but obviously there is some flaw in the human brain that let’s people start believing irrational things – and this flaw was exploited by their parents, filling it with one specific religion – randomly chosen by their place of birth.

    So, no, “many people believe in god” is not a good point. It simply doesn’t matter. Even if ALL people except one believed in your specific god – that wouldn’t prove that one guy wrong. Truth is, like reality, not a democracy.

    Is religion ignorant? Probably. As is the belief in fairies – and for a long time, many adult people DID believe in them. Were they ignorant? Of course. Were they dumb? Probably not.

    1. Atomic Mutant –
      “Since when has reality become a democracy, to be elected by the majority?” Love that.
      Culture influencing religious indoctrination? Good point.
      “obviously there is some flaw in the human brain that let’s people start believing irrational things.” Not with you on this one. I have an aversion to unfounded declarative statements. #pragmatic

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.