Your question implies that atheists don’t take claims about the existence of God seriously; that equating God with the Tooth Fairy is a flippant and dismissive response to the proposition. In fact, the opposite is true. Atheists arrive at the conclusion that the existence of God is as likely as the existence of any one of a multitude of proposed supernatural entities precisely because they take it seriously. The fact that the evidence for God is no more compelling than that for the Tooth Fairy is an uncomfortable fact that believers should learn to take seriously rather than dismissing it as an atheist insult.
“God is way more important than those imaginary entities. His importance gives weight to His existence.”
It is true to say that the proposition that the biblical God exists is of considerably greater importance than the proposition that Santa Claus exists. It is indeed taken seriously by many millions of people and has been so for thousands of years. But the popularity and longevity of a proposition is no guarantee of its truth. Furthermore, the utility of a proposition; its ability to comfort and inspire those that accept it as truth, is no guarantee of its truth. History is littered with extremely popular beliefs which, despite their utility, failed to survive the Enlightenment.
Another common perception is that by equating the evidence for God with the evidence for Santa Claus et al, atheists are merely being deliberately rude to believers, treating their belief in God as childish. Whilst I cannot guarantee that this motive is entirely absent in all atheists, I think that once again, this is an easy way for the believer to dismiss the criticism. By way of example, here is Alister McGrath on the subject:
“This is a very bad analogy to use. There is no empirical evidence that people regard God, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as being in the same category. I stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy when I was six, and after being an atheist for some years discovered God when I was 18. Many people come to believe in God when they’re older, but I’ve yet to meet somebody who has started to believe in Santa Claus later on in life.”
This is actually a straw man argument. Atheists don’t claim that theists believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Personally, I would even stop short of saying that theists had no better reason for believing in God than the Tooth Fairy – clearly there are very good reasons for believing in God; something the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls, “belief in belief”. But this again says nothing of its truth. Atheists simply state that the evidence for these propositions is equally weak.
Furthermore, McGrath’s appeal to the authority of adult – vs – child belief is also flawed. The many millions of adults who come to hold sincere beliefs in tarot cards, healing crystals, and spirit realms are no recommendation for the unimpeachability of adult reasoning.
It is undeniable that when mounting a critique of religious belief, using “God” and “Santa Claus” in the same sentence is a useful rhetorical tool for the atheist. It is also true that it is sometimes used as a substitute for argument and evidence. But this is no reason not to take it seriously.
Posted: June 23rd 2007
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