By Adam Taylor
I took my son to see Rise of the Guardians at the movie theater. It was an excellent movie about the power of faith in imaginary characters. Afterward, my son tells me who he believes in and why.
In this movie Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and The Sandman are all superheroes that protect children and preserve hope, wonder, dreams, etc. A new hero is chosen in the character Jack Frost who has to learn what his purpose is while helping the other guardians defeat the Boogie Man. It's full of celebrity voices and meta-jokes. Everything you come to expect from a high budget CGI movie.
As luck would have it my son's tooth fell out that morning. So he was psychologically primed, and about to have his beliefs validated when I sneak into his room and replace his tooth with two gold $1 coins. A note on tooth fairy myth-inflation: if you give your kids paper money they are forced to imagine a fairy at the ATM machine (a little preparation, dear reader goes a long way).
I have written before about the push in recent “holiday fiction” to focus on belief in Santa. Modern Santa mythology tells us that Santa’s magic powers are so directly related to the spirit of Christmas that the holiday frequently needs to be “saved” by unusually attractive children and/or animals from “non-believers.” This serves as a handy plot device when you want to sell to a wide audience but it also provides a framework for faith in a secular world or “faithless” culture. In a multicultural world, it provides a framework to explain the existence of non-believers (and in many instances blame the non-believers/faithless). I should also mention that in each of these plotlines, the main characters are almost always provided with immediate proof of the existence of the entity they are supposed to have “faith” in. This is essentially all that non-believers ask for.
The following day on the walk to the school bus stop and for the next few days my 7 year old Child Psychology lab rat proceeds to break down his belief structure:
He believes in Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and God (relax, I’ll get to that). He does not believe in Jack Frost, The Sandman, The Boogie Man, or the Devil.
I asked him why. Specifically, how does he determine who is real and who is imaginary and he starts with Santa Claus.
“Dad” he says, “I can see Santa. I see him all the time at school and at the little city (our local outdoor shopping mall). I didn’t ask him if he noticed the differences between Santas in different places.
He continues “I know the tooth fairy is real because she gave me money this morning. And the Easter Bunny puts eggs in the back yard on Easter.” He then fixed me with his eyes and said, “Wait a minute, do you dress up like the Easter Bunny and hide the eggs?” I asked him if he could picture me dressed in a bunny costume hopping around the back yard and we laughed. He didn’t believe in Jack Frost because he knows what frost is. He understands the principles of temperature and condensation so frost already had a scientific explanation.
We spoke later about gods and devils. He has a recent fascination with ancient Egyptian gods and I have used it as an opportunity to discuss other cultures and beliefs. As it turns out, he does not believe in Horus or Osiris. He has (presumably Christian) friends at school that have talked about “devils” but he does not believe in them because they sound too much like monsters and “monsters aren’t real”. He understands that the god that most people in his life talk about is just one of many gods people have believed in over time. He has told me that he believes in “...the god that is all around us. The God that is love.” He did not ascribe any other traits to this god and I didn’t press him.
This budding belief system is based on two major concepts: Authority and Evidence.
He believes in God because almost everyone he knows does. He has heard the word “atheist’, and may understand what it means but does not ascribe it to anyone he knows (not even Uncle Steve). I do not tell him that God is not real because I don’t want to use my authority to influence him to accept that premise blindly. Instead, I use my authority to remind him many people believe in many different gods and some believe in no gods. I also assert that no one knows the answer to this question with absolute certainty.
He believes in things he has evidence for. Sure its not airtight evidence but like most children, even the ones in the movies, he needs proof to believe an extraordinary claim.
You may wonder why I would participate in validating the Santa or Tooth Fairy myth if I’m an atheist. There are a few reasons for this. First is the most obvious: he is a child. His fantasy life is richer and more complete at his age than it it will be for the majority of his life. Imagination and play are vital to his emotional and intellectual development. We also encourage daydreaming in my house. The harsh realities of the “real world” will find him soon enough. Second, deciphering these myths are the first critical thinking exercise that most of us remember. I make a concerted effort to provide him with the language and conceptual framework to place these ideas in. We talk about myths and legends. The former being things that people believe now or in the past that are not true. The latter are fictional stories that people used to believe that may be rooted in truth. They may not be dictionary definitions but they function to hold the concepts.
So I perpetuate the mythology by hiding coins under his pillow or dragging my ass out to the back yard at 5 am to hide plastic eggs on Easter Sunday. I smile when he says that he does not believe in magic aside from a handful of legendary magical creatures. I have no problem with his absorption of faith culture. He has already started to evaluate claims based on evidence. When the time comes, he will undoubtedly outgrow myths, legends and more than a few gods.