If you had a big question in the late nineteenth century, and you lived in the vicinity of New York, it made sense to send your question to The New York Sun newspaper. After all, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” As a result, when Virginia O’Hanlon began having big questions about the jolly old elf, she promptly wrote a letter to this trusted bastion of truth:
“Dear Editor, I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says if you see it in the Sun, it’s so. Please tell me the truth. Is there a Santa Claus?”
The answer, written by editor Francis Church, was published on September 21, 1897. The original column, which is likely the only thing by Francis Church that anybody reads these days, became so popular that it has entered into our familiar cultural lexicon. And like most entries in the cultural lexicon, the virtues of the text far transcend the poetic sentimentalism on the surface. What attracts me to the familiar essay is the way Church fields Virginia’s skeptical query and the way that it parallels two very different apologetic responses one finds in Christian communities to skepticism. Since both of these responses are wholly inadequate, we find that 105 years after the fact Church provides us some helpful tips on how not to pursue apologetic work. In this essay I’m going to take a look at the “conservative” response while reserving an analysis of the “liberal” response for a subsequent essay.
The Conservative Response
This conservative response to Virginia’s skeptical query comes early in the essay. Indeed, it comes right at the opening as Mr. Church begins:
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.”
Note what Mr. Church does here. He immediately places Virginia’s concerns about Santa Claus against the backdrop of a tendentious empiricism and equally tendentious rationalism. The empiricist view is that only that which can be experienced by the five senses exists. Rationalism adds that our minds must be able to make sense of reality in the categories and concepts available to us.
To the extent that the skepticism Virginia has encountered in her friends is driven by this kind of empiricism and rationalism it ought to be questioned indeed. However, is the doubt of Virginia’s friends really fueled by a philosophical commitment to empiricism and rationalism? That seems most doubtful. It is much more likely that it grew out of the simple fact that multiple lines of evidence were seeming to disconfirm the Santa hypothesis.
I know something of this. I never believed in Santa growing up, in part because my parents made no effort to encourage such belief. However, when I was about seven I decided to try an experiment to see if Santa might, in fact, exist. My experiment consisted of surreptitiously hiding a glass of orange juice and Dad’s oatmeal cookies behind the ornamental Christmas broom beside the mantle. (Why orange juice? I worried that milk would curdle by the time Santa arrived.) The next morning I ran into the living room and checked the broom before doing anything else. And there were the orange juice and cookies, untouched. That was it. The momentary flicker of belief was snuffed out permanently because the Santa hadn’t shown up.
Of course I could have sought to explain that evidence by proposing that St. Nick had simply missed the juice and cookies or that he’d been full. The problem was that there was nothing else Santa Claus was explaining which would have justified this move. Consequently, Santa Claus became an unnecessary hypothesis.
No doubt Virginia’s companions had similar experiences. Santa had failed to meet their expectations as well. And it wouldn’t just be in terms of untouched refreshments. For example, how does a thoughtful child process the fact that Santa seems to overlook so many poor households? Wouldn’t those be precisely the families that should be receiving a special visit from Santa Claus? How do you explain the fact that the naughty kids on the right side of the tracks receive beautiful new dolls and shiny toy trains when the nice kids on the wrong side of the tracks don’t even receive a lump of coal that they might throw in the stove to get warm?
Such problems have only become more glaring in the global village. I was eleven years old when Band Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” hit the airwaves. By that time my skepticism was very well established. But if it hadn’t been, I would have had to confront the obvious fact that there were millions of children in Africa who didn’t even know about Christmas. Couldn’t Santa at least have dropped some bags of grain on a quick fly-by of the refugee camps of Ethiopia and Somalia? But he didn’t. Presumably too busy delivering beautifully wrapped Transformers and My Little Ponies to spoiled brats across North America.
The problem then, is that Francis Church sets up his apology for Santa Claus by refuting what is effectively a strawman since most young people don’t doubt Santa Claus due to philosophical empiricism and rationalism. Needless to say had Church actually bothered to enumerate the real reasons for doubt from “Why do the cookies remain uneaten?” to “Why do the poor kids get no visit from Santa Claus?” his work would have become much more difficult.
Sadly, Christian apologists are often like Francis Church. They like to focus their apologetic defenses on refuting developed philosophical theories like empiricism or rationalism … whether or not their conversation partner actually holds the views in question. A much more complex and difficult task, but one essential for anybody truly interested in apologetics, consists of hearing the real factors that motivate skepticism and then responding to them.