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Religion and Rationality - Religion and Rationality

Comment 20

Santa, Satan and Sacred Cows
December 23, 2009

It is no doubt mere coincidence that the letters which make up Santa need only a slight rearrangement to form Satan. Both are mythical figures, occupying two ends of a spectrum. The first personifies a comforting goodness, generosity, good fortune, gifts given freely. Belief in Santa’s actual existence is possible only for the first few years of childhood, although his spirit lives on for adults. The second personifies evil and malevolence imagined to be working in the world, a threat not only to one’s moral health during life but one’s fate in a next one.

Unfortunately, belief in Satan is possible even to adults, since fear and guilt are more powerful instruments of indoctrination than concepts of goodness, and more useful to the needs of religion. Satan and other personifications of malevolence which humanity has long invented for itself are necessary to explain why evil exists in a world supposedly created and run by a benevolent Deity. Without Satans, Gods could not hope to find acceptance. Santa, on the other hand, is symbolic of the good Deity working on earth. He is immortal, selfless and caring, though he requires good behavior on the part of those who expect to receive his benefits.

Both Santa and Satan are sacred cows not easily dislodged from our cultural psyches. It is sometimes said that one of the great sins against children is to reveal, before they are ready, the fact that there is no Santa Claus, though they can usually be led to accept it by having the revelation of the truth associated with their own growing maturity. Satan is more tenacious. He serves not only as a figurehead under which evil can be categorized, he provides a handy reason—even an excuse—for why humans fall into their evil ways. He is the great Antagonist, keeping the believer focused, to the benefit of institutional religion, on the perpetual fight against evil and temptation, internal and external.

Losing Santa means a loss of childhood innocence and a bit of magic. Losing Satan, on the other hand, would be a net gain: freedom from an oppressive paranoia in fearing that an inimical force is ‘out to get you’; freedom from an obsession with sin and guilt, and the spectre of a horrific eternal damnation. For traditional western religion, loss of Hell would mean a loss of Heaven, as the two go hand in hand. For purposes of inducing required moral behavior, the vague promises of a Heaven which seems to entail little more than spending eternity praising God lacks the persuasive punch of an eternity of unspeakable torment.

Of course, the greatest sacred cow of them all is the figure of Jesus the Son. He is Santa and Satan rolled into one: bringer of the gift of salvation—provided you’ve been a good child—but willing to turn you over to the very un-tender mercies of his infernal alter ego (both began as basically angelic beings) if he thinks you’ve failed to respond to him and his great sacrifice. Yet Jesus, too, is a mythical figure, a cog in the heavenly wheel running religion’s convoluted machinery of God and Satan, Father and Son, Heaven and Hell, angels and devils, sin and virtue, sacrifice and salvation, the Rapture and the Second Coming, the whole crazy business that drives too many to distraction and makes this great but challenging world a lot more difficult than it need be—and a lot more disparaged and neglected.

Usually when a key cog is removed in a complex machine the whole thing grinds to a halt. In Christianity’s machinery, the removal of the Gospel Jesus as an historical person should bring two millennia of superstitious nonsense, with its incalculable damage to the world’s history and psyche, to an end. My own books and website are a culmination of over two centuries of clear-eyed scholarship that, with confessional interests set aside, has concluded without any reasonable doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels is a fictitious and symbolic character who never actually lived. May I commend to the reader the latest fruits of almost three decades’ labor, Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, an 800-page presentation of the case for a Mythical Jesus. See newadvert.htm.

Earl Doherty