The Sanity Clause

28 09 2008

I was at a party a week ago (or so) and found myself in a rather impassioned argument with somebody, which – as I am normally very non-confrontational, left me a little bit shaken. I had, of course, precipitated the whole thing but to suggest that I was the root and cause of the argument itself would be to ignore her role in the affair. It is normally my way to sue for reconciliation after such an event, rare as they are, but I have decided this time to stick to my guns.

The statement that I had made, uttered in the euphoric state that generally follows several beers in a relaxed and social environment, had offended her to the core. I acknowledge that it was a harsh statement, although the sentiment that I expressed in due course (after clarifying my statement somewhat) was not harsh in the slightest.

I had simply noted that I am inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens: religion constitutes child abuse. That is a most inflammatory thing to say, and I said it because until then she was humoured by my wild pontifications, and the topic had somehow arisen. Little did I know that she is a religious Catholic.

Retracting so strong a statement is virtually impossible, and the difficulty was compounded by the basic fact that, at a fundamental level, I did not want to. What is it they say about discussing religion at parties? I cannot remember. In any case, what I went on to say, in an attempt to (partially) modify my initial sentiment, was that children are designed to believe absolutely anything that an adult tells them. That is obvious: were an infant to instinctively distrust their parents, they would only rarely survive long enough to become parents themselves. If a parent is to teach the children nonsense, but actually believe it themselves, then I have little problem with the situation. I realise Dawkins and Hitchens find such a scenario morally repugnant, but… well, there is much that is repugnant about Dawkins and Hitchens as well.

No, my gripe is with the following scenario: parents who deliberately teach their children things that they, themselves know to be patent nonsense – simply because the child looks cute when he or she is fooled. Filling an infant’s head with rubbish about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (as well as non-religious drivel like the Tooth Fairy) is a form of child abuse. Is that really so offensive?

Apparantly so, although I can also allow for the fact that she had consumed several beers as well. Passionately, she informed me that she grew up with Santa Claus, would not trade her youth of lies and abuse (my words, not hers) for any other, accused me of depriving children of their imagination, and went on to suggest that such things must exist within Judaism too.

Actually… no, they do not. There are some particularly ignorant people who believe that the spirit of Elijah traipses into their homes on Pesakh to consume wine, although the educated are aware of the origins of that tradition and do not fill their children’s heads with such absurd balderdash. And I think that imagination is a wonderful thing, and that children should be encouraged to make all sorts of pretend games, and to read widely all manner of fantastic literature. As a fan of both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (not to mention the Hebrew Bible, and so forth), I would not have it any other way.

Would I tell my children that there really are Hobbits and Orcs? Or that the miracle stories of Genesis are real? Of course not: I do not believe that they are. So, why would I tell them about fat men climbing down chimneys, or ghosts drinking wine? She must be mad.

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4 responses

8 10 2008
Jen

Heh, almost anything can be acceptable and even good if you can view it through nostalgia goggles!

4 12 2008
Lou

Oh dear. You clearly haven’t worked with kids. Really, in this society, to have your child not believe in Santa etc and to stand out and be the freak would be far more abusive. Also, abuse infers something negative. Why is it negative for them to believe in something fun? Fair enough if I were to teach a kid that they would burn in hell for masturbating, but “hey kids there is a nice fat man who will give you pressies”?? Come on…don’t be such a cynic.

5 12 2008
Simon Holloway

I would agree that, in some situations, a fantasy is preferable to reality. If a child wishes to know something that may harm them, I do not think there is anything wrong with presenting them with a fantasy until such time as they are ready to deal with the reality that underlies it. But Santa Claus? There is no reason for this particular fantasy; no need to fill their heads with such things. The fact that they are “fun” is irrelevant. I could also tell my children that every blade of grass has an angel poised above it, telling it to grow. That might imbue them with wide-eyed delight every time they see a lawn, but it is nonetheless a lie.

In normal circumstances, I would not use the word abuse, but only because parents tell their children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy (etc) out of love, and not out of spite. Nonetheless, as falsehoods go, I don’t see the value to these ones. Grinch that I am.

19 12 2008
Em

The most magic moments of my childhood were when I was encouraged to imagine things that aren’t real. Looking back, I don’t think I actually believed they existed but still saw them around me. It was a special game that we shared and I was far from passive in delighting in it. I still cultivate this sense of reality as I think as adults we tend not to. Children often have wild imaginations and swear that something is real when it is not. Maybe they see it as real so it may as well be to them. Maybe they know it’s not real but like to think it is.

This musing brings up an eternal question: what is real and what is not real? Studies have shown, although I don’t know how reliable they are, that the brain processes things that are real and imagined in the same manner. That means the real and imagined are experienced in the same way. This has obvious references to the “brain in a jar theory” aka the Matrix, tanra philosophy, quantum physics, Daoism (all overdone and simplified in pop culture). I think it would be a shame for a child to miss out on an introduction to different possible views of the world. I reckon it would be difficult as a parent not to share your views on things with your child.

There are aspects of the myth of Santa such as kindness that are good things to be learn (of course these can be learnt other ways). But I agree the idea of Santa in current times is problematic.

Lying to children, or to anyone for that matter, is another issue entirely. Although not nice, this barely rates a mention on the scale of child abuse. I see that deliberately exploiting a child’s trust could be. The debate around truth and lies is also extensive. The lies that we tell ourselves and other another that everyone knows are not ture but are necessary to keep the peace is one example. Children are drawn into this and many children are not opposed to lying. It is actually a marker of reaching a new developmental stage, as is the ability to imagine things that one can not directly see.

Honesty without moderation can be hurtful. Reality without moderation can be depression. Although, for some reason I still feel that truth is a good thing, it’s difficult to balance honesty with letting someone off lightly. I’ve hear people say that finding out that Santa is not real is good preparation for the disappointments that are inevitable in life. Maybe it is, because despite my fantasies it can still be shocking to discover something was not as it seems.

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