Back in May, Neil took part in "Interview an Atheist at Church Day". In the interview, conducted by a Church of Christ minister in Jackson, MS, Neil expressed many of the things I would like to convey to folks in the Christian community. While the whole interview is worthwhile in my opinion, I especially recommend the first 25 minutes.
At the 16:14 mark, Neil makes reference to a Norman Rockwell painting. The work entitled The Discovery, from a December 1956 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, depicts a young boy who has just found a Santa suit in a chest of drawers presumably belonging to his father. Neil makes the point that this boy no longer has the ability to believe in Santa anymore and he does this to illustrate how belief isn't really a choice.
Dorothy knows what I'm talkin' about.
I want to take Neil's illustration further. Let's imagine that the boy in the Norman Rockwell painting is a member of the local chapter of a Santa Claus fan club. Let's imagine that he and his little neighborhood friends meet at their clubhouse once a week to discuss all things Santa. It could be things like how to be nice instead of naughty; how to go about getting the most mileage out of letters to the big guy and why it's unreasonable to ask for things like real tanks, cars or "all the toys in the toy store"; how to respond to Santa skepticism with questions like, "Were you there when the cookies were eaten?" and how Santa Science (read: elvin magic) is able to account for his repeatedly defying the laws of physics; why the rival fan club across town is wrong for believing that the Macy's Santa is Kris Kringle's official representative when any idiot can see it's the one at JC Penny; how Miracle on 34th Street is just fiction and not to be regarded as an official part of the Santa story; that if "Twas the Night Before Christmas" was good enough for grandma and grandpa's generation, it's good enough for them, but how it's taking things a bit too far to insist on the original Dutch spelling of "Dunder" and "Blixem" like that crazy faction down the street does; and most of all they would remind each other that they must always keep believing in Santa, lest they risk not getting any cool Christmas presents anymore, like the little Jewish kids who have to light candles and settle for lame clay tops, coins, potato pancakes and Hanukkah Harry.
Let's imagine that not long after his discovery, the little boy in the painting sends a letter to the president of the local chapter of the Santa Claus fan club. In it he announces his resignation from membership on the grounds that he no longer believes in Santa. He's tried to stay in the fan club and keep his mouth shut and go on like nothing happened, but he just can't go on pretending. He thinks being nice instead of naughty is a good thing and he likes the spirit of gift giving and such, but really thinks parents should be getting the thanks for the gifts and not a legendary figure that died long ago. He likes everybody in the fan club and he wants to remain friends with them, but he can't bring himself to be in a club that requires him to confess belief in something he simply doesn't believe anymore.
Now, here's the point where the analogy really breaks down. It's reasonable to assume that the kids in the fan club would probably remain friends with the little boy in spite of his departure from the club. Sure, kids can be mean and spiteful, but there's every reason to think they'd still play with him at recess, eat with him at lunch and come over to his house and play. They might feel pity toward him since Santa won't be bringing him presents anymore and they may even accuse him of lying about finding the Santa suit or insist that his dad was just playing a trick by dressing up like Santa or some other excuse, but it's doubtful that any tears would be shed, any letters sent or any deep sense of betrayal felt.
The club is not likely to hold a special meeting wherein the officers have to address the boy's departure with the regular members and place the boy under "club discipline." It's very unlikely that his best friend in the club is going to refuse to come over and play checkers over a nice glass of Ovaltine because he wants him to “feel, in whatever way, the consequences of his actions in hope that his pride will break and he will come back.” The club president is not likely to begin spreading rumors to other club members that the little boy is trying to "bring down his presidency". Those reactions would be utterly ridiculous.
The only thing more ridiculous would be if the little boy then decided to start blogging about why he doesn't believe in Santa Claus anymore and making comparisons that belittle and trivialize those beliefs. You might think it would take a real jerk to do that, but really, after all that, who could blame him?
It's admittedly a silly tale, but something much different happens to the story when one substitutes Jesus for Santa Claus, grown adults for the children in the story and a mythical place of eternal conscious torture instead of merely missing out on getting an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. What does remain analogous is how pointless it is to go about stigmatizing and ostracizing people because they lack positive belief in something. It's not something that can be controlled. Belief is largely involuntary, so why blame the unbeliever?
Whether or not it's right for a deity to torture someone forever as a result of not believing something (either directly or indirectly) is an entirely different matter from the one I'm addressing in this post. What I'm pointing out is that just like no amount of crap that little boy's friends dish out is going to change the fact that he doesn't believe in Santa Claus anymore, no punitive action taken by believers against apostates is going to make those apostates start believing again. The best you could hope to achieve with such actions is pretended conformity. Is that really what people want? I'm tempted to think it is.
Ah, but some will say this analogy is entirely false from the outset. Unlike Santa, everybody knows in their hearts that the Christian God is real; they merely refuse to admit it. Sure, and the members of that Santa Claus Fan Club might say that the little boy also knows in his heart that Santa is real. He just refuses to honor him as Santa. He has become futile in his thinking and his foolish heart has been darkened. There is no such thing as people who truly lack belief in the existence of Santa Claus, they could say. There are only people who have convinced themselves that they don't believe Santa Claus is real.
Uh-huh. I used to trot out that line too. Here's the thing: that little boy doesn't believe that anymore. His friends can tell themselves that he knows Santa is real but is just lying about it all they want. Telling him that isn't going to change a thing in his mind. He's just going to shake his head in frustration and walk away. That's where I'm coming from here.
There are a couple of advantages that little boy has over ex-Christians who have found their way out. First, he knows that there's very little harm that's going to come from his friends' persisting in their beliefs, as nearly all forms of Santa-belief have a well-established track record of being relatively benign. He also knows he can rest assured that one day soon all of his little friends will almost certainly come to see things the way he does, accept him socially and move past their childish view of the world when they finally join him in an acceptance of reality.