Atheist activists are making headlines for recent advertising efforts, this time in the southern states of America. Several years ago a similar effort in the United Kingdom caused some degree of consternation among British evangelicals. I was living in Scotland at the time, and came face to face with one of the public advertisements (pronounced ad-VERT-is-mints) promoting atheism before I ever heard about them on the news. I remember the moment quite well. I was parked across the street from the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary at 7 a.m., waiting to pick my wife up from a night shift at the hospital, when a bright red double decker bus pulled into the hospital bus stop immediately across from me. Written large across the bus (where one would normally expect an ad for the latest film) were the words: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
My gut reaction to that message -- once I got over the surprise of encountering it on the side of a bus -- was puzzlement. I couldn't, and I still can't, understand how someone could consider life as the product of random chance more enjoyable (or at least less worrying) than life as a gift from an all-powerful, all-wise, loving God. Who enjoys a diamond ring more, the man who stumbles across it with his metal detector on the beach? Or the girl who receives it from the boy who loves her and wants to marry her? I'd argue the latter. The ring sustains the same monetary value in either scenario, but it brings greater pleasure to the girl because it is a gift to her which constantly serves to remind her of a relationship worth infinitely more than whatever dollar value might be placed on the diamond. Who enjoys life more? The person who believes himself and everything around him to be the product of random chance, and so treats every day as something he has effectively stumbled across in the sand? Or the person who sees her life as a whole and every day in it as a gift from Someone who loves her with a perfect and constant love, and intends to spend forever with her. I'd argue the latter, by the same logic as before.
If God didn't exist I wouldn't be able to stop worrying. If this world and this life were in fact all there is, I'm fairly sure I would squander it in a constant state of anxiety about whether I was squeezing enough pleasure, or the right kind of pleasure, out of my pitifully few days on this earth. Despite these atheists' apparent intention to help people relax and enjoy themselves, it seemed to me (and still does) that they had prescribed a fairly heavy dose of anxiety and misery for folk with their (false) news about God's non-existence.
These more recent, American atheist advertisements (pronounced ad-ver-TIZE-mints) have me equally puzzled. Billboards in a variety of southern states picture a young girl wearing a Santa hat and a mischievous smile, writing a letter to Saint Nick. Her letter reads: "Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to skip church! I'm too old for fairy tales." My puzzlement over this particular advertisement has been of an ambivalent sort, corresponding to my ambivalent feelings about Old Saint Nick. There's a part of me that simply finds the ad ironic and sad. It's ironic insofar as the girl is writing to a mythical creature called Santa Claus to express her disbelief in God. (I'm guessing that this irony was intended, and that most atheists don't themselves believe in Santa, or think him to be the most appropriate person to register one's unbelief with). It's sad, however, even to see in a fictional scenario a young child willing to trade in belief in an omniscient God who freely offers forgiveness for our sins for an omniscient man from the north pole who annually promises to reward you (or punish you) purely on the basis of your performance, with absolutely zero possibility of repentance for your misdeeds. "He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good." Santa Claus, at least as depicted in popular song, is scary. The ethical punch line of the Santa Claus story is "you better be good for goodness' sake." But what about those of us who haven't been good? There's no promise of rescue for naughty children in the gospel of Santa. The best you can hope for is moral improvement for the years you have left (so, get to it...). What a tragic substitute for a God who not only knows everything you've done but offers you full and complete forgiveness on the basis of the incarnation, person, and work of his Son, who has lived and died in the place of sinners.
But I'm not really such a Santa hater as all that. The truth is, I like Santa, maybe even believe in him a little bit. Whatever the rhetoric of our Christmas jingles, the reality -- so far as I can tell -- is that Santa delivers the goods to children irrespective of their moral fiber or performance during the year. Santa's gift giving scheme doesn't really seem to be a meritocracy in the end of the day. And, whatever the truth about his knowledge of your doings, what's not to like about a guy who drives a sled pulled by magical reindeer and squeezes down chimneys to stack packages under the Christmas tree.
My ultimate problem, then, with this particular atheist advertisement is not that it promotes belief in Santa, but that it grossly deceives people into thinking that somehow you can do away with God but still retain a bit of magic in the world. The truth about atheism, which they so desperately want to obscure, is that when you do away with the One who made us and this world, you deprive us and this world of meaning, moral absolutes, and magic. Without God, the world becomes a closed natural universe, where nothing (or rather, no one) can intervene because there's no one there to do so.
As strange, then, as it may sound (given a fair degree of Christian nervousness about Santa Claus and his tendency to steal the spotlight from Christ on Christmas), I'd suggest that it really does take a Christian perspective on things to sustain a story like Santa Claus (at least as anything more than a collective effort on the part of parents to elicit good behavior from their children). G.K. Chesterton once wrote: "The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature." Mankind is not the product of chance. Mankind, spoken into existence by God, is a miracle. And once you realize that, it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to entertain the possibility of one particular man who lives at the North Pole, travels by reindeer-drawn sled, and squeezes down chimneys to leave presents for boys and girls under Christmas trees.
When, alternatively, you deny mankind itself to be a miracle, all possibilities of one miraculous man named Saint Nick evaporate. Atheism is, without a doubt, the quickest route to the disenchantment of the world in which we live. The child (or adult) who no longer believes in God really is "too old" -- or too something, at least -- to believe in fairy tales. If these atheist activists were honest, then, they wouldn't have a child professing her atheism to a fairy tale creature. They'd have her sitting by herself, lonely and scared, professing her unbelief to no one, because that is who is ultimately there. And they'd better wipe that mischievous smile off her face, because mischief is a symptom of the magical that exists in this world.
Of course, in the end, the false advertising of atheists -- dressing a child up in the trappings of an enchanted world while she effectively pulls the plug on all the enchantment -- is pretty much what you'd expect. What else can you do when you're peddling a product that leads to misery and death (Prov. 14.12)?