Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically — asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

9 thoughts on “Dear Santa Claus”

  1. Scott,
    Thank you for your gracious analysis. Do you think these verses as contradict themselves?
    "Did you make mankind after we made you"

    "You're always letting us humans down
    The wars you bring, the babes you drown
    Those lost at sea and never found
    And it's the same the whole world 'round"

    CS Lewis asked once asked: "If the universe is so bad…how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?"

  2. Hi BN.  Yes, it does seem there's a tension between the two.  Made up things don't let us down.  Like with the self-contradiction point above, I'm inclined to say that the song is written from the perspective of someone coming to terms with his atheism. 
    So the 'you let down' parts are from the perspective of someone with the belief — he believes god should help people, look after the just, and so on.  And he's continually disappointed.  The 'we made you' part is from the perspective of the converted atheist.  From this perspective, to be sure, it's not God letting us down, but that we've believed in an illusion. 
    But, again, try these same speech acts with Santa.  A 10yr old can say: Santa, you keep letting me down by not getting me an X-box… I think you're just make believe.  That's got the same tension, but the act of thiking it through resolves it, yes?

  3. Scott,
    I think the Santa analogies are limited and to some degree dishonest. (Santa is clearly a human fabrication).
    It's not so much that "made up things don't let us down". It's rather the reverse of that. On what basis did we "create God" and attribute Him all these qualities: good, wise, all-powerful? Especially since our world is full of evil.

  4. I would be curious to read a strong argument from evil if you have a link or a suggestion.  I've always found it spoke to me as quite convincing but I must admit I'm not intimately familiar to the depths of it to use it convincingly against theistic friends.
    Pointing me in the right direction would be QUITE useful.

  5. BN, I'm not sure your problem with the genesis of the idea of god is relevant here.  At least with this song specifically, but it may be a problem with all versions of the problem of evil.  I'd suppose that the idea of god arrived for the song's author probably from his parents or a Sunday school class.  Here's how you'd do it: point to all the nice things in the world, ask how they got there.  Say god made them.  Done.  The strategy is called gerrymandering evidence.  The problem of evil is not the flipside of it, but one that requires that we look at all the relevant evidence, that is, the bad stuff, too. 
    Regarding your comment on my use of Santa Claus being dishonest, it's to prove the point that one can address and also deny the existence of an entity, but thereby not commit to its existence.  That it's a commonplace that Santa's a fabrication is supposed to show that those speech acts can be consistent.

  6. robber.baron,
    Steven Law has a very nice and dialectically good version of the problem of evil, titled "The God of Eth."  He has a popular version up (which he published in the Skeptical Inquirer), and he's got one for academics, too, in the journal THINK.  Here's his version on his blog:
    And, you know, as with all things in philosophy on the web, you start with the Stanford Encyclopedia:

  7. Scott, I tend to agree: the scope of the post was just the song in itself.
    The problem of evil is a reasonable question. And I'm not sure is necessarily a theistic question. Even if you think that all evils are pointless and horrible, you're still left with the question of evil in an amoral universe.

  8. I"m down with that, BN.  That's why, regardless of how you come down on the question of theism, you've got an obligation to give to humanitarian aid efforts, try to make the world safer for people, and generally try to not make the place worse.

  9. Great song! Close second: "My Bird Performs".

    In regards to the claim that one cannot (should not?), perhaps, question God's reasons, it's worthwhile to point out the distinction between God's reasons and reasons as such. While God's will might be inscrutable, reasons that should count as good are not. So, one might be able to both hold that God's reasons for allowing misfortunes to occur are mysterious and that God has no good reason to allow certain misfortunes to occur. Copernican Revolution!

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