Can We Be Good for Goodness Sake this Christmas?
Saints and Sceptics
Centuries from now, anthropologists sifting through cultural artefacts might conclude that Christmas was a time of year when people of different faiths came together to worship Santa. After all, everyone loves the patron saint of pester power, excessive consumerism and Coca-Cola. And, when we set cynicism aside and forget the strain placed on our credit cards each December, we all value Saint Nick as a symbol of imagination and child-like wonder. Little wonder, then, that American Atheists have recruited Santa to run their traditional Yule-tide publicity campaign.
Haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere might be enjoying a Nativity play or Christmas carol, every year American Atheists remind us that radical secularists can also enjoy Christmas. Festive cheer can be achieved, it seems, by pouring ill-informed scorn on anyone who doesn’t share your naïve dogmatism.
Last year’s billboard displayed a free-thinking pre-teen writing to Santa for permission to dodge church. This year, Santa wrote back. It seems that we all have Santa’s permission to skip church so long as we promise to be good; though Santa also stipulates that we be good for the sake of goodness.
So Santa does not approve if we behave out of self-interest or religious motives. Who would have thought that Father Christmas could be so puritanical? We might also ask where this “goodness”, which so enamours Santa, resides. In the human heart? Hardly. Goodness cannot be generated by sub-atomic particles or physico-chemical laws. If we are nothing more than atoms and molecules in motion, then the “human heart” is a sentimental fantasy; it is as concrete as Santa’s workshop.
But even if we reject the physicalism of our age, and acknowledge that human consciousness is substantial and significant, the human heart cannot be source of “goodness”. If any philosopher believed that humans should be good out of respect for goodness alone, it was Immanuel Kant. But Kant cautioned that we cannot put our faith in the human spirit because humans are constructed of “crooked timber”…
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