An Advent meditation: Santa, Satan and secularization theory

An Advent meditation: Santa, Satan and secularization theory

Aside from the letters in their names, Santa and Satan, it would seem, have little in common.

Residing in radically different climates, while both like to give, Santa prefers to give people gifts (but only at Christmas), while Satan prefers to give them hell (all year round).

Both also share an impressive list of aliases:

Santa is a.k.a. (Jolly) St. Nick (short for Nicholas), Father Christmas, or Kris Kringle, though there are more.  (I’ll refrain from listing his name in other languages, though I can’t resist mentioning the German Weihnachtsmann–literally “Christmas Man,” which makes Santa sound like a super-hero.)

As for Satan, he is a.k.a. the Devil, the Evil One, Lucifer, Beelzebub, the ancient Serpent, or (with the definite article as) the Satan, and related to that, the Accuser of the brethren (so the old King James Version).

But whatever their differences or similarities, one would expect, especially in this day and age, that Satan and Santa would have at least this one thing in common:

No one would actually believe in either one of them.

According to a 2014 article in The Atlantic around 85% of 4-year-olds in America believe in Santa. By age 8, however, only 25% remain convinced of St. Nick’s existence. And by age 12 (and older!) that percentage drops to a recalcitrant 2-3%.

But what about Satan?

Several polls from the last 2-3 years show that about 3 in 5 Americans believe in Satan.  Among college graduates the percentage drops by only 10 percentage points, from 60% to about 50%.  (In their defense, I can say that I had a statistics professor in college whom I suspected of being under demonic influence on more than one occasion–usually after receiving my test scores.)

Why is this?

Well, North America has long been perceived as arriving late to modernity, with the UK and Europe leading the way in embracing a progressivist secularism, having been freed from the crippling myopia of superstition by the impartial lens of modern science.  In fact, North America has long been regarded as the outlier in (what is called) secularization theory:  the more societies modernize, the more secular they will become.

Americans’ entrenched belief in Satan may not be surprising, given its thriving populist evangelicalism, as well as its deeply-rooted historically black church (3 in 4 blacks in America, polls show, believe in Satan).  And so it is that the same Americans who disavow Santa by their 8th Christmas will nevertheless at their 68th Christmas still be sincerely singing the following Christmas carol:

“God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay.
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day,
to save us all from Satan’s pow’r when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy . . .”

But assuming America is the outlier in secularization theory, one would expect to find in Europe a greater consistency in their suspicion of both Satan and Santa.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, in the last 20 years Europe has seen an incredibly strong emergence of the occult, well documented by Professor of European Ethnology at the University of Augsburg, Sabine Doering-Manteuffel, in a 2011 article in the journal for the Public Understanding of Science.

To give but one example:  Often regarded as the most secular nation in Europe, France today has over 100,000 practicing clairvoyants, according to the Institut National des Arts Divinatoire.

This is four times the number of priests in France.

This is also 1 clairvoyant for every 600 French residents.  By comparison, in the U.S. it is estimated that there is 1 pastor for every 550 Americans.  Wow.  (And, of course, this is only clairvoyants–it excludes various other occult specialists.)

So is France as “secular” as claimed?

It seems that the French, having long abandoned Catholic mass, are nevertheless going en masse to those who specialize in the occult–clairvoyants, channelers, mediums, and palm-readers, as well as experimenting (on their own) with various occult instruments (e.g., spirit, or Ouija, boards).

But perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising, given that another study maintains that 80% of the French believe that “science will never answer the big questions.”

As for Doering-Manteuffel, an obvious adherent of secularization theory, she arrives at the end of her research on the prevalence of the occult in Europe with more questions than answers. Bewildered, she inquires,

“Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, is such a powerful longing for spirituality breaking out among a whole generation [of Europeans] . . . who grew up under the postulates of reason and self-determination?  At present, one can only speculate about the reasons for this” (“Survival of Occult Practices and Ideas in Modern Common Sense,” Public Understanding of Science 20[3], 2011: 292-302).

As it turns out, on both sides of the Atlantic eradicating belief in sinister preternatural phenomena is far more difficult than was anticipated.  (Curiously, there is no corresponding re-emergence of Santa belief in either the Old or New Worlds.)

Given that 80% of French residents now believe that science can never answer the big questions, perhaps they (and their fellow Europeans) are now experiencing what Leo Tolstoy’s character Levin (in Anna Karenina) felt after abandoning the religion of youth for a (then en vogue) progressivist scientific rationalism:

“Ever since, by his beloved brother’s deathbed, Levin had first glanced into the questions of life and death in the light of these new [secular rationalistic] convictions, as he called them, which had during the period from his twentieth to his thirty-fourth year imperceptibly replaced his childish and youthful beliefs—he had been stricken with horror, not so much of death, as of life, without any knowledge of whence, and why, and how, and what it was.  The physical organization, its decay, the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution, were the words which usurped the place of his old belief.  These words and the ideas associated with them were very well for intellectual purposes.  But for life they yielded nothing, and Levin felt suddenly like a man who has changed his warm fur cloak for a muslin garment, and, going for the first time into the frost, is immediately convinced, not by reason, but by his whole nature that he is as good as naked, and that he must infallibly perish miserably.”

Perhaps more and more Europeans are discovering what French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal claimed:  “the [human] heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”  (Although I suspect that Pascal has yielded too much to “reason,” which is, of course, presupposition-laden and highly enculturated:  what is self-evidently ‘rational’ to one culture can be enigmatic ‘folly’ to another.)

John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, and Adrian Woolridge, an editor for The Economist, in their book God is Back argue that as of late, for good or for bad, history is proving secularization theory wrong:  as societies around the world are developing, religion is, it seems, not declining.

At all.

In fact, they maintain, religion is very much growing around the world, and this includes, it would seem, secular Europe, given its fascination with the occult.  But perhaps this should lead us to re-consider what secularism itself might actually be:

A religion.

A religion that (more than a few?) Europeans have tried and found wanting.

Such an interpretation is perhaps affirmed in the words of the late Neil Postman (a media theorist and NYU professor), who three years before his death, claimed, “Whatever else we [humans] may call ourselves, we are the god-making species. Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future.” (A breath-taking example of this is the communism jaw-droppingly experienced and described the classic work The God that Failed).

Similarly, one the most fascinating sections of Micklethwait and Woolridge’s generally enthralling (and easy) read is their description of the seemingly ineradicable religious bent found in all humans. They observe:

“Man, whether the neo-atheists like it or not, is a theotropic beast:  given the option, he is inclined to believe in God, not least because, as studies show, religion can increase his well-being in material as well as spiritual ways.”

(For a summary of one such study, conducted at Harvard University, click here.)

And how especially evident this increased “well-being” is during Advent, when Christians can be seen joyously belting out Christmas carols, like the following one, which celebrates the Advent of the Davidic Son of God, a Bearer of divine presence, who has come to liberate a captive people from a sinister and pervasive dominion of darkness that exists only to deceive, dehumanize, divide, and destroy:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.

O Come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

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