I Always Knew Santa Was Make-Believe: A Retired Pastor on Losing Her Faith

I always knew Santa was make-believe. My parents taught me Jesus was the reason for the season, God’s free gift to all who believe in him. They never lied to me about anything, including Santa Claus.

A few years ago, I watched a little boy after a funeral. He seemed oblivious to the conversation occurring over his head until one grownup exclaimed: “I still believed in Santa Claus then!”

Beneath them, the child’s eyes and mouth popped open. Laughter riffled the air. He searched upward for his parents. But they were laughing and never met his startled gaze.

I recalled that boy’s alarm when my husband, Phil, and I tried to tell friends that our beliefs had changed.

“What beliefs?”

“God.” Startled silence. Jaws dropped, eyes wide.

“You can’t mean that,” one said.

Phil and I were ordained ministers. I had accepted Jesus as my Savior when I was four at the altar of a revival tent in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Growing up in those woods, I talked to Jesus—not an audible conversation so much as my heart’s constant refrain of love and gratitude. When we married in 1965, I called Phil my “second best friend.”

Even after I became a feminist, I seldom questioned familiar creeds. The idea of domination no longer fit my worldview. So, I asked Jesus, “Is there a name I can call you instead of Lord?”

“Sure,” came the lighthearted reply: “Call me Cramps.” I laughed at this divine nod to women’s bleeding and birth pangs. That was the sort of conversation God and I had: a relaxed, confident projection of my own evolving beliefs.

I could not account for other people’s beliefs about God. In 2003, when President George W. Bush grew impatient with the search for weapons of mass destruction and launched his tragic invasion of Iraq, I suspected he thought he was hearing from God, like Joshua at Jericho. He seemed to think Iraqis would eagerly lay down their arms before our triumphant Lord.

On public radio, I heard a teenage brother and sister describe their reasons for enlisting, beginning with their mistaken belief that Iraq had attacked us on 9/11. She was 17 and eager to leave school. He was 19, heading for boot camp. Was he afraid to die? No, he said: “I’m a Christian. So, I know where I’m going.”

Islamic fundamentalists likewise promised teen recruits eternal glory of martyrdom and paradise. Allahu Akbar! God bless America! Religious slogans in these contexts made me sick.

Bush declared that he had to invade Iraq because God wanted to set people free. I paced our empty church and told the President: “You just cut my umbilical cord to Christianity.”

I had no idea what that meant. If President Bush was like a midwife, cutting my connection to those lifelong beliefs, then what new life was being born? Years later, Phil reminded me that someone else had freed us from our theological assumptions in a far more generous and life-giving way.

In the year after Phil’s cancer diagnosis in 2005, we had begun to take comfort in the BBC documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, who thrilled us with the wonders of nature and never mentioned God. We snuggled in bed and watched the lumbering scholar describe the marvels of planet Earth. His diction remained precise whether he knelt in mud or dangled from a giant redwood. His self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact summaries of evolution soothed us. Breathtaking photography of animals and plants on far-flung continents filled us with awe.

Phil and I felt no crisis of faith when we told each other we no longer believed in a supernatural being. The bad midwife had freed us from magical thinking of religious ideologues. The good midwife had welcomed us into a vibrant world of natural wonder that had been here all along.

I think God happens between people

Aerialist Nik Wallenda balanced himself differently above this world of natural wonder. When he crossed the Grand Canyon in 2013, he walked one-quarter-mile on a half-inch cable 1500 feet in the air with no safety net. “Thank you, Jesus,” he said, his words recorded. “Lord, help this cable to calm down. I command it in your name. Praise you, praise you, Jesus.”

I grew up talking to Jesus like that. Nik grew up walking on high wires since he was two like his mother, father, and extended family. Despite his strong belief, I knew Nik could not walk on water across the Colorado River. He would sink like a stone. Faith often works when you believe, but gravity always works, whether or not you believe.

When Phil and I told each other our thinking about God had changed, we felt a sense of relief. But when we tried to tell others, they gasped. No matter how gently we introduced the subject, it seemed like too much for some people we loved.

Later we understood how evolution had changed us in imperceptible increments over a long stretch of time. We were like fish that crawled onto land and, over eons, evolved into air-breathing, live-bearing, warm-blooded beings without knowing how that happened.

During millions more years, some returned to the sea, where legs morphed into flippers instead of fins. They became dolphins, whales, and manatees. But they remained warm-blooded and still breathed air. Their tails lay horizontally and moved up and down, the way legs had propelled their ancestors on land. They would never again be fish. Never again hold their tail fins vertically and swish them side-to-side. The change was irreversible.

We had become secular Christians. Though deeply rooted in Christianity, Phil and I discovered that our growing edge was secular, not bound by old familiar creeds. We still value our kinship with many Christians, but we no longer believe that a self-aware supernatural being sent his only begotten son to die for us. We no longer believe a blood sacrifice will bring us everlasting life.

That gospel message saved my paternal grandfather around 1898. His own father succumbed to alcoholism and abandoned the family, leaving his teenage son to suffer a nervous breakdown. I still have the tract that brought my grandfather hope and healing. The same hope became a refuge for my mother at the age of five, because her mother had taught her how to talk to Jesus before she died, in 1914, giving birth to her fourth baby.

Neuroscience shows how our brains feed on messages of hope. Today, opioid addicts achieve sobriety with help from a Higher Power. Those liberating beliefs can atrophy into walls that separate people. Or they can evolve into bridges that connect them. Months into our marriage, Phil stretched my fundamentalism when he said: “I think God happens between people.”

Atheists can sound as smug and superior as fundamentalists. Creeds—or their adamant absence—can turn to concrete, crush our humanity, and sink this lifeboat we all share.

As much as Phil and I wish we could be together forever, we accept the scientific evidence. We belong to a species that dies. When our brain cells disintegrate, our unique identities will disappear.

This truth makes our fleeting lives on planet Earth more precious than ever.