The difference fundamentalists make

Just a quick followup to yesterday’s post about Santa.

Matthew Schmitz, deputy editor of the conservative Christian publication First Things, wrote a funny response, calling me a “Grinch Professor” whose complaint about Santa is “nakedly hysterical.” The piece badly mischaracterizes what I wrote, but I don’t need to get into that. I just want to elaborate on my implication that the problem of large numbers of literal Bible believers in the USA is serious.

I showed a table from Pew reporting that about three-quarters of American adults believe, for example, that Jesus was born to a virgin woman. That’s one kind of belief. Santa is another. And the belief that the Bible is the “actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word,” is another. I don’t know the exact overlap between these beliefs across the life course, but I presume they’re positively correlated (among self-described evangelical Protestants, about 95% believe the Christmas story is literally true). The General Social Survey (GSS) only tells us about the actual word of God (AWG) people, so it doesn’t answer the whole story, but it helps.

Schmitz’s mocks me this way:

The first thing Cohen fears is that Santa will put children on the path toward membership in the Westboro Baptist Church. Belief in the “Christmas story is the soft leading edge of a more hardcore Christian fundamentalism,” he writes, including opposition to “marriage rights for homosexuals.”

Note my “leading edge” comment was about literal belief in the Christmas story, not Santa, and I think it’s a pretty solid hypothesis. In fact, I clarified later:

Of course, teaching children to believe in Santa doesn’t necessarily create “actual word of God” fundamentalists. But I expect it’s one risk factor.

But I want to go back to the Westboro Baptist Church comment. WBC is a fringe hate group. I’m talking about a mainstream fundamentalist movement. The American AWG community in 2012 included 28% of men and 35% of women. I reported that the GSS shows these folks are much more likely to think we put too much trust in science, to oppose gay marriage, to say we worry too much about the environment, and to want women to stay home instead of working.

This is not fringe stuff — these are pretty common right-wing positions. What I didn’t make clear is what a large contribution AWG makes to the prevalence of those views. So here is the percentage of people holding each position who are AWGers. The way to read this is, for example, “69% of people who strongly agree that we put too much faith in science instead of religious faith also believe the Bible is the actual word of God.”


The point is that for trust in science, gay marriage, and women’s employment, the majority of American opposition comes from people who hold fundamentalist Christian views (for thinking we worry too much about the environment it’s just over 40%).

Of course I don’t think, and didn’t say, that belief in Santa causes this problem. But I think it’s likely a risk factor. And it’s never too early to start building the knowledge and critical thinking skills we need to overcome it.

Merry Christmas.


6 thoughts on “The difference fundamentalists make

  1. Of corse, the fact that “69% of people who strongly agree that we put too much faith in science instead of religious faith also believe the Bible is the actual word of God.” does not mean that 69% of people who believe that the Bible is the word of God think that we put too much faith in science. It could be, but maybe not.
    Merry Christmas


      1. I would have used BIBLE as the independent variable for all these other opinions. I’d want to compare the AWG people with those who have other views of the Bible. For example, they are twice as likely to Agree that “Science breaks down ideas of right and wrong,” while there’s surprisingly little difference (surprising to me) between those who see the Bible as the “inspired word of God” and those who see it as a “book of fables.”


        1. Thanks, Jay. That’s what I did in the first Santa post:

          Using the GSS I analyzed the attitudes of the “actual word of God” people (my Stata data and work files are here). Controlling for their sex, age, race, education, political ideology, and the year of the survey, they are much more likely than the rest of the population to:

          * Agree that “We trust too much in science and not enough in religious faith”
          Oppose marriage rights for homosexuals
          * Agree that “people worry too much about human progress harming the environment”
          * Agree that “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”


  2. There’s a question in the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey that asks at what age the respondent stopped believing in Santa ( I just ran a couple of exploratory analyses. The measure didn’t always provide much explanatory power, but when it did never having believed in Santa and stopping to believe in Santa at an older age were more similar than believing at one point but becoming an early skeptic. This may be because (and this is based on anecdotal evidence) some conservative religious parents tell their kids that Santa isn’t real because they don’t want them to believe and then find out that this God-like entity is imaginary. On the other hand, kids who were told Santa is real and then doubted early (say age 3 instead of 6) may just be more likely to tend toward skepticism than people who were never told Santa was real or who believed until they were older. So, for example, Santa skeptics (people who believed at one point but stopped believing at a young age) are more likely to believe in evolution, support abortion, and hold predictable views on some other similarly partisan measures. People who stopped believing in Santa at an older age are most likely to believe in God now. There isn’t a significant relationship with view of the Bible, though people who stopped believing in Santa at an older age seem to tend more toward literalism.


  3. Your discussion of Santa and social class awareness made me think of a recent Facebook post by a Christian Canadian radio station that got half a million shares. It is a supposed request by a real mother for all parents to give only small inexpensive gifts from Santa and mark the expensive things as being from them not Santa. The logic being that it’s the Christian thing to do because poor children will not understand why rich children get more form Santa. This post made many of their followers unhappy in the comments. Lots of talk about bootstrapping, working hard to provide, and life not always being fair. I thought the comments section was also an interesting window into the anxiety of parents over inequality and class.
    Here is the link:


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