GodWith Easter upon us we enter one of the most religious periods on the year and, as with Christmas, we are treated to endless debates about the historicity and meaning of the events being celebrated. I’ve given our religious brethren a bit of tough time over the past few weekends so thought I’d turn my attention onto atheists this week with a discussion of an argument with an Easter spin.

It has become standard in recent days for atheists to argue that belief in God is akin to belief in the Easter Bunny: both beliefs, so it is claimed, are infantile. So says Richard Dawkins and many of his groupies enthusiastically agree. Of course, being engaged in polemic, they want to smear belief in God and by comparing it with belief in the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus suits their purposes of ridiculing religious belief. By extension religious believers are written off as infantile, unthinking and naïve.

But, is such a comparison fair and rational or is it itself infantile? It seems to me that belief in God is not remotely comparable to belief in the Easter Bunny at all. Some atheists seem to argue that the beliefs are equal because neither God nor the Easter Bunny exist; and therefore believing in either is the same irrational act. But, is there really no difference, even if we grant that neither God nor the Easter Bunny exists? Lets say two physicists sit down to discuss the existence of black holes. Knewton doesn’t believe in them; Einstain does. Would it be fair and rational for Knewton to compare Einstain’s belief in blackholes to belief in the Easter Bunny? Surely not. Alternatively, lets say my aunt lives in Australia and dies, unknown to me. Is my continued belief in her existence comparable to belief in Santa simply by virtue of the fact that both involve beliefs in people that do not exist? Hardly.

Even from an atheist perspective it is odd that belief in God should be compared to belief in the Easter Bunny, except for rhetorical effect or polemical purposes. The reason is that there appear to be some very relevant differences between the beliefs and between the people who hold the beliefs. So, what are these relevant differences?

Firstly, and most importantly, the Easter Bunny is known not to exist. More accurately, we know the Easter Bunny is a fabrication, a fictional story told to children at Easter to make it a more exciting time for them. All sane and rational adults and older children are well aware that this is the case. God, on the other hand, is not known to not exist. Those who talk about God and claim He exists are making serious claims and not knowingly telling stories. Atheists might well think that God does not exist, but they cannot justifiably claim to know that God does not exist, and in my experience atheists rarely if ever claim to know that God doesn’t exist. Rather the typical atheist position is that they are unconvinced by theistic arguments and have no good reason to believe God does exist. It seems patently obvious that the existence of God is a matter of serious intellectual inquiry, even amongst the most intelligent human beings: unlike the existence of the Easter Bunny. Only children and the mentally deranged seriously consider the possibility of the existence of Santa, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. And this is a highly relevant difference between the two beliefs.

Secondly, and following from the above, God’s existence is a matter for debate, evidence and argument, and those who hold belief in God usually give arguments and evidence for that belief. There is no moral argument for the existence of Santa. No cosmological argument for the Tooth Fairy. No teleological argument for the existence of the Easter Bunny. No Ontological argument for pixies. In short, no sane and rational human beings will even attempt to defend belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny with reasons and evidence. The proposition “God exists” is therefore in a very different intellectual category. There are serious arguments by serious thinkers for belief in God and the rationality of theism. Of course atheists are not persuaded by such arguments, but that does not warrant the equating of belief in God with belief in the Easter Bunny, and even less so of equating the rationality of those who believe in God with those who believe in Santa.

Thirdly, millions of people past and present have claimed to have had experiences of God or some kind of “sensus divinitatus” (as John Calvin put it), or inner awareness of God or the divine. As far as I’m aware the same cannot be said for the Easter Bunny. No sensus Easter-Bunnicanus has ever been reported. Claims to have experienced God or the divine are not at all incontrovertible evidence to an atheist, but they do provide some further grounds on which to question the equating of belief in God with belief in known fictitious creations of the human mind.

Lastly, belief in Santa, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy are all infantile beliefs, held (mentally deranged adults aside) solely by children. Rational adults all over the world believe in God. Moreover, many of them come to believe in God after childhood – CS Lewis, Alister McGrath and Antony Flew being a few examples. It is popular to claim that belief in God is something most of us hold just because we were taught it as children. But, even if this is the case, and there are good reasons for denying it, it would not show that there is something wrong with the belief or with those who hold it. After all, we are taught many things in childhood that are true, such as that 1 + 1 = 2. In any event, belief in God is not a throwback to childhood, nor a delusion that should have died out when we gave up belief in the Easter Bunny. It is a much more serious proposition, one entertained by millions, and with plenty of sane, rational and highly intelligent defenders. None of this makes the belief true, but it should surely make us pause for thought before placing it and those who believe it in the same category as belief in the Easter Bunny and those who believe in that proposition. For many theists belief in God is better likened to beliefs such as “1 + 1 = 2,” “I feel happy,” “I see a tree in front of me,” “I am experiencing the love of my partner,” “the external world exists apart from in my own mind,” I had cornflakes for breakfast this morning,” or “other minds exist.” From a theist perspective their belief in God is worlds apart from a child’s belief in Santa, and it is exceedingly odd that some atheists cannot see the differences.

Insofar as these atheists fail to recognise the very obvious differences here they will continue to be written off by theists, and many intelligent atheists, as unthinking dogmatists. If genuine dialogue between atheists and religious believers is to proceed belief in God must be recognised as much more intellectually serious than belief in the Easter Bunny. No arguments will be won and no theists will be convinced on the basis of such a comparison.

To believe in God may be to accept a proposition that is untrue, but to believe in God is not infantile like believing in the Easter Bunny. To claim otherwise is infantile and a stumbling block to proper debate. The argument that theism is comparable to belief in the Easter Bunny could be likened to an Easter egg: looks tempting, smells sweet, but break it open and you soon discover that it’s empty.