"I guess it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God. If you get to your twenties and you're still believing in God, which I was, I feel it's a state of arrested development, as if a child was twelve and still believed in Santa Claus." -- Julia Sweeney, as heard on NPR's To the Best of our Knowledge.
Although Julia Sweeney - former cast member of SNL - could hardly be called an intellectual, I give her credit for so succinctly summarizing the fall-back position of atheistic luminaries like Dawkins, Dennett, and Sam Harris. Anyone who has encountered the writings of these bold men is quite familiar with such "God as Tooth Fairy" attacks. Indeed, the idea that religion is no more than childish fancy is one of the most treasured and nurtured thoughts among secular elites, largely because it reinforces their sense of superiority over the benighted masses. But sadly, it's a simplistic approach that betrays the ignorance and shallow thinking of its advocates. The main problem is that it misses its intended target by a mile. Sweeney's argument is correct to this extent: if any believer's conception of God actually resembled the figure of Santa Claus, then they would certainly be in a state of arrested development. But very few of the adherents of the world's major religions - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. - have such a crude conception of God. The fact that Sweeney can say that "it's obvious that Santa Claus is the kid's version of God" indicates that she has no understanding of actual faith, and that the faith she thought she had in her twenties was only a sham, and not the real deal. Apparently, she has since come to think that all believers share her simplistic notions of God.
Likewise, Dawkins and Harris have sold a lot of books with their straw-man arguments, running down a caricature of religion that primarily exists in the minds of "secular fundamentalists" like themselves. These modern atheists are not interested in understanding religion, only attacking it. Thus, Dawkins can say that "we should devote as much time to studying serious theology as we devote to studying serious fairies and serious unicorns." He makes no effort to understand the best minds of the Christian tradition - Augustine, Aquinas, or Barth - probably because it's so much easier to beat up on the likes of Pat Robertson.
The intellectual laziness of modern atheism is a shame because, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Christianity needs smart atheists to keep it honest. In my estimation, the best example of a "purifying atheist" is Friedrich Nietzsche (for a wonderful synopsis of Nietzsche's contributions to Christian thought, please check out Byron Smith's post here). The son of a Lutheran pastor, Nietzsche had a deeper understanding of Christianity than the vast majority of theologians, past and present. And unlike modern atheists, he took the idea of God very seriously. He may have reached some of the same conclusions about religion as modern atheists, but he took a very different route. His writings bear witness, not to a simple-minded dismissal of God, but to a profound confrontation with his religious heritage. In the end, his struggle may have yielded a purer and more faithful account of the Christian faith. Thus, Eberhard Jungel could say that "[Nietzsche's] thoughts come very close to the Christian truth which he was opposing. They merit special attention." A hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will be saying the same thing about Harris' recent book.
So here's a challenge to all those aspiring atheists out there: ditch the silly "Santa Claus" argument (you're better than that!) and start engaging religion with a little sophistication. May I suggest a certain German madman?