Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drawing Lines: Good Lies and Bad Lies, Good Truth and Bad Truth

Kirk Cameron is fond of cornering people and making them admit that they are liars, and therefore hellworthy sinners. Sounds like a fun guy at a party. That kind of polemical thinking -- you're either a liar or you're not -- makes it easy to make people feel guilty. But it's not that simple, of course. There are intentionally harmful lies, and there are innocent lies. There are compulsive liars and there are compassionate liars. I do think that honesty is the best policy, but I also think that if someone needs encouragement or hope, a lie might be the kindest thing you can say to them. In other words, there are lies ... and there are lies.

Without all evidence pointing against them, spreading tales of the supernatural is the same as spreading lies. And, like mundane day-to-day lies, ones that are spread about heaven and hell, God and the devil, and creation and ressurection, can be harmful or they can be beneficial. I've always viewed the afterlife as one of those encouraging lies that you tell other people to make them feel better during times of grief (just without the inevitable facing of reality that normally follows). There are plenty of harmful lies also, such as when evangelists guilt people into donating money, or trusting in faith-healing over a doctor's medicine.

Sometimes the same lie can be both to different people. The Secret, for instance, has a foolish, albeit encouraging message. Some people take that message as simple encouragement: if I think positively, I will find more that is positive in life. Others take the concept to harmful levels: if I think positively, I will be able to stop my chemo treatments.

My wife is firmly in the former camp in regards to The Secret. She listens to it, and it seems to help her cope during times of stress and anxiety, but she never takes it too far by relying on the 'power' of The Secret to make something happen. Today I witnessed the perfect example. We just sold our house (signed the paperwork this morning!) and are trying to finalize a loan on the new house for which we're about to make an offer. She is particularly vulnerable to financial stressors, and has been absolutely frantic all morning. She ended up going for a drive, listening to The Secret on audio CD. She called later and, sounding calmer than she had all day, admitted that she was feeling better and more in control.

I have never had a problem with this aspect of religion, in the same way that I have no problem with Santa Claus. If only religion and the supernatural would stay on this side of the line! If only there were a "Yes, Virginia, there is a God" in The Sun, describing the Einsteinian God of awe and amazement at the wonders of the natural world.

But there is a line, and too often the supernatural believers cross it into destructive and hateful results. These are the lies that Kirk Cameron and those like him should be fighting against. In the same way that Sam Harris reasons that the religious moderates unwillingly protect the religious fundamentalists from criticism, the harmless and compassionate lies that religion tells us helps protect the hateful lies from criticism. Atheists decry religion by pointing out discrimination and the obstruction of science, and theists defend religion by pointing to the ideals of afterlife and heaven.

Atheists are not blameless. Despite our desire to spread evidential truth instead of faith, our message can become just as horribly corrupt. Atheist Mama recently shared a story of two contrasting messages of atheism. She overheard one coworker describing atheism to another:
“you know [Kelly], there is no afterlife.” At this, my ears perked up. While I personally might try to not introduce rationalism with death, I’m always interested identifying fellow rationalists. He sounded like a good candidate. “There is no heaven, no hell, no god,” [Ira] continued. A fellow atheist too! I continued to listen, not even pretending to type anymore. “When you die, your body will rot and be eaten by maggots. Life really has no point.” Oh, I thought. He’s a maggot guy.

This dialog upsets the other coworker, who came to Atheist Mama for support:
“My mother raised me as a Catholic,” Kelly continued, “she’d just be so upset to hear something like that.” I nodded again. “Why would he believe something like that?” she asked.

I took a deep breath as I prepared to out myself. “Well, actually, I’m also an atheist. However, I think Ira’s being a bit of a nihilist.” I explained how the lack of an afterlife just makes life sweeter—since we only get to try once, we should do as much with our lives as possible. I explained that, while I didn’t believe there was a prescribed “meaning” of life, we make our own meaning through social compacts and personal values. “Oh,” Kelly said, blinking a few times as she absorbed this. Then she smiled, “That’s really so much nicer. I’m so glad I met you, Amanda,” and wandered off singing a random show-tune I’d never heard before.

It is not that Ira's description was false, it's just that it was an upsetting, harmful truth. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right? Atheist Mama's words gained support, while Ira's forged opposition.

So, lets draw our lines, take sides, and make a deal. Theists, why don't you just stick to your "love thy neighbor" and "golden rule" ideas, and stay away from the fire and brimstone and hate and discrimination. And we atheists will stick to the fuller lives and personal values views, and stay away from the maggots.



Sacred Slut said...

As my mother used to sing, "You gotta...accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative; don't mess with mister in-between."

Christian theists don't get to own the golden rule, also known as the ethic of reciprocity. That predates their theism by quite a while. They are welcome to use it, though.

I don't think it's a helpful life view to focus on the maggots. There's a lot of joy and beauty between now and death.

Re: The Secret, try getting one of Martin Seligman's books (Learned Optimism, eg) instead. Same principle without the woo.

David W. said...

Hi SS! I love that song! Have you ever seen Things to do in Denver When You're Dead? It's one of those movies you either love it or you hate it, and I love it. It features that song a couple of times.

THANK YOU for the Martin Seligman suggestion! Now if only I can figure out how to suggest that to my wife without her getting stubborn about reading it. (suggestions have the opposite effect on her that they have on normal people -- there's no better way to get her to stay away from something than to suggest it!)