Is a large segment of Christianity culturally addicted to lying? I don’t mean the unproven and unprovable foundation on which all religions are built, such as utter faith without evidence in a myriad of meticulous propositions about supernatural beings and forces. I do mean the disinformation Christian groups seem prone to spread about each other and about non-Christians, a type of missionary zeal that is neither necessary to protect their dogma nor required to exercise religious freedom.
[Disclaimer: I recognize that attributes of Christians asserted in these lines are not true of all Christians in all situations. I do, however, claim them to be characteristic of Christians taken as a group whether due to proportional significance or in “noise level.”]
As an atheist who made my lonely, untutored way out of a Christian rearing, I look back and see inaccuracies promoted about the non-Christian world that I then believed. Were they intentional lies? Not in most cases, just as now Christian misinformation is not necessarily intentional lies. The Christians I grew up among didn’t seem to care whether their criticisms of atheism (or of other religions) were accurate or not. The untruths were satisfying and self-congratulatory and in some agreed-upon, pep-rally way felt true.
I had to learn later that atheists were not untrustworthy, unhappy, and unhelpful as I’d been taught—at least no more than Christians. (Relevant previous posts on this blog include “Morality in secular humanism,” March 16, 2015; and “Wretched and unfulfilled without Jesus,” April 26, 2015.) I found they were not uneducated; in fact, persons whose careers are most concerned with teasing out truth from ignorance—research scientists—not priests, preachers, imams, and rabbis, are far more likely to be atheists than is the general population. I had been misled by my congregation in a number of ways.
Keep in mind that the kind of disinformation that’s the subject of this post is not that of theist dogma, but theist behavior. I’m not taking issue here with the points of faith that describe a religion, in this case Christianity. The misleading I’m referring to is what Christians say about their philosophical opponents’ beliefs and personalities, in my case atheism. So my topic here is not the “facts” of an omnipotent Jehovah and afterlife eternal punishment, but the questionable “facts” of atheists’ ethics and charity. Whether a God and hell are real or not, the lives of atheists are not relevant to that determination, nor do attributes of religions’ worldview stand or fall based on how atheists live their lives.
Therefore, in my childhood was it really necessary for Christians to misinform themselves and others (and me), whether by intent or negligence? Is it acceptable in the Christian moral code to spread untruths, whether by intent or by uncaring? Or is misrepresentation OK as long as it supports one’s religion, rather like “anything goes as long as you are on the ‘right’ team”? Muslims are permitted to lie for the advance of Islam or to gain the trust of non-believers, and Catholic theologians have flirted with “mental reservation.” But I suspect that theological justification is rarely considered. I propose that the consideration is whether anything opposing a matter of faith deserves one’s honesty, thereby conceiving truthfulness to be dependent on the status of one’s opponent, not a characteristic integral to one’s own integrity.
Religious lying no longer surprises me. On a personal level, Christians are approximately as honest as atheists. Nevertheless, in matters of faith, people in one religion have been known to lie egregiously about people in other religions. And just as we give politicians a pass for lying, we are also not prone to condemn religionists for lying; after all it is in their “good cause.” As a child I frequently listened to a Baptist preacher in Ringgold, Georgia carry on a broadcast radio skirmish with a preacher of my denomination in Chattanooga, Tennessee (close enough communities for AM radio). What they ascribed to each other went far beyond arguing what scripture said and what it didn’t.
Isn’t it interesting that to me the Baptist’s criticisms were so obviously wrong than those of “my” side . . . as far as my indoctrination enabled me to perceive. Maybe a few hundred years ago I’d have been easy to convince that Jews drank the blood of Christian babies. I don’t even want to consider what conclusions I’d have come to if I had lived in a community where witches were said to disrupt the Godly order of things, for strong religious positions are frequently associated with incredible beliefs. And Christians, like all religionists, have no problem with incredible beliefs that they’ve learned from childhood.
In the present age, it may be that most Christians tell fewer such bizarre lies about what their religious opponents are like or believe or what atheists are like or believe. I don’t want to let them off the hook too generously, though, for I’ve often watched Christians stand in silence when other Christians perpetrate misinformation. I’ve wondered why the quiet ones said nothing, why they let damaging and untrue characteristics and charges be made without challenge. The faithful would be surprised, maybe chagrined, if a fellow congregational member stood to refute a preaching pastor’s inaccurate portrayal of atheists.
Inaccurate information runs through much of religionists’ conversations, affecting large issues and small. Shortly after my complete adoption of atheism 56 years ago, one of my sisters (thoroughly Christian) tried to convince me that even if Christianity were not true, believers are nonetheless blessed with the highest possible code of morality. I credit my sister with sincerity, but I’m quite sure she had never examined what other religions and philosophers have had to say about morality. She did not actually know that Christian morality is the “highest possible,” nor had she clarified for herself criteria on which one could reasonably make such a judgment. Even in that micro-argument, in the absence of having ever read or studied other moralities, she relied on her faith that Bible-based morality simply must be the best; she needed no evidence.
Many present day Christians also need no evidence to say that Christianity, compared to atheism, brings greater ethical conduct or, on a sociological scale, dominance of Christianity in a population compared to less religion is associated with a more ethical country. Were they to seek actual data, they’d drop these unsupportable assumptions. But data are useless if faith is all that’s needed, enough blind confidence to believe that Christianity has so salutary an effect that seeking facts doesn’t matter.
Of course, there are big lies and there are small ones. Here is an example of a small one, significant in that it is but one of hundreds I see annually. I received the adjacent photograph and superimposed message (“Our VETS and their sacrifices deserve to be honored”) from a Facebook “friend.” The person posting the item did not mind telling a lie about what the atheists’ point was, because by lying the atheists could be made to look unpatriotic. The accompanying message was: “An atheist group won’t give up their fight to have a 1925 World War I veterans memorial in Bladensburg, MD removed. The 40 foot cross reads ‘This Memorial Cross Dedicated To The Heroes of Prince George’s County Who Gave Their Lives In The Great War For The Liberty Of The World.’ Those Veterans and the sacrifices they made deserve better than that. They deserve to be honored.”
The message is pretty obvious: Atheists don’t care about veterans. Atheists are so offended by a cross that they will dishonor veterans. The problem is that these are untrue. The message is an intentional lie or, at best, arises from not caring whether it is a lie or not. It makes atheists look bad, so it must be true. It makes Christians look good, so it must be right. The truth is that atheists care about veterans in the same way that believers do. (Incidentally, there are atheists in foxholes, despite the well-circulated fabrication.) Another truth is that most atheists are not offended by crosses, just crosses erected with public money or on public land. Unless Christians actually have difficulty understanding that simple distinction, then comments like those attending the Facebook entry are merely lying by implication.
Normally, because stuff like this this is pandemic, I mutter a “tsk, tsk” and go on to opinions of greater integrity. Religiosity and pious posturing are like background noise in America, spouting prevarications too numerous to list. But small lies repeated unendingly matter; a “thousand cuts” comes to mind, lies not enough to merit much opposition. That little Facebook entry is an example, representative of 999 other cuts. Even recognizing its insignificance by itself, I weakened and gave it attention it did not deserve with this short retort:
“Yes, our vets and their sacrifices do deserve to be honored. Of the many atheists I know, not a single one disagrees with that. The atheist argument is with Christians using the government to do their missionary work for them….as in using a Christian symbol as if patriotism is a Christian phenomenon or in pushing Christian dogma in public schools. Absolutely YES to vets. NO to Christian bullying.”
There, that felt good and was within the usual brevity of Facebook comments. And other than its helping my cardiac health, it made not a whit of difference. Christians (OK, not all, but a greater percentage, I’d wager, than the percentage of Muslims inclined to be terrorists) are accustomed to having more rights than non-Christians in America. Opposing that special treatment is immediately called an attack on religion, for they’ve come to define freedom of religion as the right to tell others what to do and the right to commandeer government power to lend its authority to their cause.
I collect instances of such Christian bullying as a hobby, but only from the mouths of Christians themselves. Of the hundreds I’ve collected in just a few years, here are a representative few:
- “Counterfeit religions, alternative religions of Christianity have no right to the free exercise of religion.” Bryan Fischer, long time spokesperson for American Family Association.
- “In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.” Lisa Patterson, primary school principal, Rabun County School District, in prayers offered at district-sponsored graduation ceremonies. Tiger, Georgia.
- “Atheists are throwing a fit because they don’t have their own day. They do have their own day; it’s called April Fools’ Day, because you are a fool if you don’t believe in God.” High school history teacher (name not disclosed), Rankin County High School, Flowood, Mississippi.
- “Politicians who do not use the Bible to guide their public and private lives do not belong in office.” Beverly LeHaye, Concerned Women for America.
- “The long term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. Those who refuse to submit publicly to the eternal sanctions of God by submitting to His Church’s public marks of the covenant—baptism and holy communion—must be denied citizenship, just as they were in ancient Israel.” Gary North, in Political Polytheism, Tyler, Tex. Institute for Christian Economics.
- “The Christian community has a golden opportunity to train an army of dedicated teachers who can invade the public school classrooms and use them to influence the nation for Christ.” James Kennedy, Center for Reclaiming America.
- “Nobody has the right to worship on this planet any other God than Jehovah. And therefore the state does not have the responsibility to defend anybody’s pseudo-right to worship an idol.” Joseph Morecraft, Chalcedon Presbyterian Church, Cumming, Georgia.
- “57 percent.” Public Policy Polling, summarizing its nationwide survey of whether the Republican Party base “supports establishing Christianity as the national religion” (vs. supporters of Rick Perry 94% and Mike Huckabee 83%).
- “We should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their [sic] choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.” Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen.
- “Share the Gospel and bring people to Christ and strengthen their beliefs.” Irma Hernandez, Deputy City Manager, Orange, Calif., describing the purpose of 2013 and 2014 Mayor’s Prayer Breakfasts for which city personnel coordinated invitations, arranged musical performances and speakers, suggested the mayor’s Bible verse selections, set the theme of the keynote message, and prepared Mayor Teresa Smith’s opening remarks.
- “We’re all about wanting to see the cause of Christ go further…in more public arenas in the American culture…We want to see Christ in our schools. [This is an] attempt to bully us.” Pastor Justin Coffman, explaining to Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt why removing Christian plaques mounted by the Midlothian Independent School District are not justified.
Sharia law, though far worse, is not the only religion-based code of law we need to resist. Christians do not just seek to control everyone else, they already do to a frightening extent. A constitutional ruling on gay marriage by the Supreme Court was overridden by a single county clerk. It was temporary, but the distressing feature was the widespread, angry applause from millions of other Christians, the backing of Christian organizations, and even pandering presidential candidates.
We need not wait for Christians to be so fair—so moral—as to voluntarily relinquish their special rights. Some will and have made known their opposition to undeserved power. (Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a mix of religious and nonreligious members.) But so far those Christians who cling to and fight for advantageous treatment by government—over Jews, over atheists, over everyone other than Christians—have ruled the day. After all, they prize tax advantages others don’t get, their access to public school students, space on government property for religious displays, and other perqs. For them, even that is not enough, for they want still more and cry out as if victimized at any hint of being obliged to play on a level field.
As I have opined in this blog numerous times, religion in general is little interested in truth. Christianity makes a mantra of the word “Truth,” but continues to be tied to “revealed truth,” a hollow designation in that it can never be distinguished from revealed untruth. In such a weak position, having built so many castles on sand, it is no wonder that telling the truth about others or about matters bearing on Christian hegemony just isn’t very important.
Now, let’s see. Where did that “highest code of morality” go my sister so sincerely believed Christianity stood for?