I had a conversation with my mother recently. She told me a story that she had heard through a friend about some distant or not so distant family member. Unfortunately I cannot remember all of the specifics of the story, so bear with me. I also have no means of verifying its accuracy, so I use it as a way to discuss a point, not necessarily as a historical account.

The story took place in a Nazi occupied country during the Holocaust. A Christian family was hiding a Jewish family in their basement. The Nazis came knocking, as they often did, as asked if the family was hiding anyone. At this point, the family was torn. If they told the truth, the people they were hiding would be killed, but if they said “No”, they would be lying, and as Christians believed that lying was a sin. They told the truth. According to the story, the Nazis were so shocked by their response that they laughed it off, did not believe the Christians, and assumed that there must have been some sort of trap. The Nazis left and the Jewish family was safe. After finishing this story, my mother said, “I can't understand how some people can hear a story like that and not see god.” To which I'm sure you can guess my response.

Now, I hear you. This story does not seem plausible, if only for the fact that I cannot imagine the Nazis leaving with everyone unharmed if they honestly believed there was a setup. However, not having studied enough about the subject, for all I know that was a common scenario, so let's disregard any glaring unlikelihoods. Let us focus instead on the actions of the Christians in the story and my mother's response to it.

In the conversation that followed, my mother stated that she did not think she could have made the same decision the Christians in the story made, but that she admired the Christians for their faith in god, and he came through for them. My take on the story is that the Christians were adhering to warped and harmful beliefs, should not be commended for telling the truth, and were just plain lucky that the outcome was what it was. I also stated that they probably were not the only Christians to have given up their hidden charges for the sake of following their god's laws, and that nine times out of ten the Nazis would not have reacted the way they did and those hiding would not have been spared. I even went so far as to say they would have been partially culpable in the death of this Jewish family, had it happened. It's one thing to tell the truth and risk your own life, but to risk someone else's?

As an atheist, I am often asked how I can possibly determine wrong from right. As any atheist can tell you, it is really not that difficult. I also consider myself a humanist, obviously of the secular variety. As clichéd as it sounds, I follow the Golden Rule- do unto others... you get the idea. There are a couple of gray points I have, and as I've said before I am an anti-absolutist, but those are topics for a different post. Maybe this sounds like a moral mess to some, and granted as an anti-absolutist I sometimes have to look at situations case by case to determine my view on them, but for the most part it is pretty self-explanatory. I do not advocate the violation of someone else's will, and this goes beyond what is legal and what is illegal, which is a different matter.

Let's try to figure how out lying fits into this. Lying could be considered within the gray area, so I guess I would have to take it case by case. While I try to avoid dishonesty in my life because it generally does not lead to good things, I cannot say I believe every lie is inherently wrong or ought to be avoided. The old story of a wife asking her husband if he thinks another woman is prettier than she is a pretty easy example to work with. Say the man thinks the other woman is prettier (he better not!). On one hand, one could argue that it is a violation of the woman's trust if he were to lie. On the other hand, one could argue that it would hurt the woman's feelings and it is better to lie over such a trivial matter. Personally, I see the damage that can be done by lying, but if I were in the situation, I would prefer being lied to. If I was only dating the guy then I might prefer honesty, because I'd probably end up breaking up with that guy eventually anyway. However, if married, I'm obviously not going to get divorced over something like that, so my alternative is to continue in the marriage knowing my husband does not think I'm the prettiest girl around. I'll be honest (pun intended), I have jealousy and insecurity issues, and if I thought my future husband found another woman more attractive than me, that would definitely be a sore spot. Maybe these are issues I need to work on, but for right now, that's the way it is.

As far as I'm concerned, lying over certain matters is not necessarily wrong. It has to do with intent and weighing the severity of the potential and probable outcomes. Now let's take the case at hand: lying to save someone else's life. Clearly, I think it's appropriate and, in fact, more ethical to lie in this situation. Luckily the situation worked out for the families involved so that perhaps telling the truth was the only way lives would be spared, but there was no way to know that. The Christians told the truth assuming that the family they were hiding would be killed, but that in god's eyes it was still the course they should follow.

As an ex-Christian, I know firsthand that some Christian churches do teach that all prevarications are equal in god's eyes. Of course I do not speak for every church, but I am confident that some do teach this. This means that lying to your friend that you like her new purse is just as bad as lying on a tax return, or lying about being married in order to cheat, or lying to save someone's life. But of course, isn't being partially responsible for someone else's death also a “sin”?

The Protestant churches I went to (obviously the Catholic church disagrees here) also taught that all “sins” are created equal. Murder is equal to lying is equal to a six year old stealing gum from a convenience store. I asked my mother what she would have done in this situation. She said she didn't know and she probably would have lied, but she generally implied that she thought the fact that she would probably lie was a character flaw or a lack of faith on her part.

My question to her, and to other Christians in general, was: so if both outcomes involve “sinning”, and all “sins” are created equal, how do you decide what to do in a situation like this? (Let's disregard the idea that all “sins” are created equal, which I think is a fairly reprehensible idea anyway.) She did not know how to decide which was more wrong in “god”'s eyes, and I do not think she honestly believes one path would have been more wrong or more right than the other. For her, it all came down to faith in god, and that god chose to reward these Christians for their blind, unmoving, unthinking, harmful, negligent faith.

After all of this, I have to ask: how can anyone say it's difficult for an atheist to determine between right and wrong when not all Christians can seem to even determine that it's more wrong to risk someone else's life than to lie? Or at least that some Christians may think one option is better while others disagree? I can't speak for every atheist, but I'm pretty sure most if not all would agree that lying is the better option here based on the potential and probable outcomes. And they call us moral relativists. I may have to take certain things case by case, but at least I can make a damn decision when I do. What do you think?

(If you'd like to read more of my entries, not necessarily to do with atheism, please visit Musings From A Nowhere Girl)

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Tags: lying, morality


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Comment by Jared Lardo on October 13, 2009 at 1:45am
I've got one thing to say to that story: What were those Jews like?

Were they a big incest family that just shtuped each other all day long? I'd've hidden them just to turn them in. If they were the stereotypical money-lovers, charging unnecessarily high prices or interest rates, then I'd be more inclined to say "Yes--I'll even go get them for you." If they were cleanly and easily good people, then I'd probably go ahead and lie, duh.

Although it's less, y'know, useful, of a consideration than, say, the fact that this is typical amateur prosely-ganda, it's far more thought-provoking and ultimately effective of a response to give than "No, you're wrong for reasons 1 through 11, given on pages 2, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 22, 27a, 29, and 30 of this *thuds unbound report onto table* report on how wrong that that story is." to throw in an extra detail that causes them, of necessity, to think about reasons other than their god for why to tell the truth or not.
Comment by david hartley on October 12, 2009 at 10:25pm
I just realised i've now made my own nomination for patronising git of the year. Nominations closed i reckon
Comment by david hartley on October 12, 2009 at 10:22pm
Reading the sub-text, if i had such an open and questioning being as you in my life;colour me happy, or since you're stateside color me. The questions you ask are fundemental to our sense of being, every 'faith' asks very similar questions unfortunatly in the case of our godly the answer as you so rightly put is; it is right in the case of our god, but look at the wrongs that can be committed under such an aegis. would they have aquised to the murder of someone under such a blind faith. History says yes! It's not always the crime but the cloak of their intentions that we are blind to. Do not worry that much young lady these and many other questions will puzzle you for years to come (ever the optomist!) they're questions we elders are trying to sort out LOL
Comment by Alex McCullie on October 12, 2009 at 8:16pm
Hugh topic - morality and ethics. 'Rule-following' and 'maximising utility' separately seem too simplistic to cover our full range of moral intuitions. The golden rule is very appealing, though like most aphorisms, relies heavily on personal interpretation. How do we know what others really want? And do they really want what we want? Many ethicists see the golden rule as being too generic to be terribly useful in specific situations. That may be unfairly dismissive.

The Nazi example is often used in ethics courses to explore the limits of rule-making morality. Most would probably lie (and breaking the rule of 'never lying') to save a life unless there were other extraordinary circumstances. Another popular example is killing one person to save many, such as harvesting body parts from one well person to allow others to survive. Here you are testing the limits of 'maximising group welfare' approach to morality. Interestly, our brains seem wired for both ways of evaluating moral situations.

I'm yet to meet a conservative Christian who can possibly take all the moral rules of the new and old testment literally, if that is even possible. A boring strategy for us atheists is to pick something extreme from the bible to say 'what about...?'

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 12, 2009 at 7:42pm
The Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", can be shortened to "Do no unnecessary harm". The Golden Rule is a great concept. Not only does it guide us in moral matters, it also defines personal responsibility.

In the Nazi/Jew scenario you described, the Christian family took on a moral responsibility by agreeing to hide the Jews in the first place. They could have said to go elsewhere or they could have agreed to hide them. I don't see a problem with either choice. The potential hosts had to make the decision best for them. But once a decision was made, they're morally committed to see it through or negotiate some new decision.

This particular Christian family acted without responsibility. Not only that, they were complete morons. By basing their morality on authority in stead of experience and empathy, they manufactured their own dilemma. You can't do the humane thing and hide the Jews if you're going to confess the truth when questioned about it. Jesus wants us to treat everybody with love . . . and the 10 commandments demand that we never lie. Guess what? That combination is a contradiction in the real world. We often need to lie to protect the ones we love . . . even if they're complete strangers.

Morality is a natural human trait born of experience and empathy. I've already held a discussion on this topic in the Origins group. In summary, I proposed that human experience and empathy are all that's required for morality AND that they have an evolutionary basis.

A significant accomplishment of our natural, human, morality is that it's what we used to reform religion. Using our own natural morality, we rejected the religiously endorsed or condoned practices of slavery, the subjugation of women and wartime excesses. Not only is the morality of our humanity stronger and more solid than religious morality, it is what we use to decide what IS religious.

If we use natural, human, morality to decide what is religious . . . why do we need religion in the first place?

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