The Liar's Club
Reading Time: 8 minutes The Liar's Club - a sign above a fisherman's shack in Nova Scotia. (Credit: DSC_2571, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, CC license.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Yeah, I know: “shots fired!”

But that’s what I want to talk about today: lying for what the liar thinks is a good cause. It’s not okay no matter who’s doing it.

The Liar's Club
The Liar’s Club – a sign above a fisherman’s shack in Nova Scotia. (Credit: DSC_2571, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr, CC license.)

You’ve probably heard of “lying for Jesus.” That’s what happens when a Christian stretches the truth or baldfaced lies about something related to Christianity for the specific cause of making the religion look more credible or convincing. It’s not a normal regular everyday lie told for a personal reason–to hide the truth or to make something sound more impressive, say. It’s a lie told for a very special reason, and that reason is to persuade people of Christian claims. It’s a lie the Christian thinks is justified by some great and overwhelming need. In Christians’ minds, it’s a small sin committed, yes, but one committed to avoid a huge catastrophe. One can always repent and be forgiven of a sin, but by their reckoning, Hell is forever: who wouldn’t commit a small sin to prevent someone else from being tortured forever and ever for finite thought crimes by a “loving” god? Why, one would need to be a monster to hold to strict honesty in the face of such a horrific threat! (But the god who invented that Hell? Oh, he’s always good, all the time.)

At this point this practice of “lying for Jesus” is so common that the concept has its own RationalWiki entry and page in the Atheism Wiki. Way too many Christians have a loosey-goosey relationship with the truth. One can see why. On the one hand are dozens and dozens of Bible verses condemning those who tell falsehoods. But on the other hand, human nature wants to win at games–and there aren’t many games as serious as religion. So Christians justify exaggeration, distortion, and even outright lies because they think the ends justify any means used.

If a lie “saves someone from Hell,” then obviously a lie should be told–it being much easier to lie to someone than to demonstrate to that person that Hell is a real place that threatens and endangers anybody after death. Christians may believe that their god is omnipotent, but they also very clearly believe that the truth isn’t good enough by itself to persuade people and that they must help their god along sometimes. And having dozens and dozens of Bible verses talking about the importance of telling the truth are totally nullified in their minds by the presence of one or two that seem to support the idea of lying for a good cause, as seen in this Creationist site’s rationalization:

From all the preceding Bible verses, it would seem that lying would never be acceptable. However, this is not necessarily correct, since there are times that telling the truth would actually facilitate the exercise of evil. A good example of this principle occurred during World War II, when Christians hid Jews and lied to the occupying authorities to prevent their deaths. A biblical example occurred when Rahab the prostitute hid the Jewish scouts on her roof and lied to the king of Jericho to protect their lives. Because of this act, her life was spared and she was counted as one of the people of faith in the New Testament book of Hebrews. So, lying is okay only when not doing so would jeopardize innocent life.

But remember, kids, subjective morality is bad, except when it isn’t. (If you’re wondering, that writer thinks that Christians who lie for bad reasons, such as hiding unapproved sex from the public eye, aren’t really TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all.) The problem is that the same Christians telling the lies are the ones who’ve set themselves up as the Morality Police to judge whether the lie is told for a good reason or a bad one. There’s a reason why the saying “judge, jury, and executioner” exists and why civilized societies do everything in their power to keep those three groups from colliding too closely: it’s all too easy for one wrong to snowball when too much power is concentrated in one place. Indeed, that’s exactly what happens in Christianity when Christians lie. When the people who are committing the wrongdoing are the only ones allowed to judge their own actions, then it’s hugely unlikely that they will ever see the disconnect going on between their ideals and their behavior. Even on those rare occasions when fellow Christians laboriously and meticulously point out these untruths, Christian culture itself ignores these warnings and rolls on in its blithe self-assurance that lying is okay if it means a soul persuaded.

I’ve seen Christians get indignant and outraged when they are called out for their use of dishonesty. If you think that my then-husband Biff was the only preacher I ever saw saying something on a pulpit that he knew wasn’t true, think again: I saw it often. Any preacher I knew well, I saw at the least vastly exaggerating his experiences and observations. Many passed along urban legends as truths that they’d seen themselves or had heard of their own friends seeing, or lifted passages from books and other preachers’ sermons. And it was depressing to me to see all the people around me convinced that faith-healing was real, when I saw countless people exaggerate recoveries or outright lie about being healed only to discover their maladies returning a few days or weeks after their euphoria wore off (I did not once see a single faith healing that looked plausible or convincing in all my years as a Christian–but I saw a lot of people who’d tricked themselves or been tricked into thinking they’d been healed)–though the preachers presiding over these snake-oil sideshows considered these episodes successes and recounted them years later as “proof” of their god’s power.

When I finally put my foot down with Biff and told him I’d no longer cover for his lies, he got mad at me for muzzling the oxen and maybe stopping someone from going to Heaven. Didn’t I want people to get saved? Didn’t I want people to go to Heaven? Why was I condemning people to Hell by demanding he be strictly honest? But even then, it seemed to me that if Jesus was real and my religion’s claims were real, then nobody needed to lie about anything.

Today I see a few Christians trying to put a halt to the flood of lies coming from their peers, and those Christians get called “divisive” and accused of the same things I was accused of long ago. But the floodgates are opened. They cannot be closed now without superhuman effort–an effort that the majority of Christians don’t wish to expend. That non-Christians see their dishonesty as a major black mark against their religion doesn’t matter to them; that their religion’s credibility and validity get called into question every single time one of them gets caught lying-for-Jesus isn’t enough of a consideration to stop them from doing it (notice what the Christian’s rationalization was for lying, by the way: he was trying to win the game; also, isn’t it just the weirdest thing that the threat of eternal torture for lying isn’t enough to stop him?). The few people who respond to Christians’ lies and are fooled thereby into conversion–or reconversion, or rededication–are enough of a success that the legions turned off from the religion are totally forgotten.

So why is it that non-Christians forget all this stuff when it comes to their own untruths?

In the last few weeks I’ve been noticing a lot of false memes and quotes circulating around the social media networks. Groups like “Stop the World, the Teabaggers Want Off” don’t quite trip the “Poe’s Law” satire meter like the obviously-satirical groups like “Christians for Michele Bachmann”, but the false memes and quotes that these sites propagate often find their way into the wild and get taken seriously by those who already think that fundagelicals and right-wing conservatives are evil and idiotic. And maybe a lot of them are evil and idiotic, but there’s enough terrible stuff they actually do say and do that nobody needs to make up anything to get outraged or smug about.

All I’m saying is this: if we think lying for Jesus is bad, then we shouldn’t lie for freethinking either.

When we say on one hand that we care about reality, about the truth, about being moral people, about being better than religious zealots, about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing rather than because we’ve been threatened or cajoled into doing it, about advancing humanity, about improving the world, but we breathlessly repeat comforting and self-serving untruths on the other hand, do we not get that there’s a huge disconnect between our ideals and our behavior?

Do we not follow our ideals when it’s someone we don’t like?

Do we not care about the truth when it’s something that reinforces our own positions or damages the standing of those we view as the enemy?

Do we stop caring about honesty when it’s funny? Or morally outraging?

Satire is awesome and one of the most effective tools of criticism there is. Even a former editor at The Onion calls it “the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power.” We should not ever stop using satire. The fact that so many of these satirical images and quotes sound plausible to so many people is something that should really give Christians and conservatives alike reason to pause and reconsider their life choices. I’m not saying we should stop using satire to poke holes in balloons or show that the Emperor is naked.

Before we pass something along as true, though, before we give our moral outrage to something, before we judge and condemn something, before we hit the “share” or “retweet” or upvote button, is it too much to ask that we take ten seconds to double-check that thing and make sure that it really happened? I don’t think that it is. If we look down on the Christian mindset of “if it should be true then that’s just as good as if it really were true,” is it too much to ask that we refrain from thinking that way about stuff that is critical of Christianity? When we object to how the movie God’s Not Dead delights in creating and knocking down straw-man atheists, is it too much to ask that we not create and knock down straw-man Christians?

Apparently it is. When corrected, those who pass along or buy into these false quotes and memes–like one claiming that Michele Bachmann said the Bible was written in English–see no reason to stop being outraged about it; the mere fact that she could have said that, the mere fact that she’s the type of person who we imagine would say that, is enough to condemn her as if she really had said that. Groups whose satirical memes and false quotes are frequently taken as serious tend not to care about that criticism. I can kinda see their perspective; the nature of satire is to push barriers and stretch limits. If they made it more obviously humorous, then a lot of the bite and power of the images and quotes might be lost. I don’t know if I agree 100% with that perspective or agree that these sites are creating pure satire (I really think some of these memes/quotes are created with misleading people in mind in hopes of grabbing pageviews–outrage sells!), but I don’t have the power to ask them to stop doing this stuff. I just want us to start exercising a little discernment, because this kind of dishonest representation is way too successful for us to imagine it’s going away anytime soon.

It’s up to us to make sure we don’t let ourselves get worked up as if these images were real or to share them around to make ourselves feel superior to those poor ignorant savage Christians.

I don’t see how knocking down these straw-men makes us any better than or different from Christians. As a friend of mine has said, when we assume the tactics of those we oppose, then even if we defeat those folks the tactics survive because now we’re doing them. It won’t do humanity any good to reduce Christianity to irrelevance if the tribal impulses that created it continue to throb and pulse in the hearts of those who walk out of that ashy ground.

Take the ten seconds to Google shit before you repeat something titillating as true and spend your outrage or smugness on it, is all. Enjoy and let your mind be opened by satire but don’t act like a false quote is just as real and good as a real quote, is all. Don’t be as gullible as the Christians so many non-believers deride. Let’s be the change we want to see.

Let’s be better than what’s gone before.

We’ve got this.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...