Asking Richard Wade About The Ethics of Lying To Stay In A Protective Closet

In four previous posts, I have discussed with the Friendly Atheist’s advice columnist Richard Wade the origins of his “Ask Richard” column, the nature of family conflicts over atheism, the problems with forming one’s identity based on one’s beliefs (or non-beliefs), and how atheists should respond to the possibly religious dimensions of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the installment of our interview below we discuss the ethics of advising closeted atheists to hide (or outright lie about) their atheism to prevent being disowned or discriminated against (or worse).

Daniel Fincke: So, you often advise people, especially young people who are under their parents’ financial roof, to be very cautious about coming out as atheists if it would cause them hardship.  What would you say to those who say that both as a matter of ethical principle and as a matter of effectively breaking religion’s power, people should be honest and even willing to sacrifice for truth in these areas if necessary?  Or to put it more in a more adversarial way: are you encouraging people to lie? Is that consistent with the values of truthfulness that are so important to many principled atheists?

Richard Wade: This comes up for me every time I read one of these letters where someone is under the authority or control of very intolerant religious people. It’s in a post I published recently, about an atheist woman who just discovered she has been hired by a “Christian based” company.  I’m never completely comfortable advising people to deceive others either passively or actively.  But I see these quandaries in life as an ever-shifting balance between the principles and the pragmatics. We have to acknowledge both in every situation.

Generally I encourage people to remain honest and to even be courageously forthcoming with the truth. But I do not think that I have the right to tell them to put themselves in harm’s way, whether it’s a teenager risking actual abuse or abandonment by their family, (and that does happen) or a newly hired nurse who really will be in a pickle if she loses her job at a “Christian company” while she looks for a more tolerant place to work. All these ethical choices exist in a context, not in a vacuum. The context includes people’s very legitimate material needs as well as their ideals and their principles.

I usually tell someone in such a predicament to carefully and discreetly investigate the situation first, to “feel them out” about how their parents or employer might react to being told that their child or employee is an atheist. Then if it seems obvious that it would not be in their best material or safety interest to be honest about it, I advise them to be as minimally deceitful as they can be for as short a time as they can be.

Invariably, someone commenting will say “Oh you should never lie. You should be brave and face whatever they do, and that will help all atheists to be more open”. With almost no exception, those people talking so bravely have never, ever been in such a situation where they might not be getting regular meals for a long time if they were to “out” themselves. In other words, it’s easy to talk bravely about principles and honesty and integrity when you’re not the one standing in harm’s way.  If a big man with a knife and a gun approaches me angrily demanding where is Richard Wade, I’ll say that Richard went off in that direction. Then I’ll call the police.  I have a very strong conscience, but I won’t feel guilty for lying to him.

So I reluctantly will even coach atheists in these predicaments how to lie the least that they must, and bide their time until they’re no longer under the thumb of these intolerant people. I think that the person to whom you tell the truth has some responsibility to make that truthfulness safe to tell. Some people will not honor a truthful atheist. The atheist’s lack of beliefs have nothing to do with their work or their duties, but the person in power will severely penalize them for demonstrating that courage and integrity.

In short, on rare occasions, some people do not deserve being told the truth, because they do not respond to that truthfulness and candor honorably. There’s also the idea of it not being anyone’s damn business. Keeping private the details of our sex lives, bowel habits, and religious views is not being “dishonest,” it’s being prudent, and I think that prudence is a very legitimate principle that must be considered along with the principle of honesty.

Read the other 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about:

The Origins of the “Ask Richard” Column

Anger In Families Divided Over Religion

Atheism and Religions As Bases For Identities

How Atheists Should Respond to Alcoholics Anonymous, and How Personal Values Influence Professional Therapy

How Atheists Should Confront And Replace Religions

Whether Believers and Non-Believers Should Avoid Marrying Each Other

Whether Believers Are Literally Deluded
Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mary C. Young

    I liked this entry best of all, but all of them have been great. I like Richard’s pragmatism.

  • raysny

    Most of the atheists I’ve met in AA lied about their non-belief until they had years in the program. I couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance on top of clinical depression. Made me suicidal. AA makes a lot of people suicidal.

    I’ve seen more suicides by AA members during my brief times in AA than I have in the rest of my adult life. AA has the highest mortality rate of any recognized alcohol modality and I’m not surprised in the least. I work in mental health, primarily with those who have coexisting substance abuse issues. The dually diagnosed rarely get better in traditional 12step programs/treatment. At the last program I worked for, all our clients were dually diagnosed, all had been through 12step treatment unsuccessfully, and every one of then reported being told by a sponsor or oldtimer that if they took medication, they “weren’t really sober”. Some did quit taking their meds, they all got worse, but some attempted suicide.

    The people in AA weren’t chasing me with a knife, they were trying to convince me that if I did not find their God, I would die a miserable death. I could have lied, then again, I could lie and line up for communion on Sunday, but what would be the point?

    AA does not improve on the rate of natural remission while raising the mortality rate. AA is worse than doing nothing at all. There are other alcohol treatment methods, evidence-based practices, that do have a positive effectiveness rate and do not require belief in the supernatural.

    What I’m really surprised at is the self described Christians in AA do not see where AA is incompatible with Christianity. The Christian God healed the sick and raised the dead, the God of AA cannot cure alcoholism, only grant a day-by-day reprieve from the desire to drink if a person works the program. What kind of wimpy god is that?

  • Kyle

    Many years ago the pastor at the church I belonged to said “You are to tell the truth. EVEN WHEN THE TRUTH HURTS YOU.”

    I internalized that at the time but knew deep down how ridiculous it sounded. Also reminds me of Bill Maher’s old show “Politically Incorrect” where a younger (and just as stupid) Christine O’Donnell told him that it wasn’t even advisable to lie about whether you knew where any Jews were. She said that we should just “trust God”.

  • John M

    Generally agree, however an old liar once advised me “If you want (need) to tell a lie, tell a good one.”

    Minimally lying may precipitate further probings, whereas a strong statement, told with the utmost sincerity, may offer best protection.

    I like the saying some people don’t deserve the truth, and Churchill’s “bodyguard of lies” aphorism.

    I swear its all true!!!