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: