Monday, October 05, 2009

Why lying is not convincing

Recently, I was referred to this video by a Christian friend:

Of course, not only is the story completely false, Einstein went to a Catholic Elementary, this doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist, and the ending about putting religion back in education is a non sequitur.

If you are in Facebook, you can follow a discussion surrounding this video. As expected, numerous people linked to snopes and other sources to demonstrate the video is false, and numerous people responded how even if it wasn’t Einstein, it could have happened, and it was making a great point.

And others, (who obviously hadn’t read the previous comments), jumped in with how great the video was, and how Einstein was so smart for being so young. And still others made the stupid argument we couldn’t prove it didn’t happen. In other words—the same tripe we’ve seen on dozens of topics in dozens of places.

This brought back to mind one of my great concerns while deconverting—how many times I caught Christian apologists in non-truths. I understand people bristle at the accusation of “Liar.” When we point out the complete and utter falsehood in a Christian apologetic, the battle cry is rounded out: “Prove they knew it was false!”

So they were either incredibly incompetent in doing even the most elementary research OR they printed an outright fable—either way, it is not persuasively credible.

In this instance, though, they made a full production video. It is difficult for me to believe no one on the staff performed even the most cursory search to discover this is false. But let’s assume they didn’t; let’s assume someone heard this story from someone, thought, “Gee, that would make a great video” and never thought any further on the subject.

This—THIS—is where I struggled in my research. Too many times, Christians were willing (myself included) to believe anything--anything--in support of the belief. A video about Einstein trouncing an atheist professor? Must be true, ‘cause it conforms to our belief.

See, at some point, in the evolution of this story—someone lied. Someone initiated this story, knowing full well they were making it up. They inserted Einstein in a previously fabricated story, knowing they had no basis or reason to believe it to be true.

And rather than be caught on it, someone else said, “Hey, that’s a great story” and passed it on. And that person passed it on. What bothered me, in reviewing the discussion on this video, was how many times it was pointed out to be false, and how many times Christians didn’t care! A lie? You think lying (and that is what it is, once you know it to be false) is O.K. if it gets the point across?

When else is a lie acceptable? When else can you bend the truth?

As I deconverted, I would read the non-believer’s position. Then I would read the believer’s position. Time and time again, I found the believer’s position to be based on non-truth.

I heard the statement how skeptics once claimed Hittites didn’t exist, but it turns out they did. Not true—no skeptic said this.

I heard the statement of how skeptics claimed Pilate didn’t exist, and it turns out he did. Not true—skeptics have always claimed Pilate existed.

Claims of how Daniel prophetically determined the very day Jesus entered Jerusalem. Not true. How Darwin converted. Not true. How coins proved Quirinius’ second Governship. Not true.

How disciples died for a lie—when Christians don’t even know how they died!

I would have hoped Christians would see such videos and proclaim, “This is a lie! This is wrong! This didn’t happen! Please do not take this to be anything but a fiction along the lines of Beauty and the Beast.” Instead they promulgate, pass it around, and re-enforce how God must exist because Einstein baffled a professor with one of the oldest responses to the Problem of Evil that ever existed. And not even one of the better ones.

I don’t care whether a person knew it to be true or not. Once it is pointed out as false, Christians would be far more persuasive if they acknowledged it to be false, rather than attempt to justify it. Rather than pass it on. Rather than thump each other on the back with how great this lie is.


  1. Religious people simply do not care about the truth. The ones that do care deconvert.

    In his book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes the point that the intentional liar still cares enough about the truth to want you to believe something definite, whereas the "bullshit artist" simply doesn't care about the truth; he cares only about whether some point advances his own position. Frankfurt claims the bullshit artist does more violence to the truth than the intentional liar.

  2. Great post, as always.

    I wonder why I/we were so prone to this irrational support of anything "pro-Christian". Perhaps the years of being conditioned by Sunday school for rationalizing things towards the bible. Or perhaps Christianity self-selects for people who favor ideas over conculsions. Answers over facts to get there.

  3. As always DagoodS, your articles inspire so many thoughts in my head, that commenting would require too much typing on my part - so I just keep my trap shut.

    I will make an exception this time.

    I hate accusing others of lying, and am very slow to do so. I especially hate accusing Christian apolgists of lying - I am just hoping that their reasoning is muddled, or that they are also recipients of bad information. I suppose it comes from a vistigial loyalty I feel for Christianity, and a reluctance to accept that I once fell under the spell of liers and deceivers. But as more time passes between me and Christianity, I sometimes cannot help but come to that conclusion.

    I sometimes listen to my old Chuck Missler and Skip Heitzig cassettes from pre-Internet days. It is interesting that they would throw out all sorts of bad *bad* information that could not be readily fact-checked by their audience. But now that we have the Internet, with its instant information and capabilities for verification, we cannot use ignorance as an excuse. Chuck Missler in particular was the worst. He would go on and on about Daniel's 70 week prophecy, the geneologies in Genesis and 1Chronicles containing secret codes about Jesus, the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge also containing codes that, once properly deciphered, could fortell important events in Christian history, etc.. etc... I mean, this was real Erich von Danikan, Chariots of the Gods kind of stuff been thrown out from the pulpit, and frauds that sounded no better than what Richard Hoagland used to spew on old Art Bell late night conspiracy talk radio.

    And we congregants just lapped it up.... and I admit - I was one of those who was captured by his spell.

    This was back in the late 80s early 90s. But there is no excuse for this in these days of instant fact checking. Yet I still hear the same nonsense from Missler, who has now become famous for thinking that life not sponaneously springing out of a peanut butter jar proves that Evolution via natural selection is a hoax.

    Is Missler lying to us? Or is he seriously misinformed? Or is he deluded?

    At some point, somebody had to approach Missler. Somebody, a friend or a colleage, had to tell this guy all the flaws in his Peanut Butter evolution argument - they had to, unless he only surrounds himself with croonies and yesmen!! With his messages now on the internet, he has to know that he is making an ass of himself. Yet, a regular listen to his syndicated show 66/40 shows that he is still spreading the same message of bogus information.

    I have no choice. I have to conclude that he is willfully lying, is willingly deceitful, or he is living in a Christian Bubble that is impenetrable to the outside world

    And believe me, I hate saying that.

    The worst, I think, is J Vernon McGee. His Bible Bus is still running 40 years after they were originally broadcast, and ... oh man they are bad. The misinformation on these old broadcasts is just stunning - and I have written one or two articles focusing on just him. Simple modern internet fact-checking thoroughly discredits this guy. I liken J Vernon McGee to Mr Haney from the old Green Acres TV show - a snake oil salesman who will say *anything* to have you buy his old wares.

  4. Here is a question that I wish I could ask Christians while injecting them with truth serum: As a Christian, do you feel that it is permissable to deceive the non-believer with the intent of converting them to Christianity? Is it permissable to commit a tiny infraction of your morality so that they are saved from Eternal Damnation? Is it permissable to deceive in order to keep a Christian from leaving the Faith? As a Christian, I would have said 'NO' to those questions, because I sincerely thought that the truth of Christianity was a sufficient witness to itself. But I was not in the professional apolgetic heirarchy behind the pulpit, so... I don't know what they are thinking!! I would love to have some insight!!

    As to the video itself, I think it is a brilliant example of modern day midrash. Einstein did not say literally this, he did not literally stump his professor, but we imagine that this is the kind of thing the brilliant man could have said and done. So the story is literally willed into existance. And after passing this through several rounds of people, it ends up he really DID say it!! He really DID do it!! Suppose we show the same video, with the young German lad stumping his godless professor, except at the very end we replace 'Albert Einstein (1879-1955)' with 'Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)'? The argument would be the same, the scenario just as plausible, yet Christians would obviously not be so enthusiastic to spread it around. Nobody would spread a story of young Hitler like this because nobody can imagine such a man of evil intent doing this. Even if young Hitler *really did* do it, the story would not spread.

    One more intersting observation - well, at least I found it interesting. The equation on the chalkboard to the professor's left is Einstein's famous relativistic energy/mass relationship in a more general form that includes momentum.


    So I guess, according to the video, Einstein got his insights from his godless professor after all..!!

  5. Larry H,

    There is a third set. The enabler. That is the person who, even learning it is false, doesn’t bother to make the correction. They fear a loss of credibility. In Christian circles, bombastic over-preaching are seen as signs of being correct. Claiming one was wrong is a sign of weakness.

    So Christians do not question their leaders (even when they learn it is wrong) and leaders don’t admit their gaffs.

  6. HeIsSailing,

    Always welcome to see you around. I worry…*grin*

    Thanks for the bit about the chalkboard. Gave me a chuckle.

    I, too, was slow to call apologists “liars.” At one time I believed this stuff, and know the sincerity of my position. I could see myself passing on the Einstein video, believing it was true. But there is so much out there that is false. And so easily determined.

    How many e-mails have you gotten that you ran through snopes and found out were false? Why didn’t the person before the person before the person before the person before who e-mailed from person to person to person do the same check?

    Who started the untruth? I truly believe there comes a time we can no longer grant charity and say, “Look—someone’s lying. Time to stop.”

    Curious that I also contemplated the concept of changing that name to “Adolph Hitler.” Imagine if an atheist put out a similar video, to bolster the idea Hitler was a theist. The theists would cry (justifiably so) “Foul—not fair. You picked ‘Hitler’ just to avoid that whole ‘atheists caused all the atrocities of the 20th century.”

    Yet picking “Einstein” because he was a genius is perfectly acceptable.

    Finally, you don’t need a truth serum. In one famous exchange, a Christian told me:

    “So, for war purposes (believers and unbelievers are at war), I deceived.”

    (no hot link, because I don’t want a trackback here.) There is no rationale discussion available when the person believes they have a higher calling than telling the truth to you. Although to be fair, he also qualified it with:

    “I don't think it's okay in all instances to lie to atheists. “

    Apparently, even to him, it might be wrong once in a while, to lie to me.

  7. I can understand people who pass along a story, thinking it's true. Or feel that even if the story doesn't turn out to be true, it still has a good moral.

    What gets me when Christians are somewhat foggy in matters of truth is that one of the most quoted lines they follow contains the word truth: "I am the way, the truth, and the life." They claim that their God is the one true God, that Jesus is the Truth, that the Truth will set you free ... and yet so often, the truth gets lost in a fog.

    If your whole theology pulls heavily from a concept of truth, then things like this are going to be incredibly frustrating. Because non-Christians can play fast and loose with the truth all the time. Shouldn't Christians, given the heavy emphasis on truth, behave better?

  8. Yes, Christian publications tend to skip the critical step of FACT CHECKING.

    I remember when I read the book Angels by Billy Graham. There was a story that I'd heard before but hadn't believed, until I read it on his book. Looking back, I realize what a fool I was.

    A young woman is on her way home from work really late at night, in a dangerous major city. When walking on a dark back alley, she notices a violent-looking man targeting her with obvious evil intentions. All of a sudden, the man retreats and starts walking in the opposite direction. Somehow, he was asked why he had stopped himself. He responded that the young woman was protected by a number of body guards. He realized later that nobody else had seen them.

    I can't remember all the details, but I think grandma or somebody had been praying for the girl at exactly the same time.

    That's an urban legend that Billy Graham's "editors" failed to catch.

    DagoodS, if you get this comment, the change worked.

  9. Another way of looking at it is that Christians have a very different notion of what truth is. What we can actually see, hear, and touch is not mere unreliable but fundamentally unrelated to truth, in much the same sense that the events described in works of fiction are, taken literally, unrelated to the truth.

    All of our sensory information is a giant fiction invented by Satan to lead us away from the revealed truth of God, so when the Christian "lies" about the evidence of our senses, he's merely offering one superior form of fiction for another. It's not the Christian's fault that the skeptic is so deeply deluded that he takes some genre of fiction for reality and becomes offended when Christians break the conventions of the genre.

    Of course, even on this sort of perspective, there's still something profoundly disturbing to the lover of truth. I can imagine myself convinced as to revealed truth, but I simply cannot imagine myself employing a genre of fiction to promote that truth when people actually believed that genre to be literally true.

    In a similar sense, I'm a communist, and I do believe there's a lot of lying going on in supposed "documentaries", but I simply cannot imagine myself faking a documentary to promote communism. If the truth does not promote communism, so much the worse for communism. I could see myself (if I had the talent and ability) writing a work of fiction, but that would be acceptable only to the extent that people were generally aware that it was indeed fiction, not intended to be taken as literally true.

  10. Also, I don't think we should be so hesitant to call people liars. The truth is too important to attach only a "negative" obligation; there has to be a positive obligation to bend over backwards to be honest and accurate.

    This obligation holds no matter what you believe to be true or how you have come to believe it, by the evidence of your senses or by revelation from God. If one honestly believes that our senses can lie to us in fundamental ways, then it is deeply dishonest -- an offense against one's own notion of revealed truth -- to argue a point using the evidence of our senses.

  11. Of course, not all Christians lie as egregiously as those noted in the OP. However, it seems that those who do lie so egregiously and who take such umbrage at being labeled as liars without incontrovertible proof are also those who so casually label as a thief anyone who has checked his personal email at work, label as an adulterer anyone who's noticed a cute member of the applicable sex, label as a murderer anyone who has felt a momentary flash of anger.

    For a religion that trades on imaginary guilt and shame, Christians seem to be suprisingly absent when there's real guilt to be apportioned. Well, maybe that's not so surprising.

  12. As Dennett says, "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear." Pity we do not all feel similarly.

  13. On the same topic, I ran across a "quote" yesterday from an eminent historian of some sort to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested fact in history. On the face of it the claim was absurd. The fact that it was attributed to "an Oxford professor" was also a bit problematic.

    So I did a bit of digging. I came up with another place that attributed the quote to a "Momsen." Any further inquiry got me nowhere, however most searches for "Momsen" brought me to a Janet Momsen (who is, incidentally, an Oxford professor of some sort, but who has nothing to do with history and is current, whereas I'm lead to believe the "quote" is from a while ago) or back to the original page that told me about this "Momsen" fellow. I found another source that linked the quote to Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a 19th Century British poet who was not, to the best of my knowledge, an Oxford professor at any point, let alone a history professor. Most other uses of the quote simply attributed it to "one scholar" or similar. This told me pretty much everything I needed to know, namely that the quote is garbage.

    But even if it were true that wouldn't matter. There are many, many historical events that are far better reported to us than the resurrection of Jesus, especially as we get closer and closer to the 19th Century. We only have four sources on Jesus and those are not exactly the most trustworthy in the world, especially since they're contradictory and two of the four (Matthew and Luke) are built largely from a third (Mark).

    So even if there were an actual scholar who made that actual claim it would be a worthless argument. It leads to the simple question, "So what purpose does the lie really serve?"

  14. I find it easier to call a Christian apologist a liar than I do the rank and file Christian. So much of what Christians believe reminds me of the analogy of boiling a frog (i.e., turning up the water temp gradually vs. just putting the frog into boiling water). In the case of Christianity, the water has been turned up a bit at a time for 2000 years. But I would expect that any real apologist would be approaching his subject with a critical eye, using a thermometer would reveal the water is boiling.

    I think a lot of Christians end up 'lying' because of the esoteric element in Christianity, convinced that they really are in touch with a god who dispensed some knowledge or other.

    But I really am reaching, particularly with the example you used. Mostly I come to the same place that you did:

    "Too many times, Christians were willing (myself included) to believe anything--anything--in support of the belief."

    I think belief in God is more of an emotional disposition than a rational one.

  15. Also, the absolute worst sanction we're talking about here is being called a liar. No one says liars should be cited, fined, imprisoned, executed, assaulted, expropriated, tarred and feathered or ridden out of town on a rail.

    The only way to change a person's behavior is to refuse to tolerate it. It doesn't really matter whether the behavior is intentional; it's not like unintentional lying is any better than "unintentional" theft, rape or homicide (especially when the bar for "intentional" lying is artificially high, requiring literal mind reading; we have a much lower standard for concluding intentional homicide).

    If you don't want to be called a liar, then make a reasonable, moderate effort to check the #%^)#&*@! facts, which in ordinary cases requires only Google and Wikipedia.

  16. The funny thing is that if you take out all the references to Einstein, this would just be a story about how some unnamed child destroyed his stupid atheist teacher's argument from evil.
    Clinging to the Einstein fantasy is silly and unnecessary. Einstein was all over the place. You could use his sayings to sell almost anything.

  17. First, even without Einstein it's not "just" a story; context is important too, and setting up the "debate" as a confrontation between a teacher and a child brings in issues of authority and privilege. The video sends the message not just that atheism is false, but that it's being imposed by authority. Given that religious beliefs are in fact directly imposed by authority, and atheism rarely, if ever, is imposed by authority, even the subtext is profoundly dishonest.

    And second, the child hardly destroys the Argument from Evil. First, that evil is simply the absence of good in the same sense that cold is the absence of heat is simply nonsensical; only a complete idiot could admire such a moronic position. What is murder, torture or rape the absence of?

    Second, omnipotence applies just as strongly to an absence as to a presence: if evil really were an absence of good, then why wouldn't an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god fill up that absence? Did He run out of good? Did He just forget all the extra good in the hall closet?

  18. What I like is that “skeptics deny Hittites” was only one of a number of fables that you discussed in the post that Armstrong quotes. You also mentioned “apostles die for a lie,” “skeptics deny Pilate,” “Daniel knew the day Jesus would enter Jerusalem,” and “coins prove Quirinius.” Armstrong researched the hell out of one of those fables and seems at best to have come up with a couple of believing Christians who were honest enough about the state of archeological knowledge in the 19th century to acknowledge that the existence of the Hittites couldn’t be substantiated. Apparently in Armstrong’s mind, this not only justifies clinging to the “skeptics deny Hittites” fable; it also justifies repeating any other apologetic argument as incontestable fact without the slightest idea of whether any credible evidence supports it.

    I was fascinated by the following comment that Clay Jones made during the discussion of the “die for a lie” argument. “I will say one thing, however. It never entered my thought process that my 200 word witness would be successful against the educated skeptic. I wrote it for the average man or woman one might encounter at an airport or a soccer game.”

  19. i am increasingly bothered by this habit of
    lying for jesus
    it happens in politics too
    outright lies in advertising are ok because
    we cant let gays marry
    whereas i was raised that
    the end doesnt justify the means
    something has happened to
    american christian culture in the past thirty or so years